Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Dirty Spaces: Communication and Contamination in Men's Public Toilets (1)

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Dirty Spaces: Communication and Contamination in Men's Public Toilets (1)

Article excerpt


This paper examines the spatiality of men's public toilets in Australia. It considers public toilets as cultural sites whose work involves not only the literal elimination of waste but also a form of cultural purification. Men's public toilets are read as sites where heteronormative masculinity is defined, tested and policed. The essay draws on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's concept of homosociality and on Mary Douglas's conception of dirt as a destabilizing category. It treats the "dirtiness" of public toilets as a submerged metaphor within struggles over masculinity. The essay considers a range of data sources, including interviews, pop culture, the Internet and a novella.

Keywords: public toilets, masculinity, space, homosociality


"Where there is dirt there is system. "

--Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger 35

This essay examines a form of public space that is at once mundane and complex: men's public toilets. Public toilets have a particularly fraught and complex spatiality--in part, because they are remarkably gendered spaces. While they are ostensibly places where functionality reigns--places where you simply "relieve yourself"--in practice they are semiotically intricate spaces, filled with anxiety and unspoken rules. These rules are worth examining, for as Susan Bordo argues, there are many intellectual, ethical and political gains made when we take the complexities of masculinity seriously, including its vulnerabilities: "Far fresher insights can be gained by reading the male body through the window of its vulnerabilities rather than the dense armor of its power--from the 'point of view' of the mutable, plural penis rather than the majestic, unitary phallus" (697). This paper is a study of some of the spatial rules governing men's public toilets and their potential effects on men.

To consider the spatiality of men's public toilets in Australia, I draw on two key concepts--Mary Douglas's anthropological conception of "dirt" and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's concept of homosociality--and on a small set of interviews with men. It considers men's toilets (3) as a space where masculinity is defined, policed and struggled over. Male public toilets are, I argue, "dirty" spaces designed to regulate not only the bodily functions of elimination, but also the modes of interchange and communication between men that take place there. They aim to keep at bay not only literal contamination but the cultural contagion for which literal dirt so often serves as a metaphor. Traditionally, contagion is a key mechanism by which moral values and social rules are held in place (Douglas 3), and men's toilets help create and uphold ideas and values about masculinity.

The design of the men's room, says Lee Edelman, "has palpable designs on men; it aspires, that is, to design them" (152). As a gendered "social technology" (152), men's toilets make it clear that masculinity is something to be struggled over, and that men have unequal access to its more socially favored forms. As perhaps the "most culturally visible form" of sexual spatial segregation (Sanders 17), public toilets are a prime, yet often ignored, site for a gendered cultural analysis.

In 1998 in Sydney, Australia, I carried out a series of interviews about urinal use with a small number of randomly chosen men. The interviews were few (eight) but detailed, as they were carried out as a small segment of a much broader study of the cultural meanings of nudity, published as Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy. My approach, then, is clearly not an exhaustive ethnography with claims to comprehensiveness, but rather a form of cultural research that treats public toilets as a cultural site worthy of serious examination. The ethnographic data is considered as part of a broader field of cultural knowledge, including films, Internet sites, literature, and popular discourse.

One might wonder why a woman should choose to write about male toilets and what impact her gender has on her analysis. …

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