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Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing

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View "Public Restrooms": A Photo Gallery in The Atlantic Monthly.

So much happens in the public toilet that we never talk about. Finding the right door, waiting in line, and using the facilities are often undertaken with trepidation. Don’t touch anything. Try not to smell. Avoid eye contact. And for men, don’t look down or let your eyes stray. Even washing one’s hands are tied to anxieties of disgust and humiliation. And yet other things also happen in these spaces: babies are ...

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Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing

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View "Public Restrooms": A Photo Gallery in The Atlantic Monthly.

So much happens in the public toilet that we never talk about. Finding the right door, waiting in line, and using the facilities are often undertaken with trepidation. Don’t touch anything. Try not to smell. Avoid eye contact. And for men, don’t look down or let your eyes stray. Even washing one’s hands are tied to anxieties of disgust and humiliation. And yet other things also happen in these spaces: babies are changed, conversations are had, make-up is applied, and notes are scrawled for posterity.

Beyond these private issues, there are also real public concerns: problems of public access, ecological waste, and—in many parts of the world—sanitation crises. At public events, why are women constantly waiting in long lines but not men? Where do the homeless go when cities decide to close public sites? Should bathrooms become standardized to accommodate the disabled? Is it possible to create a unisex bathroom for transgendered people?

In Toilet, noted sociologist Harvey Molotch and Laura Norén bring together twelve essays by urbanists, historians and cultural analysts (among others) to shed light on the public restroom. These noted scholars offer an assessment of our historical and contemporary practices, showing us the intricate mechanisms through which even the physical design of restrooms—the configurations of stalls, the number of urinals, the placement of sinks, and the continuing segregation of women’s and men’s bathrooms—reflect and sustain our cultural attitudes towards gender, class, and disability. Based on a broad range of conceptual, political, and down-to-earth viewpoints, the original essays in this volume show how the bathroom—as a practical matter—reveals competing visions of pollution, danger and distinction.

Although what happens in the toilet usually stays in the toilet, this brilliant, revelatory, and often funny book aims to bring it all out into the open, proving that profound and meaningful history can be made even in the can.

Contributors: Ruth Barcan, Irus Braverman, Mary Ann Case, Olga Gershenson, Clara Greed, Zena Kamash,Terry Kogan, Harvey Molotch, Laura Norén, Barbara Penner, Brian Reynolds, and David Serlin.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Who could have imagined? A book that weaves cutting edge gender theory into urban planning policy by way of the lowly toilet? A wondrous compendium.”

-Jane Mansbridge,Adams Professor in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University

“Peeing is political. The authors of Toilet show us how. In provocative essays from a range of perspectives, we learn what toilets (and their lack) teach us—about hierarchy, inequality, the body, aesthetics and politics. Using toilets as social and cultural prisms, they analyze global collective (in)action, outlining the deeply personal consequences for us all. This is wickedly smart, pointed and passionate public interest scholarship at its best..”

-Lisa Duggan,author of Twilight of Equality: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics and the Attack on Democracy

“When Molotch and Norén let slip a few “pissings” or “pees,” the book becomes livelier, as is befitting of the subject. And the inclusion of essays from scholars of many different disciplines—gender studies, disability rights, architecture—makes this a toilet book not to be missed.”

-Book Bench, The New Yorker Blog ,

“We may not feel comfortable discussing them, but questions of where and how we do our business, particularly in public, have a tremendous impact on our everyday lives. That’s why Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing, a new collection of academic essays, is so necessary.”,

Toilet opens the door to a profound and fascinating understanding of the way we use and are abused by public conveniences.”

-Howard S. Becker,author of Outsiders: Studies In The Sociology Of Deviance

Library Journal
This profound and surprising book takes up a subject usually kept private: the public restroom. These scholarly but mostly accessible new examinations of the topic provide fascinating insight on cultural notions of cleanliness and filth, public and private. Molotch (sociology, New York Univ.) and Norén (doctoral candidate, sociology, New York Univ.) show that the public restroom also turns out to be a lens through which to examine attitudes about gender and class. The contributing scholars from a wide range of disciplines, including history, sociology, urban planning, and cultural studies, leave no stone unturned in an engrossing exploration of the politics, economics, and history of the lowly toilet, with pieces that are wide-ranging without seeming incoherent. There are playful touches throughout, including "rest stops" (brief texts by the editors accompanied by images), but the seriousness of the subject does not escape the reader. Which people have access to adequate facilities and under what conditions is a matter of legal, cultural, medical, and ethical consequence. VERDICT Scholars from a range of disciplines including those listed above, as well as women's studies, law, and architecture, will appreciate this wonderful book. Although some chapters may prove too specialized, general readers will also find much to enjoy here.—Rachel Bridgewater, Reed Coll. Lib., OR
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814795897
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 11/17/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 328
  • Sales rank: 1,408,027
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Harvey Molotch is Professor of Sociology and Professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. His books include Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place (with John Logan, California 2007) and Where Stuff Comes From: How Toasters, Toilets, Cars, Computers and Many Other Things Come to Be as They Are (Routledge 2005), winner of the Eastern Sociological Association’s Best Book Award.

Laura Norén is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at New York University.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2012


    Oh my GAWD i just looked up FRICKEN toilets and it gave me this but hey i like wierd stuff so i might get the free sampel zzzzz im tired right now while im writeing this and listenin to dynimite but i think i recomend it oh and i love love love this nook sooooooooooo awesome but sometimes i get kinda frustirated i dnt think i spelled that right now im listenin to my favorite song bubbly it started bein my fav after i was cryin but dnt get me started on that story oh now its dj got us fallin in love again anyway some of these reveiws dnt have any thing to do with nutin well dnt say nutin bout mine mine atleast has a sequence peeps bye buy it

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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