The Chronicle of Higher Ed catches up with Harvey Molotch and Laura Norén, editors of Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing (NYU Series in Social & Cultural Analysis). Check out the tumblr for their book here.
Q: What do public toilets tell us about ourselves?
A; The public restroom, where private acts have to be taken care of in semi-public space, is the border zone where universes collide and reveal themselves. On display are anxieties about oneself and the ‘other’.
Fundamental is the need to keep the sexes apart and reinforce the idea that people come in one category or the other. Those who are disabled, gender queer, from a different social class or from suspect parts of the world can be anxiety provoking whereever encountered, but the public restroom heightens all such tensions. They are laid bare as users carefully manage interactions with one another and the artifacts with which they make contact.
We can see how we do and do not accommodate to appliances and physical configurations, including the way germaphobes discriminate among those elements (social and physical) with which they can or cannot make contact. Some individuals are forced to confront the choice between carrying ‘dirt’ around inside them until they’ve reached a safer bathroom rather than opening up in public.
All of the boundaries—between gender-straights and gender-queers, between straights and gays, between abled and disabled, between rich and poor, between dirty and clean—mash up in the restroom. What is often posited as a scientistic or public-health problem between dirty and clean turns out to be a problem of navigating the boundary between self and other.