The Case Against Toilet Paper

Apr 4, 2006 by

toilet paperONE OF THE great illusions of the last century that persists to this day is the belief that toilet paper is a hygienic necessity without which humankind would be condemned to a life of filth. This modern myth, widely and blithely held on at least three continents, has driven those who eschew toilet paper into secrecy and silence, compelling many of them to feign that they are toilet paper users to avoid the humiliation of being branded an untouchable freak.

It is high time to end the awkward silence. If we can talk openly about condoms and childbirth without blushing then there is no need to be Victorian about that great democratic and leveling activity that no one, no matter how powerful or wealthy, can escape: the process of cleaning one’s behind. I will do my best to approach this neglected but important subject with a minimum of buffoonery by avoiding the toilet humor and instead sticking to the bare-ass facts.

There is a ferocious ideological debate that exists over what is the most hygienic and civilized way to attend to one’s bum after defecation, but the arguments rarely enter the public arena or even reach the ears of those on the opposing ideological camp due to the taboo—and what many consider unpleasant—subject matter. There is no point however in keeping up the delicate hands-off approach as we are all in the same boat, or at least on the same pot. The unnecessary chasm between the washer and the wiper that renders the two incommunicado is similar to the one between the devout Muslim and the devout Christian who are both praying to the same God yet unable to broach the subject with one another.

Aside from the immediate practical benefits to discussing and understanding the intricacies of toilet sanitation, there are more far-reaching advantages. Hierarchical societies rife with manufactured and propagated images of leaders as demigods could use some frank dialogue about toilet practices. If more people were able to picture their leaders sitting with their ties flung over a shoulder and their dress pants around their ankles, then they might realize that they have more in common with the gods than they realized. This simple recognition of our universal commonality may at least help chip away at the image that our political leaders are superior beings cut from a different mould than the rest of us. If what comes out is the same, then we cannot be all so different inside.

For simplicity I will use abbreviations to describe the two camps at ideological odds over the toilet; I will refer to the ‘wipers’ for those who outside of showers require no more or less than a roll of toilet paper for their cleanup duty and to the ‘washers’ for those who demand a water-based cleansing system, which may range from the grassroots approach of a forefinger and tin can of water to the latest suave digitally operated toilet-bidet-and-dryer-in-one unit known as a “Japanese Toilet.”

Both methods can be executed in a variety of ways. For example, wiping styles differ due to variances on the angles of approach (reaching behind the back or between the legs), the architectural organization (folding, wadding, or wrapping around the hand) and even on the positioning of the toilet paper on the roller (paper paying out away from the wall and from the top of the roll or towards the wall and from the bottom of the roll). But nuances aside, most everyone has a general grasp of how one handles toilet paper.

Yet in a number of industrialized nations—primarily in the U.S.—there are very few people who have a good sense of how the water system works. The first thing to note is that there are far more options available to the washer than to the wiper, although some require sizeable initial investments. There is the affordable “health faucet,” a hose with a water sprayer that is attached on a holder near the toilet for easy access. The ‘health faucet’ serves the same function as its more stately and well-known great-aunt—the bidet—although most wipers know of her more in the context of a bawdy joke than as a bathroom fixture. The bidet (from the French bider – to trot – because one straddles it like a pony) in fact serves as a kind of bridge between washers and wipers: after you finish wiping on the toilet, you move to the bidet where you saddle-up and spray yourself clean.

I have unfortunately never experienced the alleged wonders of the cheerful gushing bidet. Before the age of ten, I lived for several years in a house in Nicosia with a bidet installed in the bathroom, but as I was firmly entrenched within the wiping paradigm, I could not comprehend the point of that oval toilet bowl with its peculiar geyser. I instead dismissed it as an unfathomable bathroom relic or some piece of avant-garde bathroom artwork modeled after a town square fountain.

The most flamboyant descendant of the bidet is the ambitious electronically operated Japanese Toilet, first invented in Japan in 1980, offering complete toilet, bidet, dryer and heating options all in one handsome unit. From what I have read, it appears that humankind has finally puts its technological know-how to something sensible. In a land of venturous forefingers and dreary smearing, a hands-free unit in which you can void, then get hosed down (or up rather) and finally get blow-dried with warm air seems an inconceivable luxury.

One could go into a great deal of detail on the various water-methods, but I intend to focus solely on the most pared-down, basic, practical, inexpensive (potentially free), and owing to its methodology controversial water-based method of them all: the lotah. Just as a harmonica player must first learn to draw a clean single note before trying to bend, so too should a washer learn or at least understand the dynamics of the lotah method before advancing to more complex practices. The lotah after all is the foundation, the progenitor, the mother-goddess of all washing techniques.

