The ‘Bathroom Billboard’: Gender Politics of Single-Sex Bathroom Graffiti

Research Question: What do the differences in content between male and female bathroom graffiti in single-sex bathrooms reveal about gender politics and social hierarchies of power in contemporary society?


The bare walls of a public bathroom stall present a perfect opportunity: almost untraceable anonymous self-expression. So, what do you do when faced with the power to say whatever you want, to possibly whomever you want, and no one will ever know? Well, most of us just talk about sex and draw dicks. Typical.

Defining a medium

Restroom graffiti are like messages in a bottle, left for the next lucky stranger who becomes stranded in the stall. These interpersonal communications are a unique, unofficial method where the “private and public uncomfortably converge”. The graffiti found here, both in textual and pictorial form offer a rare means for strangers to communicate (Leong 2016, pp. 306-07). Lee and Chung regard graffiti as a way of expressing “‘unspeakable’ messages to the public… and sometimes as a form of art” (2013, p. 408).

Leong identifies language as the “primary vehicle for constructing and disseminating information and culture”, suggesting that language reflects socialisation, therefore revealing the “power dynamics that are embedded into systems of race, gender, and class inequality” (2016, p. 306).

She continues to explain that these “quasi-private” spaces inform us how men and women express masculinity or femininity when seemingly in private (2015, p. 306). But, to understand the basis of these theories, we have to go back to 1953 to the study that started it all.

According to Bates and Martin, Kinsey et al. reported that “men wrote far more graffiti than did women and that most of what was written by women was romantic in content, while male graffiti were typically erotic” (1980 p. 301). This is a fact which Leong (2015), Arluke et al. (1987), and Farr and Gordon (1975) seem to agree on. And, it is a theory which has underpinned much of the research into bathroom stall graffiti:

Whether attributing observed differences between male and female graffiti to biological, psychological or social factors, the bulk of prior research has found that men write much more graffiti than do women , and that male graffiti are more likely to have high erotic, homosexual and scatological contents.” (Bates and Martin 1980, pp. 301-02)

These findings were replicated and debated by many scholars between the 1950s and late 1980s. Bates and Martin (1980) ascertained that there were inaccuracies within these widely-held notions, namely: analysing thematic content of graffiti may tell us more about the individual than society; and the assumption that graffiti content is motivated by and reflects societal attitudes (1980 pp. 303-314). So, they proposed “16 Mutually-Exclusive Content Categories” which demonstrate the first leap away from sexual-orientation (mind the pun) of graffiti messaging within the field.

Moreover, Arluke and Kutakoff continued to explore the extent to which bathroom graffiti served as a “psychological “safety valve” for women who traditionally have not been allowed to express their sexual impulses openly” (1987, p. 1). They concluded that as political and social pressures on individuals fluctuate, so too does what they communicate. However, ultimately, and most notably, Arluke and Kutakoff observed that “When confronted by the situation of making inscriptions on bathroom walls, the individual will be controlled by socialization; that is, he or she will fall prey to societal demands” (1980, p. 5).

Photo by Adrian Naranjo on Unsplash

Naturally, in sex-segregated spaces such as single-sex public bathrooms, the discourse that occurs will be distinctly male or female. Leong accounts this to the physical spaces manifesting “specific expectations, practices, and sentiments associated with one sex and not the other” (2015, p. 308). Therefore, graffiti in men’s stalls were more “impersonal, vulgar, competitive, and aggressive” while graffiti in female stalls were “much more supportive and more relationship-oriented than male graffiti” (2015, pp. 312-315).

Overall, Leong identified many conflicts with Kinsey’s pioneering study. Foremost, Leong observed an absence of sexual themes in women’s bathroom stalls (2015, p. 316). She also identified that in female bathrooms, personal disclosures were common, as well as scatological content (2015, pp. 318-19). Alternatively, she explained that “even in anonymous, seemingly private spaces, there is a socialization of masculinity and monitoring of masculinity”, which extends upon Kinsey’s assumption that the erotic content of male graffiti indicated homosexuality.

Yet, most conspicuously what Leong’s work uniquely offers is a contemporary perspective. Her work allows us to compare the power dynamics that occur in bathroom stalls to anonymous website comments, and to recognise that “status hierarchies do emerge even in anonymous, seemingly private spaces such as public bathrooms”.

Below is an overview of the literature which I have analysed so far.

PaperMain IdeasCountry Comments
Leong (2016)Language reflects social values, so therefore graffiti does.

