The Private Lives of Public Bathrooms

How psychology, gender roles, and design explain the distinctive way we behave in the world's stalls

When Oprah Winfrey served on a Chicago jury in 2004, she couldn’t go to the bathroom attached to the jury room unless her fellow jurors sang to drown out the noise. One of the songs they sang was Kumbaya.

When Alexis Sanchez used the bathroom in her college dorm, she brought her iPod with her.

“I would blast it,” she says. “I would play 'D. A. N. C. E.' by Justice, and some Maroon 5 song. That was my poop playlist. It had to be a ritual or else I would focus too much on if there were other girls there who could hear or smell what was happening.”

Sanchez, now a 22-year-old front-end web developer for the Tampa Bay Times, has since abandoned her poop playlist, but is still incredibly anxious about using public bathrooms—for both numbers one and two. “It’s definitely a problem,” she says. “It affects my life.”

Many people, like Oprah and Alexis, suffer some degree of anxiety about going to the bathroom when others are present. Paruresis, or “pee-shyness” is classified as a social anxiety disorder in the DSM-V, the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic guide. It’s a sort of performance anxiety, a fear of being scrutinized by others while you go.

According to Steve Soifer, chair of the University of Memphis department of social work, and CEO of the International Paruresis Association, about 20 million people in the U.S. suffer from paruresis to some degree (220 million worldwide). He notes, though, that it’s a spectrum. Whereas some people are just mildly uncomfortable, some suffer so extremely that they physically can’t go in the presence of others. Some paruretics have to resort to self-catherization (inserting a tube up your urethra and into your bladder) if they’re in a place where they can’t avoid using a public bathroom.

“In its extreme form, people become agoraphobic,” Soifer says. “I know people who’ve never dated, never gotten married. I know one guy who had a master’s degree and ran a paper route in the evening, so he knew exactly where a safe bathroom was [if he had to go at work].”

The IPA has a term for “poop-shyness” as well: parcopresis. But this isn’t a medically recognized condition, and is less of an issue for most people, according to Soifer. The relative infrequency of bowel movements means people can usually time them for when they’re in a bathroom that makes them comfortable. In rare cases, like dorm bathrooms, people like Sanchez may not have that option.

Soifer doesn’t deal much with parcopresis—he says he’s rarely seen someone who has both it and paruresis. “People call me Dr. Pee, and I tell them I don’t want to be Dr. Poop as well,” he says. “It’s too much.”

*  *  *

Even for the rest of us, who don’t suffer a clinical level of anxiety, the public bathroom is a place that has ingrained behaviors and social rituals—leaving space at the urinals, avoiding conversation even with people you know—that we’ve all experienced, if not daily at an office, than out in the world, at restaurants and ball parks and airports. The public collides uncomfortably with the private in the bathroom as it does nowhere else, and the unique behaviors we perform stem from a complex psychological stew of shame, self-awareness, design, and gender roles. If you boiled this stew down, though, it’d come down to boundaries—the stalls and dividers that physically separate us, and the social boundaries we create with our behavior when those don’t feel like enough.

In an increasingly sex-positive culture, it seems like bathroom issues are the last thing most people are reluctant to talk about. Serious attempts to research bathroom behavior or design have been done by just a few people who have been willing to break the taboo. One of these, Nick Haslam, author of Psychology in the Bathroom, explains that we attach “shame and secrecy” to the bathroom from a very early age, and that some of that is evolutionary.

“Part of that is surely due to the fact that we are socialized from an early age to control excretion and taught that failures of control are embarrassing and humiliating,” he told me via email. “And from an early age we learn that excretion is something you do on your own, behind closed doors…Another reason for the taboo is perhaps an entirely adaptive and evolved aversion to bodily waste, which is linked to disease and contamination. To some degree there will always be some anxiety and disgust attached to excretion for this reason.”

But he also notes that talking about bathroom issues wasn’t always this taboo. If we’ve talked about it before, we can talk about it again, and in talking, maybe find ways to ease some of the anxieties people feel in public bathrooms, and reduce the need for us to be so vigilant about policing our behavior.

*  *  *

Until the 1800's, there was little expectation of privacy while using the bathroom. Economic prosperity and religious notions of modesty made the desire for a private space in which to do one’s business more widespread. Today, most people living in developed countries expect privacy in the bathroom. Paradoxically, most bathrooms outside of private homes are designed for multiple, simultaneous occupants.

In his 1976 book, The Bathroom, Alexander Kira wrote: “Most of our feelings about the body, sex, elimination, privacy, and cleanliness are magnified in this context of ‘publicness,’ for the fact of publicness, with its inevitable territorial violations and loss of privacy, increases our apprehensions.”

Inside Monica Bonvicini's "Don't Miss a Sec."
(Sticky Nicky/flickr)

The blurred line between public and private was made manifest in Italian artist Monica Bonvicini’s 2003 sculpture "Don’t Miss a Sec"—a usable public toilet encased in one-way glass installed outside London’s Tate Britain gallery. Passersby could not see in, but the person using the toilet could see out.

Kira explains that the two kinds of privacy we desire are “privacy for” and “privacy from.” We want privacy for our own elimination, and privacy from other people doing theirs.

“Toilet activities are highly personal and ordinarily occur backstage of life,” says Harvey Molotch, a professor of sociology and metropolitan studies at New York University and co-editor of Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing. “You have this really harsh tension between the public and the private, which I don’t think exists anywhere else. That’s troublesome, it has to be settled in some way.”

How it’s usually settled in the U.S. is with metal partitions, which Molotch says are “just made with the flimsiest crap.” This is just for stalls of course—men’s urinals typically have even less substantial partitions, if indeed they are divided at all. Obviously, these physical boundaries, though they may protect you from being seen (or may not, entirely, if there are gaps in the stall door), do not protect you from being heard, or smelled.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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