Bathroom Customs; or, Everyone Poops

There’s talk of late of where transgender people should go to the bathroom.  If you’re physically male, but you consider yourself female, do you use the men’s room or the ladies’ room?  What if you have gender reassignment surgery, so you’re physically a different gender than you were at birth?

Or, a question I’ve always asked, long before I had heard of transgenderism: why the heck do we care?

The Modern Urinal

Of course, the urinal poses some problem, since one’s doing their business in public.  Personally, I would find it just as odd for someone of my sex watching me pee as someone of the opposite sex, but apparently men feel differently, probably because they’ve been raised their whole lives to accept it.

But why have urinals in the first place?  It’s not like men need them.  At home, they use a toilet just fine.  So get rid of the urinals and everyone can just have their own stall with all the privacy of a home bathroom.  Problem solved.

And it’s not like this has always been how it’s been done.  The Western world used to be way more liberal when it came to bathroom practices.

Going Potty in Public – The Roman Bathhouses

The Roman baths were public places that offered a variety of services.  The most well known are the baths themselves, where people could bathe communally.  There were also exercise areas and the opportunities for a massage. The bathing rituals was complex, involving a series of cold, warm and hot baths as well as the application on and scraping of oil off the skin as a method of removing dirt.

Most notably, however, is that this was all done in public.  While genders were often (although not always) segregated, the pools were otherwise public.  Going to the bath was like going to happy hour.  It was a place for people to relax among friends and colleagues.  Some even brought their work with them, continuing negotiations or business or political discussions.

And when someone felt the call of nature, he went to a section designated for such business, where they continued to socialize.  Then he (or an attendant) wiped his butt with a communal sponge on a stick (ew!) which was then washed in a channel of flowing water.

For more info: How Romans wiped their butts after going to the bathroom.

Medieval and Renaissance Bathroom Customs

It wasn’t just those wacky Romans who had no trouble doing their business in public.  Medieval castles offered communal bathrooms where more than one person could do their business at once as well.

Kings and popes might greet visitors while sitting on their, well, throne.  Privacy was in short supply in these times, and bodily functions simply weren’t something people felt they needed to be hidden.  After all, everyone poops.

For more info: An Expert’s Take on Toilet History and Customs from Antiquity to the Renaissance.

Medieval baths

Likewise, bathing continued to be a communal activity.  Not only was it communal, but it wasn’t even gender specific.  Men and women got naked and bathed together.

It was in the 16th century that many of these communal activities started to disappear.  One of the reasons was probably the Protestant Reformation.  Many Protestants greatly emphasized control of self, including control of one’s body.  You could hold it until a more appropriate time, damn it.  And public nudity was condemned more and more as immoral.  The Catholic Council of Trent was held to address Protestant criticism, and while it accomplished nothing in bringing Protestants back to the faith, it did underscore some of the more conservative Protestant values in an effort to look more pious and saintly.

Fore more info: Did people in the Middle Ages take baths?

 The Victorians

The Victorians are a bizarre mix of shamelessness and prudishness.  What did men do when they were out and about and needed to relieve themselves?  They stood against an alley wall and did their thing.  In public.  Women, however, were expected to hold it until they could go more privately.  (Although not all did.) Now, some of this is practicality.  Men can easily unbutton (there were no zippers), but women would need to hike up her voluminous skirts.  But practicality was not foremost on people’s minds, as the (re)invention of the public toilet shows.

At the Great Exhibition of 1851, private toilets met with great success. When installed elsewhere, however, they were largely ignored.  When they did start having success, it was only men’s toilets that were being produced.

The next attempt involved underground toilets, hoping that would give enough sense of privacy.  Their proponent, George Jennings, however, found his plans repeatedly denied.  The mere approach to these conveniences was too embarrassing for many women, because it communicated they did, indeed, need to go to the bathroom.

This inequality of use led to emphasis on male bathrooms, since they were the more used of the two conveniences.  Today, “the long lines of women outside modern ‘objectionable contrivances’ in public spaces — where urinals are still often prioritized by architects and planners — are a peculiar Victorian legacy.” (Source: Selfish Inequality: The Long Wait For The Ladies’ Room)

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