The lotah is a water container kept next to the toilet. It can be anything from a nozzled metal pourer resembling a coverless teapot to a water bottle or a paper cup. Leaning forward, you reach behind your lower back while holding the lotah (customarily with the right hand) and then pour a steady stream of water—warm preferably—down your lower back. With the forefinger of your other hand, which is also reaching behind you, you gently rub away all of the debris with the uninterrupted falling stream, a process that takes only seconds when done properly.

The lotah’s simplicity and lack of cost makes it the most popular method worldwide for washers. Due to its intimate hands-on nature any mention of it almost always evokes horror or at least shock in lifelong wipers who envision messy scooping nightmares and turd-encrusted fingernails. The heart of the taboo is there, and that is where it must be overcome.

Now I assume that at least 9 out of every 10 people reading this essay are wipers and are fully informed on the merits—few as they may be—of toilet paper. So instead I am going to offer some of the advantages that lotah washing holds over wiping and hopefully in the process I will be able to flush a few of the myths down the drain.

Hygiene:

Hygiene is the overriding concern for both washers and wipers. When it comes to hygiene, both tend to be belligerent defenders of their cause, with little tolerance for dissent. Each considers the other’s practice barbaric. The wiper cannot get beyond the image of the brown forefinger, while the washer cannot grasp how the act of smearing feces across one’s backside can be considered cleaning up. They both also usually insist on their way or no way. I have known wipers who on hiking trips have gone for three days with jam-packed large intestines because they had no access to toilet paper, as well as washers who would rather scavenge through trashcans for a discarded coffee cup before submitting their behind to the gauntlet of toilet paper.

Wipers often point to the practice common in India and many Muslim countries of not eating or greeting with the left hand as proof that lotah washers have dirty left hands. This tendency may indeed have developed as a necessary measure in a time and place where adequate water and soap was unavailable. But assuming running fresh water and soap is available, the left hand will be not only as clean but cleaner than the right because of the vigorous soapy scrubbing that follows. One need not choose between lotah washing and flossing.

I even contend that conscientious lotah washers emerge from the bathroom with cleaner hands than do wipers, who are lulled into a false sense of security by the flimsy tissue barrier and therefore fail to wash their hands as vigorously. A friend recently told me that his father, while studying medicine at Oxford, conducted a study to see how many layers of toilet paper are needed to prevent the transmission of bacteria. He found that one had to stack 14 layers of single-ply toilet paper to keep the bacteria from getting through. Yet like the woman who thinks she is protecting her eyes by staring at the solar eclipse through a brown beer bottle, the wiper thinks he is safe by layering his fingers with a few ethereal sheets of tissue paper.

Due to the fact that wipers do not use water, they assume lotah washers must approach their behind with the same muscular vigor often required when wiping; they imagine the motion to resemble something out of a hardcore porn movie. But it is the falling water that enables the cleaning; the pad of the forefinger—the same area used for fingerprinting—merely assists the process until there is nothing left but a sparkling waterfall running over moss-free rocks. There is no scooping or scraping, so there is no opportunity for anything to get stuck under the fingernails. And the water also offers the added bonus of washing off the finger in the process.

There is one scenario, however, where first contact can be traumatic. If one does not pour the water down the center of one’s lower back, the stream will miss the target area. A nasty surprise then awaits the forefinger, which will discover a muddy riverbed but no river. The hazard is comparable to the wiper’s risk of her fingers bursting through the toilet paper, although as with the overzealous lover who breaks through his protective sheath, it is primarily a problem of excessive force not miscalculation.

The very fact that lotah washing is a common Muslim practice should suggest it is hygienic. Muslims, despite racist assertions to the contrary, are among the most neurotically clean people. The washing ritual is a religious precept. I once bussed from Casablanca to Paris and recall that on every stop the rest of the passengers—possibly all Muslim—would unload into the public bathroom and set to furiously washing their faces, hands, necks, and even their feet, which they would dexterously hold up under the sink faucet and scrub away.

To those who resist all arguments and maintain that lotah washing is shady business, one can only pose a simple question: if you are sunbathing on the beach and a seagull overhead brazenly drops a white bomb on your left leg, would you rather wipe it off with tissue or wash it off with water?

Financial:

The toilet paper market in the U.S. alone amounts to £2.4 billion. According to a study by the U.S. company Charmin, consumers use a total of 57 sheets per day on average, for an annual total of 20,805 sheets. That amounts to a sizeable chunk of money for yearly toilet paper purchases. Evoking cuddly pink elephants and cherubs on clouds, the paper industry devotes an enormous amount of funds in marketing to convince people that toilet paper is the safe, healthy, heavenly way towards toilet nirvana. I was told that there was a major government PR campaign in Turkey in the 1980s (unlike Turkish Cypriots, Turks are primarily washers) to change the population from washers to wipers. One such ad alternated between images of destitute villagers in Eastern Turkey and pristine forest panoramas, ending with the claim that if you care about your children you should use toilet paper.

