Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body?
— Matthew 15:17
The wiser course would undoubtedly have been to admit its existence and to dignify it as much as its nature will allow.
— Sigmund Freud, preface to John G. Bourke’s Scatalogic Rites of All Nations
We are taught from an early age that going to the lavatory is a private affair. For the actual purpose of the room, there are many names: we refer to washing, bathing, resting, or powdering to skirt the business at hand. And here, of course, is another bit of avoidance: “doing one’s business.” There is also “the call of nature,” “talking to a man about a horse,” and a whole host of cruder, even violent terms. Perhaps we should make like the child in Dr. Seuss’s Halloween Is Grinch Night and go instead “to the euphemism.” While there is fun to be had with the quick stream of whimsy, behind it lies an awkward tension. The act of relieving oneself is necessary but confidential, natural yet embarrassing, serious but also rather humorous. Such exertions, we learn, are not meant to be seen, and absolutely not meant to be heard.
Point number one: While it’s important to keep one’s privates exactly that, this prudishness around the most basic of bodily functions can be stifling, not only for those who live with gastrointestinal conditions but for wider debates on public washroom accessibility, sanitation, and social inequality, which are far from resolved. Point number two: These pandemic times have unavoidably pushed this very private task into the public consciousness.
It is remarkable to think that each of us spends roughly three years of our life going to the toilet. And that’s not to mention the reading, watching, and maybe for some — though it’s still an etiquette grey area — talking on the phone. Potty training is a child’s first step to becoming a functioning member of society. Along with learning to communicate, this is phase one of proto-personhood: say please and thank you, and try not to wee on the floor. For those of us who are fortunate, this is the start of a lifelong lack of thinking about using the loo. It is something we take for granted. An accessible, clean space is often available, whether it’s in the home or out and about. When nature calls, we know exactly how to answer and can do so, for the most part, comfortably.
Early this summer, as we tentatively re-emerged back into society, blinking over the tops of our masks and jumping every time someone coughed, we headed to parks (sometimes too many of us), to doorsteps, and to any available tuft of grass — all to see the friends and family who had been, until then, small, flat pigments on a screen. Thousands took to the streets to support Black and Indigenous communities. Others, in smaller numbers, protested the closure of hair salons. Everyone out in the great outdoors faced the same predicament: When the need strikes, where on earth do you go? Few public facilities were open; malls were closed, libraries and cafés, too. To pee or not to pee was the question, but if you did, you risked being ticketed by a bylaw officer — if the earth was the only available option. It had all gone quiet on the washroom front. So what were people supposed to do? Hold it?
It was hardly a surprise, when so many of us see restrooms as a basic right, that the first few frantic months of lockdown saw panic buyers rushing straight for the toilet paper. Desperate not to be caught short, they dashed to the supermarkets with an urgency that seemed, well, fitting. The fact that COVID‑19 did not target the bowels specifically was beside the point. White towers of TP protruded from trollies. In some instances, physical fights broke out in the aisles. Some refused to succumb to the hysteria but later worried about the consequences. An Australian newspaper even included extra blank pages for readers, in case things got really bad. The possibility of a shortage touched a nerve, perhaps because toilet paper touches us all.
Henry VIII’s toilet block at his Hampton Court Palace was known as the Great House of Easement, a phrase that, in my opinion, should enter the general bathroom lexicon right alongside the “oval office.” But it was precisely this notion that drove those initial stockpilers: people couldn’t bear the thought of losing their ease. This was not the full story, as it turned out, despite how quickly the hoarding narrative took over. The American public radio program On the Media did a piece on the shortages back in April — getting to the bottom of it, so to speak. It seems that toilet paper supply chains exist in a delicate balance. Also, the stuff we encounter out in the world is different from that which we use at home; they are two separate products, usually manufactured by different companies. One is recycled, the other is virgin fibre. One is flimsy and comes in huge, industrial rolls, while the other has a family of bears losing their minds over the softness of those cushy sheets. What’s more, there’s little incentive for companies to store vast quantities of toilet paper, as it’s bulky and not worth much. There aren’t great reserves of emergency rolls, as nice as it is to conjure an image of a Parthenon-style warehouse piled high with cushiony columns (watch out for those bears). It’s made to meet demand, and when demand in the home skyrocketed earlier this year, there was a moment of real scarcity.
