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A Field Guide to the Male Bathroom

The male bathroom is a funny place. For those of you who’ve never been inside one, there are a set of unspoken rules that every man who enters is expected to follow. What’s strange is that despite the fact that breaking these rules can have consequences, no one ever teaches men the rules in any kind of formal way. In this post, Nathan Palmer fills this gap by teaching you the men’s room rules and exploring what these rules might be telling us about our culture.

There are rules people, RULES! That’s what I hear in my head whenever I am standing in front of a urinal and another man starts using the urinal next to me. I’m sorry, forgive me. I should have warned you that in this post we are going to talk about some real stuff. Today we are going to explore the unwritten, unspoken, but near universally known rules of using the male restroom. I am an expert in this area with a lifetime of experience. By following my simple 4 step plan I can guarantee that you will never again know the bitter sting of an “away game” bathroom snafu.

The Unspoken Mandatory Rules of the Men’s Restroom

  1. No talking!
  2. No eye contact.
  3. Eyes on the prize. At the urinal never let your gaze drift over to your neighbor.
  4. Maintain the buffer! Never use the urinal next to another man.

These are not my rules nor am I the only educator training the men of the world. For instance, the informative video below was created by my brother in the struggle Overman.

But, Seriously Though…

What are men so damn uptight about in the bathroom? Why is going pee so fraught with anxiety and danger? I’ve done some informal polling of the women in my life and it turns out there isn’t any high drama in the land without urinals. So what gives? As I’ll show you the male restroom is where the fragility of masculinity and homophobia collide.

Let’s start with the strange daintiness of being macho. As we’ve talked about before, many sociologists argue that masculinity is defined by it’s absence femininity and vulnerability. The problem is, everyone is vulnerable at times and all of us have both feminine and masculine qualities. So as Michael Kimmel argues, men live their lives hiding behind a mask (or a “Tough Guise”) of invulnerability. Many men spend a great deal of time and energy keeping up their front of invulnerability and that’s the problem. You simply can’t use the bathroom without exposing your vulnerability (ahem) and thus it is a perilous tightrope for men behind the mask to walk.

Next up, homophobia. Doesn’t a beat down for making eye contact (as the video suggests at 1:38) seem a bit insane? Except violence has long been used as a tool of gender policing. Gender policing is the idea that when males and females act in ways that aren’t masculine or feminine respectively, our peers act as cops and they punish gender norm violations. Sadly violence, ridicule, humiliation, and exclusion have been the tools of gender policing for too long. Furthermore, violence is often viewed as the most manly thing anyone can do. For men who feel their masculinity has been compromised by a violation of the “man law”, violence often seems like a means to restore their image as a macho, tough, manly man. In no way does this justify their despicable actions, but it might help us understand them better.

Also, why do we presume that if a gay man saw your exposed penis he would instantly want to have sex with you? Aren’t you confident? While I caution to speak on behalf of gay men, I think it’s safe to say that like all human beings we can see another nude body without turning into ravenous lust monsters. For those of us that aren’t sociopaths, sexual experiences with non-consenting partners is not desirable. The idea that gay men are sexual predators is arguably one of the oldest forms of homophobia.

Where Do These Rules Come From?

Like all social rules of behavior (what sociologists call norms) men’s room etiquette comes from the larger culture. That is, the culture outside the bathroom is reflected and recreated in the John. Our culture in the United States has issues with misogyny, homophobia, and male violence. By overreacting to bathroom etiquette violations we reinforce the idea that men must never show weakness and that heterosexual men must constantly be on the lookout for gay men or any male expression of femininity. I never thought I’d say this, but fellas maybe we can make the world a better place by taking it easy on one another while we are “taking a leak.”

Dig Deeper:

  1. Think of some other common places that have unspoken rules that everyone knows. Describe the rules in detail. How do people learn these rules if they are unspoken?
  2. Recently a teen in South Carolina was denied a driver’s license because he was wearing makeup and what the DMV deemed a feminine hairstyle. They accused the teen of wearing a disguise. After reading this article explain how this is an example of gender policing.
  3. Are their rules in the women’s restroom? If you don’t have first hand experience in the women’s room, find a friend you trust and ask them. Compare the women’s rules with the men’s. What are the differences? What does this tell us about men, women, and society?
  4. What other social rules govern men’s behaviors (outside the restroom)? Do these rules also reflect the fragility of masculinity, misogyny, and/or homophobia as discussed in this article?