Toilet terror

Utopian considerations

The performing of ablutionary activities openly in a shared social space had long been the norm before the individual’s right to seclusion became something sacrosanct and inviolable. People used to bathe and go to the toilet, that is to say, in front of each other freely and unselfconsciously. In our day and age, however, the right to bodily privacy is so ingrained and taken for granted that it’s inconceivable why anyone would ever question it. Only in exceptional institutionalized settings—the army, the prison—is this right taken away. Yet it’s a modern right, one that grew out of bourgeois “separate-spheres ideology” (Yuko) and Victorian preoccupations with the sanctity of the female sex only over the last century and a half or so. It’s also an outmoded right, despite being clung to so tenaciously, as Mary Anne Case writes: “Separate public toilets are one of the last remnants of the segregated life of separate spheres for men and women…now that the rules of etiquette no longer demand that the women leave the men to their brandy and cigars after dinner in polite company.” Yet it remains very much alive today and is on display whenever the ladies get up on cue to go do their ritual restroom thing.

The bodily right to privacy developed, more precisely, in tandem with the late nineteenth-century technology of private plumbing, enabling at first the wealthy, and decades later most residences to be outfitted with their own bathroom, although as Alexander Kira reminds us in his classic book, The Bathroom, bathtubs designed for two could be found among the European gentry as far back as the seventeenth century.

I am sorry to have to turn all this on its head in what follows, but it’s about time we disburden ourselves of the privacy fetish. This requires a drastic shift in cultural attitudes. As radical as it sounds, toilet liberation is wholly practical economically speaking and easily implemented, if not now then over a generation or two, as younger people enlightened and versed in ecological imperatives take over the reins of power.

There are already signs among scattered visionaries of a relaxing of the strictures and regimes. One household fashion trend, among those who can afford to tear down walls in their home or uproot their plumbing, is the “open-concept bathroom,” a large bathtub or jacuzzi as the centerpiece of a spacious bathroom or even the living room, the bather or bathers visible to family or friends. More exclusive hotels offer something comparable though the rationale may be different; the point is not to lure exhibitionist guests but rather to enable you to watch TV while you bathe while keeping an eye on the fast company hoping to rifle through your pants (more commonly, open bathtubs in hotels sit in a standard bathroom behind a clear glass wall, with a shade or curtain to accommodate the shy). An attractive selling point in new homes, the beautiful bathroom meant for more than one never really went away, at least in Europe. One such exquisite specimen and its wine-drinking naked couple is featured in the Hungarian film The Piano Player (1999, dir. Schübel), set in Nazi-occupied Budapest.

A bolder proposal yet would eliminate private toilets and bathrooms altogether and, in their place, encourage communal living arrangements with shared bathrooms. Anyone who has ever stayed in a no-frills dormitory or cheap hotel or hostel has experienced the shared hallway bathroom. While an annoyance if you’re not used to it, it is quickly accommodated with revised expectations and a little mental agility. People with special bathing needs—the elderly, infirm and disabled—would especially benefit in a communal household, as they have people watching over them.

A hotel in Changsha, China.

The public restroom too is deserving of beauty, elegance, even grandness, but not as a mere cosmetic gesture. A garish example is an entire temple-like WC at the White Temple complex in Chiang Rai, Thailand. The hugely popular haunt got some bad publicity years ago over an ill-advised decision to open up a separate WC for Chinese tourists, some of whom had been observed trashing the “Golden Toilet” with their messy toilet habits; the decision was reversed, and the majority of the tourists remain Chinese (“Thai temple”). The Golden Toilet invites access with two entrances each for both sexes. The interior is rather prosaic, with nice décor touches but nothing in the way of creative use of space; the upper floor is for offices. Mere ornamentation slapped onto a conventional structure is indeed a waste of space. A true restroom design aesthetic would expand outward, organically, from the urinal. In other words, the standard urinal is itself an object of beauty, with its perfect fusion of form and function. Public restroom design should follow that.

The Golden Toilet at the White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand.

