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4B > The Michigan Daily - Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Why there's a drastic difference
in graffiti between the men and
women's Fishbowl restrooms
By Jessica Vosgerchian I Magazine Editor
Women's restroom photos by Marissa McLain
Men's restroom photos by Sam Wolson
scrawl in the women's restroom nearest the
Fishbowl reads, "Why do people write on
stalls?" In something like a nod to postmod-
ern self-awareness, the line appears in several stalls
in the same large black marker.
The ironic graffitist has a point - from the clut-
ter of graffiti present in different places around
campus, it's clear that defacing campus with pens
is a major pastime for University students. It would
take a thorough survey of students to determine all
the reasons why people put ink to wall, but salient
themes in the graffiti itself suggest some common
To shed some light on the University's tangle of
jotted thoughts, The Statement applied psychol-
ogy studies of bathroom graffiti to two of the most
used restrooms on campus, the men and women's
restrooms in Mason Hall near the Fishbowl. The
comparison between the two rooms shows that
the difference between men and women's restroom
habits definitely doesn't end at standing up and sit-
From an informal survey of graffiti in each of
the restrooms, the inherent differences between
men and women are stark. The samples match the
characterization of men and women's graffiti in the
study "Writing in the Stall: Gender and Graffiti,"
by James A. Green from the University of Otago in
In the survey of a pair of restrooms in a library
at the University of Otago, Green found that men
were more likely to write opinions, insults and rac-
ist comments, and keep to the topics of politics and
homosexuality. Women more often wrote about
relationships and sex, religion and philosophy, and
maintained a more positive, supportive tone with
attempts to cool down heated exchanges.
Other than the debate of politics - which Green
found to be a dominant topic in men's graffiti but
appears more often in the Mason Hall women's
restroom -the graffiti The Statement surveyed in
the last week follows many of the same patterns.
GOING TO THE RESTROOM ON
VENUS AND MARS
The Mason Hall women's room is home to the
"Go Blue Girly Confessions" stall, which The State-
ment first described in a 2007 story about the unof-
ficial peer counseling system that had emerged
through graffiti. While the stall's title has been
removed from the wall, the same brand of confes-
sions and heartfelt responses flourish.
Requests for life advice are so common in the
women's restroom that one woman felt comfort-
able describing her boyfriend's lousy handling of
their one year anniversary for an entire paragraph
before cutting it short to go to class with a promise
to continue later.
"He has been good to me in most other respects,"
she wrote. "To be continued... (have class)"
But one topic that doesn't always foster a sup-
portive discourse is religion, which has spurred a
couple lengthy debates involving fervent believers
and atheists, or alternatively, conservative Chris-
tians and gay-rights activists.
These debates usuallybegin after someone writes
either a message about salvation through Jesus
Christ or something akin to "There is no God." But
sometimes, contemporary social issues are thrown
into the mix, which spawn an even larger and more
tangled thread of responses.
The door of the "Go Blue Girly Confessions" stall
is, ironically, now playing host to a vehement argu-
ment over religious prohibition of gay marriage.
The result is sort of a "Who would Jesus let marry?"
"Jesus is all about love, man," reads one pro-gay
marriage message. "If he lets old and sterile people
into loving, sexual, but non-child producing rela-
tionships, I can't imagine he would have a problem
with gay marriage."
Then a counter-response draws from the Bible to
argue against gay marriage: "Does anyone remem-
ber what happened to Sodom (and) Gomorrah? It
Asidefrom life advice and religious debate, many
of the stalls in the women's restroom feature open-
ended questions like, "If you could change one thing
about society, what would it be?"
Some of several responses were "trafficking in
women (and) children" and "unborn children see
the light of day."
A similar trend in the men's room is questions
with a numbered list beneath them inducing oth-
ers to fill in their answers. But unlike the women's
room social-minded idealism, the men's room ques-
tions tend to be narrower in scope - surveys about
favorite drugs, worst professors and most reviled
public figures (Glenn Beck, Kanye).,
But another prompt highlights the main differ-
ence between the men and women's room - titled
"Post Secret," the prompt's four answer slots are
empty, suggesting that men aren't as interested
in whispering their secrets to bathroom walls as
When men do confess - such as one did by writ-
ing, "I know my GF cheated with me and I'm still
with her" - they don't receive consolatory mes-
sages from anonymous hands.
"Yeah, my bad about that man," reads the sole
The men's restroom is practically the exact
inverse of the women's restroom. Where the lat-
ter is preoccupied with questions of life, love and
the meaning of it all, the former features "find the
hidden number" games, hostile insults and loads of
Male aggression is present even in a game turned
violent. One graffitist invited others to add a sen-
tence to a story he began with, "One day I woke
up and walked to class..." The story continues in a
different hand per line like so: "After doing three
packets of boy ... Then I killed a man. Just to see him
die. I took off his skin and made a suit. I sold the suit
to a homeless man. I THEN KILLED THE HOME-
But as Green found in his study, graffiti in the
men's restroom are less likely to be written in
response to previous notes. Instead ofvying to enter
a discourse with other people, men more often seek
only to let their opinion be known, whether it is
incendiary or something innocuous like "Toy Story
2 was OK..."
COMING OUT TO BATHROOM STALLS
Perhaps the most telling difference between the
men and women's Mason Hall restrooms is in the
treatment of homosexuality.
Besides the occasional flare-up over gay mar-
riage, lesbian sexuality is a common and matter-
of-fact topic on the walls of the women's restroom.
Women write about problems with coming out,
relationships with girlfriends and desire to have
sex with women.
"I have been dating a girl for (four) months (and)
I can't tell anyone," Wrote one woman. "They won't
love me the same. Depressed. Hate myself. HELP."
