Laws of the Loo

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Laws of the Loo

I think it was Aristotle who first said, “Girls don’t poop.”

This is the same man who believed menstruation to be an impure form of semen, so forgive me if I disagree.  Despite the widely held belief to the contrary, I have it on good authority that women are capable of both number one and number two.  A brief sojourn into any public women’s restroom will quickly disavow you of that notion.

A series of unfortunate occurrences (namely college) have limited my access to the luxury of a private home bathroom to a few week-long stints over Christmas breaks.  I have grown accustomed to sitting on toilets that have seen buttocks with no genetic similarity to my own.

My tentative comfort with using communal facilities is perhaps a bigger feat than for most.  A single, traumatic event in kindergarten resulted in an unusually strong aversion to using public restrooms: I was trapped inside a stall for several hours before anyone became aware of my absence.  To this day, I feel slightly claustrophobic when using an unfamiliar bathroom with an unfamiliar lock.

There is a certain freedom in using a private bathroom that is denied to the female bathroom user in the confines of a public restroom.  Women must adhere to unwritten codes of toilet ethics, or risk social ridicule.  I say “codes,” and not “code” because there are, in effect, four separate sets of loo laws, based on the type of public bathroom in question.

First, we have your average women’s restroom, found in a mall, restaurant or bar, or the occasional rest area.  Unless you attend the bathroom with a friend – which admittedly changes the rules of the game – the other women in the restroom are total strangers.  This is the optimal public bathroom scenario: if you accidentally emit a foul gas or dissonant sound, you never have to see any of these women again.  Perhaps this relative freedom explains why these public restrooms tend to be less hygienic and more malodorous: we are less inclined to panic if the toilet fails to flush or if we have an off-day with our aim.  Most of these restroom rules are selfish in spirit: they are more concerned with our own pleasant bathroom experience rather than the comfort of others.  Consider the number one rule: never engage in skin-to-skin contact with the toilet seat – and use any means necessary to avoid doing so.  O’Hare Airport in Chicago provides a convenient device where you simply swipe your hand over a red light, and a fresh, pre-made paper cover appears, allowing you to fully sit on the seat.  However, most restrooms do not offer this amenity, so women resort either to constructing a homemade cover out of wads of toilet paper or to squatting several inches above the seat.  The latter mechanism explains why poor aiming is a greater issue in this type of restroom.

Next, we have the coed public bathroom, found at most rest stops and gas stations, lower end restaurants and bars, or Northwestern’s own University Hall.  Once again, you wipe your buttocks next to virtual strangers.  But the stakes are heightened, because the person in the stall beside you, or waiting for your stall, may potentially be a guy – or worse, a hot guy.  Although Aristotle may have been sexist, we want men to believe that girls are incapable of defecating.  If you are uncertain of the sex of your fellow bathroom users, anything other than urinating – including changing a tampon – is off limits.  Any noise, other than the familiar tinkle, is completely unacceptable.  If, G-d forbid, you let some unapproved sound escape, you will wait until you are certain all others have left the restroom before exiting the stall.  And where washing your hands is desirable, but not obligatory in a single sex public restroom, it is absolutely mandatory in a coed bathroom with multiple stalls.

Then, we have the communal women’s restroom, found in the college dorm, sorority house, or office.  While you may not know every woman who frequents these toilets intimately, you can, at the very least, put a face to a name.  The famous “urinal rule” applies here as well: you avoid entering the stall directly adjacent to the occupied toilet unless no others are open.  It is considered bad form to select the middle stall when there are only three available toilets.  At the workplace, you ideally save passing bowel movements for when you return to the privacy of your home bathrooms, or, if necessary, utilize a local restaurant’s facilities during your lunch break.  In a dorm or sorority house, you must simply hope to be the only person in the bathroom.  Some women go so far as to tiptoe to the bathroom in the wee hours of the morning to ensure a private restroom experience.  If someone else shares the bathroom with you, you wait for her to finish and exit, or at least begin washing her hands, before proceeding.  If you cannot wait any longer while another shares the bathroom, you can – in a state of total mortification – go as quietly as possible.  After flushing, you refrain from exiting the stall until after the other woman has exited, in hopes that at best, she didn’t know it was you in the stall beside her, or at worst, avoid an awkward confrontation at the sinks.  Regardless of whether or not you are alone in the restroom, you wash your hands, for fear of anyone suspecting that you are unsanitary. 

The fourth and final scenario is one that I have fortunately never experienced: the communal coed restroom, found in some antiquated college dorms.  I imagine that the transition process until a woman becomes comfortable using the toilet for anything beyond urinating is much longer.  Undoubtedly, a significantly higher percentage of women will attempt to go to the bathroom at ungodly hours to stave off revealing our filthy habits.  Eventually, however, the male bathroom users will learn that the pretense of the “fairer sex” is a lie.

Women have made substantial progress in achieving gender equality in the home and in the workplace.  Perhaps the public restroom is the final frontier.  Everyone, male and female, poops – it’s the natural conclusion of eating. One day, we will embrace this commonality.

And in case you were still wondering, women also fart.  We just do it silently.

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