While functionalism implies ease of access and use, it must also be informed by egalitarianism: something functions well because it’s accessible to all. Existing public restrooms just about everywhere remains a strange agglomeration of culturally imposed sexism and puritanism. In one UK study, women spend 34 times longer queuing for the toilet than men (“The Peequal”). If, as a man, you’ve always wondered why this is the case, imagine how your access to the men’s room would be impacted with the urinals removed. Even still, it’s easier for you to urinate in a stall by simply unzipping and peeing all over the toilet seat, whereas women often have to fiddle with layers of clothing when they don’t have to clean up after you if it happens to be a unisex toilet.

Men’s urinals in the Golden Toilet.

One solution is the female urinal. I can’t think of a more eminent solution to an intractable problem that throws up more flak of resistance, and this merits some discussion. Germany has been at the forefront of these innovations, indeed has been experimenting with female urinals in public restrooms since the nineteenth century. The rationale is not only to give women equal access but to save water; women waste three times as much toilet water as men in the multiple flushing required to clean and make clean contact with toilet seats. To use a female urinal (or urinals adapted for both sexes), a woman must either face the wall or face forward, depending on the urinal’s design. The urinals pictured in the gorgeous women’s restroom below are evidently intended to be used facing forward. In either case, she must pull down her pants and pull aside her panties, legs astride in a semi-squatting stance, thus exposing her groin from the front or rear, though she might drape her nakedness with a dress. Or if facing the wall, the use of a handheld device such as the Pee Easy funnel would make it possible to keep her buttocks covered like men, but she would need to carry such a device around with her and be comfortable using it.

In Germany as well, some cities are converting gender-segregated to gender-neutral WCs, with the ultimate goal of replacing men’s urinals altogether with gender-neutral urinals. What the etiquette would look like in a unisex restroom with women using the same urinals as men is anyone’s guess. It’s already delicate enough in men’s rooms. There are unspoken rules. First, it’s unacceptable to use a urinal next to another user if other urinals are available. Second, it’s unacceptable to glance, however momentarily, at another man’s penis. There is a third curious injunction, unconsciously observed: it’s expected to acknowledge the presence of others with subtle signs, such as adjusting your posture when a newcomer arrives or a partial glance in their direction without eye contact. This is to mutually affirm the boundaries; not to do so might suggest you’re intending to subvert the boundaries with perverted designs. The presence of women in a unisex public WC would enormously complicate this etiquette, as female users would have to compromise themselves in front of the men milling about.

I suppose most women would regard unisex urinals as beyond the pale and refuse to use them, even when outfitted with emergency alarms and a divider separating male and female users (among other ameliorating measures). Even many men might be intimidated from entering such a restroom. Ruth Barcan speaks to the fear and resistance that would need to be overcome before coed public toilets could be socially accepted:

For just as the spatial separation of men and women into different rooms aims…to reduce male violence against women, so the free circulation of sound is part of women’s defenses against that same threat of violence. Knowing that your screams can be heard outside was the first thing matter-of-factly mentioned to me by a woman when I asked some of my friends whether they thought sound was an important factor in public toilet design.

The irony is that coed public toilets might be the best of all solutions since the presence of others would guard against aggressive males. Why then are public toilets segregated in the first place? This historically burdened question confronts us with the unfortunate fact that the segregation of the sexes reinforces and justifies its own consequences. As Gershenson (citing Richard A. Wasserstrom) puts it,

Sex-segregated bathrooms…are just ‘one small part of that scheme of sex-role differentiation which uses the mystery of sexual anatomy, among other things, to maintain the primacy of heterosexual sexual attraction central to that version of the patriarchal system of power relationships we have today.’ The same patriarchal system that envisions sex as a crucial binary category insists on the sexual segregation of bathrooms.

There hasn’t been much news about these German restroom innovations since a flurry of articles appeared in the scandalized international press in 2017 (e.g., “Berlin’s new toilets”). Were the proposals stopped dead in their tracks after massive public resistance? Or perhaps subsequent developments have slipped under the radar? Germany is a country known for its healthy tolerance and respect for public nudity, as shocked visitors discover when they stumble upon topless pool-side bathers in their hotel and full-blown nudist parks in city centers, such as the Englischer Garten in Munich. There may be adequate public support for unisex WCs with unisex urinals, but municipalities are likely constrained by their growing population of conservative communities, predominantly Muslim immigrants, not to mention the many tourists unacquainted with liberal German attitudes. Any viable changes would need to be two-pronged and incremental: outfitting women’s WCs with female-adapted urinals, and merging or replacing segregated WCs with unisex WCs, all the while keeping enough gender-segregated WCs operating to provide people with a choice. Germans have long freely gone naked among strangers in coed saunas, and over time, one assumes, male leering and harassment of female users would dwindle as coed toilet use became commonplace. Then if enough women could be recruited, unisex WCs could all be outfitted with unisex urinals. This would also solve at one go the problem of safe toilets for trans people and would render moot the question of whether trans females should be allowed in women’s restrooms.

