The one question that would get work colleagues more animated than any other in an office I once worked at was not about love, or sex, or even the previous night's reality TV judgement, it was about going to the toilet.
'Would you ever poo at a party?' someone asked.
People stood up from their stations, gathered round and pondered this question. Bar one bloke who dismissed the issue with: "Why not, when you gotta go, you gotta go", the answers from the women in the room were unanimous.
"No way!" they all exclaimed, utterly repulsed at the mere thought, all preferring to "hold it in" and endure the painful side effects until they got home.
We all do it, it's part of the human experience, so why is defecation shrouded in such secrecy?
In his research on the subject, University of Melbourne professor Nick Haslam and author of new book Psychology in the Bathroom (published by Palgrave Macmillan) found that women tend to be more disgusted than men by bodily waste.
"Women are held to a higher standard of purity and cleanliness than men. Femininity seems to be incompatible with excretion in a way that masculinity is not," says Haslam.
"One consequence of this double standard is that women tend to be more disgusted by bodily wastes and more ashamed of the bodily functions that produce it. And when you're disgusted and ashamed of something you avoid and conceal it."
Right now in every office block covert operations are taking place. Someone is scurrying into the safe haven of the stand-alone disabled toilet to privately go about their business. Another is sitting in the stalls hoping no one walks in, and, if they do, trying a courtesy flush to take some of the odour away to avoid the walk of shame. At boarding schools, some girls have been known to set an alarm in the middle of the night to ensure no one else is around for their elimination.
Haslam found that men are more likely to use scatological language and less likely to be offended by it. Even their toilet graffiti tends to be more excrement-focused than women's. And it seems women are still judged more harshly for violations of this ideal of being unsullied than men.
"One little study demonstrates the double standard nicely," Haslam tells me.
"In the middle of the study, experimenters excuse themselves either to get some paperwork or to go to the bathroom. When the experimenter was a man, the reason he gave for excusing himself made no difference in the eyes of study participants. But when the experimenter was a woman, participants judged her more negatively if she excused herself to visit the bathroom."
Where did this idea that your name will be forever besmirched just because someone has found out that you need to go to the toilet come from? Haslam believes that the taboo surrounding excretion is partially learned.
"One study showed that toddlers were perfectly happy to eat dog faeces (actually made from smelly cheese and peanut butter) when offered by an experimenter. Disgust has to be acquired, it's not instinctive," he says.
But he thinks that this aversion may be functional because excreta are major sources of contamination and parasite-borne disease, sanitation being is vitally important to health.
"In a way the taboo on excretion psychologically reinforces the sanitation system. The sewage system puts excrement out of sight, and the taboo tries to put it out of mind," says Haslam.
Haslam argues that the psychology of the toilet offers surprising insights into how closely mind and body are entwined. But with the notable exception of Freud's theory of the anal personality, psychological theorists tend to overlook it.
"One reason why psychologists have failed to study excretion is that they share the same taboo as everyone else, and see elimination as crude and uninteresting," says Haslam.
"A lot of psychologists want to distance themselves from Freudian ideas, which often focused on shameful body parts and functions, by neglecting these matters we have thrown the baby out with its dirty bathwater."
He argues that psychological factors often contribute to bowel and bladder problems, and psychological treatments for them can be effective. Excretion is intimately connected to our moods, the stresses of life and our childhood experiences, and is governed by intricate processes in the nervous system.
"I was amazed by how widespread bowel and bladder-related problems are, and how little people talk about them," he says.
"Huge numbers of people suffer from inhibitions, phobias, compulsions and control problems, but they suffer silently and privately because we are so reluctant to discuss these things openly."
Haslam thinks that excretion reminds people that they are animals, and motivates them to try to conceal the fact. So concerned are we all with concealment that a recent British poll nominated the invention of the flushing toilet as a greater innovation (ranked 9th) than sliced bread (ranked 70th), or Facebook (ranked 82nd).
It's no surprise that an unflushable toilet has been the comedic highlight in many a movie and as well as the topic for a memorable David Sedaris story called Big Boy in his book, Me Talk Pretty One Day in which he described a desperate attempt to flush someone else's waste at a party for fear the next occupant will think it his:
"The tank refilled, and I made a silent promise. The deal was that if this thing would go away, I'd repay the world by performing some unexpected act of kindness. I flushed the toilet, and the beast spun a lazy circle. 'Go on,' I whispered. 'Scoot! Shoo!' I claimed a giddy victory, but when I looked back down, there it was, bobbing to the surface in a fresh pool of water.
Just then, someone knocked on the door, and I started to panic.
'Just a minute.'"
Such laughable but readily identifiable shamefulness at a natural process (albeit someone else's) doesn't surprise Nick Haslam.
"Stories like this illustrate the intensity of the emotions and inhibitions that swirl around the toilet," he says.
"Even grown adults have fears that are rather childish when we stand back and think about them. We don't want others to be aware that we excrete or to think that we don't know how to dispose of the evidence, at some level this is quite delusional: we all know that excretion is a universal phenomenon but we still try to conceal the fact that we do it."
- Sydney Morning Herald
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