End Demarcation by Defecation

By November 14, 2017 No Comments

By Miko Lepistö

I was recently shocked by the amount of my male privilege on this campus with a female majority. For a while now, we have been confronted with a bathroom crisis, and I have witnessed huge queues in front of the few bathrooms that workqueues that often form during the short breaks from lectures. It seemed that most of the lines were in front of the ladies’ instead of the men’s rooms. While I could happily waltz in and relieve myself, a long line of members of the opposite sex squirmed in displeasure, as they waited for their bathroom to be freed up. Why was this possible?


We could debate the different bathroom habits that we tend to assign to members of one sex or the other, and their influence on the size of queues, but there is a much simpler explanation. As almost two thirds of the students on campus are female, there is quite a large gender disparity and an unequal distribution of bathrooms. It does noteven form a purely practical point of view—make any sense to divide bathrooms equally between male and female students. Why should one third of the campus be assigned half of the bathrooms? Is this the sign of masculine domination and privilege? Frankly, yes. But the reasons behind this inequality aren’t necessarily the usual ones of patriarchal tyranny.

Finnish sauna culture can teach us a lot about the matter at hand. In Finland, the sauna is not exclusively found in wellness institutions and spas. It can be accessed by almost anyone and everywhere; in ancient times, it was often the first building of a homestead. Traditionally, men and women go to the sauna at the same time. Even today, a very popular sauna in HelsinkiSompasaunais open to everyone, and many men and women go there together – naked! This is because there exists a clear distinction between nudity and sex. In saunas, nudity is associated with washing up, a sense of equality, and a shared experience of purification by heat. On the benches of the sauna, everyone is naked and sweatyin the most non-sexual way imaginable.

However, Finland is not quite the liberal heaven one might imagine it to be based on this description. Today, public restrooms and saunas are separated by gender; it is only in more intimate gatherings removed from the control of the state that a sense of equality persists. Mixed saunas were still very common among the newly urbanized working class in the late 19th century, since they needed an easily accessible place to take care of their hygiene, and hadn’t yet been been polluted with “modern” ideas of prudity. Gender-separated saunas appeared in the 1910’s and legislation was passed to enforce the separation, but even then mixed saunas persevered up to the 1920’s and 30’s. Why has the culture of prudity and constant association of nudity and sexuality permeated even the savage North and its values? Gender-separated saunas and bathrooms have their origins in the 19th century of modernity, like most institutions of segregation by sex. We can blame two things for the current state of affairs: Victorian morality and industrialization.


The perfect Victorian woman is above all respectable and domesticated. She does not reveal even her ankles, and relieving oneself in the same area occupied by men would be inacceptable. This moralizing prudity was curiously combined with the advent of mass factories and women workers. The first law on mandatory gender separated bathrooms was passed in Massachusetts in 1887a date not that far away from modern times. Now that women and men worked in the same space, a regime of separation had to be established. Women, conventionally part of the domestic sphere, were never fully integrated into the public sphere because of this. The fairer sex, so frail and weak, obviously had to be protected from working-class demons: male workers incapable of restricting their passions. Of course, women couldn’t be seen or heard committing the manifestly unfeminine act of defecation or urination in the presence of others eithergirls don’t fart do they?

What does this cursory glance at the history of bathrooms and Finnish saunas tell us about our current dilemma? It tells us that separated bathrooms are a modern invention driven by a debasing Victorian ideology, and that alternatives have existed and can exist. The student representatives are currently negotiating with the school administration on transforming our campus into a more liberal place than it already is: they are driving for gender neutral bathrooms on our campus. This is reformism, and is laudable, but there is another, more efficient solution to this. I, for one, was happy to see that the bathroom crisis provoked students to act decisively and politicallyperhaps unwittingly soon this issue by ignoring the male/female restrictions on bathrooms. When you gotta go, you gotta gono matter the sign on the door. This is an issue that concerns every student: we should support the student representatives in what they are doing, but also act directly.


My argument is strongly ideological, for I question the binary structure of gender and sex with all its implications. Why should students who don’t fully identify with the male or female sex feel unwelcome in front of a bathroom? Why should we keep an institution that needlessly reinforces a binary view of gender/sex?  However, my argument also has a very practical dimension. Why should a single female student have to wait patiently in line while men strut into their bathrooms when they wish? Let us throw this outdated and outright offensive Victorian division into the trashcan of ideology! Dear students, we can retake the public sphere that belongs to us, and do with it what we wish!


Miko Lepistö is a first year student from the bowels of Helsinki. The only student living on the notorious “other side of town”, as well as an avid biker due to necessity. Looney Truths runs the third Tuesday of every month.

Image: Waiting for the bathrooms illustration by Clara Pratelli


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