Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Hot Flushes: Sexual Trysting in the Public Restroom

 In Crash, the 1973 novel from author J.G. Ballard, sex and car wrecks were united in a horror story that explored technology’s increasing role in every aspect of our lives, including, detrimentally to Ballard, our sex lives.  While Ballard’s book is an exaggerated glimpse into the perversions of a select group of individuals, it would seem as if his fears of technology and the media have actually been met to some degree.  Our modern culture has sanctified new areas as erotic zones, areas both public and private which had not been developed for such functionality.  Arguably, the public restroom has become one of these spaces, bridging public and private needs while glorifying sexual trysting through visual representations.  I wish to argue that the public restroom has emerged over the last century to incorporate more than its primary function of hygiene and alleviating bodily functions by merging people and leisure together in ways not previously considered.  Public restrooms have become loci of social interactions and by the beginning of the 21st century, sexual intercourse within the public restroom has lost its taboo because it has essentially been condoned by frank commonality and explicit openness in its representation through various forms of media and entertainment and now serves to expand the discourse on both sexuality and the exploration and use of public spaces.
In the late 19th century, Freud begins developing what will become the basis of psychoanalytic theory and a controversial component of his body of work is the immense role that he places on sex in the subconscious psychological development of human beings.  According to Freud, there are five stages of psychosexual development for individuals, ranging from birth through adulthood, which tie the instincts of the id to developments around specific regions of the body.  Certain stages of psychosexual development, such as the anal and phallic stages, link erogenous zones of pleasure to conflicts between children and phases of toilet-training and sexual development.  These stages of development are not attained well by all individuals and, as Freud argues, misguided psychic energy can often lead to complexes and fixations which alter proper development and create sexual fetishes and perversions.  As Freud himself has written, “we have reason to assume that there is a primal repression, a first phase of repression, which consists of psychical (ideational) representative of the instinct being denied entrance into the conscious.  With this a fixation is established” (570).  While Freud does not concern himself with sexual trysting in the bathroom he is highly interested in explaining perversions and sexually deviant behavior.  Freud’s stages have often been labeled as esoteric and convoluted but his pioneering glimpse into the psychological development of human life cannot be denied.  Ultimately, Freud’s work directly links the primary functionality of bathroom usage and sexual pleasure together and this will serve as a basis for positing why the bathroom may have emerged as an area for sexual intercourse.
To put aside convoluted psychoanalytic theories for one moment and focus on social historicism, the rise of the public restroom has a long and largely undocumented history in world civilization.  As historian Jennifer Hudson writes: “Toilets in one form or another have existed since man started building cities” (6).  She then continues by citing indoor plumbing  thathad been discovered in the palace of King Minos of Crete, Romans and their public baths, Chamber pots of the dark ages, and finally Alexander Cummings The ‘S’ Trap in 1775 which combined “all the components for the flushing toilet in place” (7).  Public restrooms, as are typical in almost every commercial and recreational area, emerged with the cultural tropes of industry and consumerism to meet the needs of large congregated groups.  More recently, it would seem as if social interaction has been increasingly emphasized in the form and function of the restroom.  Specific technological and cultural developments have played a large role in the socializing of western public restrooms.  The urinal, developed in 1866, removed the need for private, enclosed stalls and congregated men in the open while they exercise their bodily functions.  The rise of the department store at the end of 19th century catered specifically to promoting women’s pleasure by trying to instill a sense of pampered luxury.  The department store adds couches, tables, and an overall sense of societal comform in Women’s restrooms thus creating and fostering a sense of social togetherness and relaxation.  The women’s public restroom soon becomes a meeting place for women with the cliché of women going off together, “I’ll join you.”  By the end of the 20th century co-ed public restrooms have begun to emerge in various college dorms and corporate work environments which allow both sexes to mingle people in these collective areas for the first time.  It is interesting to consider when public restrooms developed as heightened places of sexual trysting.
It is not just technological advancements which facilitate the open discourse on socialization within public restrooms but also mass media.  Through entertainment mediums such as film and television, the representation of sexual trysting in public restrooms has largely diminished the taboo.  The role of the media is effecting social change is a controversial issue.  Some critics believe media fosters and creates that which it depicts whereas others argue that mass media is simply the mirrored reflection of current practices.  While I am not prepared to argue one way or the other on such a lofty critical issue, I am prepared to state that media certainly has the power to disseminate new cultural tropes through a population.  In examining representations of sexual trysting within popular media, from high-brow to low-brow, I can at least explore the correlation between representation and social acceptance.
One of the most popular examples of sexual trysting within the common zeitgeist is The Mile High Club.  The Mile high Club is a pop-cultural slang term used to describe those who’ve experienced sexual intercourse during a flight in an airplane.  While technically the parties involved can engage in this practice on any portion of the airplane the airplane lavatory has become the typical headquarters of this club due to its enclosed space and privacy.  Notable social and media celebrities such as Richard Branson and Ralph Fiennes have publicly admitted their own participation in reaching this “unofficial club.”  Through said public admissions, celebrities, with their added cache, essentially open up new discourses and make it okay for the general population to a) discuss their actions and b) learn from / repeat their actions themselves.
