“It’s been completely Americanized!” my host declares proudly. “The bidet is gone!” In my time as a travel editor, this scenario has become common when touring improvements to hotels and resorts around the world. My heart sinks when I hear it. To me, this doesn’t feel like progress, but prejudice.
Americans seem especially baffled by these basins. Even seasoned American travelers are unsure of their purpose: One globe-trotter asked me, “Why do the bathrooms in this hotel have both toilets and urinals?” And even if they understand the bidet’s function, Americans often fail to see its appeal. Attempts to popularize the bidet in the United States have failed before, but recent efforts continue—and perhaps they might even succeed in bringing this Old World device to new backsides.
The classic bidet is a miniature, bathtub-like fixture situated next to the toilet, with taps on one end. Its tub is filled with water, and the user straddles themselves over it to wash below the belt. But it took centuries before arriving at this version.
The bidet was born in France in the 1600s as a washing basin for your private parts. It was considered a second step to the chamber pot, and both items were kept in the bedroom or dressing chamber. Some of the early versions of the bidet look like ornamental ottomans; the basins were inset in wooden furniture with short legs. Often lids made of wood, wicker, or leather topped the seated portion, disguising its function to a degree.
The name is rooted in the French word for “pony,” which offers a helpful hint that the basin should be straddled. But it also picked up this moniker because royalty used it to clean up after a ride. Hauling water was a laborious process in that era, but bidet bathing was a regular indulgence for the aristocracy and upper classes. This little bathing workhorse was so much a part of high society that the artist Louis-Léopold Boilly, who painted French middle- and upper-class life, showcased a young woman with her skirts hiked over the washbasin in one of his works—providing a racy bidet counterpart to Degas’s bathtub portraits. They were such an integral part of civilized life that even the imprisoned Marie Antoinette was granted a red-trimmed one while awaiting the guillotine. She may have been in a dank, rat-infested cell, but her right to freshen up would not be denied.
Versions in the 1700s sometimes featured a water-pump handle that could deliver an upward spray from a refillable tank. As indoor plumbing caught on in the 1800s, the bidet moved from the bedroom into the bathroom, and the standard model came into use: a tiny tub that could be filled with a faucet at either end. The first of the plumbed bidets were most common in high society, but its popularity soon spread, both to other social classes in France and to other countries in Western Europe—as well as Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia.
Throughout this bidet boom, the United States resisted its appeal, and the reason might have been the power of first impressions. Americans were introduced to bidets on a broad scale during World War II, when troops were stationed in Europe. GIs visiting bordellos would often see bidets in the bathrooms, so they began to associate these basins with sex work. Given America’s puritanical past, it makes sense that, once back home, servicemen would feel squeamish presenting these fixtures to their homeland.
But even before the war, bidets were linked to sex and scandal. In the United States and Britain, when various forms of douching were thought of as a pregnancy preventive, bidets were considered a form of birth control. As Norman Haire, a birth-control pioneer, put it in 1936, “The presence of a bidet is regarded as almost a symbol of sin.” The present-day American sociologist Harvey Molotch agrees, concluding that the devices were tainted with France’s hedonism and sexuality. “Bidets have had such difficulty ... Even all the power of capitalism can’t break the taboo.”
While they were truly terrible at pregnancy prevention, bidets could be helpful for another taboo: menstruation. As Therese Oneill demonstrates in her book Unmentionable, women’s periods in this time were largely not spoken of and quietly tended to with “jelly rags.” It was a messy and private affair that had no commercial answer. But as a selling point for bidets, menstruation was possibly on par with unwanted pregnancy and prostitution as undesirable and unspoken during the pre- and postwar years. In terms of finding commercial success, it was more a hindrance than a help.
In the United States, bidets recalled all kinds of feminine failings: women’s sexuality, women’s unwanted pregnancies, and women’s biology. As such, they were shunned.
Meanwhile, other countries continued to embrace the bidet. As it spread into northern Europe and southern Asia, the design morphed a bit. A mini-shower attachment connected to the toilet became a popular variation on the separate basin. This design was similar to a nozzle patented by John Harvey Kellogg in 1928, intended for use by the patients at a sanitarium he directed. It certainly didn’t catch on the way his cornflakes did.
In 1964, the American Bidet Company took another run at making the bidet more palatable by combining the toilet seat with a spritzing function. The company’s founder, Arnold Cohen, created this device for his ailing father; studies have shown that bidet bathing can help heal rashes, hemorrhoids, and other irritations. But Cohen also saw his mission as “changing the habits of a nation, weaning us off the Charmin.” Unfortunately, Cohen, a former ad man, struggled to broadcast his message for what he called the Sitzbath. “I installed thousands of my seats all over the suburbs of New York ... but advertising was a next-to-impossible challenge,” he said. “Nobody wants to hear about Tushy Washing 101.”
