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Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing

Harvey Molotch
Laura Norén
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    View "Public Restrooms": A Photo Gallery in The Atlantic Monthly.So much happens in the public toilet that we never talk about. Finding the right door, waiting in line, and using the facilities are often undertaken with trepidation. Don't touch anything. Try not to smell. Avoid eye contact. And for men, don't look down or let your eyes stray. Even washing one's hands are tied to anxieties of disgust and humiliation. And yet other things also happen in these spaces: babies are changed, conversations are had, make-up is applied, and notes are scrawled for posterity.Beyond these private issues, there are also real public concerns: problems of public access, ecological waste, and - in many parts of the world--sanitation crises. At public events, why are women constantly waiting in long lines but not men? Where do the homeless go when cities decide to close public sites? Should bathrooms become standardized to accommodate the disabled? Is it possible to create a unisex bathroom for transgendered people?In Toilet, noted sociologist Harvey Molotch and Laura Noren bring together twelve essays by urbanists, historians and cultural analysts (among others) to shed light on the public restroom. These noted scholars offer an assessment of our historical and contemporary practices, showing us the intricate mechanisms through which even the physical design of restrooms - the configurations of stalls, the number of urinals, the placement of sinks, and the continuing segregation of women's and men's bathrooms - reflect and sustain our cultural attitudes towards gender, class, and disability. Based on a broad range of conceptual, political, and down-to-earth viewpoints, the original essays in this volume show how the bathroom - as a practical matter--reveals competing visions of pollution, danger and distinction.Although what happens in the toilet usually stays in the toilet, this brilliant, revelatory, and often funny book aims to bring it all out into the open, proving that profound and meaningful history can be made even in the can.Contributors: Ruth Barcan, Irus Braverman, Mary Ann Case, Olga Gershenson, Clara Greed, Zena Kamash,Terry Kogan, Harvey Molotch, Laura Noren, Barbara Penner, Brian Reynolds, and David Serlin.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-5964-6
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. 1 Introduction: Learning from the Loo
    (pp. 1-22)
    Harvey Molotch

    Publicandtoiletdo not sit well together. The discord goes beyond words. Using the facility—let’s call it that for now—involves intensely private acts. Focusing on the public restroom, as the contributors to this book make it their business to do, thus opens a tense domain. But it is a route worth taking, precisely because of the shadow under which it normally falls. By going there, we have the potential to make discoveries with implications for personal hygiene, psychological stress, and social betterment. We can also learn about power and the capacity to shape others’ life chances. Hence...

  5. Part I: Living in the Loo

    • 2 Dirty Spaces: Separation, Concealment, and Shame in the Public Toilet
      (pp. 25-46)
      Ruth Barcan and Bryan Reynolds

      I start from the general proposition that architecture is “an art which directly engages the body,”¹ an art that must deal in concrete, literally, with often abstract or hidden social and cultural logics. My second starting point is the well-known work of the cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas on dirt. Douglas engages with dirt as an extensive metaphor for anything that is symbolically polluting because it threatens established sociocultural categories, such as the division between male and female, human and animal, public and private. Dirt is an “offense against order,” against the categories that help promote social stability.² It is, therefore,...

    • 3 Which Way to Look? Exploring Latrine Use in the Roman World
      (pp. 47-64)
      Zena Kamash

      With the advent of the Roman period in the Western world came also the spread of public toilet facilities. Although private toilets are known to have existed before this time, public latrines do not seem to have been widely used. But public latrines became a regular feature of cityscapes in the Roman world. One of the most significant features in Roman public latrines is their communality; that is, there were no cubicles or screens that provided any privacy to the users who would all be sitting together. This feature of intense sharing, together with access to water for the disposal...

    • 4 Potty Training: Nonhuman Inspection in Public Washrooms
      (pp. 65-90)
      Irus Braverman

      The intimacies, privacies, and taboos of the public washroom render it almost inaccessible for direct human inspection. Especially with the decline of attendants and thus the loss of a human policeman,³ nonhuman fixtures are set in place to do the dirty work. Moreover, in the United States, or at least in Buffalo, New York, where I have done fieldwork (and which, I think, is typical of U.S. cities in these respects), government agencies do not take up much of the slack; officials make only rare appearances on the toilet scene.

      Responsibility for official inspection of public washrooms in Buffalo is...

  6. Part II: Who Gets to Go

    • 5 Only Dogs Are Free to Pee: New York City Cabbies’ Search for Civility
      (pp. 93-116)
      Laura Norén

      For new yorkers whose work sites are unplumbed, and mobile taxi drivers in particular, having no place to go presents a daily struggle to maintain health, dignity, and a clean criminal record. The diminishing number of public restrooms in the city is a failure of provisioning whose consequences are strengthened by prohibition policies—being without a bathroom is bad enough, but what’s worse is being summoned to court and fined for resorting to public relief. Five city departments (the Department of Sanitation, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Metro Transit Authority, the New York City Police Department, and the...

