Bathroom banter: sex, love, and the bathroom wall.

Author:Matthews, Nicholas
Position:Essay
 
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In a bar restroom just off campus, on a brightly colored stall wall, an anonymous author etched" ... That's what she said" in bold black ink. Immediately below this message, another author scratched out the she and replaced it with "Your mom." Was this a clever insult? Perhaps not. But this exchange that occurred over an indeterminable amount of time contains many levels of nuance. The joking author who composed ... that's what she said was likely referencing a line made popular by the successful television show The Office. "That's what she said" is meant to be a sexually charged joke that one can append to anyone else's sentence, instantly turning the target's seemingly benign statement into a sexual innuendo. The insulting author, however, turned the jest back on the jokester with an insult that trumped the humor and called into question the mother of the jokester's with chastity.

Rather than being simple wall markings, graffiti openly reveals a number of psychologically grounded tendencies and motivations that are typically latent within other settings. Although the digital age offers no shortage of public venues in which people can express their attitudes (e.g., Twitter and Facebook), writing on walls persists. It would seem that the veil of anonymity preserves the appeal of graffiti, as it allows the user of a bathroom stall to express any view, thought, or declaration covertly. This leads to people sharing information they would not publicly, such as sexual propositioning and cruel insults. Moreover, these messages have social consequences. For example, one article (Barnett, 2006) reported that a student wrote his male friend's phone number on the bathroom wall in a men's restroom. The act resulted in numerous phone calls from men inquiring about sex.

Sexual messages are common and drive the existing research on graffiti. Although the bulk of these studies occurred during the 1970s, research over the past 40 years has been much more sporadic, which alludes that the literature may be outdated. What exists suggests a discrepancy over interactive graffiti written by men and women and the prominence of sexual content. Furthermore, evolutionary psychology acts as a powerful framework for predicting and explaining socially sexual phenomena. Despite this, it is largely absent from previous work.

Given the limited current research on graffiti and its strong ability to report on anonymously, yet publicly shared social attitudes, this study provides a much-needed present-day addition to the literature. Additionally, the utilization of evolutionary psychology provides an alternative perspective for approaching and discussing graffiti. The central focus then of the current study is to investigate the differences in content between male and female-authored graffiti grounded in evolutionary psychology. To fulfill this goal, we content analyzed graffiti from the bathroom stall walls of nine bars in a Midwestern college town.

From Cave Art to Bathroom Graffiti

From time immemorial, humans have sought to leave their mark on surfaces, whether in the form of writing, pictures, or symbols. The locations of these markings vary tremendously from caves and trees to tables and toilet stalls. The word graffiti itself is broad in meaning, as it is derived from the Greek term grapheon, which means 'to write' (Phillips, 1996). In recent times, graffiti is understood to encompass writing or pictures of any kind on a multitude of surfaces and is very often considered deviant due to its vandalistic nature.

There are three primary categories of graffiti. The first, tourist graffiti, is found predominantly on rocks, picnic tables, tree trunks and monuments and mostly consists of names and dates. Inner-city graffiti is the second category and is identified by the authors' concern for their own names and identities as well as territorial gang markings. Inner-city graffiti is typically found on large building walls, subways, and bridges. Finally, latrinalia, in reference to a study by Dundes (1966), is the third type of graffiti. It refers to the pictures and messages found in the latrine or toilet cubicle (Anderson & Verplank, 1983).

In terms of category, latrinalia is the sole focus of the current study. This type of graffiti is most appealing due to three primary characteristics. The first is its ability to act as a barometer for social and cultural events. This ability is driven in part by the inherent privacy a bathroom stall offers users (Anderson & Verplank, 1983). The promise of anonymity allows authors to compose somewhat public messages that are relatively free from social pressures.

The second characteristic of latrinalia is its endurance, which is shared to some degree by all three types of graffiti. In an age when the social networking giant Facebook boasts 845 million active users (Facebook, 2012), it is peculiar that something as seemingly quaint as wall etchings still exists. Rather than a passing comparison, the web 2.0 trend of commenting and otherwise leaving one's mark in the digital realm has a striking connection with graffiti. In many ways, one could think of these examples found in emerging media as modern day manifestations of cave paintings or hieroglyphics--the next evolutionary stage in the history of graffiti. Even the terminology found on social networking sites bears a resemblance to graffiti. For example, on Facebook, the place where all public communication occurs is called The Wall. Nevertheless, despite the opportunities to leave digital markers in the online environment, writing on walls continues in the form of bathroom graffiti.

The third and final characteristic of latrinalia is its audience. This final component strongly places latrinalia in a unique position. Rather than speaking to a single friend or to the general masses, bathroom graffiti speaks strictly to the author's sex. Indeed, these stall walls may be one of the few places in the world that guarantees a staggeringly diverse audience along all but a single dimension. This allows authors to speak about gender-specific issues, irritations, and celebrations; yet, it also enables gendered attacks and derogations. In this way, the conversations that occur on stall walls may provide evidence for gender-specific thoughts and behaviors as predicted by evolutionary psychology. As intimated before, whatever it is that compels people to make marks on walls, has existed since prehistoric times.

Our perspective, as guided by evolutionary psychology, holds that humans have old brains that have evolved over a great span of time. Despite the vast differences modern society has compared to prehistory, our minds still act in response to primordial drives. These tendencies are not necessarily--or even mostly--conscious. Rather, they are backstage motivators that guide thoughts and behaviors to seize positive opportunities and avoid negative possibilities. Using this framework allows the formation of hypotheses along sex differences, as a primary focus of this perspective is mate selection and attraction (Buss & Schmidt, 1993; Buss, 1994).

In the remaining review of the literature, we present previous work on graffiti and attempt to incorporate evolutionary psychology into each category of inquiry. In this way, the current study develops hypotheses guided by previous literature but built upon psychology.

Previous Content Analyses on Graffiti

The study of bathroom graffiti received significant attention in the 1970s but more recent studies are less common. The existing research focuses on three primary topics: sex differences, sexuality, and the prevention of graffiti. Due to their popularity and applicability to evolutionary psychology, the extant literature on sex differences and sexuality are of primary interest to the current study.

Alfred Kinsey and colleagues conducted one of the first and most groundbreaking studies of bathroom graffiti in 1953. Kinsey made influential and long-standing claims about the importance of studying bathroom graffiti as a source of information on the suppressed sexual desires of men and women. Their findings revealed a profound difference in graffiti content between the sexes. Specifically, 86% of inscriptions in men's bathrooms were erotic in nature compared to just 25% in women's bathrooms.

Following Kinsey et al. (1953), many studies revisited the topic of contrasting prevalence and sexuality across sex. In general, the findings vary but most suggest that males compose more graffiti overall (Arluke, Kutakoff, & Levin 1987; Kutakoff, 1972; Otta, 1993; Stocker et al., 1972) and more sexual content (Farr & Gordon, 1975; Wales & Brewer, 1976). However, a few studies challenge this conclusion. For example, Otta et al. (1996) found that age drove sex differences in regards to quantity. Their results indicated that females authored less graffiti than males in secondary schools but this difference vanished in college...

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