A new article published in Gender, Place & Culture examines how men and women express themselves in the seemingly private and anonymous spaces of public bathrooms.
Texts or drawings in the bathroom stalls, while created in a private space and presumably during a very private moment, are meant to be public — transmitting ideas, images and even responses.
Using data collected in 10 university bathroom stalls, the study examines differences in communication patterns in women’s and men’s bathroom stalls through an analysis of graffiti content and style.
The research indicated that that while communication patterns tend to be supportive and relationship-focused in women’s bathrooms, the graffiti in men’s bathroom walls are replete with sexual content and insults.
In addition, an analysis of the response-and-reply chains suggests that, in the bathroom stalls, hierarchies of power are established and reinforced even in anonymous, unmoderated spaces, and even when no humans are physically present.
The first major study of bathroom graffiti was produced by Alfred Kinsey in the 1950s, which found that many wall inscriptions were highly sexual, but sexuality was defined quite differently among men and women. Men’s bathroom graffiti centered on sexual acts and sexual organs, women’s graffiti referred to love and relationships in non-erotic terms.
Further studies in the 1970s and 1980s suggested that women’s graffiti was becoming more sexual and political.
In the latest study, 60 years on from Kinsey’s work, Pamela Leong, an assistant professor of Sociology at Salem State University, monitored graffiti in 10 single sex bathrooms. Leong found that women were more prolific, accounting for 70 percent of graffiti, and male graffiti was what she characterized as overtly sexual, crude, competitive and aggressive.
She characterized female graffiti as less sexually explicit — messages were more relationship oriented, confided private thoughts and feelings, as well as messages of support to fellow writers. She also said women often referred to bowel movements, indicating a need to discuss such things privately for fear of being judged “dirty” or “unfeminine,” a contrast to social acceptance of male lavatorial behavior.