Incredibly, the United States experienced a similar toilet paper shortage in the winter of 1973, because of a rumour that tissue factories in Japan weren’t producing enough. This false scare was picked up by a Republican senator and then by the comedian Johnny Carson, who did a bit about it on his show. It wasn’t long before consumers were lining their closets with stacks of “just-in-case.” Carson was later forced to apologize when the joke, and the hearsay, became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It took four months for the confusion to be resolved. The sense of panic probably didn’t help to moderate consumption. The flow of misinformation isn’t easily stemmed.
The notion of going to the toilet was not always cloaked in the shame and privacy that modern manners like to dress it in. Defecation was once a public, unremarkable activity, even a celebrated responsibility for those attending to a monarch’s needs, in the alternative throne room. Privacy itself used to be a privilege only of the rich, until the nineteenth century brought the aims of industrialists and sanitary reformers happily together, as the labouring population moved from the fields to the factories, where there were noticeably fewer bushes. So began the shift toward our current understanding of public necessities: think divisions, doorways, and discretion.
The Great Exhibition in 1851 saw the introduction of the first flushing pay toilets, where visitors exchanged a penny for a clean seat, a towel, a comb, and a shoeshine, which is what gave the English their jaunty expression “going to spend a penny,” even if the expectations involved aren’t quite the same now. The history of the flushing lavatory goes back at least five hundred years, maybe even two thousand, depending on whom you ask. In the sixteenth century, Sir John Harington installed one in his house in Bath to please his godmother, Queen Elizabeth, who was coming to stay. (It is worth mentioning that he was attempting to curry favour after being banished from court for telling risqué stories.) So the wonderfully named Thomas Crapper, the Victorian plumber, did not, alas, invent the toilet, as many mistakenly believe. Neither did he inspire the term “crap,” which predates him — though it is a marvellous bit of nominative determinism. Crapper’s contributions include upgrading the S‑bend to the U‑bend, which prevents noxious fumes from passing back up through the pipes. It is partly thanks to Mr. Crapper that loos are, mostly, odour free.
While the concept of public washrooms has existed since at least Roman times — who doesn’t remember the joy and horror of learning about the infamous sponge on the end of a stick? — a mere two hundred years ago, they were still communal spaces. In the U.S., it wasn’t until the 1880s that Massachusetts enacted a law requiring workplace restrooms to be separated by sex; it was the first state to do so. Before that, male and female workers simply shared. Such a thought would surely cause those who rally and rage against gender-neutral bathrooms to choke on their Starbucks. But why should we balk at this? The nature of propriety is as fluid as the path of civilization. One age’s acceptance is another age’s offence. Nose blowing, for instance, would have horrified our courtly ancestors, yet we’re happy to do it — often with great, trumpeting abandon. We’re fairly unperturbed by spitting, too. It’s below the neck that the problems arise.
Of course, it’s not hard to see the reason for our distaste. Defecation is a dirty business, and our concerns are largely biological. Feces is toxic, a vector of disease-causing bacteria, worm eggs, and parasites, and we should do all we can to avoid it. Poor sanitation and unsafe water (read: water contaminated by excrement) cause one in ten of the world’s illnesses and some half a million deaths every year. Morbid topic as it is, that’s about half of the global deaths for this novel coronavirus so far. But how much more airtime has the latter received? I would venture that it’s considerably more than double. In all the skirting and the silence surrounding issues of sanitation — itself a cleansing term for the process it describes: the removal of human waste — it’s easy to forget that two billion people still do not have access to the most basic of toilet facilities. And that’s not just in some far-flung corners of the globe; it’s here, it’s everywhere. Shit happens, and it happens all over.
Despite how much our quick-flush culture (two flushes if you’re being courteous) would wish to forget this, we have a serious access problem. This is what Lezlie Lowe drew attention to in her aptly named No Place to Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs, which came out a couple of years ago. Lowe is Canadian and an unashamed toilet activist. Her platform? More toilets, more truly public, on-the-street, tax-funded, and open-to-everyone toilets — not the publicly accessible but privately owned ones we’ve come to depend on. “Without a network of reliable public bathrooms, who uses the city and how they use it changes; those populations can be effectively excluded from the public sphere,” she wrote in a recent essay, hoping to remind people that, yes, the situation is dire, especially for people experiencing homelessness, those with inflammatory bowel conditions, anyone who uses a mobility device, the elderly, taxi and bus drivers, caregivers, and parents of young children.
