Words like paruresis are useful when talking about public toilets
Put bluntly, peeing is political, and so is taking a shit and washing up”
~Harvey Molotch, Introduction to Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing
Visiting the toilet is a core issue for the human animal, yet, typically, we hold our elimination needs close. It is a private experience, to be taking care of quietly and inconspicuously. Yet, everyone has at one time or another, some on a more regular basis, felt the urge to eliminate something within us at a time completely unscheduled, in a situation completely unprepared, and in a location completely void of a public toilet.
When that animal surfaces, there is little time for negotiation. Anyone who has spent an afternoon downtown with a 5-year old knows the look on that face. You might also know the pain and frustration first-hand if you or your someone you know is one of the 25-million Americans with incontinence.
Publicly we are mostly uncomfortable with toilet talk. You can see the inner agony on the faces of community leaders when a public toilet issue makes it way onto the agenda. Otherwise grown men become wise-cracking teenagers. Women, often the mothers and de-facto directors of family toilet matters, are either not represented or avoid calling attention to their needs. Family vacations have been ruined countless times for lack of public toilets. Where leaders can get over their social and cultural hang-ups, communities are more likely to have successful public toilet policy and implementation.
The toilet book
The complexity of our relationship with public toilets is certainly no surprise, but as is the norm, we seldom raise the spectre to consciousness other than in moments of immediacy. The staggering complexity to how matters of the toilet manifest themselves in the public sphere is detailed in “Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing” by Harvey Molotch and Laura Noren. As a public toilet enthusiast, a book I couldn’t resist. “Toilet” brings our discomforts to a head in a series of essays by academics across the sub-fields of social, biological, and architectural sciences.
The delicate queasiness of discussing openly the real and diverse needs for public toilets are exposed in “Toilet.” The central question of a lack of public toilets in America is certainly among them, but entire essays or sections are also dedicated to other questions. For instance, laws typically call for parity in toilet distribution between genders, yet where there are male-female toilets, women still tend to have longer lines. At times, like a theater event, those lines can stretch 4x as long as the male line. Why is this? The answer may surprise you. And, if we are going to discuss gender, needn’t we consider the impact our binary approach has on the transgendered? A solution would be more unisex toilets, but Victorian-age social hang-ups still exist in many places.
We’ve spent an inordinate amount of time, energy and resources trying to find “solutions” to our discomforts only to find trade-offs at every corner. For example, more than most cultures, Americans often contend with feelings of shame when others are in our presence when the odd sounds of defecation* escape us. A solution would be toilet stalls separated more robustly from other stalls–heavy doors, thick walls and such. Of course, complete isolation provides more opportunity for other behavior to occur that a particular community may frown upon–drug-use, sexual activity, and sleeping to name a few. Soundproof segregation also becomes a safety concern if one needs to call for help.
Design <-> Behavior
Ultimately, “Toilet” is about design and how it shapes our behavior, and how our perceptions of our own behavior shape the design. With many questions about design, it becomes a question of who is being served? Are those being served, served with respect and dignity? Are there ways to better serve full communities? The visitors to those communities? Can we be adults about the matter long-enough to move past prejudices and hang-ups about what is gross, taboo and yuck?
We mostly defer to the individual to plan for the expected and unexpected toilet needs rather than develop and implement cohesive public planning around this core issue. At the root of this isn’t the lack of need, but the lack of willingness to face the uncomfortable. The essays in “Toilet” suggest that when we don’t embrace toilet needs, we discourage participation in the public sphere, because by not providing inviting toilets people either retreat into the private realm, only to come out as consumers, or they leave and never come back.
After all, we have needs.
Have a public toilet story you’d like to share?
* Paruresis? I had to look it up: “is a type of phobia in which the sufferer is unable to urinate in the (real or imaginary) presence of others, such as in a public restroom.” It’s counter-part is parcopresis, or being unable to defecate without a certain level of privacy.
We wrote about toilets twice before, once in a discussion about time and another in a brief about Traverse City’s quest for a downtown public toilet. The DDA has a public toilet sub-committee that could benefit from reading this book.
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