Female urinals, unknown location, Germany (Prince Grobhelm – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3003594).

Germany presents us with an instructive test case of the limits of the progressive imagination. The Germans may seem shocking by prudish American standards, but they are quite reasonable people who beckon toward what is possible. We might place Germany at one end of a continuum representing degrees of tolerance for bodily freedom, America in the middle, and hidebound societies that regard women as inherently dirty (e.g., the practice in Nepal and Ethiopia of forcing menstruating women into huts) or as unassailably pure and needing protection and isolation (which amounts to the same thing), at the other end. Far from being inconceivable or intolerable, unisex urinals and WCs do exist. They are being implemented or in the planning stages by municipal governments not only in Germany but elsewhere, though still largely confined to Europe. The reason for this growing shift toward sexual equality in public toilets, however slow and scattershot on a global scale is, again, the sheer logic of it. Above all, it’s an environmentally and ecologically sound policy. Converting segregated WCs into unisex WCs saves money and space, and widespread adoption of the female urinal saves water—at a time when global water shortages are becoming acute. And, of course, unisex facilities provide women the same ease and speed of use as men.

Egalitarian public restroom design (as opposed to its successful implementation) has a long history and I can hardly claim to be proposing something original. While I’ve culled insights from the experts, such as Alexander Kira and Harvey Molotch, the following design for a “grand public restroom” is my own. The structure is imagined in the round, to spotlight its aesthetic and functional self-sufficiency, though I’d stress “functional” here in the more generous sense to distinguish it from the “American preoccupation with compulsive ‘cleanliness,’ devoid of any enjoyment, which results in our minimal ‘functional’ bathrooms.” As Kira continues in a more positive vein, “one can find examples today of bathrooms that are treated as family rooms, private sitting rooms, libraries, offices, formal drawing rooms, art galleries, garden rooms, beauty parlors, gymnasiums, and so on.”

Grand public restrooms would stand out in the urban horizon with a telltale dome-shaped skylight or cupola, yet each would be architecturally unique. They would come in different sizes depending on population density or local demand, and there would be smaller versions with fewer amenities, scattered around the neighborhood, some consisting of no more than several toilet rooms accessed on the outside and unisex urinals on the inside. They would be free, open to all, well-maintained, clean, and safe, with attendants on hand 24 hours in the larger versions.

Bird’s-eye view of a grand public restroom: 1) entrance, 2) changing rooms, 3) urinals, 4) large toilet rooms, 5) small toilet rooms, 6) showers, 7) saunas, 8) trough sinks,9) lactation room, 10) attendants’ office, 11) massage room, 12) espresso bar, 13) recreational tables. The symbols/ indicate male/female segregated sections, coed when combined (concept and design by Isham Cook).

Ideally, they would be strictly unisex, but as I must ground this in our day and age, a transitional version is presented with both coed and sex-segregated sections. As in conventional public restrooms, the divided entrance requires women and men to enter separately. If one just needs to urinate, there are segregated urinal rooms adjacent to the main entrance on either side. If one needs to defecate, there are two options. First, private-use toilet rooms line the outside circumference of the structure, larger wheelchair-accessible rooms each with a baby-changing table, toilet, and sink, alternating with smaller rooms containing a toilet and sink. A sign on each door indicates whether the room is occupied or vacant (as in airplane cabin toilets), but with a big “O” or “V” so that the sign can be read from a distance. There is also an electronic display at the main entrance showing the occupancy of all the numbered toilets at a glance, enabling users to locate a vacant toilet. Attendants would be aware of which toilets are in operation and could notify those who are hogging toilets. Likewise, if the user has a medical issue or emergency the attendant can be alerted and spoken to via intercom.