“Hierarchies do emerge even in anonymous, seemingly private spaces.”

“Language reflects social differences, so it is not surprising that even bathroom graffiti capture gender differences.”
United States of AmericaAn excellent, comprehensive approach to the topic which is relevant to contemporary issues and considers the underlying factors of message content.
Bates and Martin (1980)Overview of historical findings of literature stemming from Kinsey’s experiment.

Identified issues within the field of literature.

Proposed 16 Mutually-Exclusive Content Categories for examining bathroom graffiti.
United States of AmericaThe Proposed categories are useful for conducting my own research which fills the gap by considering non-sexual content in bathroom graffiti.
Arluke et al. (1987)Focuses on if women have become more openly sexual, based on trends in bathroom graffiti.

Concludes that sexual content written by men stems from insecurity, and from women stems from rebellion.
United States of AmericaThere are some obvious signs of the times within this article, so the core messages must be reconsidered within a modern context.
Farr and Gordon (1975)Replicated Kinsey’s 1950 study.
Growing acceptance and visibility of female and homosexual sexuality has led to an increase in female erotic contents and decrease in homosexual contents.
United States of AmericaThis method focused on conversations from a sexual point of view (as Kinsey’s did). There was no consideration of non-sexual discourse, as conversations were categorised as either erotic, sexual, or non-erotic references to love.
Lee and Chung (2013)The best way to deter people from writing bathroom graffiti.Seoul, South KoreaNot relevant to question. But, definition of bathroom graffiti is useful.
This table outlines the concepts and context of the research I have found thus far. It helps justify why I have chosen my particular research question.

The value in our stalls

Photo by HelpStay.com on Unsplash

Justifying research surrounding insults and erotic drawings on bathroom stall walls seems odd, but it truly reveals complexities about unconscious social rules that define all of our communications. Socially, this research question provides an opportunity to draw focus away from the sexual and onto the political, and interpersonal conversations that take place (like Bates and Martin did in 1980).

Alternatively, as an intellectual, this topic is appealing because, despite the ubiquity of the internet, bathroom graffiti is still common. So, it is important to explore why this is, and what the graffiti’s meaning is in a modern context. Finally, the theories surrounding my research question have overwhelmingly been produced within the USA, so the issues and concerns that they address may not translate to an Australian context.

Conclusively, bathroom graffiti intrigues me because it is an ever-present offline communication medium that has withstood the popularisation of the internet, where many other mediums have fallen. Its hyperlocal nature, especially in school and university settings makes the seemingly anonymous expressions even more interesting. I am excited to reveal more about the control socialisation has over what we say, even when no one is watching; and what this reveals about our gender politics and hierarchies within contemporary society, given that much of the research in this field stems from the 1950s-1980s.

Tell me what you think!

References

Arluke, A, Kutakoff, L and Levin, J 1987, ‘Are the Times Changing? An Analysis of Gender Differences in Sexual Graffiti’, Sex Roles, vol. 16, nos. 1/2, pp. 1-7.

Bates, JA and Martin, M 1980, ‘The Thematic Content of Graffiti as a Nonreactive Indicator of Male and Female Attitudes’, The Journal of Sex Research, vol. 16, no. 4, pp. 300-315.

Bucklar, A 2019, ‘Sharpie on the stalls: what bathroom graffiti says about the experience of marginalized genders on campus’, Bell Magazine, weblog post, 24 March, viewed 13 April 2020, <https://belluwmadison.wordpress.com/2019/03/24/sharpie-on-the-stalls-what-bathroom-graffiti-says-about-the-experience-of-marginalized-genders-on-campus/&gt;

Evans, N 2020, ‘Emerging Issues in Media and Communication’, lecture, BCM312, University of Wollongong, delivered March 2 2020.

Farr, JH and Gordon, C 1975, ‘A Partial Replication of Kinsey’s Graffiti Study’, The Journal of Sex Research, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 158-162.

Lee, J and Chung, KM 2013, ‘Effectiveness of three contingency-nonspecific stimuli on bathroom graffiti prevention in a college setting’, Psychological Reports: Human Resources & Marketing, vol. 112, no. 2, p 408.

Leong, P 2016, ‘American graffiti: deconstructing gendered communication patterns in bathroom stalls’, Gender, Place & Culture, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 306-327.

Images
  1. Photo by Ingo Hamm on Unsplash
  2. Photo by Adrian Naranjo on Unsplash
  3. Photo by HelpStay.com on Unsplash

Featured image: Photo by Juan Marin on Unsplash

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