It appears this Turkish government effort opened the market for private toilet paper advertisements, which flourished in the 1990s, primarily showing images of well-to-do white Turks living in luxury apartments. One of these television advertisements, I was told, shows a woman returning to her car after having purchased some groceries at a supermarket. Before she reaches the car, however, she returns to the supermarket and buys some toilet paper. As she walks towards her car for the second time, an alien spacecraft suddenly crashes down on top of it. The ad then ends: “You see? Toilet paper saves lives.” The message always is the same: toilet paper will keep you and your loved ones safe and spanking clean, so it is worth the price.

Lotah washing on the other hand costs no more than a container’s worth of warm water, although some toilet paper is useful for drying the toilet seat—where some water may have spilled—and for padding purposes to prevent any soggy feeling afterwards. In a number of Muslim countries a new toilet paper for drying purposes has been introduced with a higher “wet-strength,” which refers to the paper’s resilience against dissolving upon contact with water.

Environmental:

Reduced toilet paper usage means more trees, less greenhouse gases due to the transporting of toilet paper, and less sewage pollution. Also paper and pulp mills that use chlorine-based chemicals to bleach pulp white create dioxins as by-products, among the most toxic of human-made chemicals. The dioxins are also found in the toilet paper.

Health:

Washing can ease the pain of those who suffer from hemorrhoids or backside itches (caused either by chafing or bacterial remnants).

Practical:

Washers need never fear that on backcountry hikes they may have to resort to leaves, stones or squirrels. Water is the most valuable element of an emergency toilet arsenal. Every person who strives for self-sufficiency should at least be versed in lotah washing. But it seems that because the first recorded usage of toilet paper was for the Emperor in 14th century China, everyone since then has reasoned that if the rich and powerful wipe, then that must be the golden way.

Before the first factory-made toilet paper in 1857, wipers used whatever was lying around. Viking-era England used discarded sheep wool; Medieval Europeans used stray, hay and grass; French royalty used lace and hemp; sailing crews used the frayed end of an old anchor cable; Hawaiians used coconut shells; Eskimos used tundra moss and snow (a sensible but austere choice); and North Americans used corn cobs, mussel shells, telephone directories, newspaper, Sears catalogues (until they began producing them with glossy pages) and the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which was sold with a hole punched in the corner so it could be hung on a nail in the outhouse.

Of course there were plenty of washers then too, even among European royalty. There was a public servant in the court of King Henry VIII known as the “Groom of the Stool,” who had the responsibility of making sure that “the house of easement be sweet and clear”—in plainer language, of cleaning the royal rump with his hand. This was apparently a coveted government job because of the opportunity to be alone with the king every day. I assume that water was involved, although I have no doubt that the fellow behind the beheading of his wife and of Thomas More would be capable of any perversion.

Spiritual / Emotional

Washers leave the toilet with a deep sense of invigoration, well-being and renewal, comparable to the feeling one has upon showering after a day’s worth of digging ditches. It is worth quoting at length here from Jack Kerouac’s pinnacle work, Big Sur, in what must surely be the greatest piece of exultation over lotah washing in all of fiction:

“It was he and George Baso who hit on the fantastically simple truth that everybody in America was walking around with a dirty behind, but everybody, because the ancient ritual of washing with water after the toilet had not occurred in all the modern antisepticism — Says Dave “People in America have all these racks of dry-cleaned clothes like you say on their trips, they spatter Eau de Cologne all over themselves, they wear Ban and Aid or whatever it is under their armpits, they get aghast to see a spot on a shirt or a dress, they probably change underwear and socks maybe even twice a day, they go around all puffed up and insolent thinking themselves the cleanest people on earth and they’re walkin around with dirty azzoles — Isnt that amazing? give me a little nip on that tit” he says reaching for my drink so I order two more, I’ve been engrossed, Dave can order all the drinks he wants anytime, “The President of the United States, the big ministers of state, the great bishops and shmishops and big shots everywhere, down to the lowest factory worker with all his fierce pride, movie stars, executives and great engineers and presidents of law firms and advertising firms with silk shirts and neckties and great expensive traveling cases in which they place these various expensive English imported hair brushes and shaving gear and pomades and perfumes are all walking around with dirty azzoles! All you gotta do is simply wash yourself with soap and water! it hasnt occurred to anybody in America at all! it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard of! dont you think it’s marvelous that we’re being called filthy unwashed beatniks but we’re the only ones walkin around with clean azzoles? ” — The whole azzole shot in fact had spread swiftly and everybody I knew and Dave knew from coast to coast had embarked on this great crusade which I must say is a good one — In fact in Big Sur I’d instituted a shelf in Monsanto’s outhouse where the soap must be kept and everyone had to bring a can of water there on each trip — Monsanto hadn’t heard about it yet, “Do you realize that until we tell poor Lorenzo Monsanto the famous writer that he is walking around with a dirty azzole he will be doing just that? ” — “Let’s go tell him right now! ” — “Why of course if we wait another minute… and besides do you know what it does to people to walk around with a dirty azzole? it leaves a great yawning guilt that they cant understand all day, they go to work all cleaned up in the morning and you can smell all that freshly laundered clothes and Eau de Cologne in the commute train yet there’s something gnawing at them, something’s wrong, they know something’s wrong they don’t know just what! ” — We rush to tell Monsanto at once in the book store around the corner.”