Lowe’s essay coincided with a brief burst of other news items around June and July, as regular journalists about town felt the deleterious effects of this shortage, one assumes. Since then, though: silence. Businesses have reopened, albeit with physical distancing measures in place, and we are back to relying on them for our business-doing needs. But the issues remain. Those who are unhoused — for whom the message “Stay safe and stay home” must have felt like a cruel bit of mockery — may be turned away from such establishments or unable to afford the toilet tax of a coffee or a bite to eat. For some, these amenities are more than a convenience, they are a means of accessing clean water; they are a lifeline. The point is that public washrooms, if properly funded, could promote health and cleanliness, not hinder them — particularly in a time when handwashing is paramount. Consider too that recent studies have shown fecal transmission of COVID‑19 to be a possibility. It’s not a comb and a shoeshine that activists like Lowe or the Ottawa organization GottaGo! are asking for — just clean, available seats. As we know, winter is coming. And in its frosty grips, will washrooms across the country close again? Might parks, recreational centres, restaurants, transit terminals, and stores shut up their doors and leave our vulnerable populations out in the cold? What then?
When the London Review of Books profiled Lowe’s work, the writer took the opportunity to speak about how his Crohn’s disease made travel problematic in an increasingly loo-lacklustre London. This was something he tried to shed light on whenever possible, the reviewer said, even though an editor had once told him, “Readers don’t need to know this much about your bathroom needs.”
Rose George, another writer employed in trying to get modern society to collectively unclench, points out in The Big Necessity that while toilets provide a barrier against the physical dangers of excrement, we are keen to use language to avert the social ones. There is not much in the way of middle ground when it comes to the wording around bowel movements, no sensible, neutral-sounding “sex” equivalent for doo‑doo. If I was to refer to “stool,” you might think me a doctor; if I use “ordure,” you’ll deem me pretentious; but if I say “crap,” you’ll call me vulgar. The safest term, “poop,” or “poo” to us Brits, is what you might hear a parent say to a child in the form of a nervous question. George notes that even “feces,” a fairly clean and clinical-sounding expression, is from the Latin for “dregs” and took on its current meaning only in the seventeenth century. Her preferred term is “shit,” by the way, partly out of frustration.
Language is powerful; it’s slippery too. The way we speak around the act of excretion — rarely about it — is more likely to provoke a giggle or a wrinkled nose than a serious discussion. We are back to being children again, nervous, embarrassed, frantically shaking our heads to show that we don’t need to go. Because this is what poo does: it spoils the fun, or someone’s lunch, with a dirty dose of reality. So we sweep such issues under the societal rug and concentrate on more palatable initiatives, such as feeding the hungry (also very important, but what goes in . . . ). Historically, swear words have reflected what we fear or don’t understand, whether it’s damnation or sex, or possibly one by means of the other. Casting going to the toilet — shitting — as a taboo is a further means of distancing. So where does this leave us, now that “damn” has lost its potency, even becoming rather cuddly; now that we’re slowly becoming less priggish about sex; now that, in the face of a global virus, death is becoming harder to ignore? Is poo the last taboo?
“Everyone poops,” wrote the Japanese children’s book author Tarō Gomi. His classic work came out in 1977 and depicts an array of different-sized defecations, artistically rendered in brown smudges. There are animals and humans, big scat and little droppings. We know that it’s the ’70s because the adult illustration shows a man atop the toilet reading a newspaper and smoking a pipe. Also, because there don’t appear to be any women. “Poop” is mentioned a total of sixteen times, not including the title or the recurring brown splotches. Gomi certainly intends to imbue the word with familiarity and normalcy, which are admirable pursuits. But it would be nice if ladies could poo too.
There is a revealing passage in The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy’s magnificent novel, that has stuck with me. As a child, the protagonist Rahel is taken to the ladies’ room of a cinema, the “Public Pots,” by her great-aunt and her mother. Rahel is too small to balance above the hole, so she is held and goes in a “trickle.” Her great-aunt is next, all enormous legs, fat, hairy knees, low-swinging bosom, and “gurgling, bubbling” sounds. When Baby Kochamma finally finishes, Rahel looks at her watch. “So long you took,” she remarks. Then Ammu, Rahel’s beautiful mother, relieves herself “in a whisper. Against the side of the pot so you couldn’t hear.” Nothing more than a whisper, because someone is always listening, judging. Contrast this with male urination in literature, which is a far more triumphant affair. Perhaps most famously there’s Gulliver, who heroically puts out the flames of the Lilliputian palace with a great stream of piss (his form was gigantic to the folks of Lilliput, as was his flow). Along the same lines, Updike delights in the thunderous splashing of men as “they stood lordly above the bowl.” He goes on to mansplain in what is perhaps the most eye-rollingly applicable use of this new term: “Everything about them was more direct, their insides weren’t the maze women’s were, for the pee to find its way through.” Oh, John. When this quote made a recent appearance on Twitter, people were quick to point out that women’s urethras are actually shorter than men’s.