But in the men's restroom, where the overriding
rule is to make fun of everything, it is unclear what
comments are sincere and which are meant as anti-
gay jokes. But since homosexual comments make up
the majority of graffiti, it's safe to say some serious
social pressure must be behind the running "gag."
Gay-related comments come in several varieties,
running the gamut from usage of the words "gay"
and "faggot" as insults to seemingly earnest solici-
tations for sex, with code names and phone num-
bers to facilitate hookups.
Some threads appear to be graffitists attacking
others for homophobic comments. After someone
wrote "I'm not" with an arrow to a description of a
co-op as gay friendly, another man responded with
"silently wants penis bad!"
Most of the messages contain explicit descrip-
tions of sexual acts and requests for semen and big
penises, but it is impossible to tell the intention of
the writers. They could be openly gay men express-
ing their sexuality, straight men pretending to be
gay as a joke or closeted gay men expressing the
sexuality they long to claim in real life. Of course,
they might not be any of the above, defying labels in
their interest in male-male sexuality.
Take this question, "Anyone bi-curious?" and the
single response, "Yes." Then, there is a response
from a man who wants to try having sex with
another man before he marries his female fianc6.
But many studies of homosexual graffiti hold
that non-gay men are the main authors of gay graf-
fiti and their intent is to insult homosexuality. A
study in the Journal of American Folklore in 1972,
called "Social Analysis of Graffiti," asserted that
gay graffiti was the result of intolerance in a com-
munity, predicting that as homosexuality becomes
more accepted, gay graffiti would decrease.
Another article published in the same journal
in 1976, however, contested that claim, asserting
that gay graffiti is more prevalent in communities
where homosexuality is widely tolerated. The arti-
cle, titled "Anonymous Expression: A Structural
View of Graffiti," focused on a comparison between
restroom graffiti at a liberal university and that of
a control group of other universities, high schools
and other public spaces. The study found that 20
percent of graffiti at the liberal university was
homosexual, compared to just 3 percent at moder-
ate or conservative universities.
According to the study, the higher occurrence
of homosexual graffiti and a lower tolerance in the
community for anti-gay comments are correlated.
"(Statements) expressive of exactly those values
and sentiments whose public expression is denied
will be found on the toilet walls," the article said.
Whatever the case with the Mason Hall men's
restroom, it's clear that someone isn't able to
express their feelings on homosexuality (or homo-
sexual feelings) in public to the same degree that
the stall wall affords them.
ANONYMOUS MOB MENTALITY
Gender differences in graffiti style are clear, but
the reasons for that disparity are not as simple as
men are from Mars and women are from Venus.
Green concluded that graffiti in sex-divided areas
tends to be a manifestation of exaggerated gender
One of the theories Green draws on to argue this
point is communication accommodation, which
is the process of adapting one's language style to
match that of a group. In spaces that are gender
homogenous, people conform to gender norms
more than they would in mixed society.
"In the single-sex context of the toilet, gendered
norms are likely to prevail, as the language styles of
those interacting are likely to be more similar than
different," Green wrote. "However, in the mixed-
gender context, adaptation is likely to occur."
But Green makes clear that conformity to gender
norms doesn't guarantee that the graffitists fit that
same mold in their real lives. He quotes another
study about social identity and de-individuation,
which asserts that people are more likely to be
influenced by group identity when "visual anonym-
ity will further reduce perceived intragroup dif-
ferences, thereby in increasing the salience of the
group." When nothing but gender is known of their
audience, women graffitists resort to girl talk and
men turn to locker room talk.
Green's research on graffiti in mixed-gender
spaces validates the communication adaptation,
since he found that library study booths he sampled
featured little of the hyper-stereotypical language
that characterized the restrooms - instead, graffiti
in the booths ran the middle of the road between
the two extremes.
Graffiti in the study cubicles in the stacks of
the Graduate Library coincide with Green's find-
ings in mixed-gender spaces. Gone are the lengthy
feminine pleas and the most explicit of male sexual
expression. More often, study cubicles were char-
acterized by neutral topics like complaints about
schoolwork and music taste.
Sometimes, particular themes take over indi-
vidual Grad Library cubicles, so that one heater
vent was dedicated to names and dates and another
wall featured homage to musicians like Pearl Jam
and Lupe Fiasco. When Green encountered this
phenomenon in his study, he theorized that graffiti
styles were "bred over time" through imitation.
Green applied this theory to single-gender spaces
as well, explaining that the stalls he studied often
featured a particular tone that dominated the dis-
"An inflammatory graffito may then spawn fur-
ther inflammatory graffiti," he wrote. "Conversely,
a more polite interactive tone may lead to further
inscriptions in a similar style."
THE DARK SIDE OF UNSIGNED
Imitation might be part of the reason one stall in
the Mason Hall men's room features half a dozen
swastikas and at least two instances of the n-word,
but it doesn't explain why the first man to pen the
symbols of hate did so.
Several studies confirming gender differences in
graffiti have asserted that inflammatory statements
- such as gay bashing and racist slurs - are much
more frequent in men's restrooms than in wom-
en's. In fact, some surveys have found that racism
in women's restrooms is almost nonexistent. This
would be the case in the Mason Hall women's rest-
room, where the only racial comments occurred in
one stall. They were "I have yellow fever... and it's
fun," "Mexican clown car... Think about it" and "I
Racial comments in the men's room weren't com-
mon, but when they did appear, they were incendi-
ary and outright racist. The stall with the swastikas
contained most of the racial comments, but as the
wall is covered with messages of all varieties, it
See GRAFFITI, Page 8B
sexual jokes in the