Alternatively, the outer toilet rooms could be accessed within the building from the circular corridor lined with shower stalls and saunas. If a toilet is in use, its inner and outer doors are automatically locked and become unlocked when the toilet is vacant. But one cannot access the corridor from the outside via the toilet rooms; only users inside the building have access to the toilets from the inside. This enables the staff to monitor the visitors present and prevent men from entering the women’s section and vice versa. The larger share of the shower area is coed, however. This is to give both sexes greater access to shower and sauna space and absorb spillover from the segregated sections. It’s also to accustom people to coed use and lower resistance to the sight of the naked opposite sex.

Also offered are saunas, a massage room, and a segregated lactation room (though women could breastfeed openly as they wished), double-sided trough sinks with mirrors, recreational tables (with chess, checkers, Go sets), even an espresso bar. This is to encourage people not only to feel comfortable and at leisure but to hang out and socialize. Other grand public restrooms might offer different options and facilities. The largest could accommodate hot and cold pools for recreational bathing, as have long existed in Japan, Korea, and China. As in Germany and a few other European countries, many spa and hot-spring resorts are both coed and clothing-optional, so it’s not such a stretch to imagine this degree of institutionalized freedom.

If the grand public restroom progressed to become fully coed, obviating the need for separate male and female sections, the interior could be further streamlined with a single set of urinals, showers, and saunas for all genders/sexes to use freely, safely, and shame-free. Granted, the more exotic brand of European spa aside, existing public restrooms remain a long way from the “utopian vision of men and women and people of all sorts sharing toilet space and shaping social life….As the sex ratio of users changes, one gender can spill over into the facilities ordinarily over-selected by the other, while, as the need arises, managing glance in an appropriate way” (Molotch). Indeed, there is growing awareness of the need for a new approach, and piecemeal improvements are already happening in many cities and countries. And there is always constant, bustling change, often for the better, occasionally for the worse. In what follows, I would like to present examples of change in two countries, one exhibiting dramatic change for the better, the other dramatic change for the worse.

The Chinese Experience

When I first arrived in China in the early 1990s, toilets were so squalid it was hard to imagine anything worse. A telling instance was a lunch stop in one mountain tourist town, Wutaishan, famous for its sprawling Buddhist temples. We chose the most promising among a strip of shanty-like restaurants, all lacking a toilet. I was directed around back to the public WC, if you could call it that. It consisted of an open pit of raw sewage with a rickety wooden plank laid across to squat on while defecating. The pit was set back from the street but unsheltered and its occupants visible to passersby. Throughout my naked squatting ordeal, a male travel companion stood nearby and stared out of protective concern but also impatience. This had a most inhibiting effect. I gave up and resolved to hold in “the uneasy load,” as Gulliver described it, denied use of a privy by his Lilliputian hosts. Nervously gathering up my belongings, I managed to drop my camera into the excremental sludge and fished it out with my fingers. Back at the restaurant, there was no sink or even soap. I had to make do with a pan of water to restore my hands and the camera as best I could. I’m not sure how they washed their dishes.

In the nation’s capital of Beijing, public WCs of the era weren’t all that much better: dark, dirty cinderblock cells with facing rows of squatting holes. Low dividers separated you a bit from adjacent users but not from those sitting opposite; some WCs lacked dividers altogether. This was after all a more social culture, where people felt less awkward about the communal witnessing of all aspects of daily life including the bodily functions, where the concept of individual privacy was less refined than in the West. I had no choice but to get used to being stared at by curious males whiling away the time with their cigarettes, newspapers, and chitchat, sometimes quite overtly about me, assuming I had arrived in the country that very day and couldn’t speak the language (after decades here some still call out to me on the street, “Welcome to China!”). If you were out for the evening, you could always use the restaurant toilet, if again it had one, and you didn’t mind soiling your shoes in the inevitable puddle of urine, spit, cigarette butts, and stray feces surrounding the squat receptacle. So extravagant were these examples of national performance art that they attracted comment. Like David Sedaris on a trip to China in 2011 and Arthur Meursault in his wicked satire Party Members, I found these public potty displays, for want of a better word, funny.

Men’s public WC in a Beijing lane, 2021 (photo by Isham Cook).