This is the sad fact of the matter: the maze mentality, the don’t know, don’t want to know approach. “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!” moans the devastated Strephon in Swift’s poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” Why? He has found out that his fair beloved defecates like the rest of us. While Swift casts his satirical gaze on both the artifice of beauty and Strephon’s imbecilic delusions, the shame of women relieving themselves still rings true some three hundred years later. Just as the beautiful Ammu whisper-pees, only sexless, clownish figures like Baby Kochamma needn’t worry about letting rip. Enter a women’s washroom today and there is bound to be that one end stall whose occupant is patiently waiting for everyone else to leave. And for good reason: emerge to an audience and you may receive a half-hidden smirk, as those on the other side of the door bask in the relief of it not being them. Men are not exempt from their own bathroom-based social rituals, of course: woe betide he who looks or, worse, appears to be trying not to look at another man’s genitals. Public restrooms are not at all restful when it comes to the battleground of modern manners. Depositing one’s waste is as revealing of human nature as any other behaviour, and what it reveals is a set of deep-seated fears.
Until Victorian times, the public “pissyngholes” of the Western world (as they were known in the Middle Ages) were, on the whole, built only for men. The implication was that ladies should keep to the private, domestic sphere and stay in their lavatorial lane. Without the appropriate facilities, women had to make do, sometimes urinating over a gutter, concealed — and trying as much as possible to not look like they were peeing — by their skirts. There is a name for their situation, the “urinary leash,” which describes the distance they could go beyond the nearest water closet. This is a phrase that has gained a stark new relevance recently. As Rose George expresses it, “To be uninterested in the public toilet is to be uninterested in life.” The politics of privies is a long drop into a whole host of other topics: economic, cultural, sociological, psychological, linguistic, religious — and the list goes on. We exist now in “the new dark ages of the public bathroom,” George warns, as for some that leash grows ever tighter.
Like most people, I have used my fair share of public washrooms. There are the memorable experiences, like the loos in the fancy London restaurant whose walls were made entirely of mirrors. The novelty soon wore off when locating the door proved difficult, and the continuation of the mirrored surface into the stalls led to a more social event than I was expecting, as I sat alongside increasingly smaller versions of myself. Then there are the not-so-pleasant incidents: the sprinkled-upon seats, the fruitless pumping of an empty soap dispenser, the toilet paper strewn across the floor in reckless waste. But I am lucky: I have a clean bathroom to return to. I can sigh at this misfortune and then move on; not everyone can. Like the great American toilet paper scare of 1973, the view of public bathrooms as undesirable, disgusting places is another self-fulfilling prophecy. Japan has come up with a creative solution: the Tokyo Toilet Project, where a number of well-known architects were tasked with sprucing up some park lavatories. The most striking design uses special coloured glass, so the space can be seen into when unoccupied, alleviating any concerns over safety, but the wall turns opaque when the door is locked. At night, the bathrooms light up like green, yellow, pink, and blue lanterns. They are a thing of beauty as well as necessity. The design speaks of pride, not shame.
In another twisting of public versus private, China’s traditional public conveniences are doorless and are referred to as open-style or ni hao (hello). If this seems shocking, take into account the gaps in North American cubicle doors — the not-so-slim slits that occasionally allow you to lock eyes with another toilet-goer. I was struck by this revelation when I first came to Canada, particularly in a country that censors nudity and swear words in films on TV but, strangely enough, leaves in the violence. Presumably these spaces are to prevent acts of disrepute, with the message being that we require some privacy, but not too much, lest we descend into ill doings. The dictates of propriety are far from fixed. In fact, they’re in constant, dizzying motion.
But the drugs, the sex, the people seeking shelter — it won’t all disappear with the close of a door, especially one with gaps. It’s no different than a transit system. Both trains and toilets serve to encourage and ease movement. Think of the uproar if subways or buses were deemed too expensive to clean, so were simply decommissioned (you have legs, say the powers that be, you can walk).
When you try to keep some out, you keep everyone out; but surely we are past the point of making do. This year, health has been high on everybody’s list, and so it should remain. We must keep the lid on this injustice open and stop the prevarication around privies. Because everyone poops. Absolutely everyone.