For many men, taking a piss at the office is apparently a “nightmarish” experience. That’s one of the many fascinating things we learn in Julie Beck’s engrossing essay on the psychological minefield that is the public bathroom, published today in the Atlantic. We all know people who do their best to avoid defecating outside the privacy of home, but the fears and fantasies that Beck explores in her piece are almost Sadeian in detail—paranoia about seeing and being seen, elaborate attempts to construct sonic shields, and most of all, a deep sense that the perils of humiliation and social opprobrium waiting on the other side of the restroom door may very well outweigh the relief of relieving oneself.
Before potty puns get the better of me, I want to highlight one of the more striking themes of the piece—the rupture of spacetime risked when two men realize that they will have to urinate side-by-side. According to a study from which Beck draws some of her material, “the anxiety [men] reported was centered around ‘watching’—being watched by other men, or being perceived to be watching other men—and that this watching was linked to the possibility of sexual violence.” This anxiety arose as much from fear of “threat … to their sense of masculinity” as to their actual physical safety. Some of the trepidation could be attributed to orientation-neutral size insecurity, but even so, what we’re really talking about is homophobia, whether in terms of a direct fear of gay men or worry that an absent-minded glance will get you pegged as the same.
As anyone who has spent time in a men’s room knows, one of the consequences of this wariness is the urinal spacing rule, in which, as you approach a bank of receptacles, you must choose the one farthest from the person already peeing. To do otherwise is to raise eyebrows in even the most progressive of lavatories; God help you if, say, the two ends are taken out of four, and you must select a gentleman to whom you will sidle up. It’s surprising one doesn’t hear of more nervous breakdowns during the mid-morning, post-coffee rush than one does.
I suspect gay men are even more self-conscious about all this than straight guys; reading Beck’s description, I realized how careful I am to observe the rule as best I can and always to look directly at the wall to avoid the slightest chance of suspicion (not that I am terribly interested in retro rest stop encounters to begin with). Understandably, some readers will ask why I don’t just use the stall to avoid this tortured negotiation all together; but that, of course, is a false choice. To retreat from the urinal, even when you are faced with the need to squeeze between two other fellas, is to indicate that there is definitely something queer about you. And so, I make a point of standing, however nervously.
Clearly, if Beck’s essay does nothing else, it proves that bathrooms are self-policing training grounds par excellence.