Once the country opened up in earnest to foreign tourism and the Chinese themselves started traveling internationally, they became educated on the sanitary standards found outside the Middle Kingdom. They grew acutely conscious and embarrassed about their public WC problem, so much so that the Government trumpeted the country’s urgent toilet development plans, citing such mottoes as “You can judge a nation’s civilization by the quality of its public toilets.” And they indeed worked hard on this. Over the past decade, there has been a sea change, though you can still find remnants of the past alongside progress. In order to maximize their limited space, tiny public WCs in Beijing’s old lanes maintain adjacent squatting toilets without dividers, but these are kept spotlessly clean throughout the day. Some WCs even provide toilet paper from a single dispenser in the entrance (locals are long accustomed to carrying their own). Instead of aiming their waste into the obscure sewage holes of yore, users now position themselves on the polished metal platform and stamp the flusher with their heel. In case you haven’t been following the latest health news, squatting toilets do a better job at evacuating the body’s waste than sitting toilets. If knocking knees with your neighbor takes some getting used to, you can always grab onto his leg for support.

These national measures are being ramped up throughout the country. I was walking through a nondescript neighborhood in the third-tier city of Changchun not long ago and stopped in a public WC. In years past, it would have been a ghastly sight. But the toilet stalls now had locking doors and were spic-and-span. Chinese school lavatories too are kept cleaner than before, although their unshaded windows still give facing classrooms a clear sightline into the male urinal areas. In the newer shopping malls, the restrooms are ever larger, nicer, and gender-friendlier. In Beijing’s China World Mall shopping plaza, for example, ample restrooms are at hand wherever you turn. One male restroom has eight toilet stalls (with a choice of squatting and sitting toilets) and ten urinals; the female restroom facing it has twelve toilet stalls, somewhat making up for the lack of female urinals.

One troublesome aspect of public toilet use in China is that, unlike the U.S., there is no law requiring food establishments to provide a restroom. Most restaurants do as a matter of course, and no bar would be foolish enough not to, but most cafés don’t. The waitstaff will point you to the nearest WC in the mall or down the street, or they arrange with a neighboring restaurant to let you use their restroom. But even in posh residential complexes like The Place in Beijing with its $3,000 per month rental apartments catering to foreigners, the commercial space at ground level wasn’t designed to have restroom plumbing, and few of the many fine food and coffee establishments lining the concourse have their own restrooms. From certain locations, one has to walk the equivalent of a football field to get to the nearest public WC. On the other hand, restaurants, office buildings, and hotel lobbies never object to anyone slipping in to use the restroom, whether you’re a patron or not; staff tends to be relaxed and not inclined to interfere. This stands in contrast to restaurants and businesses in American cities, which often display a sign in their window prohibiting restroom use for non-paying customers. Ironically, there is a greater need for non-patron use of restaurant restrooms in the U.S. since there are comparatively fewer public WCs. This brings us to our next country.

The American experience

As with many features of American life, amenities and facilities are distributed up the socio-economic ladder: you have to pay for the convenience. I don’t mean the token fee as commonly charged in public WCs in Europe. You’re expected to patronize an establishment before being granted use of the restroom, whatever cost it entails. Shopping malls provide restrooms for public use, but then it’s assumed you’re there to shop, and unkempt, indigent types may be approached by guards and escorted out. McDonald’s and other fast-food chains present an interesting exception. They are often hangouts for the large homeless population in many cities, who are generally allowed to stay as long as they purchase a coffee; you can still get one for a dollar or so. Some shops may look the other way even if you don’t buy anything. For all the criticism they receive for their unhealthful food and low pay, the fast-food chains perform a needed public service in functioning as daytime shelters for the poor.

The relative scarcity of clean, safe, accessible public toilets in the U.S., as compared to other countries, has long attracted frustrated commentary by visiting foreigners and domestic sociologists, if not by untraveled Americans who have no basis for comparison and don’t know anything else. Everyone, though, is acutely aware of the inconvenience of being stuck somewhere with a bursting bladder or bowels and no idea where the nearest toilet is. The assumption is that you have only yourself to blame in not planning ahead and taking better precautions, in not leaving that bar, party, sports event or outdoor concert before giving yourself enough time to fully clear your bladder, in not anticipating the long haul home or drive ahead. Or don’t drink so much. Or carry an empty plastic bottle in your car if you have to. Or find some bushes or a dark corner in a park to relieve yourself in.

