Urinals and "Man Blanking"

05/02/2015 15:53 | Updated 07 April 2015

Men are curious about what other blokes have, but are conscious not to be caught out. My brother told me about a heterosexual friend who - while, standing at a urinal - tried to turn his head stealthily to the left to get a sneaky peek at his neighbour. But he ended up accidentally splashing another man standing next to him.

However, men and their behaviours are increasingly drawing the ire of the public, not amusement. Only a few weeks ago, a German court had to step in to uphold the right of men to urinate while standing, regardless of their poor aiming techniques. Men are also annoying the public in other ways, like taking up too much space with their "classic legs splayed" position on public transport.

I acknowledge the annoyance that some of you might have with men. But what I do find interesting in all the irritation directed at the male sex is the shrinking space available for men to just be themselves. Ironically, "all-powerful" men have become objectified, and we are little interested in hearing about how they feel about all this. Intriguingly, the metaphors around urinals are instructive here.

An influential sociologist, Erving Goffman, believed that what we could deduce from the way that public toilets were stylised is that women were supposed to have lovelier surroundings for the elimination of their waste products and nice places to interact with other women away from the gaze of men and attend to their appearances (1). Public toilet facilities for men, on the other hand, were frequently paired down, often to just a urinal. A kind of assembly line for the production of urine if you like. Goffman believed that while the gents and ladies were thought of as just the natural order of things, they were actually crucial in producing some of the differences we see in men and women.

Inspired by the famous on-street urinals of Paris beginning in the mid-19th Century, the "vespasiennes" or "pissoirs", many street urinals in London now don't have any privacy at all. All the world's a stage when men stand and urinate, literally. Society long ago decided that men do not have the same rights to privacy as women. This can create trauma for awkward male adolescents, for instance, forced to shower with other boys in shared showers.

Unease around men and their urine as a kind of "filth", and the need to protect women from unruly men has a lingering history (2). But our subconscious anxieties burst into the public consciousness with Duchamp's invention of conceptual art, via the Fountain in 1917. The Fountain was basically a sideways urinal, as some people pointed out at the time. But brilliantly, the Fountain scandalised a whole generation, bringing to the surface our fears around men, urine and their sexuality.

Urinals literally became a battleground, with heteronormativity being one crusade (i.e. the idea heterosexual practices should be promoted as natural). Before Grindr, when homosexuality was criminalised, men took to urinals as a semi-private space to find other partners. Urinals - and their ambiguity - provided an excellent way for men "in the know" to meet other men. The outcomes of authorities pushing homosexual men to the fringes of society were annoying to those same authorities, who subsequently passed criminal laws targeting such loitering men (3).

Today, the Internet and social media are the main combat zones. For instance, there is the Youtube clip that did the rounds last year, shaming men for harassing a beautiful young woman walking around New York - 100 incidents in 10 hours - as the producers of the clip claimed. But less publicised was the level of harassment that an athletic young man received for doing the New York walk around - 30 incidents of harassment claimed in three hours - including from many women.

So men are the disposable repositories of our (somewhat sexualized) anxieties. It is okay to objectify men so that we can discuss "the problem". For instance, we rightly care about female genital mutilation, but rubbish those concerned about the genital mutilation of infant boys. Thus a recent editorial in the Evening Standard effectively denied any space for male suffering by advocating for "boys to get behind the campaign to end female genital mutilation". To say that infant boys should not have parts of their genitals removed is weirdly unpopular. Jane Powell, the director of the CALM charity, pointed out last week that we would never be able to ignore women in breast cancer prevention the way we ignore men in suicide prevention (78% of suicides are among men): "There has just been a conference talking about suicide prevention entirely focused on talking about young people, vulnerable people and perinatal care. But not men... Can you imagine a Breast Cancer campaign targeted at 1) people who are overweight, 2) younger people with a history of breast cancer in the family, 3) people who smoke... [But not women]?"

We want to encourage men to tell us how they feel on the one hand. However, we live in a world where men's feelings about key issues of interest to them are mocked or go unheard. The trouble is, we don't yet have a word for this mixed message we give to men, this cold-shoulder treatment. Could it be to engage in "man blanking"?

(1) Goffman, E., The arrangement between the sexes. Theory and Society, 1977. 4(3): p. 301-331.
(2) Cooper, A., et al., Rooms of Their Own: Public toilets and gendered citizens in a New Zealand city, 1860‐1940. Gender, Place & Culture, 2000. 7(4): p. 417-433.
(3) Johnson, P., Ordinary folk and Cottaging: Law, Morality, and Public Sex. Journal of Law and Society, 2007. 34(4): p. 520-43.