Fear of Flushing




“Automatic flushing toilets, which use sensors to detect when a person has finished using the toilet and flush automatically, are designed to improve hygiene and convenience by eliminating the need for manual flushing.”


That, at least, was the plan. But if you walk into a public restroom, fifty-fifty odds say you will find, if you peer into each stall, at least one unflushed toilet. I have seen more remnants of strangers’ meals since auto-flush than I ever saw before.

Meanwhile, I step into the loo, and the thing flushes before I have begun. “Phantom flushing,” this is called. Moments later, the toilet might also double-flush or triple-flush, wasting gallons of water in the middle of a global water crisis. What is wrong with us?

First, I need to understand why people were afraid to flush in the first place. One of the great disappointments of civilized society is our frequent inability to consider others, our determination to put our own wants or fears first. But in this instance, the want or fear does not even make sense. Was the whooshing noise scary? The little metal bar too hard to press? Or did people glow with an auteur’s pride, a sense of triumph left over from toddler training? Burglars often defecate at the scene of the crime. Do they bide their time waiting for the special moment? And does that felonious defecation, so different from a refusal to flush (or is it?) signify contempt?

The act does not necessarily symbolize at all. Burglars are excited, nervous, a little scared. Maybe they had to climb to the second story. Often they are drunk for courage. All of this triggers the urge, it seems, and they do not want to shut themselves in a small room or pause on their wild getaway.

Such a mundane explanation for an act so foul. I am almost disappointed.

As for those whose only crime is to subject the rest of us to the sight of their poop, I asked Quora (which I already regret because its algorithm will decide I am fascinated by the subject) and the best the hive mind could come up with was dementia, deep depression, or fear of the germs on the flushing mechanism. Excuse me? More germs have just landed on your hand than linger on that metal, and you are two yards from a sink with soap and water. Lazy, rude ignorance was the other guess, but how lame, when a schnauzer will kick up dirt to cover his leavings. At this point, the burglar’s gross indecency is easier to understand. I need a big reason for people not flushing—a denial of one’s human vulnerability, say, or a refusal to accept mortality. Flushing one’s own smelly waste cannot be something one just forgets to do. How could toilet training go that wrong?

Well, how could I be so irrational that instead of simply flushing a full public toilet, I race to a different stall and leave others to confront a stranger’s mess? I say flushing should be easy—why would I not do it? Some wired-in terror of contagion, maybe. A desire to find oneself the cleanest shiniest porcelain available. A mistrust of the stranger. At the very least, an indignant refusal to clean up that stranger’s mess.

“Flush” comes from the Latin fluxus, which means a flow. To flush a wound is to cleanse it with water. To flush a wild bird is to drive the bird out of cover—is this perhaps a clue? The flush reveals, exposes, and prevents a stealth pooper from pretending that nothing just happened? Yet flushes can be so lovely. The flush of sexual arousal, the flush of pleased embarrassment, the royal flush of an excellent poker hand. We can be flush with cash or success or enthusiasm. Blood, or joy, flows to us.

When auto-flush arrived, I remember thinking how pathetic it was that people could not even be trusted to flush their own waste. Squeamish and suspicious, we did not bother to explore why, maybe do a little public health campaigning. Instead, we mechanized the process to foil them. Because we could automate, we did, trusting the machine to fix our weird issue. And perhaps it has, because now it is the machine that either overflushes or stops flushing. We humans are no longer responsible for cleaning up after ourselves; we have been neatly separated from our feces. Aesthetically and hygienically, auto-flush malfunctions often enough that we have solved nothing, but we did manage to free ourselves from one more pesky courtesy.

Far from feeling free, I now engage in behavior strange enough to alarm the other restroom users. “Stop that!” I yell at the toilet when it flushes the instant I seat myself, spraying me with water I doubt is any too clean. “No! Not yet!” Once finished, I rise, take two steps, then turn and stare, waiting. If I am met only by sullen silence, I gesticulate, wave at anything that looks like a sensor, hunt for a magic button, dance about to create motion. Once I even sat down again, fully clothed, hoping that a second shift of weight would do the trick.

Automating simple human tasks does not always work. Sometimes it makes us fret and work even harder—think of those customer service telephone flowcharts that reduce you to shrieking, “Just get me a goddamned human being!” Automation can make life easier and prevent mistakes—or it can make us less aware and less conscientious. If we had to automate, why not toilet lids, which would have stopped all our pathogens from flying into the air with every flush? Splashes, droplets, plumes—“We had expected these aerosol particles would just sort of float up, but they came out like a rocket,”  says John Crimaldi, head of the Ecological Fluid Dynamics Lab at Colorado University, Boulder. A study done in hospitals found that flushing a lidless toilet sent C. difficile into the air, and ninety minutes later, those droplets had spread across all the bathroom’s surfaces. Why not automate a lid that could slide over the toilet as soon as the user stood?

But, no. In the interest of high-tech cleanliness, we breathe in bacteria, stare at its source, and forget how to flush or clean or cover. At home, if the lid is not lowered pre-flush, we brush our teeth with toothbrushes that have fecal droplets on the bristles. Imagine what will happen to the rest of our lives, as we automate more and more tasks to hide our laziness or neuroticism. We did a great job-saving time and labor with processed food—that stuff we are supposed to avoid now before it kills us. But how should one learn to cook after being sold a magic appliance that “does all the hard work and you’re along for the ride”? Maybe we just go fishing—there are now sonar fish finders, so we need not know how to read the weather or the water. Or ride a Peloton around the world without leaving our air-conditioned basement.

Automation pulls us inside ourselves, away from our physical surroundings and our physical senses. We automate to save ourselves from thinking—then find ourselves trapped inside our heads. Smart houses decide when we need light, heat, cooling. Smart toilets will, when someday they work, help us forget that we shit and ignore the other humans who shit, too. Sorry to be so blunt. I had hoped some profound philosophical insight might come, but there is nothing lyrical or literary about any of this. The need to flush is basic and practical, and we maybe should have taught one another better before we handed off such an intimate task. But tech addicts us, and free enterprise lives on. Now someone has come up with an auto-flush blocker, in designer prints, that we can carry from one public restroom to the next, disabling the auto-flush to save water. A little extra expense, and we can be right back where we started.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.