Have humans always sought privacy to defecate?
February 21, 2013 11:00 AM   Subscribe

My friend and I had a heated argument last night about human and animal attitudes to privacy when defecating. He argued that all humans and all animals seek privacy while defecating. I know that certain animals, like cats, do seek privacy while defecating, but I feel like lots more animals, especially pack animals and herd animals don't worry about finding a quiet spot. For example, cows. I suggested that perhaps the human need for privacy may be a cultural phenomenon - is there any evidence that humans have ever been much less worried about privacy in this area? Also would like examples of animals that might defecate in groups.

All animals are in a vulnerable position when defecating, so I understand why some need to find somewhere hidden, but surely in other instances it would be wise to have the other members of the pack watching your back?
posted by drunkonthemoon to Science & Nature (44 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
There was a season of Survivor (one of the early ones, the one set in Thailand) where one of the contestants kept talking about inventing the AquaDump, wherein he'd go into the ocean to poop. There was a scene where he introduced another teammate to the AquaDump, and the camera panned to them hanging out in the water, presumably AquaDumping together.

There's also a history of things like community toilets, which might be worth looking into.
posted by phunniemee at 11:10 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

In ancient Rome thay had public latrines:
(from Wikipedia)
Public latrines date back to the 2nd century BC. Whether intentionally or not, they became places to socialise. Long bench-like seats with keyhole-shaped openings cut in rows offered little privacy. Some latrines were free, for others small charges were made
posted by Floydd at 11:12 AM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

All animals are in a vulnerable position when defecating

I don't know what your definition of "vulnerable" is, but I know from personal experience that horses will happily poop while walking. They're not the only prey animal that does so, and it may be a common trait in mammals that are lower on the food chain.
posted by rtha at 11:13 AM on February 21, 2013 [7 favorites]

I know from personal experience that goats poop all the time -- while walking, eating, sleeping, etc. It's almost like they aren't even aware they are doing it.
posted by OrangeDisk at 11:14 AM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

heck, horses poop whether standing, walking, trotting, etc. they don't have a care in the world when it comes to that.

my dog doesn't seem to poop privately.
posted by Sassyfras at 11:17 AM on February 21, 2013

As a parent with more than one kid of different temperaments, I can say it varies. I have a child who could not poo if someone was in the room or he was being watched, so a soon as he could move for privacy, he did. It became kind of a problem as a toddler as he would disappear and hide until he could happily walk out of his private place stinky, but happy.

Many other kids will at least need to avert their eyes and at least pretend they have some semblance of privacy. Others will let go while grinning at you. It is a mystery.
posted by readery at 11:20 AM on February 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

Flocks of Canada geese seem to all poop together, given the evidence in my neighborhood park.
posted by scratch at 11:21 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

When I lived in China, I had the experience of using many, many public restrooms which were basically just a big concrete trench in a room. Occasionally there would be small dividers but not always. So practically speaking, pooping would sometimes be quite the communal activity. I've both seen people chatting animatedly and participated in conversations while, uh, going.
posted by Aubergine at 11:23 AM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's a learnt behaviour in humans. Kids don't seek privacy from the outset. Roman toilets in baths were side by side with no privacy. There would have been no privacy in peasant dwellings for pooping and in less developed parts of the world the same applies. Apparently stagecoaches in ye olde England carried chamber pots and if kings or queens needed to go, they went in the pot, in the coach, but not necessarily in privacy.

Your question arguably mixes up privacy and security, ie. the security of a quiet spot. Hunter gatherer humans would have got the business of curling one out pretty quickly. They would have chosen certain spots less for privacy or security than for sanitary reasons or to not alert prey.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:23 AM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Communal toilets -- as in, a bench with a row of toilet-sized holes carved out of them, with no dividers -- are still visible in many Roman and Greek ruins, for example. Here's one.

Also, spending any amount of time with the average toddler will immediately convince you that our attitudes towards privacy during defecation are entirely culturally imposed.
posted by ook at 11:24 AM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is just brilliant. From what this guy says, folks in India, at least, seemed to poop wherever they wanted to for an awfully long time.
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:25 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh and I should add, while in very rural China, I once used a toilet that doubled as a pig pen (I swear to god it was the actual toilet) and while in a rather vulnerable pose, a large sow walked over to me and stood 2 ft away grunting. I would've welcomed human company at that moment if only because I was mortally afraid I was going to meet my death by either being trod upon and suffocating in feces or because the sow would eat me.
posted by Aubergine at 11:26 AM on February 21, 2013 [11 favorites]

Seconding Aubergine. When I visited Beijing in 2003, my friends living there showed me where the restrooms were in the hutong. They were big trenches in a room, no privacy (shared and there was no closing door; if you knew they were there, you could easily peek in without much effort). They giggled at me when I politely demurred from using them.
posted by fraula at 11:27 AM on February 21, 2013

I read somewhere that George Washington had a toilet built that could hold multiple people at once so they could continue talking while pooping. Might have been another founding father as I am hazy on your US presidents, but I distinctly remember a photo of a wooden board with numerous holes cut out for people to use in the outhouse.

