Bathroom History
July 7, 2009 8:35 PM   Subscribe

At what point in history did men and women get their 'bathroom rules'? Specifically, I'm wondering why men have public urinating and women have their own stalls always. What determined this?

For instance, in a men's bathroom there are urinals. This involves going pee in the presence of other men. Also, at many gyms and in movies where they show boys locker rooms, they is one big shower with lots of heads and guys shower 'together'.

Women on the other hand have separate toilets always (I'm aware urinals wouldn't work and that men also have separate toilets for pooing), and separated shower stalls (in my experience).

posted by AsRuinsAreToRome to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Because men have pee-pees and women have squat-squats?
posted by wfrgms at 8:42 PM on July 7, 2009 [6 favorites]

When the pants drop below the knees, both bathrooms have stalls. Also I would think part of the reason is because women have monthly menstrual cycles, causing a need for more privacy.
posted by JujuB at 8:43 PM on July 7, 2009

I'm guessing you haven't traveled much. In a lot of countries, the concept of a private bathroom experience for either sex is uncommon. I've had plenty of co-ed bathroom experiences and privacy was not the primary objective.

That being said, privacy walls between urinals are becoming increasingly common (thankfully). Also, wfrgms and JujuB provide the correct answers. Not only is it much easier and faster for men to use urinals, women also have a much greater need for privacy during certain times of the month.
posted by purephase at 8:48 PM on July 7, 2009

and separated shower stalls (in my experience).

At the gyms I've been to, this has not been my experience. Often there is a private option for women (more frequently referred to as a family changing room for parents who are the opposite gender from their children, but often women with sons) but I shower in a large stall with other people at my gym. Just FYI.
posted by jessamyn at 9:09 PM on July 7, 2009

Men have urinals because it's more efficient. A stall that would have been occupied by someone who needs to urinate is freed up for someone who needs to sit down. And you can fit more than one urinal into the space that a stall would have taken up (although urinals rarely operate at maximum capacity due to male bathroom etiquette, but that would be the subject of another AskMe entirely).

As purephase mentions, in many countries bathrooms for either gender do not have the same level of privacy as in Western countries. Oftentimes you just get a trench (with short dividers between them if you're lucky).
posted by pravit at 9:10 PM on July 7, 2009

Yeah, you need to travel more. There are a lot of different options for bathrooms besides the ones you grew up with. Go out, see the world, meet interesting people, and ask to see their bathrooms.
posted by zpousman at 9:12 PM on July 7, 2009

Women's locker rooms do not classically feature private showers, though it is becoming more common.

I think that women have a greater need for privacy not because of menstruation specifically, but we are supposed to be protecting our genitals in general. Modesty is a virtue and all.
posted by desuetude at 9:41 PM on July 7, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for your answers everyone. I can see that people didn't really understand the question. Maybe it was worded wrong. The things that were stated were the obvious, and I was looking for the background of it all.

Also, I don't think traveling is the issue, I've been all over the world and seen lots of toilets in them, thats not really what I was getting at.

I was looking more for the history of it all.. in the Western world.
posted by AsRuinsAreToRome at 10:07 PM on July 7, 2009

I think that women have a greater need for privacy not because of menstruation specifically, but we are supposed to be protecting our genitals in general. Modesty is a virtue and all.

This one.

Think of all the uncontrollable urges leading to rape, if women and men pissed together! And how unladylike to grab your labs and aim your urethra at a urinal--women'd do no worse than most men in their aim, mind. I'm sure we have the Victorians to thank for this mentality. The puritans in America didn't help much.

For most of European history, there was the midden or the outhouse or, luxury!, the privy. The concept of the single-sex public bathroom (or really bathrooms of any type) is only as old as running water. And now it's pretty much codified because the fittings are standard. Many of them are, in fact, Standard.

Of course, in much of the world, "the bathroom" is that field over there between those trees and the river--wash up on that rock down there afterward. You stroll over, avoiding treading upon turds, pop a squat a considerate distance from fellow excreters, and you piss and/or shit. Since our urges are human, innate, and normally uncontrollable, I assume that rape is prevented (or ameliorated) in these locales by the extraordinary concentration of human shit all over the ground. Very, very few people want to rape anybody if it means rolling and wrestling in the shitting field.
posted by Netzapper at 10:10 PM on July 7, 2009

How does this comment not already have a gajillion favorites? "Because men have pee-pees and women have squat-squats?" Seriously. wfrgms nailed it. That's the answer. A man wears underwear and pants that each have a fly. To urinate, we men don't have to remove any clothing. Women do.

Also, zpousman" brings up a good point: "you need to travel more. There are a lot of different options for bathrooms besides the ones you grew up with."

In the third world, you're more likely to see bathrooms that resemble outhouses. In both Bolivia and China, I encountered the classic "two bricks and a hole" bathroom. The rules for men and women are pretty much the same: Don't. Touch. Anything. [YUCK!]

If women had penises (well, if each women had one penis... multiple penises would be madness!!! ...but I digress....) If women had penises, there would be urinals in their public restrooms too.