Despite the title of this essay, I am not advocating the end of toilet paper. And although I have targeted the cherished practice of wiping, I have not done so out of any missionary zeal to convert all wipers to washers or to put all toilet paper factories out of business. The livelihood of the Maine town I grew up in is bound up in the production of canoes and tissue paper and I would not like to see the 400 workers in the Old Town Mill lose their jobs. I have merely tried to make a stand for a maligned group of people who have been shamed into silence for too long.

“I am an invisible man,” says the washer as he sneaks with his lotah-posing-as-a-water-bottle into the public restroom. Lotah washers surely are among the most unacknowledged groups of wronged people in the West, forced to live on the margins (at least when they are in the bathroom) and denied the basic essentials in public lavatories such as a faucet and lotah in every booth. Unlike other sidelined groups like the wheelchair-bound, who have managed through activism to win some government measures, washers suffer their deprivations in private, too scarred even to organize for some basic rights with their fellow washers. Any protestation will naturally bring to light their toilet practices, sure to provoke recoiling looks of disgust from the wipers.

There is no denying of course that this essay has been an imbalanced sustained attack upon the wiping community. But I have only do so for the same reason that some psychoanalysts try to resurrect suppressed fears in their clients, often with aggressive persistence, in order that the fears may be confronted and erased for good. If this invective results in just a few more wipers viewing washers as equals then I consider that the well-meaning barbs and jabs have not been in vain. And to those brave souls who—motivated by Plato’s parable of the man in the cave who is happy staring into the darkness because he has never experienced sunlight—decide that the ancient practice of washing may merit at least a trial run, I raise a lotah to you. Good luck and good washing.

Constantine Markides

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5 Comments

  1. Julia

    I lived in India for 9 months and started off as a wiper. As I grew more comfortable with my surroundings I decided to convert fully to ‘lotah’ style. Luckily, we had squat pots which makes the water drip down the back and the reach behind action much easier than sitting on a western toilet. I felt cleaner and yes more sanitary than rubbing poo around my arse hole with paper. Upon return to the USA, I chose who I’d share this information with, some got it, some gave me the nasty squished nose look. Travesty, I didn’t see how this method would work without the ability to squat. Reverse culture shock didn’t take hold enough to keep me in the washer camp. Where there’s a will….if you, the author, read this and have suggestions, let me know. Maybe all it requires is a little water everywhere messyness. Thanks for bringing me back to the awareness that washing is possible.

    • Patricia S. Ray

      It’s really quite easy and I do it all the time and wish more people would also! I have a small pitcher of water. After rinsing, apply liquid soap from one of those pump containers (small amount goes a long way!). Then fill the pitcher with warm water and pour it holding the pitcher with your Right hand and use your Left hand to, well ,you know. This is done from the Front, not back (how the hell could anyone do this from the back is beyond me?) Continue until all soap is rinsed away. You’ll Never feel cleaner in your life! Public restrooms in the USA are Horrendous!!

    • Patricia S. Ray

      I Meant to say All this activity is done while Sitting on the toilet, ok?

  2. Yes, you’re right, Julia: it’s hard to get around the ‘water everywhere messiness,’ as you aptly put it, when not squatting. In fact, after one gets over juvenile squeamishness I think it’s the single most compelling argument against washing on sit-down toilets (but in my view it’s not all that compelling when measured against wiping). I think it’s just a matter of perfecting one’s technique…

    • Patricia S. Ray

      My “technique” is perfected….been doing this for the last 20 years now. I Never Buy Toilet Paper. Of course, you’ll need a towel for drying afterwards. None of this is Easy in the Stupid Public Bathrooms in the USA.

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