I was also surprise how freely Europeans seem to pee everywhere, especially at night, you'd be walking back to your busstop and see well dressed business men just peeing in the gutter or on a building. No one else seemed to even notice except us overseas visitors. Though culturally they are a lot freeer with nudity etc there too, so that might tie in. As an Aussie I was surprised how comparatively puritanical I was about all that, for about a week then you just got used to it.
posted by wwax at 11:37 AM on February 21, 2013

I feel like lots more animals, especially pack animals and herd animals don't worry about finding a quiet spot.

Coyotes and foxes tend to poop as a marker and so if you see pop somewhere really visible like on top of a log or at a crossroads in the woods, that's a good indicator that it's fox poop. Porcupines have group latrine places where they poop outside their dens which is one of the ways that you can tell a hole or a burrow looking place is inhabited by porcupines.
posted by jessamyn at 11:40 AM on February 21, 2013

Um cows. You even mentioned them. They just lift their tail and go for it, totally unconcerned. I know this because I have been a professional cattle faeces collector in a former life (they are more likely to defecate early in the morning so we were out collecting steaming cow shit at dawn). Sheep are the same, and I have also been paid to collect their faeces and it was a different job but not at dawn and less steamy. Just go look at any paddock of farm animals and you'll easily see that your friend is totally wrong with his "all animals" thing.

Mice are functionally incontinent. They just defecate and urinate without even really noticing just pretty much everywhere they go (I've looked this up, it's science not just observation). It does increase when they're scared and scent marking is a huge thing for a mouse, but it's definitely not something they hide or really even care about. I don't know about other rodents because I've only kept pet mice, but I wouldn't be surprised if at least some other rodents were similar. This kind of thing really isn't that weird.
posted by shelleycat at 11:40 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

one of the Great Brain books mentioned a four holer outhouse owned by the richest man in town.
posted by brujita at 11:44 AM on February 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

Oh I should mention that when I was collecting cow shit for money we had to mark down which cow each sample came from. So I spent several hours in the paddock each day watching the beasts really carefully anticipating that raised tail, so I got to know the behaviours quite well. Domestic cattle do have a somewhat complex herd behaviours, with a dominant cow in charge of everyone and good situational awareness of what's around them and stuff. But they didn't appear to take notice or act differently when another cow in the herd was defecating (that I saw anyway), each one just went for it as and when it felt like it.
posted by shelleycat at 11:45 AM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

He argued that all humans and all animals seek privacy while defecating.

The good thing about a statement like this is that you only need one counterexample to prove him wrong, and there are loads of them in this thread.

The human need for privacy is a learned behavior. Some of us learn it earlier than others, but I've never once seen an infant that won't happily crap itself regardless of whether it's alone or at a state dinner. Meanwhile I've been places where there is a communal restroom and the toilet is not enclosed in any way, you can chat up the dudes at the urinals if that is where your heart lies.

Also would like examples of animals that might defecate in groups.

Your dog will take a dump with a member of the pack (i.e., you) nearby. Herd animals in general will just let fly.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:47 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

rabbits poop everywhere, all the time, regardless of company, without stopping to think about it. At least pet rabbits do. They don't seem particularly vulnerable - they don't seem to notice at all, actually.
posted by randomnity at 11:47 AM on February 21, 2013

As has been mentioned, privacy when pooping is a relatively recent human cultural invention. In the middle ages, only the very wealthy could afford chamber pots in private quarters. For most folks, the pot would just be in the one room they shared with their entire family, and you just got on with your business.

In Roman times, toilets were on long benches. There was no privacy. In fact, pooping was more or less a social affair. People of both sexes would shit next to each other and chat it up with all the latest gossip, etc.

