The Accidental Prude

The Accidental Prude

A couple weeks ago, a co-worker wanted to show me the campus gym where he works out, warning me in advance that the place it was a completely no-frills affair.

He was right.

It was just as it might have appeared maybe fifty years ago; the only new equipment were a couple stationary bikes that might have been put in there reluctantly, but otherwise, the gym would have made Charles Atlas proud: simple, direct and to the point.

Next, we go into the dilapidated locker room: almost Spartan with a gray concrete floor and matching walls, shabby lockers and old, creaky benches that don’t invite long periods of sitting. At the showers, I remark that there’d be no way in hell I’d go in there without flip-flops, but it was the adjacent bathroom that make me pause.

Did I mention this was an old-school gym? If not, bear that mind as you picture a bathroom that looks somewhat dingy with about 10 or so toilets in a row. Without stalls. Nothing to separate them. Nothing at all.

What is this? Ancient Rome?

That’s when I stopped myself. When did I get to be so prudish? Why would this shock me or disturb me? Granted, we consider using the bathroom to be one of those rare moments of solitude that we get in a busy day—public toilet or not—but why did I have such a visceral reaction to the prospect of using the latrine next to someone else?

Up to now, there’s no way I’d ever consider myself a prude. I feel I have a healthy understanding for the limits of good taste and am a very accepting person. I don’t snicker when I see a fat guy with his shirt off, or do the tee-hee stuff when I see some ancient sculpture or painting with a woman’s bared breasts. I don’t find public nudity offensive (in and of itself) or a ribald joke a cause of unending discomfort.
But there are sometimes when I act like the reincarnation of an uptight Victorian, and I suspect that maybe it’s one of those societal things. You know, like how commercials always play up to the stereotype that men don’t ask for directions, are hopelessly stupid, and want to order a new cable package that offers five thousand sports channels? I mean, it reflects reality, right, and we have to behave that way.

Fact is, no matter how much our society celebrates its stupider members with scatology, masturbation jokes and insanely lame single entendre zingers on television, we’ve also developed a pathological obsession with germs and perceived dirtiness. So while the fat guy in an undershirt at the ball game doesn’t phase me one bit, the prospect of sitting next to him in the john is the height of urban horror. It’s gross! you want to scream. It’s disgusting! Germs! Germs! We consider ourselves to be so easygoing and tolerant, but get within in millimeter of what we consider to be unclean and our hair turns white and we’re convinced that Western civilization is about to collapse into a quivering, filthy mess.

Now, I’m not arguing for a friendly, thigh-slapping crap with twenty other people, but I just find it fascinating how we’re conditioned to view certain things as embarrassing or even repulsive. We can listen to a fart joke (apparently President Bush likes those) or a risqué comment, but a guy with his fly down? Oh my God, cover your eyes lest you turn to stone. I mean, what kind of a pervert would not check his fly before leaving the bathroom? And the woman with the swatch of toilet paper on her heel? Burn the shoe, and quickly!

Or maybe it’s less to do with germs and more with our reaction to the forbidden. Better yet, our thoughts about the hidden. When we’re at work, we deal with our co-workers in a particular manner, one that naturally precludes anything bordering on intimacy. It’s what flashes through our minds that provides a level of discomfort when confronted with the prospect of sharing a bathroom with said co-workers. As accepting and open as I define myself, I go out of my way to use the bathroom on a separate floor from where I work. Why? Because I don’t want to hear my supervisor take a piss or anything else. It’s like when we’re young and we view teachers and the principal through almost godlike lenses. Once you’ve been in a situation that exposes them (ahem) to be human, your perception changes. They’re no longer this powerful being from Mt. Olympus; they’re the guy next to you who farted while peeing.

It would be the same like going to the gym and undressing in front of a co-worker. You try so hard to appear non-plussed, like it’s the most natural thing in the world, but if it’s someone within your social orbit (who isn’t a friend or a family member), the prospect of seeing that person in the all-together has a different effect than if that individual was a complete stranger. If you don’t believe me, think about it for a moment and consider yourself in a situation of “forced” intimacy. You’ll find yourself averting your gaze to the point where it looks like your deliberating averting your gaze. Or, how about if you might be in the restroom stall at the same time as your office mate: I guarantee you will suddenly not need to go and be out of there in a flash.

I don’t know the cure for this, or even if there is one. It’s so much part of our social fabric that it’s impossible to extirpate. I also don’t think it’s about personal space, but rather some learned abhorrence of the human body that comes from God knows where: family, friends, religious figures, you name it. So no matter how hard you try to just be and let be, even the most open-minded person will have this disproportionate response to germs, the bathroom or unintended nudity. The non-prude suddenly morphs into the proper gentleman.

That’s what I’ve become: an accidental prude. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go wash my hands thoroughly.