By this point, you may be assuming my title refers merely to the nuisance of being caught in public with no WC in sight. I don’t mean to trivialize the word, but it does have metaphorical scope to encompass the little things in life that bother or “terrorize” us, the many minor hassles we blow out of proportion in order to characterize a fleeting yet momentarily excruciating situation or event, which of course bears no relation to real terror—a shooting, a bombing—or other life-threatening cataclysms. But this is actually not what I am getting at by the “toilet terror” of my title. What I lay out as follows refers rather to something, if not quite life-threatening, far worse than our desperate search for a toilet. By an order of magnitude worse. And it is unique to the USA.

We can start by recognizing that there is an etiquette to public toilet use. This etiquette is not confined to the toilet itself—this may be counterintuitive—but extends beyond the facility to encompass all urban space, indeed the entire town, suburb or city. You can get into trouble by using a toilet stall against the rules, when for example being espied by security while dealing or shooting drugs or having sex in one (that’s what that half-inch gap between the door and the hinge is for), or even inadvertently, as when stumbling into a poorly marked entrance for the wrong sex. You can also get into trouble for not using a public toilet. Public urination constitutes the greatest violation because it’s interpreted as the most flagrant, ultimate rejection of something society, American society at least, upholds to the absolute strictest of standards. This becomes apparent when these standards are violated. In the U.S., as Kira notes, “privacy demands and sex segregation are strictly enforced by both legal and social sanctions and…casual public elimination can lead to swift arrest.” As “technologies of division and separation,” public toilets, adds Barcan, are a “form of segregation…at once immensely naturalized and immensely policed, the most taken-for-granted social categorization and the most fiercely regulated.”

Most countries have penalties for public urination, typically fines equivalent to several hundred USD, though in some locations such as Singapore the fines can go up to several thousand dollars for blatant acts like public defecation. In Germany, on the other hand, there is no law against public urination. The law in most countries is rarely enforced unless the act is performed openly in broad daylight or otherwise deemed flagrant. In China, where I’ve lived for decades, I’ve never heard of anyone getting into trouble for public peeing, nor have been warned about it. In civilized Japan, salarymen can be seen urinating outside without discretion, but then again, they’re dragooned into enforced after-hours drinking sessions with the boss; they’re seen throwing up on the sidewalk and in the subway station as well. It is also grasped that incontinent people afflicted by age, diabetes or various colon conditions may have to let go in an inopportune spot before they make it home, and allowance (one hopes) is made for medical reasons. But as for young partiers who have no such excuse, is it really necessary to slap them with a $500 fine (on top of potentially much worse consequences) if they make at least minimal effort to relieve themselves out of sight, such as in an alley or behind a tree?

The land of the free has little tolerance for public urination. This has led to gross distortions of the law, to an extent poorly understood by the very public that’s so ruthless in fingering offenders. Public urination signifies no mere rude display but is identified in the American psyche with depravity: obscenity and pedophilia. Whereas the law is wise enough to make a distinction between public urination or disorderly conduct on the one hand, and public lewdness or indecent exposure on the other, not all people do. That includes the police, who are at complete liberty to interpret an act of public urination as lewd or obscene. The police are expected to uphold and enforce the law, but when it comes to sexual offenses real or imaginary, they have wide latitude to do whatever they please. They also have quotas to fulfill and an incentive to err on the side of severity. As everyone who reads the news knows, American law enforcement has a habit of over-extending its reach, when for example they shoot innocent but suspicious-looking African Americans. But whereas the public is turning against racist police brutality, nabbing sex offenders has its unbridled support.

Sane, reasonable people, people with a solid grounding in reality, can grasp that while public urination occurs and can be a nuisance, the number of those who urinate with the deliberate intention of exposing themselves is certainly minuscule. Public paranoia, by contrast, is vast and volatile.