The puritan movement had a lot to do with the development of the privacy requirement when pooping. At some point in the 18th century or so it went from a normal thing to a shameful act and we got water closets and out houses and the like.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:56 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's a photo of one of the communal bathrooms in Ostia Antica, near Rome (disclosure: my photo). The settlement dates mostly to the 2-3rd centuries CE. I'm sure the ancient authors had things to say about communal bathrooms, but I can't think of anything off the top of my head.
posted by urbanlenny at 11:56 AM on February 21, 2013

I think private pooping is a 19th century thing. Before that, noone cared. And well into my childhood in the sixties and seventies, there were common/public loos.
posted by mumimor at 12:03 PM on February 21, 2013

About a billion people -- 15% of the world's population -- practise open defecation. For many, cost and practicality are far more important than privacy.
posted by dontjumplarry at 12:03 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Westin talks about this a bit in his book Privacy and Freedom (1967). Here are a few quotes. He's engaging in quite a fair amount of "othering" in these statements, but they may still be of interest to you.

"In the Samoan house there are no walls... the beaches are used openly as latrines. No privacy is claimed or provided for the processes of birth and death; even the children stand about watching these moments of intimacy" (12).

"Though Murdock lists 'modesty about natural functions' as a trait found in all societies, the openness with which people in most non-literate societies engage in evacuation makes this a 'public' affair in contrast to modern norms in a society like the United States" (14).

He actually spends more time talking about sex; he claims there are very few exceptions to "the norm that men and women will seek seclusion for performance of the sexual act" (14), for whatever that's worth.
posted by k8lin at 12:04 PM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

In western Europe, conduct manuals began to recommend defecating and urinating in private beginning in the 16th century. See the examples in Norbert Elias, The History of Manners, pp. 129-143. Specifically, upper-class writers warned their readers against behavior that was increasingly associated with rustics and laborers. A 1570 court regulation stipulated: "One should not, like rustics who have not been to court or lived among refined and honorable people, relieve oneself without shame or reserve in front of ladies, or before the doors or windows of court chambers or other rooms...." The fact that such rules needed to be stated in prescriptive literature suggests that they were not always obeyed, but that people were becoming concerned about enforcing them.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:11 PM on February 21, 2013 [8 favorites]

My cats definitely like their privacy when peeing and pooping, and I have their litterboxes in a closet for that purpose. But when they're done, they tear around the apartment like the most exciting thing happened, which um. I kind of know what just happened guys, secret's out.
posted by sweetkid at 12:12 PM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Some excerpts from At Home by Bill Bryson (which I heartily recommend):
Garderobe, a word now extinct, went through a similar but slightly more compacted transformation. A combination of guard and robe, it first signified a storeroom, then any private room, then (briefly) a bedchamber, and finally a privy. However, the last thing privies often were was private. The Romans were particularly attached to the combining of evacuation and conversation. Their public latrines generally had twenty seats or more in intimate proximity, and people used them as unselfconsciously as modern people ride a bus. (To answer an inevitable question, a channel of water ran across the floor in front of each row of seats; users dipped sponges attached to sticks into the water for purposes of wiping.) Being comfortable with strangers lasted far into modern times. Hampton Court contained a “Great House of Ease” that could accommodate fourteen users at once. Charles II always took two attendants with him when he went into the lavatory. Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, has a lovingly preserved privy with two seats side by side.
The most notable feature about anecdotes involving toilet practices is that they always—really, always—involve people from one country being appalled by the habits of those from another. There were as many complaints about the lavatorial customs of the French as the French made of others. One that had been around for centuries was that in France there was “much pissing in chimnies.” The French were also commonly accused of relieving themselves on staircases, “a practice which was still to be found at Versailles in the eighteenth century,” writes Mark Girouard in Life in the French Country House. It was the boast of Versailles that it had one hundred bathrooms and three hundred commodes, but they were oddly underused, and in 1715 an edict reassured residents and visitors that henceforth the corridors would be cleared of feces weekly.
posted by theraflu at 12:22 PM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think babies poo anywhere because they can't go anywhere to poo. I certainly know a lot of tiny crawlers that disappear, as soon as they are physically able, to poo. This could not possible be learned that young. It's not all little people, but lots of them. Enough that it's "a thing".
posted by taff at 12:27 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bees poop outdoors (or at least, outside the hive), and never inside the hive. A sunny winter day (with no cold wind) will bring them out of the hive in droves, mostly so they can poop! We've actually seen it on the side of the hive boxes on such a day.
posted by dbmcd at 1:11 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think it is a learned trait and my brother did not learn. Maybe he is Roman. I was once at a Ranger game at Madison Square Garden when in between the 2nd and 3rd periods, with NO door on the stall and about 50 very drunk fans from the up top blue seats in the bathroom squated out a deuce while waving to anyone looking at him.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:23 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your question arguably mixes up privacy and security, ie. the security of a quiet spot. Hunter gatherer humans would have got the business of curling one out pretty quickly.