Countless films and television shows have portrayed narrative moments of sexual trysting in public restrooms.  Bathroom sex can be found in key scenes from the films Amelie (Jeunet 2001), Prick Up Your Ears (Frears 1987), and East Palace, West Palace (Dong 1996).  Popular Fox network television show Ally McBeal incited incredibly heated social debate as to the applicability of unisex bathrooms due to the portrayal of one which served as a major set in the series.  Over the run of the series male and female characters found each other, socialized, flirted, and on occasion engaged in intercourse in the unisex bathroom.  Likewise, in the pilot episode of HBO’s Six Feet Under, two main characters, Nate and Brenda, meet for the first time at an airport and proceed moments later to engage in sexual intercourse in an airport restroom.  An episode entitled “Head” of NBC’s Law and Order: SVU involved the two main detective characters searching for an elusive criminal who was planting video cameras in toilets of public restrooms for sexual gratification.  While I cannot even begin to describe how prevalent sexual trysting appears in public restrooms in contemporary mass media, these few examples of mainstream representation should reveal that in recent years this topic has no longer been relegated to adults-only material or considered obscene material by censors. 
Pornography is another, and maybe the most obvious, mainstream media outlet advocating sexual activity in public restrooms.  Titles such as Tails from the Toilet (2004), Toilet Tramps (2000), and Bathroom Antics (2002) are all advertised as top-sellers on  In an attempt to retain the slightest bit of dignity I will confess I have not seen any of these pornographic films (and would not describe their content in detail if I had), but the descriptions following each title indicate that entire segments of these popular pornographic entries, if not entire films, are set within the confines of public and private bathrooms.   Pornography, obviously, is a genre of media used exclusively to foster and incite sexual pleasure within its viewers.  Pornography is also known for strong marketing tactics and knowing exactly what its audiences want (Thank you for saving home video, Porno!).  Therefore, the large percentage of titles using restroom settings for sexual trysting would indicate that many users want, prefer, and dare I say are turned on by the atmosphere connoted by it.
In recent years, the risqué activities of important United States social and political figures have dominated news and contemporary media.  Larry Craig, a Republican senator from Idaho, may be the most well know example of this scenario.  According to cultural commentator James Hannaham,
It seems logical that closeted men would seek out anonymous, fleeting encounters, typically in the most transitory sorts of restrooms, ..Men… [enjoy] the fear of being caught add an extra thrill to the experience” (Hannaham).
While this journalist’s opinion of why men might engage in bathroom sex is sorely lacking in scientific evidence to back up his claims, that is not the point of my citation.  The point is to illustrate that the recent actions of political figures, such as Larry Craig, have made news headlines and thus kept the concept of bathroom sex alive and well in our current vocabulary.
            Media’s representation of sexual trysting within public restrooms may have paved the way for a general level of social tolerance.  This is not an exercise in morality.  I am not claiming right or wrong but simply examining a social phenomenon and its appeal.  The appeal of sexual intercourse in public restrooms is derived from a combination of many factors.  The first, arguably, is the relative ubiquity of public restrooms.  As the restroom is a space uniquely public and private simultaneously, the fostering of social interaction and subsequent hiding of illicit activities is both possible and easy.  “Restrooms…join the company of automobiles and bathhouses as places for deviant sexual activity second only to private bedrooms in popularity” (Leap 30).  Sociologists have pondered why the sexual trysting in public restrooms has become so popular.  Laud Humphreys found that, “those who seek the impersonal sex of public restrooms are caught in a sexual bind between their perceived sexual needs and the satisfaction of those needs by prescribed means” (141).  In effect maybe this returns us to Freud.  Maybe the real appeal of representations of bathroom antics would be some unconscious regression to moments of our own psychosexual development where we can revisit key moments that have shaped our own evolution.  My interest in exploring sexual trysting in public restrooms is more so about a new utilization of public space by individuals and an attempt to define exactly what that means.
To answer the question of what this novel use of public space signifies, I have turned to the intellectual prowess of 20th Century Cultural theorists.  Using the public restroom for sexual intercourse essentially does serve a purpose – even if it is only an academic thought exercise.  This use of public restrooms functions as detournement.  As Guy Debord has illustrated in his seminal essay, “Methods of Detournement,” this process is traditionally accomplished in the work of an artist who will reuse traditional elements and arrangements of things in new ways.  As Debord himself has written, “Detournement not only leads to the discovery of new aspects of talent; in addition, [it clashes] head-on with all social and legal conventions, it cannot fail to be a powerful cultural weapon” (11).  Ultimately In this essay he outlines how powerful this technique can be.   While this term originally derives from artists working in the Situationist International movement, theorists have begun to expand the idea of detournement outside of the art world.   More recently, cultural studies have begun to incorporate detournement in new ways such as working against the planned usage of public space.  Henry Lefebvre has lamented the post-war organization of cities by exclaiming, “Everything which could be has been separated and differentiated: not only specific spheres and types of behavior, but also places and people” (151).  This, finally, gets to the point I wish to make about sexual trysting in public restrooms: the act is, essentially, detournement.  Pleasure seekers looking to engage in sexual activity in a restroom are defying the expected (and accepted) role of both the space as well as the differentiated behavior that is supposed to be accounted for within it.
I can remember early in my studies of Media Theory coming across Debord’s “Methods of Detournement” for the first time.  At the time I had failed to grasp what such lines of thinking would lead us to.  There seemed no inherent social or political gain to be had but figured it functioned rather like a bourgeois thought experiment that led nowhere.  Only recently, coupled with Lefebvre’s “Notes on the New Town” and de Certeau’s “Walking in the City,” does the theory of detournement within public space open me up to understand that these new lines and channels of thought can allow us to view past, present, and future experiences in diverse cultural lights.  When thinking this way, something previously viewed as base and vile, such as sexual trysting in a public restroom, suddenly becomes a rebellious act of non-conformity.  By re-classing that which we might often cast aside as mundane, vile, reprehensible, or even pornographic (generally lacking in socially redeeming values), we as human beings can come to view life and experience with brand new eyes and shape and construct meaning through our interactions with people, culture, and public space to defy expectations and carve our own paths.

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