Toilet talk, from the scholars

The history and politics of public restrooms

(Getty Images)
By Kate Tuttle
December 6, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Public restrooms are problematic, and that’s not just because they may be dirty, inconveniently located, or lacking toilet paper. As co-editor Harvey Molotch points out, these places are inherently sites of ambiguity and unease because they provide a public setting for “intensely private acts.’’ Its very purpose makes the public bathroom into a theater in which issues of cleanliness, privacy, and gender play off questions of access, history, and culture. In “Toilet,’’ academics from the fields of sociology, law, urban planning, gender studies, archaeology, and architecture ponder the meaning of a room some people can’t even call by name (and whose polite name shifts by region, country, and social class).

Without a doubt, our discomfort with public toilets stems from ingrained taboos about waste and elimination. Using the facilities anywhere but home can open one up to embarrassment or disgust. One contributor asks, “Who has not sat silently on the toilet seat in the workplace, waiting for a colleague to leave the room before risking the shaming sounds of defecation?’’

If our squeamishness keeps us from talking about public bathrooms, the book argues, then we miss the opportunity to better meet everyone’s legitimate biological (and sometimes social) needs. Since bathroom access is distributed so unevenly — with women, children, the poor, and those with disabilities most frequently finding themselves shut out — the subject is hardly academic. Why, for instance, do women face longer lines for fewer facilities than men despite laws mandating “potty parity’’? Why are unisex toilets common in some places, fiercely resisted in others? What effect does the lack of public restrooms have on the ability of women to work as New York City cabdrivers? And are the “rules’’ we currently follow when using a public bathroom timeless and universal, or an evolving set of socially derived expectations?

As one of the essays, a look at latrines in ancient Rome, makes clear, some things about public bathrooms have changed (Romans sat together on long stone seating benches with rows of holes but no partitions), while others have not (they were probably divided by gender, as most restrooms still are). Other essays look to a future in which bathrooms no longer divide women and men, rich and poor, disabled and not. In one, Olga Gershenson, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst , chronicles a failed crusade by transgendered students and their allies to establish unisex bathrooms in dormitories and other university buildings. The backlash, from conservative student groups and the administration, included claims that women’s safety would be jeopardized if men could use the same bathrooms, but at its heart was panic over the loss of a handy way of looking at the world: gender as sorting mechanism. During the 1970s, the unisex bathroom was used as a symbol of the horrors that would accompany passage of the Equal Rights Amendment; the Restroom Revolution at UMass flipped the script, but rearranged none of the fears.

“Toilet’’ is full of such insights. Those unaccustomed to academic-speak might find certain parts laughable — “the semiotics of the men’s room’’ sounds like it could appear in a parody of scholarly writing, or in a congressman’s attempt to mock someone else’s earmark — but overall, the prose is clear and readable. Between chapters are several short, snappy, illustrated essays Molotch and Laura Norén call “Rest Stops,’’ including one looking at the decision by Harvard authorities to remove cubicle doors from the men’s room in the basement of the Science Center, the better to thwart men who would use the place for gay sexual encounters — an action that, the author points out, effectively renders the toilets unusable. The ancient Romans wouldn’t have minded, but we do.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at

TOILET: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing Edited by Harvey Molotch and Laura Norén

New York University, 316 pp., illustrated, $18.95