Hunter gatherer humans are still around. It's a way of life for many societies. My colleagues who do fieldwork in Papua New Guinea report there is a variety of different perspectives and taboos on pooping among the tribes there. One guy said the first fieldwork site he chose, in the highlands, pooping was the big event of the day, and people would all gather around to watch each other poop. Especially to watch the white guy poop. (Not much else going on). He ended up moving to a different field site, mainly because he couldn't handle the lack of toilet privacy. He didn't mention whether they would do this while hunting, which is, I suppose, what you are getting at. I'm guessing hunters learn to hold it, and also, there are more interesting things going on during a hunt than watching someone going.
posted by lollusc at 1:25 PM on February 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

You may wish to consult Taro Gomi's treatise on the subject, "Everyone Poops", which details the great variety of defecation behaviors in the animal kingdom.
posted by a snickering nuthatch at 2:21 PM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Fish do not seek privacy to poo.
posted by heyho at 2:36 PM on February 21, 2013

those romans obviously lacked fiber in their diets- who has enough time to have a conversation when they poop?

maybe that's why so many of the herbivores are just pooping on the go, it's just easier for them? On the same note, I suppose carnivores would generally poop less often.
posted by abirdinthehand at 2:59 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Im not sure if it answers your question directly, but there is an excellent talk on youtube from professor of neurological & biological sciences Robert Sapolsky linked here(fast forward to 4.55).

He talks about the differences he has observed from humans to the other groups of animals. Its worth checking out.
posted by Under the Sea at 3:15 PM on February 21, 2013

Babies/toddlers hiding to poop is definitely a thing. They do that as soon as they can crawl so I don't think it's learned/cultural. You can even notice that newborns get squirmy in your arms when they need to 'go', almost like they don't want to soil their nest. But this is just for poo. Peeing, in babies, can be done while in plain sight, right there on the rug/sofa/pile of books/lap of parental unit (why yes, we're potty training...). The same might be true for adults. I don't mind peeing in public but pooing...I think I'd be physically incapable of doing that.
posted by The Toad at 6:56 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Malgache people go in groups to defecate at a beach at sunrise; my partner has seen this. Here and here are discussions of how some taboos (fady) provoke it.
posted by jet_silver at 7:58 PM on February 21, 2013

Many of the first toilets in the 19th century were for multiple people, according to Bill Bryson in his book "Home". The book also discusses earlier conventions which pretty much were to go where ever when ever.
posted by xammerboy at 11:15 PM on February 21, 2013

I read somewhere that George Washington had a toilet built that could hold multiple people at once so they could continue talking while pooping. Might have been another founding father as I am hazy on your US presidents, but I distinctly remember a photo of a wooden board with numerous holes cut out for people to use in the outhouse.

First of all, this was utterly ordinary. The 1857 Tallman House in Janesville, Wisconsin was a very fancy mansion built by a lawyer cum land speculator, and it included a multiple-hole toilet as seen here. What made it upscale was that it was inside compared to almost every other home in town.

Second of all, I'm pretty sure that it wasn't done "so they could continue talking while pooping", although people probably did. The number of holes probably corresponded more to traffic needs, as this was a house for a large family and many visitors. (There is a similar multi-holer for servants downstairs of this one.) It wasn't some quirk or preference. It was all mod cons, basically. It's only something you hear from tour guides because it's so different from today, not because the father of our country was some outlier with strange notions of personal boundaries.
posted by dhartung at 2:20 AM on February 22, 2013

brujita, you're right about the Great Brain book--almost. (I was actually thinking of this as an example yesterday but didn't post.) The rich fellow had a SIX-hole outhouse, or "backhouse." The Great Brain's family had "a standard four-holer."
posted by dlugoczaj at 6:38 AM on February 22, 2013

So, basically, your friend is 100% incorrect. Privacy taboos about defecation are fairly exclusive to humans, and not even all humans have any inihibitions whatsoever about public pooing.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:03 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I visited the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City they had a diorama of stone-aged people doing stuff stone-aged people apparently did.

One of them was bending over to take a dump.

Another one of them was eagerly crouched behind him to catch it.

I don't want to know whether scientists actually know that cavemen dumped in each others' hands, or if the diorama maker just had a thing for it.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:03 AM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Guarantee that it was the latter. Making shit up about ancient peoples was par for the course throughout my childhood. Anyone else remember Nat Geo selling issues with gory depictions of "druidic blood sacrifices at Stonehenge", that we now know are complete bunkum?
posted by IAmBroom at 9:22 AM on February 25, 2013

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