    • 6 Creating a Nonsexist Restroom
      (pp. 117-144)
      Clara Greed

      The achievement of a nonsexist restroom requires immense cultural, attitudinal, policy, legal, and architectural changes. As Lewis Mumford put it, “you can judge the quality of a civilisation by the way it disposes of its waste.”¹ However important as cultural artifacts of our civilization, public toilet design is a despised, outcast branch of architecture, just as it is a stigmatized subject of general discourse. Designing toilets has been compared by architects to “doing latrine duty in the Army.”² Within large architectural firms, it is shunted off to the work cubicles of those low in the pecking order, not to be...

    • 7 Sex Separation: The Cure-All for Victorian Social Anxiety
      (pp. 145-166)
      Terry S. Kogan

      Though one can find examples of sex-segregated water closets in public spaces in the United States well before the end of the nineteenth century, the first law mandating such separation was enacted by the Massachusetts legislature in 1887.¹ That statute, entitled “An Act to Secure Proper Sanitary Provisions in Factories and Workshops,” required that “suitable and proper wash-rooms and water-closets shall be provided for females where employed, and the water-closets used by females shall be separate and apart from those used by males.”² By 1920, forty-three states had adopted similar legislation.³

      What was the perceived need in late-nineteenth-century America for...

    • 8 Pissing without Pity: Disability, Gender, and the Public Toilet
      (pp. 167-188)
      David Serlin

      In april 1977, a coordinated group of disability rights activists staged protest actions at the Department of Housing, Education, and Welfare in Washington, D.C., and in eight of its regional offices across the country. These demonstrators, many of whom used wheelchairs or mechanical ventilators, were fighting for the full-scale implementation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Its significant Section 504, established to extend civil rights legislation of the 1960s, would prohibit programs that receive federal funding from discriminating against people with disabilities. Historically, people with disabilities had been either segregated within or isolated from the social world for so long...

  7. Part III: Building in the Future

    • 9 The Restroom Revolution: Unisex Toilets and Campus Politics
      (pp. 191-210)
      Olga Gershenson and Jonathan Head

      The history of the modern restroom has been a history of successive social groups proposing a right to access and a mode of toilet configuration fitting to their needs and desires. First were the women: we owe the termpotty politicsto the Ladies’ Sanitary Association and similar women’s organizations that put up a fight for the room of their own. Establishing the first women’s lavatory in Victorian London took the persistence of the lone female member of the government and the advocacy of a famous vestryman, George Bernard Shaw, to overcome the resistance of the residents and the vestry....

    • 10 Why Not Abolish Laws of Urinary Segregation?
      (pp. 211-228)
      Mary Anne Case

      Public toilets are among the very few sex-segregated spaces remaining in our culture, and the laws that govern them are among the very few in the United States still to be sex respecting, meaning that they still distinguish on their face between males and females. It is this, rather than the experience of having to wait on one too many a long line for the ladies’ room, that led me to put questions of sex discrimination in the provision of public toilets on my scholarly agenda. In examining the history of the development of the constitutional law of sex equality,...

    • 11 Entangled with a User: Inside Bathrooms with Alexander Kira and Peter Greenaway
      (pp. 229-254)
      Barbara Penner

      In the past decade, it has become common for scholars to study toilets through the analytical lens of “discipline”: following Foucault, they are concerned with the question of how such spaces articulate and uphold various forms of social difference.¹ This chapter, however, considers discipline in another, more literal sense and explores instead what toilets reveal about the disciplinary limits of architecture itself. As the historian Hayden White noted inTropics of Discourse,“Every discipline [is] constituted by what itforbidsits practitioners to do,” although in this case it is more apt to say “by what it forbids its practitioners...

    • 12 On Not Making History: What NYU Did with the Toilet and What It Means for the World
      (pp. 255-272)
      Harvey Molotch

      Building a better bathroom means approaching fundamental human disgusts and anxieties. Putting toilets into presence, whether in life or text, amplifies whatever distinctions and worries that are around. People do not want to know even that others have sat on the seat they occupy, much less visualize (or discuss) what those others have done or how to arrange for them to do it differently. That those others are in some way diverse or strange, by gender, class, or ethnicity, makes their shit even more worrisomely obnoxious. Hindus and Muslims won’t use the facilities touched by the Other and stand ready...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 273-302)
  9. About the Contributors
    (pp. 303-306)
  10. Index
    (pp. 307-316)