CW: extensive discussion of shit & adjacent topics
There are good reasons to dislike shit. (Throughout this post, feel free to replace the word “shit” with the word “feces”, “poo”, or whatever else suits your fancy, for the purposes of reading these words aloud on air or in excessively polite company.)
Shit is a potent vector of disease. It attracts flies and other creatures. People who smell like shit are disadvantaged in society. This is subjective, I suppose, and I’m not trying to yuck anyone’s yum, but most people think it typically smells somewhere between bad and wretched.
Shit is also a part of life. It’s something we will have to deal with ourselves if we ever want to have kids, grow a garden, track an animal, or live a life that includes a digestive system and no dedicated ass caddy.
Shit is everywhere. And I don’t just mean the yeast shit in beer (i.e. the alcohol) or the shit produced by other microorganisms that leads to tooth rot. I mean human shit too, and pet shit, and wild animal shit. Some of us have to deal with it more than others, because of class, caste, the way our bodies work, our socially inscribed relationships to production and reproduction, or whatever else.
I think hygiene is good, notwithstanding early CrimethInc.‘s most widely lampooned article. I repeat: shit is a potent vector of disease, and that alone is good enough reason to wash our asses and clean our toilets with some degree of frequency. But we shouldn’t be obsessive about it. Shit is not an eradicable part of life.
It can be minimized, sure. But this process of minimization can go too far. For instance, scientific studies have shown that people living in environments that are regularly blasted with toxic cleaning chemicals, and who never encounter any pathogens at all, are typically less hardy than, say, people living in clean and tidy but very much shit-adjacent environments (for instance, Amish people, living on farms, adjacent to livestock, without the benefit of some of the products that are to be found in most North Americans’ homes).
I don’t think an excessive fear of butt germs does anyone any good, though. As 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds are taught, everybody poops – and fortunately, in most cases, people are quite capable of dealing with that reality in a responsible manner by themselves. To get worked up about the possibility of invisible, effectively undetectable traces of shit, then, is unhelpful. Of course there are traces all over the place, and probably in greater number than most of us would really like to care about. Those traces don’t meaningfully affect us.
It’s not the sort of attitude that does us much good for those moments when we might actually have to deal with shit, for any number of reasons, and it’s not very healthy to be quite so worried about it before those situations actually rear up.
I am sure that some nudists live differently (i.e. filthily), but I presume they don’t have many people to hang out with. The most visible part of the naturist subculture, for its part, seems to be quite serious with cleanliness. I am against it, frankly – not because cleanliness is a problem in itself, but perhaps because I read some things in the queer nihilist tradition (at the conclusion of Towards the Queerest Insurrection, for instance, in which the Mary Nardini Gang channels Divine and claims “filth is our politics! filth is our life!”) and I suppose I took that shit to heart.
But that’s me. Most nudists are into naturism, not what I’m into and definitely not into, say, baedan at its most extra. They’re, like, pretty clean people. My years of perusal of the nudist-naturist internet indicates that a lot of them jump into the shower every time they take a shit, which is probably pretty easy given that they’re already naked. Even so, it is a matter of the most basic nudist-naturist etiquette to sit on a towel, or some other kind of individuated barrier item, instead of sitting one’s bare ass on a seat that may be used by someone else later on. I won’t pretend to think that most nudists with bachelor apartments sit on towels when they’re at home, at least not every single time, but in the company of others, it’s a pretty widely understood norm. Y’know, just in case!
A lot of people, including a number of anarchists I’ve met over the years, don’t know about the towel thing, or they have a hard time believing it even if they’ve heard right. I feel like this must be because the naked and dirty semantic circuits are mixed up in their heads, perhaps along with the evil and/or wrong semantic circuits. I don’t know how to untangle all of that for them, but I presume learning a little bit more about what they’re talking about – germs, nudism, nudists, the world at large – might help.
I believe that a comfortist practice of nudism would benefit from the importation of naturists’ towel etiquette, and I am not particularly interested in some kind of radical rethinking of the human relationship to shit; in other words, I do not, in concert with baedan, “insist upon flushing away the whole machine that chambers excretion and channels excrement.” My general opposition to civilization does not manifest itself in an acute opposition to either this chambering (e.g. a measure of privacy while on the toilet, in contrast to the open toilet chambers of the ancient Greeks and Romans or the panoptic regime that exists in many prisons) or to the channeling of shit.
