“Peeing is political,” writes Harvey Molotch in the introduction to a new collection of essays, Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing, co-edited by Molotch and Laura Norén and published next month by New York University Press. Featuring articles by sociologists, anthropologists, legal scholars, historians, and archaeologists, Toilet takes on everything from toilet design to New York taxi cab culture. (Where do cabbies pee?)
Molotch, a professor of sociology at NYU, and Norén, a doctoral candidate in sociology at NYU, have also set-up a blog dedicated to all things toilet. (Ever wonder what it looks like when 32 glow sticks are emptied into a toilet? Now you know.) I recently caught-up with Molotch and Norén by e-mail to ask them about the book and trends in toilet scholarship.
Q: How did this book come about?
A: While researching a prior book on industrial design, Harvey came across toilet designers and witnessed their habit of taking the product seriously. He was struck by the aversion of social scientists, in contrast, to seriously approach the problem of human elimination. There was a void to fill, and as sociologists we reasonably came to focus on the public toilet.
We organized a jointly sponsored conference between various departments at NYU and the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Even though it was hot, humid, and the air conditioning had gone down at the Center for Architecture, the venue was packed for the daylong event.
We knew after watching the audience’s attentiveness (rapt we would say) that this was not our own private fetish. A book would help open the agenda. Some of the chapters thus grew out of presentations at the conference; others came from people who were in the audience that day, and still others were discovered later on.
Q: What do public toilets tell us about ourselves?
A; The public restroom, where private acts have to be taken care of in semi-public space, is the border zone where universes collide and reveal themselves. On display are anxieties about oneself and the ‘other’.
Fundamental is the need to keep the sexes apart and reinforce the idea that people come in one category or the other. Those who are disabled, gender queer, from a different social class or from suspect parts of the world can be anxiety provoking whereever encountered, but the public restroom heightens all such tensions. They are laid bare as users carefully manage interactions with one another and the artifacts with which they make contact.
We can see how we do and do not accommodate to appliances and physical configurations, including the way germaphobes discriminate among those elements (social and physical) with which they can or cannot make contact. Some individuals are forced to confront the choice between carrying ‘dirt’ around inside them until they’ve reached a safer bathroom rather than opening up in public.
All of the boundaries—between gender-straights and gender-queers, between straights and gays, between abled and disabled, between rich and poor, between dirty and clean—mash up in the restroom. What is often posited as a scientistic or public-health problem between dirty and clean turns out to be a problem of navigating the boundary between self and other.
Q: What would a better public restroom look like?
A: The most important quality of the public bathroom of the future is quantity. More is more. Globally, millions of people do not have access to safe plumbing, one of the largest indirect causes of infant mortality in the developing world. Avoidance pushes people to miss school, miss work, and pull back (especially among the aged) from participation in public life. Even locally, in a rich country like the United States, people’s basic needs are not met.
The second great need is gender parity, something increasingly written into building codes but difficult to address with facilities already built—which is the great majority of them. Unisex would solve a lot of problems—throw open the doors of what is already out there as well as building them that way right from the start. Physical design would thus provoke social change: the bridges being built across the gender binary would finally make it into the bathroom. The next generation of public restrooms, radically unisex in this way, would retain urinals for their spatial and ecological efficiency. The arrangement might indeed involve discomfort for some, but—as with prior gains most obviously in the case of race—discomfort would erode over time.
There are details of design to take on board: cubicles configured to accommodate toddlers as well as their care-giver; squat toilets to provide for more healthful elimination (as well as cultural variations); soundtracks as a layer of aural privacy; needle exchange and removal for health and convenience.
Q: Why do we have so much trouble talking about what goes on in the bathroom?
A: Talking toilet requires recognition of oneself as a potential source of pollution, as inescapable as living within one’s own body. Being “civilized” means distancing ourselves from the animal nature of what we are. Others’ animalistic qualities are even more polluting. A consequence is that toilets cannot be developed and marketed for what they actually do, architects do not much discuss public-restroom design with their clients, and political leaders avoid bringing it up in their policy statements or campaign promises.
Q: Has there been much scholarship on toilets?
A: In 1966 Alexander Kira, an architect at Cornell University published The Bathroom, a meticulously thorough study of the biomechanics of using the bathroom. Every interaction between human body and built form was considered—from the maneuvers required to get in and out of the bath tub to the difference in urine’s trajectory for men and women to the ergonomic benefits of squat toilets. Kira brought scholarly sincerity to the bathroom. About the same time, the ethnographer Laud Humphrey published his book, Tearoom Trade, a study of how men use the public restroom as a meeting place for sex. It revealed, among other things, how careful the men are to avoid even the appearance of interest in children or in heterosexuals who happen by. Dominique Laporte has written a History of Shit. More recently scholars Barbara Penner and Olga Gershenson have edited Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender, a book that takes up some of the same issues as our book does. In The Big Necessity, Rose George has outlined the many benefits of sanitation and the threats to cities and humans generally when it is unavailable.
Q: The writer Roger Kimball has cited scholarship on toilets as evidence of “the pathetic intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the humanities.” Make your case for toilet research.
A: Intellectual progress means spreading inquiry across previously forbidden domains. It is the way we have come to have knowledge of bodily health (both from physiology and epidemiology) as well as human sexuality. It is the way we have come to know the universe as well as the mechanisms through which power is abused to create war, starvation, and catastrophe. Conventions of taboo and secrecy should not be respected as proper intellectual barriers, but as invitations—indeed demands—for inquiry. Keeping the public toilet private perpetuates its own versions of inequality, indignity, and—in the most meaningful sense of the term—filth.—Evan R. Goldstein