Toilets and gender

I’m writing a weekly news update for the Open University psychology website and this week thought the post (particularly the link to the Sociological Images piece) might be of interest to some Rewriting the Rules readers:

This month  The Psychologist magazine featured an openly available article is on the psychology of the toilet, by Professor Nick Haslam. Nick makes the point that, whilst psychologists have studied bodily matters like eating, sleep and sex, they tend to have neglected excretion.

Nick’s book Psychology in the Bathroom attempted to remedy this. He takes a journey through psychoanalytic understandings of excretion (Freud’s childhood stages of taking pleasure in retaining and expelling faeces), phobias around using public toilets and emitting unpleasant smells, the use of swear-words relating to bodily functions, and the psychological component of bowel and bladder problems.

The graffiti on toilet walls (or latrinalia) has been studied in a number of observational style studies, most of which have focused on gender differences, perhaps because toilets are so often divided on the basis of gender. Women’s graffiti has been found to be more romantic and advice-giving, and mostly written, whilst men’s seems more sexual, insulting, and image-based. However, some gender differences seem to be diminishing, as does latrinalia in general, perhaps because people can now tweet from the toilet instead of drawing on the walls.

Whilst Nick does explore taboos around femininity and excretion, he doesn’t spend much time on the fascinating gender element of toilet door symbols. For that you might find this article on Sociological Images as fascinating as I did. How do toilet door symbols reflect and perpetuate cultural ideas about gender?


  1. I was sitting in a cubicle in the Youth Hostel in Rome, reading the walls (as you do) and did not notice until the last grafito: “Have you noticed all the grafiti is in English?”

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