I repeat, again: shit is a potent vector of disease, which is why it is a broadly good thing to make efforts to channel it away from people; the fact that hundreds of millions of people lack access to functional sanitation systems of the kind that I enjoy, and may be forced to engage in open defecation in slum-adjacent canals or whatever, is a problem that I’m not especially interested in trivializing through some kind of anarcho-Delanyian embrace of the radical and/or transgressive potential of shit. I am amused by this communiqué from “the pentagon bumfuck committee” but I do not think that “elaborating a logic of scat” is nearly as important as attacking “the poo taboo” (as Sara Wickham calls it in this article related to her practice as a midwife), i.e. the undue fear of shit, to the point that even talking about shit is difficult.
It’s a problem for a lot of reasons, for instance, in institutional contexts that have nothing to do with my life; it’s possible to collect money from billionaires and middle-class people to build schools in “underdeveloped countries” – but building functional sanitation systems, which are far more basically necessary (because, uh, fuck schools, honestly), is typically a non-starter because people just don’t want to talk about something as lowly and base as shit. But, with regard to the main focus of this blog, the taboo also stymies discussion of a different sort of culture or practice around clothes and nudity. Butt germs loom much larger than they should in the imagination of people when discussing a practice of social nudity.
I would argue that nudists probably have a more consistent and frictionless practice of hygiene than is the case with most people, but again, that idea goes directly against the widespread assumption in many societies that nudity is adjacent to filthiness – or at least not far from it!
More open cultures vis-à-vis nudity are pretty likely to be suppressed on the grounds that nudity is unhygienic and, consequently, detrimental to some notion of public health. In 2011 and 2012, for instance, the campaign to ban public nudity in San Francisco focused on the practice of people who would, apparently, regularly sit their bare asses on the chairs outside of cafés and restaurants. I think these were people were mostly tourists who were ignorant of, or in any case had no respect for, naturist etiquette; they were simply living an interesting experience which, to be sure, wouldn’t be quite as possible (or at least as tolerated) in many other places.
In my opinion, despite the fact that that was kinda gross (because, what if!), it probably wasn’t really a huge problem. Most of the time a that a bare ass hit a plastic seat, I would expect that excrement was not caking the inside of those cheeks. Even if they did, though. shit is everywhere; it’s unlikely that one unwashed bum on a plastic seat was going to cause an outbreak of anything in and of itself.
I think this sort of activity, and probably even shamed – but it’s not the real issue and it wasn’t why, on February 1, 2013, nudity was generally banned in San Francisco. The bare bums on seats were just an excuse for achieving something that a coalition of property owners and political conservatives (most of whom didn’t even live in the Castro, where most of the nudity took place, or even in the city limits of San Francisco at all) wanted anyway, which was to stop a handful of mostly older, mostly gay, mostly men (who were generally not tourists, but actually lived in the area) from hanging out naked whenever the weather was suitable, maybe smoking medicinal weed or talking about politics or who’s dating who, and (it could be argued!) scaring away revenue to local businesses from people who are grossed out and/or passively grinding away at the moral fabric of Christian America. The local nudists (or at least the ones featured in a mainstream article I read in 2012) used towels when they sat down.
I am sure similar things have happened elsewhere, or could happen again, wherever a relatively easygoing cultural attitude and/or a light hand from local authorities gives rise to people actually hanging out naked a lot – and then, that area gains a reputation as a place where it is possible to have a one-off naked tourist experience. It sucks, but I don’t think there’s a whole lot to do about it, at least in a theory that’s divorced from an actual on-the-ground situation. The people who oppose public nudity (and there will be some) are going to say whatever will work to stop it from happening, and a quality of being somehow unhygienic is just one thing to bring up. For this reason, I don’t think it behooves us to go too far in trying to prove just how how hygienic we really are; I worry about cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness puritanism and its effects, namely insofar as it divorces from us further from our environment (recreating a sort of “suburban ideal” of 1950s America) and from our own animality. Nevertheless, it is important to insist on some facts about nudism and hygiene, at least whenever we end up ensconced in conversation about these topics. One thing that needs to be said is that, logically, nudism makes hygiene easier. Another thing to say is that, in practice, most nudists are probably already cleaner than most of the basically clothes-wearing majority.
