The Atlantic

The Private Lives of Public Bathrooms

How psychology, gender roles, and design explain the distinctive way we behave in the world's stalls
Source: AI Project / Reuters

When Oprah Winfrey served on a Chicago jury in 2004, she couldn’t go to the bathroom attached to the jury room unless her fellow jurors sang to drown out the noise. One of the songs they sang was Kumbaya.

When Alexis Sanchez used the bathroom in her college dorm, she brought her iPod with her.

“I would blast it,” she says. “I would play 'D. A. N. C. E.' by Justice, and some Maroon 5 song. That was my poop playlist. It had to be a ritual or else I would focus too much on if there were other girls there who could hear or smell what was happening.”

Sanchez, now a 22-year-old front-end web developer for the Tampa Bay Times, has since abandoned her poop playlist, but is still incredibly anxious about using public bathrooms—for both numbers one and two. “It’s definitely a problem,” she says. “It affects my life.”

Many people, like Oprah and Alexis, suffer some degree of anxiety about going to the bathroom when others are present. Paruresis, or “pee-shyness” is classified as a social anxiety disorder in the DSM-V, the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic guide. It’s a sort of performance anxiety, a fear of being scrutinized by others while you go.

According to Steve Soifer, chair of the University of Memphis department of social work, and CEO of the International Paruresis Association, about 20 million people in the U.S. suffer from paruresis to some degree (220 million worldwide). He notes, though, that it’s a spectrum. Whereas some people are just mildly uncomfortable, some suffer so extremely that they physically can’t go in the presence of others. Some paruretics have to resort to self-catherization (inserting a tube up your urethra and into your bladder) if they’re in a place where they can’t avoid using a public bathroom.

“In its extreme form, people become agoraphobic,” Soifer says. “I know people who’ve never dated, never gotten married. I know one guy who had a master’s degree and ran a paper route in the evening, so he knew exactly where a safe bathroom was [if he had to go at work].”

The IPA has a term for “poop-shyness” as well: parcopresis. But this isn’t a medically recognized condition, and is less of an issue for most people, according to Soifer. The relative infrequency of bowel movements means people can usually time them for when they’re in a bathroom that makes them comfortable. In rare cases, like dorm bathrooms, people like Sanchez may not have that option.

Soifer doesn’t deal much with parcopresis—he says he’s rarely seen someone who has both it and paruresis. “People call me Dr. Pee, and

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