While America was deaf to Cohen’s message, another nation was listening: Japan. That same year, Cohen met with representatives of a Japanese trading company, Nichimen Jitsugyo. The firm eventually worked up its own design, which was modeled after the Sitzbath. By 1980 another Japanese company, Toto, would pioneer the “washlet,” a multifunction, control-panel-driven bidet-toilet hybrid that was enthusiastically adopted by Japanese households. As Toto’s general manager of restroom product research put it, “We did what others were reluctant to try—we brought electronics into the water closet.”
The washlet, a love child of cleanliness and technology, brought bidet bathing into the future. Cohen’s Sitzbath thus became the grandfather of today’s smart toilets, which feature control panels that enable users to modify water pressure and direction. Some panels add other indulgences, like seat-warming and deodorizing functions.
These devices were part of a technology upswing in Japan in the 1980s. But while other Japanese products born in that era, like Nintendo gaming systems, were enthusiastically embraced in the United States, the Toto super-thrones remain a curiosity to this day. One reason the washlet hasn’t caught on is price. The most basic of Toto’s washlet models rings in at $499, making it more in line with a lavish small appliance. When Totos were installed at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, the “space toilets,” as TechCrunch called them, were a symbol of the company’s over-the-top perks, a privileged perch from which employees could check their stock options. Washlets once again made bidets something for the upper classes.
The United States has largely ignored the bidet and its spin-offs, but it has warmly welcomed an alternative product: flushable wet wipes. These wipes became a cheapie work-around to address many of the same issues as the bidet, but they come at a much higher cost to the public.
Wet wipes or wet naps were a mid-century invention used for everything from diaper changes to messy barbecue cookouts. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that major companies like Procter & Gamble enjoyed success marketing them as a replacement or follow-up for toilet paper. Today, these damp cloth wipes have grown into a $2.2 billion industry. The market is so massive that it has inspired three male-targeted wipes, Bro Wipes, Dude Wipes, and One Wipe Charlies, which position themselves as testosterone-fueled counterparts to feminized bidets and hygiene products. They have even popped up in music, including a rap song by Cam’ron in which the chorus—“Go get ya wet wipes”—is a prompt for freshening up before sex.
While wipes are far more accessible than washlets, costing a fraction of the super-thrones (a 252-pack costs $9.92), they’ve also created major damage to sewer systems. Once flushed, the wipes glom together with any fat from food waste and can form what are called “fatbergs”—iceberg-style blockages that can clog a whole system. To extract a fatberg and make the needed repairs can be incredibly pricey; in London back in 2015, one 10-ton fatberg cost the city $600,000. And last September, the city discovered another that’s approximately 140 tons, which could very well cost 10 times as much to remove.
These troubles have prompted lawsuits, legislation around the term “flushable,” and, in May 2015, the removal by the Federal Trade Commission of a certain brand wipe, made by NicePak, that was deemed unsafe for sewers. Environmental groups have also vocally condemned wet wipes for their plastic fibers, which, they say, add to the glut of garbage floating in the ocean and harm marine life.
Given these downsides, are Americans ready to abandon this disposable solution and finally embrace a simple spritz of water? Miki Agrawal, the founder of Thinx, says yes. Agrawal has captured mainstream attention with her Thinx panties, an environmentally conscious pad/tampon alternative. Thinx faced criticism for lewdness for some of its ads (which proves in some ways that the stigma around menstruation is alive and well), and the company took a huge hit when Agrawal was accused of sexual harassment. But the press for the product itself has been generally positive—especially among millennials.
Now Agrawal, along with other investors, is backing a toilet attachment called Tushy, which adds a small water spigot under the rim. It amounts to a spritzing jet attached to a standard toilet seat—there’s no separate washing basin or newfangled washlet functions—but at $69, it could be the Goldilocks middle ground between high-end washlets and dirt-cheap wipes. Arnold Cohen had trouble advertising his Sitzbath, but marketing has changed since the 1960s. Tushy’s website doesn’t bother with euphemisms, plainly saying that its product is “for people who poop.” On the home page it commands, “Stop wiping your butt, start washing with Tushy,” and bluntly argues, “If a bird pooped on you, would you wipe it? No, you’d wash it off.”
With this frankness, together with streamlined web design and a chatty blog, Tushy is taking hard aim at the female millennial market that responded so well to Thinx. If Tushy succeeds, it will show that the bidet can be embraced for the very reasons it was once shunned: its feminine associations. And maybe as it finally crosses the Atlantic, it can also cross the gender divide.