Public urination didn’t always carry the stigma it does today. It’s true: Open-air urinals were once very common around the world, seen outside pubs in London or along popular shopping avenues in Paris. So how did we go from there to where we are now — a time when public urination might land you in jail or on a sex offender’s list for life?
Join us, won’t you, on this magical mystery tour through time and space on the subject of having to take a wizz in public.
The History of Peeing in Public
Throughout history, society’s attitude toward public urination seems to ebb and, well, flow. You’ll get a period of civic leaders realizing that people peeing and pooping all over the streets is a problem, followed by a period of thriving public restrooms. Insert the fall of the Roman empire, a plague or advancements in plumbing, and suddenly public restrooms dry up.
The earliest iterations of public restrooms reach back to 2,400 B.C., when ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia built 50-stall public bathrooms. Before their civilization fell, a group of people would happily take craps in each other’s company, catching up on the town gossip.
From there, you’ll find a few public restrooms here and there throughout history (Ancient Rome, for example, with its communal sponge-on-a-stick butt-wiping apparatus), but it wasn’t until 1775 — when Alexander Cumming invented the double-curved, odor-blocking drainage pipe (aka the u-bend) — that modern public restrooms were born. In 1820, Paris introduced public restrooms along its most popular boulevards. Called pissoirs, the toilets were merely a line of urinals (and a few toilets) with a privacy-protecting screen running behind the urinators. By 1930, there were 1,230 pissoirs in Paris for a population of roughly seven million people.
However, further advancements in plumbing allowed bathrooms in private homes, and in tandem with everything else that plagues public restrooms — sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, etc. — local governments no longer felt it necessary to foot the bill for public restrooms. Today, there are only 420 public restrooms in Paris, and most cost money — if they’re not actually closed, which they often are — for a population closer to 12 million.
Where We’re At With Peeing in Public Now
In the current era of rapidly-growing cities, we find ourselves again in the dark ages of public urination. Businesses aren’t required to grant the public access to their bathrooms (if they do, they must meet specific requirements and upkeep); public restrooms in subways remain closed at the recommendation of Homeland Security; and upkeep of public restrooms is deemed too costly to be worth it. This leaves cities from London to San Francisco with a mess on their hands: At a high volume, public urination becomes a public health hazard, erodes buildings and lampposts and — as anyone who has strolled through downtown Manhattan in August can attest — makes the entire city stink of pee.
Thus, contemporary municipalities seem split three ways when it comes to public urination: Crack down harder on the crime; naturally negate people from peeing in public; or accept that humans are disgusting creatures that need to drain toxins from their bodies regularly, and allocate funds to more public toilets.
As mentioned earlier, public urination could brand you a sex offender for the rest of your life in at least 13 states: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Vermont.
However, reports of dudes getting put on the sex offender list for peeing in public are a bit overblown — there are only a few reported cases in recent history, and most articles on the subject will point to the extreme case of Juan Matamoros, who was put on the sex offender list and jailed for two years for public urination. In many states, the law includes language of “willful exposure,” which might mean there was something more to the story than an innocent pee stop in public (i.e., purposeful exposure of one’s penis to anyone within eyesight).
Still, just because you’re in the clear of being labeled a sex offender doesn’t mean you should pee in public. In California, for example, getting busted doing this will land you in violation of a number of laws — public lewdness, public intoxication, disorderly conduct and more. But the laws of public indecency are often vague for a reason: Society doesn’t want a serial flasher to slip through a legal loophole and live to flash another day, so this basically leaves it up to the cop’s discretion.
Case in point, there’s Dillan Warden, the three-year-old Oklahoma boy who received a $2,500 ticket for peeing in his front yard. The police officer was later fired for giving this ticket, but the lesson remains: Public urination lies in the eye of the arrester. So when in doubt, don’t whip it out — if you find yourself in public with a full bladder, just remember that it’s perfectly legal to pee your pants! You’re not exposing yourself, and you never know if there’s an vengeful cop (and also a school bus) somewhere in the area.
The Pee-havior Changers
While the “broken window” theory of policing works to a certain extent, people will still find a secret alley to pee in. San Francisco, for example, raised the public urination penalty to $500 and nothing changed. So a growing number of cities (or business owners within those cities) are taking to more creative means of dissuading people from patronizing popular public pee spots.
To this end, both Hamburg and San Francisco have employed the use of hydrophobic paint, which redirects a stream of pee directly back onto the pisser’s pants and shoes. It’s a stop-gap solution (people will just find another wall), but costing $100 per wall, it goes a long way in preventing erosion of street lamps, like the one in San Francisco that decayed from too much urine and finally broke, nearly killing a driver.
One business owner in Allentown, PA, employed the use of a shower and CCTV to dump water on a popular late-night pee spot:
India, where public urination is a huge problem, has tried a number of solutions — from painting their gods on walls to entire ad campaigns. Finally, some anonymous masked vigilantes took matters into their own hands by driving a giant yellow truck around and spraying a fire hose at public urinators:
In Chester, England, you can opt out of court and a heavy fine by taking a walk of shame through the city. After showing the CCTV footage of you doing the deed, of course, you’re taken on a tour of Chester, while a guide explains how your corrosive pee is ruining the city’s history.
The Future of Peeing in Public
Just like the Ancient Roman Emperor Vespasiennes, who identified the issue of public urination and built several taxed public restrooms, a few cities are acknowledging that the best way to curve public urination is to simply build more public restrooms and decriminalize public urination.
San Francisco recently installed 27 open-air urinals in Dolores Park, where public urination “ran rampant,” one San Francisco Public Works spokeswoman told the L.A. Times. The open-air urinals are much like those found in 1820s France, in that they’re pretty much a hole in the ground with a privacy screen. Still, it’s more than a tree, won’t kill the grass and should prevent people from doing sex and drugs inside.
Cities like Austin, Edinburgh and London are following suit, with each city planning to build more public restrooms, especially in popular nightlife areas. The Netherlands and London have addressed the problem with a particularly creative solution by installing public restrooms that sink into the ground during the day, and rise only at night.
While it’s good that major cities are recognizing the best way to prevent public urination is to give people somewhere to do it — especially women, who, as these Dutch protests showed, have it even worse than men — it’ll be a while before we all lose the hundred years of puritanical shame that comes with seeing anything even tangentially-related to sex happening in public.
Still, the times of high fines and being branded a sex offender seem to be on the outs, and sensible legislation with increased public restroom availability on the rise. We’re emerging out of the second dark ages of public urination, so things are looking up.
And hopefully, smelling a bit less like pee.