We take our daily habits for granted; the fact that we can walk to our cars on the way to work or see our neckties when we’re tying them goes unexamined until Nature throws a wrench in the works.
After a recent abdominal surgery, I found myself unable to stand or bend over for several weeks. Taking a shower required much planning and had to be divided into stages to accommodate my inability to remain upright. Even tying my own shoes became impossible. And to urinate, I had to sit down to lessen the pain of stitches holding my surgery scar closed.
Showering and tying shoes are, of course, routine for all people as well as being gender-neutral activities. But when injury interferes with a function that also marks our gender, it reminds us of how embedded our assumptions can become when those assumptions are suddenly irrelevant.
It’s a silly issue to ponder on the toilet, really, when you should just be glad to have recovered from a major operation. But there I found myself, awkwardly reflecting on the fact that I could not stand while relieving myself. All the jokes we’ve all heard ran through my mind, all of them associating sitting down with being a woman. And I knew that most men would have the same thought if they’d been in my situation.
I suppose it’s natural that distinctly male bodily functions have influenced our measure of masculinity throughout history. Muscle mass is displayed peacock-like to affirm our virility. Only men can grow beards, so it has become a mark of manhood at various points in our evolution. Abraham Lincoln grew a beard immediately after becoming a candidate for president when he learned that beards represented the manly vigor associated with the western frontier. He never looked back, and until 1913, only two U.S. presidents would be free of facial hair.
Working out at the gym or growing a beard are behavioral choices, of course. But clean shaven men aren’t viewed as effeminate because they choose to shave. Why then, do men choose to stand up in the men’s room? Simply because we can? And why is the alternative so viscerally unacceptable to us?
In a men’s room recently, I noticed men loitering near the urinals because all were being used. A small line of waiting men started to form. Two empty stalls stood nearby. Finally, one man entered a stall, but left the door open and stood to relieve himself in there as well. Like a cat clawing at imaginary kitty litter on a hardwood floor, he was recreating his natural environment that was not designed for his chosen behavior.
I had always been the same, frankly. In some part of my mind, it was easier to stand; fewer clothes to undo, less time required to zip up and get back to whatever I was doing. It made sense. Plus, there was this custom-designed porcelain device in the wall telling me it was the normal thing to do.
We men also proudly point to our superior accuracy, as if the ability to place our stream in a three-inch grouping was a reason alone to stand. But a quick tour of any men’s room proves that the area surrounding a urinal looks more like the carpet bombing of Dresden than the precision strikes of our modern era. If the benefits of accuracy drive our behavior, why do we keep switching off our targeting computers?
And if the practical advantages of standing truly explain our habits, why is the elaborate time, effort, and frankly, pain of shaving our faces not also labeled “effeminate?” Or the inconvenient training required to bench press three times our own body weight?
The alternative, sitting down, offers advantages never considered by the majority of men. It leaves no mess, it’s more private, more comfortable, and takes only seconds longer (approximately 15 seconds longer, according to my Hamilton Frogman diver’s watch). And how quickly do we really want to get back to our desks, if we’re honest?
Since I had no choice during the weeks of my recovery, I decided to conduct a small scientific experiment on my fellow men. I asked them what word came to mind if they met a man who said he urinated sitting down by choice. It was hardly a survey worthy of the respected journal Nature, but the results were revealing.
Most of the men I spoke to seemed uncomfortable discussing the issue at all. This in itself is odd, since I’ve had graphic discussions with most of them about sex and all the other things men talk about amongst themselves—things they’d never discuss in the presence of a woman. But when I asked them what they’d think of a man who sat down to urinate by choice, they became evasive and extremely hesitant to answer. They adopted a veil of propriety and reservation I’d never seen in them before. And all from the suggestion of sitting down when urinating.
Several knew the idea should be free of stigma, but still acknowledged a dichotomy in their thinking. “Girl,” one said, was the first word that came to mind. “Yeah, that sounds horrible when I think about it,” he added.
Another said, “wimp,” but added, “which is funny, because I frequently do so myself. Ah, where’s my therapist’s number…”
Another man sampled was more frank. “Pussy,” he said.
The most gender-neutral response I got still cast sitting down in a negative light. “‘Lazy’ was the first word that popped in my head,” one gentleman said.
The question of sit-or-stand will hardly revolutionize gender discussions in America, and I’m probably not alone hoping it won’t. But at the same time, the measure of our progress is not always found in our obvious and public positions on equal pay or a woman’s right to choose.
Like the men who spent their day protesting the war in Vietnam but who came home expecting dinner on the table, we can be both progressive and presumptuous at the same time. Perhaps the real place to look is where we know nobody is looking; our daily, innocuous behavior that remains surprisingly embedded in our assumptions about manhood. If we can’t even sit without our masculinity falling into question, what other daily behaviors tether us to flawed but unquestioned assumptions?
It’s also these very assumptions that can make the aging process difficult for many men. The ravages of age strip from us the very proof of manhood we hold to be true throughout our lives, including our physical strength and our hesitation to accept help from others. One could argue that the sooner we dispense with these insecurities, the easier it will be to face the inevitable costs of time itself. And that starts with the little things, the daily behaviors we take for granted. Having just spent three weeks relying on my wife to put my socks on my feet for me, I have learned of the vivid correspondence between insecurity and personal dignity. If this is a preview of what is coming, I am not well prepared.
I have recovered from surgery and can now walk and stand free of pain. And once again, I instinctively head straight for the urinals when I enter a men’s room. For now, at least, I do so because I can. It’s the little things we take for granted and sometimes it takes emergency surgery to make us appreciate the simple act of standing. It feels good to be my old self once again.
But as I stare at the tiles in front of me, avoiding eye contact with whoever stands to my left or right, I have started to wonder why we’re there.
Perhaps that’s a question to sit down and think about.
Photo: Flickr/Terry Johnston