A sobering way to gauge the frequency with which public urinators are charged with lewdness is a Google search of “public urination laws by state,” where a host of law firms crop up offering their services to bewildered defendants. These sites patiently and methodically explain what is happening and what you should and should not do to avoid worsening the quicksand you are in. For time is fast working against you, and an experienced attorney is needed to negotiate with the prosecutor and the police and prepare evidence before things proceed to sentencing. To avoid appearing soft on crime, U.S. states have almost unlimited scope to apply the harshest punishment for the most minor of sex crimes. In Michigan, for instance, the minimum sentence for public lewdness is one day in jail, the maximum life in prison (“Should I be worried”). In at least thirteen states, the distinction between urination and lewdness doesn’t even apply: urination automatically results in an indecent exposure charge—and possible registration as a sex offender (No Easy Answers). Note that it’s “at least” thirteen states. The caveat is that all states are at liberty to charge your simple act of urination as a sex crime at the discretion of the police. Being witnessed masturbating is an automatic sex crime, and a serious one. I assume you would never have any intention of doing that in public, but men usually jiggle their penis when squeezing out their last drops, and someone happening to catch this out of the corner of their eye could misconstrue it as masturbation. A citizen’s claim to have seen you in any state of exposure, even if you were taking the utmost precautions to urinate where you thought you were unobserved, could likewise result in an indecent exposure charge, one that escalates into a sex crime conviction. A child’s claim, if it bubbles up to the police, and it’s all over for you.

A good lawyer and a sympathetic judge might help extricate you relatively unscathed from the quicksand, perhaps only several thousand dollars poorer from legal and court fees but saved from the sex offender registry. Once on the registry, your offense is unlikely to be listed as mere “public urination” but rather the sinister category of “public lewdness,” and you’ll be stuck on the registry for a minimum of ten years, possibly for life, with likely attendant loss of job and housing, and forbidden contact with children. As a Men’s Health article puts it, “when you have to urinate so bad that holding it is no longer an option, you might want to consider just peeing in your pants. It may ruin the rest of your night, but the rest of your life will be spared” (Levitan & Bettmann/Corbis).

When the state multiples crime by creating new categories of crime; when it singles out groups for disproportionately punitive treatment and enlists a duped public to collaborate in the name of safety and security; when the state inventively deploys the latest technologies (comprehensive databases, GPS tracking, facial recognition) in the service of prosecuting crime; and when out of all of this emerges an atmosphere of fear designed to intimidate and terrorize the population including those supporting these measures, fear not only of the state but of one’s neighbor, fear of the racial or sexual predator, down to the fear of being caught without a toilet in public: we have arrived at fascism in its contemporary guise.

Works cited

Barcan, Ruth. “Dirty Spaces Separation, Concealment, and Shame in the Public Toilet.” In Harvey Molotch and Laura Norén (Eds.), Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing (New York U Press, 2010).

“Berlin’s new toilets: Would you use a women’s urinal?” BBC News, August 11, 2017 (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40899902).

Case, Mary Anne. “Why Not Abolish Laws of Urinary Segregation?” In Harvey Molotch and Laura Norén (Eds.), Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing (New York U Press, 2010).

Gershenson, Olga. “The Restroom Revolution: Unisex Toilets and Campus Politics.” In Harvey Molotch and Laura Norén (Eds.), Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing (New York U Press, 2010).

Human Rights Watch. “No easy answers: Sex offender laws in the U.S.” September, 2007 (http://hrw.org/reports/2007/us0907/us0907web.pdf).

Kira, Alexander. The Bathroom (Rev. Ed., Viking, 1976).

Levitan, Corey, and Bettmann/Corbis, “You might be a sex offender and not even know it!” Men’s Health, May 19, 2015 (https://www.menshealth.com/trending-news/a19541024/you-might-be-sex-offender-and-not-know-it/).

Meursault, Arthur. Party Members (Camphor Press, 2016).

Molotch, Harvey. “On not making history: What NYU did with the toilet and what it means for the world.” In Harvey Molotch and Laura Norén (Eds.), Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing (New York U Press, 2010).

“The Peequal: Will the new women’s urinal spell the end of queues for the ladies’?” The Guardian, June 7, 2021 (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/jun/07/the-peequal-will-the-new-womens-urinal-spell-the-end-of-queues-for-the-ladies).

Sedaris, David. “David Sedaris: Chicken toenails, anyone?” The Guardian, July 15, 2011 (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/jul/15/david-sedaris-chinese-food-chicken-toenails).

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Yuko, Elizabeth. “The glamorous, sexist history of the women’s restroom lounge.” Bloomberg CityLab, December 3, 2018 (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2018-12-03/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-women-s-restroom-lounge).

* * *

This essay appears in Sexual Fascism: Essays, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

Related posts by Isham Cook:
The sewage system
American fascism: The sexual rage of the state
Sexual surveillance in the Covid-19 era
An American talisman
American massage

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