Bringing it back to anarchist spaces, it seems to me that both nudism and a concerted effort to degrade the poo taboo would both be helpful. They could be complementary efforts as well.
The main issue, for me, is that a lot of anarchists live in housing that is absolutely awful, or at least ill-suited to how we are attempting to use those spaces and how we would ideally like to live. We crowd into housing units that don’t have enough bathrooms, using rooms that were intended as offices or living rooms as bedrooms, and sometimes we even put more than one person to a bedroom. In North America at least, most housing units have the singular shower in the same room (often a very small room) as a toilet (which is often the toilet). Given that these are our the sorts of spaces that we live in, it would probably be for the best if we could, as a matter of course, foster relationships with other members of our household that it is okay (not good or desirable, but okay) to use these facilities at the same time.
Again, I’m not particularly fond of the idea of the ancient Greeks’ and Romans’ communal shitting rooms, but given an unideal architectural context that is not of our own devising, and the fact that occasionally we will face urgent situations of various kinds that conflict with others’ privacy, I think it would be a good thing for us all to accept that both bodily privacy and/or the desire to never smell shit – while definitely the preference of the many – cannot and should not be considered sacrosanct. I think, too, that a number of accidents or other misfortunes might be avoided if we were all on the same page with this (or at least trying to be).
Many people, even in North America, get on just fine with this sort of understanding among one another, without even necessarily sharing any affinity for a word like “nudism” or “naturism”; my understanding is that usually happens in the context of nuclear families. Parents are okay seeing other naked (if they ever had a sexual relationship, they’ve probably seen each other naked a lot), and they don’t really care about their younger kids being naked or sitting on a toilet (whatever) or seeing them naked or sitting on a toilet (possibly good for their psychological development, but in any case maybe not worth caring that much about). I can only presume that the larger the difference between the number of toilets and/or showers in the house and the number of residents, the greater the prevalence of this sort of thing. In any case, perhaps this sort of family understanding around nudity, clothes, and privacy goes on forever (although the wider society’s about these things are likely to challenge or destabilize this situation at some point), perhaps it ends at some point. (From what I can tell, it seems as though things change as a result of teens and preteens being affected by wider society’s ideas about these things, e.g. “that’s weird”, and then asserting new boundaries.)
But even for people who grew up this way, it may be harder to “break the ice”, so to speak, with peers with whom they do not share such long-standing and familiar relationships.
If a person in a house of anarchists or fellow travelers has to poop very badly, and someone (it may not even be clear who!) is in the shower, they may not feel comfortable knocking on the door, never mind barging in. And what shall be the consequences of such reticence? I can say, from experience, that sometimes the consequences are gross and/or embarrassing.
Again, shit is a part of life. So is one roommate showering while another has to use the toilet. I don’t think it does us any good to be, like, so weird about this. We are bringing the weirdness, the awkwardness, to this topic – and we don’t have to!
If anything, I think it would do us all some good to push back a little against whatever discomfort we have ourselves, as well as whatever attitudes we see in society that we do not care for, intellectually speaking. I will say, too, that I have known a number of people in my life who felt fine just leaving the door open while sitting on the toilet; they sometimes just did in the middle of conversation. The world didn’t end, nor has it ever done so when I have done the same.. When I was growing up, someone-on-toilet-and-someone-in-shower situations happened all the time. It was whatever.
These situations, of barging in while my sister was in the shower or having my dad do the same to me, did not translate to any kind of extra-bathroom nudity in my own family, nor would leaving the door open while pooping and/or shared usage of bathroom space necessarily lead to any akin thing among anarchist roommates. Maybe, though, in the context of having ever discussed gradually normalizing nudity in the household, actively attacking the regime of an always closed door on the bathroom could pave the way to something more broadly comfortable for everyone.
Or maybe not. That part is speculative. Nevertheless, I think there are still some practical benefits to people feeling less weird about adjacency to others when sitting on a toilet or taking a shower. All the better if people have had a good talk about that kind of thing before someone in the household, or everyone, gets food poisoning.