On urinals and the conventions of the men’s room

I have need (for a posting in preparation) to talk about the classification of urinals, the naming of the types, and the sociocultural conventions that surround their use.

Start with Wikipedia:

A urinal … is a sanitary plumbing fixture for urination only, predominantly used by males. [And mostly used in public places rather than in private houses, where toilets serve as fixtures for urinating while standing up.] It can take the form of a container or simply a wall, with drainage and automatic or manual flushing, or without flush water as is the case for waterless urinals.

The different types of urinals, be it for single users or as trough designs for multiple users, are intended to be utilized from a standing position (rather than squatting or sitting).

One crucial distinction is clear in this: single-user fixtures vs. multi-user fixtures. The multi-user type is sometimes called a gang urinal (parallel to gang shower), and that’s the label I’ll use here ; the single-user type, as the most common form of urinal in many places, has no standard name; I suggest the name solo urinal.

The other crucial distincrion is not clear in the Wikipedia passage above: between urinals that are hung from a wall (which I’ll call mounted urinals) and those with their base on the floor (which I’ll call standing urinals); again, mounted urinals are the most common type in many places, so that in many places unmodified urinal refers to the default type, a mounted solo urinal.

In any case, that gives us a four-way distinction, with many design details possible for each type.

One variable applies only to solo urinals: whether or not there are partitions between the urinals, to protect the user from the gaze of other men and from splashing or spraying from adjacent urinals (some guys are seriously messy users).

Mounted solo urinals have been varied in innumerable ways, notably in the design of the receptacle, including both its shape and color. Sometimes these designs are fanciful, artistically crafted (as in the delightful Clark Sorenson numbers, in the shapes of flowers and shells, I wrote about in a 1/8/12 posting on this blog), or playful, as in this open-mouthed number:


(The height of the mounting can also be varied, to accommodate boys or disabled men.)

Of course, the rest of a men’s room — the wall treatment, the flooring, what else is mounted on the walls (things for users to read, even small screens, etc. is also up for design decisions, and men’s rooms can range from minimally designed to high-fashion, as in this array of mounted solo urinals in white and a pretty standard shape (with partitions):


On to standing solo urinals, sometimes called floor urinals, as here:


These are somewhat easier to install than mounted solo urinals, and there’s no issue about the height of the fixtures.

When we turn to gang urinals, we get to fixtures that make many men nervous, because they feel too exposed to the other users. Two types. First, the mounted gang urinal, customarily called a trough urinal:


And finally, the most basic sort of urinal, the standing gang urinal, sometimes called a wall urinal because it’s just one step up from pissing against a wall — except that it’s got a drain (in the recessed trough) and a backsplash surface that can stand up to streams of urine from the users:


(Sometimes a raised ledge is supplied for the users to stand on, in which case the ledge essentially creates a trough at floor level and there’s no need to create a recessed trough.)

There’s a solo variant of this (which I experienced in China many years ago), in which the floor trough shrinks to a one-user hole in the ground, with some splash protection. That could reasonably be called a hole urinal.

Men’s room protocol / etiquette. The conventions for using urinals are designed to serve a more general social convention: avoiding intimate interactions with strangers. So: look straight ahead or down; don’t catch another user’s eye (and certainly don’t stare at him), even if a partition separates you. And: don’t engage in conversation. And: keep your physical distance from other users; don’t take a urinal next to an existing user if you can help it, and don’t stand close to an existing user at a gang urinal. (The guys in #1 have left an open urinal between them.)

(These conventions also apply if you are in fact pissing against a wall in the company of other men.)

Caveat 1: If the user closest to you is a friend of yours, it’s usually ok to talk.

Caveat 2: Not all cultures are this rigid; in some, restroom behavior is just another way of interacting in public with other people, and some cultures allow more intimacy in such interactions.

Caveat 3: Of course you might actually want to cruise other guys. If so, proceed with caution, as you would in other cruising contexts, or perhaps more carefully.

Now, some issues: If there’s no way to avoid standing next to another man, do you just go ahead and use an open slot, or do you wait for a “safe” slot to open up for you, or do you use a toilet? Similarly, if there’s only one urinal, do you wait for it, or do you use a toilet? (Then if no toilet is free, what do you do?)

Now, from a 4/16/14 Slate piece by J. Bryan Lowder, “Homophobia in the Bathroom”:

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.

Now I’m prepared to return to Hrjoe’s superhero compositions.

4 Responses to “On urinals and the conventions of the men’s room”

  1. chrishansenhome Says:

    Isaac Asimov had some interesting observations on men’s room habits in his early novel The Caves of Steel. Earth is covered with one global city, and apartments lack kitchens and bathrooms. There are communal bathrooms called “Personals” (I seem to recall). In the Men’s Personals, there is a code of silence which is not a law but which is broken at your peril. In the Women’s Personals, there is chatter aplenty and no such code.

  2. rehana Says:

    xkcd had a wonderful discussion of the protocol: http://blog.xkcd.com/2009/09/02/urinal-protocol-vulnerability/

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    Comment from Jeff Shaumeyer on the motss section of Facebook:

    This reminds me that there was an episode of the “Roseanne” sitcom in which Roseanne, dressed in male drag, stood at a men’s room urinal, violated many of the behavioral conventions enumerated [in this posting], and then comments on them. It was probably quite racy for its time, but also a realistic look at odd taboos.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    Comment from Sergio Scalise:

    Public urinals … were called ‘vespasiani’ [in Italian] from the emperor Vespasiano [in English: Vespasian]. In Pompeii there are different types…

    From Wikipedia on Vespasian:

    In modern Romance languages, urinals are still named after him (for example, vespasiano in Italian, and vespasienne in French) probably in reference to a tax he placed on urine collection (useful due to its ammoniac content …).

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