We Just Can’t Stop Reading About Bathrooms

Salon’s interview with Harvey Molotch is totally fascinating.

Why is the study of public toilets so important?

It involves an arena of life that affects a large number of people but is ordinarily not very easy to talk about. You risk ridicule and the possibility that writing about “poo poo” will cause people to think that you are engaging in something distasteful. People think that it defames the academic enterprise. At a very concrete level, when we’re writing, we don’t know exactly what kind of terminology to use, since all of it is in a taboo arena. And there’s a kind of continuum of taboo, with “shit” at one end and “feces” on the other. If you use terms like “feces,” you’re using a technical term, turning off readers and avoiding the words that people use in everyday life. And if you use words like “poo,” you look ridiculously cute. The New York Times doesn’t use the word “shit.” So settling on a certain vocabulary is a big decision.

The main thrust of the book is that public toilets can really tell us a great deal about the communities around them and the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of how those communities are run. How do we see this?

It’s important is because it determines who can go out in the city and who cannot, who can use public space and who cannot. Old people have a whole lot of trouble because they’ve got to go more often — they also have a lower tolerance for difficult situations, including cleanliness — along with pregnant women and people with babies. There’s a catalog of who needs public restrooms in a way that other people don’t. So it falls differently on different populations.

It’s also a laboratory for what we are willing to do to prevent some people from doing things we don’t like, and how much punishment will we give to everybody in order to ensure that. In public restrooms, we worry that people will have sex in them, and that people will do drugs in them, or vandalize them. The result of this is that we withdraw from providing the public facility altogether, and close down facilities, or don’t build them as we build new communities and new buildings. This is the dilemma in almost every sphere of public life, really.

Which places are actually good at managing their public toilets?

The best restrooms, the best toilets, are in Japan, flat out. It’s true in many respects. They take toilets more seriously than anywhere else in the world. In the U.S., I don’t think any city has done a good job. New York is not very good at it. They’ve closed a great majority of the public restrooms. We’ve really struggled with this, especially the more liberal cities like San Francisco, Santa Monica and Seattle. And one of the potential solutions is automated toilet facilities, the freestanding ones where you put money in.