A person leaves their seat. They glance around, in that way that is meant to look nonchalant but is definitely furtive. They get up quickly, keeping their head down and face covered. They enter the _________. A few moments pass. They emerge, eyes darting, and walk quickly away.
That blank space is filled equally well by both “bathroom” and “confessional.” The operative schemas for these two guilt-inducing institutions are frighteningly similar. Structural similarities abound between your average gendered multi-stall public restroom and the Catholic confessional.
To begin, the entrance into each is itself public, no matter how much we hope for these two spaces to be private. If a person is lucky, this space will be off to the side or down a hallway, but more often than not it is in full view of anybody in the vicinity. Both demand a certain level of normative ability for entrance, regardless of how much they may purport to be spaces of equalization (all are equal before [the porcelain] God, after all). Accessible restrooms are generally far from what that moniker indicates, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a confessional that could accommodate a wheelchair.
Once inside, a person sits in a small, mostly enclosed space that gives a partial but far from complete sense of privacy. They are divided from their neighbor by a wall. However, that wall’s coverage is anything but complete. They can make out details: the outline of a face here, a shoe or top of a head there—importantly, too, the direction the shoe faces.
In each instance, that space is intended as a site of relief. The relations between bodily waste and sin are well documented, each a type of bodily pollution or corruption that makes this parallel more striking. Shame, too, manifests in what one is looking to gain relief from in both spaces—the shame of bodily excrement, the shame of sin, of thus being publicly known to possess either sin or shit.
These spaces demand their usage under threat of punishment. While eternal damnation may seem to outrank the temporary pain of a UTI (though occasionally I think I’d contest that ranking), in each case the relief promised is demanded of users under a quite painful and serious threat.
Guilt also emanates from the use of both. To go to the bathroom is a site of intense silence in public speech, exemplified by the proliferation of innuendo for the release of bodily waste: to use the facilities/hit the head/powder one’s nose. Additionally, in each space, the person wants to be unheard by the rest of the world—much as bathrooms make it eerily apparent how much of one’s bodily functions others are able to hear, enter a confessional and note your own church whisper get ever quieter upon the recognition that those prayerful few on the other side of the curtain are well within earshot.
Finally, one emerges from the confessional blushing, hoping not to be caught having so recently spoken of sin, feeling guilty for that one thing you forgot to mention or, let’s be honest, purposefully omitted. This guilt manifests in a desire to disappear from view before the confessional and the bathroom. One attempts to exit unseen, head down and aware of all eyes—whether or not the eyes are actually watching you.
To occupy either space is, in and of itself, a confession.
When a person enters a confessional from the church, they announce the intent to confess—that there is something to confess. When one enters a gendered public restroom, one confesses to a choice between genders. It is a confession of what one is in that public moment (which is assumed to be that person’s “truth”). Perhaps, this forced choice causes guilt, too, and an attempt to hide oneself from view in a similar way. I think of the tricks those gendered and sexed as other employ as a form of veiling within and around bathrooms—hide one’s face with hair or hands, move quickly, don’t make eye contact, sit in the stall until the bathroom is empty, all to make sure one goes unnoticed. This all sounds—and feels—nearly identical to the experience of going to confession, of ever-so-slightly altering one’s voice with the hope the priest won’t recognize it, of refusing to look up.
One can avoid these spaces, but only for so long, until necessity dictates one must. Trust me, you don’t go into that confessional unless absolutely necessary—another similarity between the confessional and bathroom experiences for many of us. As Michel Foucault puts it in History of Sexuality Volume I, “One confesses—or is forced to confess” (59).
Foucault tells us that confession is “one of the main rituals we rely on for the production of truth” (58). As “one of the West’s most highly valued techniques for producing truth,” confession operates not as something that simply or passively reveals an already-established truth, but actually takes part in the creation of that truth (59). It seems on first glance that the ways our world has been divided into binary gendered spaces is a result of some pre-existent truth contained within this binary. However, this relationship is constitutive in another way—the ways our world is structured creates truth. Not only do binary bathrooms police individual bodies, but as a system of discourse they participate in not only the maintenance of but also in the very creation of the binary. It is in part through public spaces becoming and remaining bifurcated that a gender binary is rendered societal “truth.”
In the introduction to Herculine Barbin, Foucault asks his readers, “Do we truly need a true sex?” (vii). In this text, Foucault describes how in the Middle Ages “the designation ‘hermaphrodite’ was given to those in whom the two sexes were juxtaposed, in proportions that might be variable” (vii). Later on, this changed: “Biological theories of sexuality, juridical conceptions of the individual, forms of administrative control in modern nations, led little by little to rejecting the idea of a mixture of the two sexes in a single body, and consequently to limiting the free choice of indeterminate individuals. Henceforth, everybody was to have one and only one sex” (viii). The bathroom, as a hygienic space that demands confession that has become a site of great legislative action, showcases the intersection of the biological, the juridical, and the administrative. Indeterminacy, in terms of anatomy, personal conviction, and their intersection, is rendered moot.
It’s not so much about whether we need (or hell, even want) a true sex, but whether or not it is demanded of us. And it is. Foucault gestures towards the hope of a world where what matters is “the body and the intensity of its pleasures” (vii). Similarly, in History of Sexuality Volume I, he says, “The rallying point for the counterattack against the deployment of sexuality ought not to be sex-desire, but bodies and pleasures” (157). Bodies. Pleasures. Perhaps, then, the bathroom can become the site of such a counterattack, as opposed to a site of the constitution and enforcement of this binary system?