Among the many alarming things that have emerged in the few past weeks is Americans’ apocalyptic obsession with toilet paper. Despite industry experts’ assurance that there’s plenty to go around, people insist on loading their carts (and trucks) with two-ply. Shelves are empty. Restrooms are being robbed. One Oregon police department even had to issue the following statement: “There is a TP shortage. This too shall pass. Just don’t call 9-1-1. We cannot bring you toilet paper.”
When random fears like this bubble to the surface—creepy clowns, sonic attacks, satanic cults, even Y2K— it tells you something about a given society. But what are we to make of the sudden emerges of TTAS, or toilet tissue anxiety syndrome? Is this a real issue? Is it a microcosm of our daily defecatory experience? Or are we just treading water in the oral-anal phase of societal development?
My eye-rolling teenaged daughter would put me firmly in this last camp. But this particular issue is one that’s close to my… heart. Because some years ago, when I was a young traveler, I had the same anxiety. For years I traveled with my own toilet paper, because I was afraid—no, terrified—that I would end up in a place where there was none.
I had seen many such places, in East and West Africa, in southeast Asia, in the Caribbean. There would be a hose or fixture or a bottle or kettle setting next to the toilet. But I had no understanding of the logistics, protocol or decorum involved. I lived in Italy for a whole year as an exchange student with a bidet in my room thinking it was just a weirdly low sink.
It was, but I had no idea it was a sink for your nethers. If I’d known then what I know now, my life would have been so much easier, much less anxiety-ridden, and have seen much less chafing. I have traveled where Mr. Whipple would never dare to tread, and have some hard-won wisdom to share.
First, a thought experiment: If you were walking barefoot through your yard, and felt the unpleasant squish of fresh dog do through your toes, what would be your reaction? Would you think, “Geez, I need to get some dry, easily torn paper to smear this off my foot”?
No. You would quickly get yourself to a hose, or a sink. You would find some soap. And you would scrub your foot off using your hands.
All of which is a long way of saying: Toilet paper is not the best system.
To take it a little further: You don’t really need toilet paper.
TP is nice, but humans got along fine without it for at least 70,000 years (I’m pretty sure I read that in Sapiens) if not much longer. It’s only recently that people in certain countries have become dependent on these small white squares.
What did they use before that? What do billions of people use right now? And what should we be using today?
And a hand.
There, I said it. No one talks about this, but they should. It would save countless trees, endless amounts of water, and untold of hours of worry.
Cleaning yourself this way is not hard to do. The logistics are simple. It’s the mental and cultural gap that’s a challenge to cross. But what awaits you on the other side? A blissfully clean backside.
Depending on the water dispenser at your disposal, you can go about this several ways.
In Japan, they have fancy toilets that shoot water from all different directions, and at all temperatures.
In much of Europe they use the bidets.
In Thailand you’ll find a hand sprayer attached to each toilet.
In other places, you’ll see a bottle or kettle next to the toilet.
In normal times in the U.S., you can order any number of bidet fixtures to your toilet. (Now you may have to wait.) But strictly speaking, these technologies are just variations on a theme: getting water to your exit hole, and you don’t need a special tool for that. With the bidets and sprayers, it’s simpler, but with containers you simply pour the water onto the middle of the small of your back and it naturally funnels down where you need it to go.
After the water reaches the soiled area (not before) use your other hand to help wash away the waste. Depending on your diet, this can take varying amounts of time and water. But with practice, it is very quick and efficient. In Italy (I now know) people put a dab of soap on their hand before cleaning.
If you want, and you have the luxury, you can use a little TP to finish/check the job you did. But it’s not necessary. Once you’ve cleaned (No. 2) or rinsed (No.1) yourself , your rear is ready to go. If there’s any residual water, do a little Taylor Swift and the rest will quickly vanish. Trust me.
Afterwards, wash your hand with plain soap. As long as you rub them together six-plus times under running water, the bacteria should be effectively gone.
This all takes some getting used to, and I don’t expect it to be widely adapted any time soon. But once you become skilled at it, you will wonder how you got by all those years just rubbing your feces with dry paper.
You will wonder how we ever got into this situation, and you will have hope that we can get out of it. At least until we run out of soap.
Frank Bures is the author of The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World's Strangest Syndromes .