Tag Archive | "genitals"

A toilet experiment

A toilet experiment

Tags: , , , , , ,

Why staying in the public toilet for hours and observing urinal usage qualifies as an intellectual exercise.

By Terence Lee

Photo: MICHAEL COGHLAN / Creative Commons

GUYS, ever encountered someone who stared at your dick while you peed at the urinal?

I’m not talking about those discreet sideway glances, which we’re all guilty of (admit it). I’m referring to blatant stares that make the uncomfortable act of exposing your genitals to the world even more unbearable.

Chances are, that douchebag is probably a sex pervert (see story about one such encounter). Or someone with severe ego issues.

We find such acts disturbing or even immoral because toilets, like it or not, are governed by unwritten social norms. Toilets are social places, just like the rest of society; they are used and designed by people, and therefore reflect mainstream norms and beliefs.

An example of such a norm is what I would call the “one-urinal-spacing” rule. Here’s an illustration:

Dr John Paul, an American Sociology professor, asked students to pick which urinal they would pee in when they encounter a scenario similar to the above. He found out that most guys chose the leftmost one.

Why? Here’s how one student put it: “You have to give yourself space between you and some other dude; otherwise people will think there is something wrong with you.”

But I wonder: Does this apply to Asian — and Singaporean — males too?

Anecdotally, the answer appears to be ‘yes’. But my curiousity got the better of me, so I decided that I had to find out.

Here’s what I did: I conducted a non-scientific experiment where I stayed for extended periods of time in a public toilet one afternoon. A sample size of 50 was collected — not urine samples, mind you.

Rather, I sought 50 observations: In a scenario where Guy A could choose an urinal right next to Guy B or one further away from him, what would Guy A choose?

Simple enough? Not quite.

Major disclaimer: I did not violate anyone’s modesty. I did not take any pictures, nor did I attempt to establish contact with my subjects. Believe me, the whole experience left me quite uncomfortable and possibly traumatised (the sacrifices I make for journalism!).

Picking the right toilet was tricky. Since I had to stay in the toilet as discreetly as possible for minutes at a time to not arouse suspicion, it had to be properly air-conditioned otherwise I’d die of heat exhaustion. Also, the bigger the toilet, the better, since that affords me more discretion without alerting the cleaners.

Getting the right crowd was important too. Too many people, and you’re left with no empty cubicles. Too few, and you’ll end up suffocating under the putrid smell of human waste due to the extended staycation.

I sought a few rather pleasant toilets in a swanky shopping mall. But trust me, even if the decor is spiffy and the cubicle walls sound-proof, bad odour still travels farther than the spitter-spatter of shit leaving the bowels.

That made my two-hour rotation in the three toilets very unpleasant. First and last time, I swear.

But the results confirmed what the American sociologist reported. Out of 50 observations, only three chose to pee right next to a guy when given a choice. One was a young boy in an orange tee-shirt, who can be forgiven because he was probably ignorant of social rules. Another looked like he was in a hurry; an acceptable excuse.

Which leaves only one guilty offender.

So it does appear that Singaporean guys do respect private space in the public toilet, salvaging what little modesty we have left. As far as I know, none of the guys I observed consciously or blatantly violated another man’s privacy.

But what explains these unwritten social rules?

Dr Paul, in his paper, says that a lot of it has to do with society’s notion of masculinity. Boys are taught from young to avoid any behaviour that questions their heterosexuality, such as playing with a Barbie doll, or putting on makeup. Staring at someone’s peckers, therefore, could be perceived as a sign that one bats for the other team.

Toilets in Ancient Rome had no cubicles. Photo: THE MECHANICAL TURK / Creative Commons

Oxford University archaeologist Zena Karmash, in the book Toilet: Public restrooms and the politics of sharing, raises another possibility: Staring at an act of excreting was considered shameful even in Ancient Rome. Hence such a cultural convention seems pretty universal, and applies even today.

While archaeological evidence indicates that public toilets have no walls to separate toilet seats, much of the facility is shrouded in darkness, giving users privacy. Also, Romans are taught to discipline their eyes and avoid compromising glances, especially in public bathhouses where everyone is naked.

Zena notes that these concepts of shame and disgust could have an evolutionary origin, since avoiding human waste is a sure way of maintaining hygiene and increasing survival chances in a disease-ridden world.

Whatever the case, the next time you visit a public toilet, remember that if you want to live long enough to have progeny, please respect another’s privacy — and private parts — at the urinal.

Getting a black eye from hypermasculine gorillas who are insecure about their sexual orientation is just not worth it.

Read also: Talking about toilets

Read more toilet articles here.