A real question for the ages is: why is the word shirt singular but pants plural?
posted by 2oh1 at 10:24 PM on July 7, 2009

Best answer: I don't know the exact answer to your question, but you might want to check out Norbert Elias's The History of Manners (vol. I of The Civilizing Process), which describes and contextualizes the evolution of squeamishness between the early Middle Ages and the nineteenth century. (And includes tidbits like the medieval injunction that it was impolite to talk to someone in the street if they were defecating.) The various pseudo-anthropological just-so stories like Netzapper's don't really reflect the historical reality. The crucial element is not, as they seem to assume, technological. Rather, it's cultural: where we draw the line between public and private behavior. This is considerably more complex than simply shitting in the common field versus a private privy--I believe Elias talks about how a noblewoman would be perfectly comfortable with her male and female servants seeing her naked and exercising her bodily functions, due to the unbreachable social barriers between them.
posted by nasreddin at 10:28 PM on July 7, 2009 [4 favorites]

Y'all are missing the point -- when you sit on a toilet, you face in to the room. When you're standing at a urinal, you face away from the rest of the room. Urinals require you to face a wall, giving one a greater illusion of privacy, but toilets require you to face everyone else, so you're looking at someone while you're peeing, rather than a wall. If women could pee at a urinal and men could only pee sitting down, I'd wager that urinals would still be mostly open and stalls would be closed.
posted by incessant at 10:52 PM on July 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

historical data point: Walking through the streets of Pompeii, the guide described stone benches with rows of holes in them as being public toilets without walls. No mention of the facilities being gender-specific. These were located on the corners of major intersections, no less. Between those and the giant penis murals glorifying Priapus, my 14 year old mind was completely overloaded. So, if you are looking in the annals of Western history, not before Mt. Vesuvius erupted.

The book nasreddin mentions seems interesting and very relevant to your question.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 2:37 AM on July 8, 2009

Are you maybe looking at this the wrong way around? Toilets have an enclosed stall and women don't piss on walls, so...

And FYI, there are plenty of open style womens showers. And from what I've seen, shower stalls in the mens aren't exactly rare and usually reflected whatever was in the womens?
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 2:59 AM on July 8, 2009

Toilets have an enclosed stall

Not always -- watch any movie about life in boot camp, and check out the barracks bathroom with rows of open toilets for maximum lack of privacy.

Specifically, I'm wondering why men have public urinating and women have their own stalls always. What determined this?

I vote for a mix of social rules and anatomy/clothing interactions. As in, in many (but not all; cf the stories of people being criminally charged for public urination) places, men can urinate publicly (as in on the street, in the bushes, etc) because a man exposing himself for urination is not seen as a big deal, while a woman's exposing herself is taboo. Contemporary western men's clothing makes it easy for men to urinate quickly and with minimal exposure; most women's clothes does the opposite, making it impossible to urinate without exposure and contortion.

An image search for "ancient toilets" suggests that a lack of privacy during defecation was a pretty normal state of affairs. Banks of open toilets (flush or latrine-style) are easy to clean, easy to police (no sex in the stalls), and easy to use. Stalls take more effort to build, you can't fit as many into the same space, and provide isolation that not everyone wants during their bathroom experience.

Finally, remember that public bathroom design in the US is tightly regulated -- number, size, type and arrangements of toilets, partition size, etc, are all covered by local and state regulations, as well as encompassing ones like the ADA. Those regulations, sometimes motivated by health and convenience, and sometimes not, come to structure what we think of as "normal" as much as anything else, which is part of why people are suggesting you consider toilet design in other countries to expand your concept of "normal" and instead realize that there are a lot of ways to serve the same function. Particularly in public settings (like a sports arena) you can have a lot more urinations/hour with a trough or tightly-spaced bank of urinals than you can with individual stalls (leading to issues over bathroom parity).
posted by Forktine at 6:03 AM on July 8, 2009

when you sit on a toilet, you face in to the room

Not necessarily true, with a squat toilet. Often the user grabs the pipe for extra support, meaning you're facing the wall -- the default position for Japanese toilets of this nature.
posted by Rash at 6:23 AM on July 8, 2009

For the historical and comparative perspective, here is a really great website with photos and descriptions of toilets (modern and ancient) around the world. The internet brings out the monomaniac in all of us, and this guy's thing is toilets.
posted by Forktine at 6:37 AM on July 8, 2009

The thing about the clothing thing (which is real for women today) is that women's underpants in the Western World are only about 140 years old. Which made it all much handier for women to pee in the woods back in the day.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:44 AM on July 8, 2009

Often the user grabs the pipe for extra support, meaning you're facing the wall -- the default position for Japanese toilets of this nature

Rash, you just blew my mind. You've now answered the nagging question of how little old ladies who can barely walk are able to use sqatters. The whole time I was in China I was doing it wrong! It never occurred to my feeble brain to just turn around.

posted by twoporedomain at 10:02 AM on July 8, 2009

Best answer: I believe I have part of the answer: It seems you'll want to get yourself a copy of Inclusive Urban Design by Clara Greed. I was able to view only part of her extensive discussion of this topic, but basically she confirms what I've seen cited elsewhere: The first public toilets were installed at The Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 by George Jennings, which set off a storm of public facilities building in conjunction with the contemporary development of sewers, indoor plumbing and water sanitation facilities in general. So basically we have the Victorians to blame for the current state of modesty emphasis.

Some of the first public toilets were squatters, but there were penny costing sitters with attendants aimed at the upper classes (with mahogany seats, no less). So that goes a way toward explaining the development of the modesty-preserving stall set up. Greed further points out that many Gents of the time, in addition to bushes as immemorial, would have been able to use pubs and clubs for this purpose (where ladies weren't allowed, natch). It does not seem an unreasonable inference that the contemporary layout of such facilities influenced the development of public men's rooms. Or in other words, dude were used to using the what was basically a trench with a drain at one end, because that's what they used at the bar. While there hadn't been any such thing as a public toilet for chicks until the mid-Victorian era, so unsurprisingly the ones they came up with allowed for privacy, visible ankles being racy at the time.

A briefer summary of this topic is available here, by, of all people, the Stoke on Trent city council. Or you might see if you can get your hands on the presentations from this recent conference on the topic.
posted by Diablevert at 2:52 PM on July 8, 2009

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