There is a memorable scene in the 2012 film This Is 40, where Pete (Paul Rudd) is caught pretending to use the toilet so he can scroll on his iPad in peace. “I know you’re not actually pooping,” his wife Debbie (Leslie Mann) screams. Pete says nothing and returns to the screen in front of him.
It was only recently, when my own girlfriend commented on the “abnormal” amount of time I supposedly “spend on the loo”, that I began to wonder if all men are destined to devote the majority of their adult lives to using – or pretending to use – the toilet. Or if I just had a lot in common with a fictional character.
According to research carried out in 2018 by bathroom company Pebble Grey, Pete and I are not alone. The study found that a third of men in the UK spend more than seven hours a year on the toilet, “enjoying respite” and “avoiding stress”.
Curious, I designed a survey of my own and sent it out to 38 men aged between 19-55 to ask about their toilet habits. Sure enough, 92 percent reported they spend 20 minutes or longer sitting on their porcelain thrones. Just over 70 percent said they took upwards of 30, even 40 minutes. Six people admitted to regularly spending an hour on there (fucking hell!).
For comparison, I asked 10 women the same question – all said they spent no longer than 10 minutes in the bathroom.
According to US healthcare provider Geisinger, the average bowel movement takes 12 seconds. While it can sometimes take longer, the company advises people should not need to spend more than 10 minutes on the toilet. Women: Good job. Men: What is going on?
Asked what they were doing in there for so long – aside from the obvious – 84 percent of the men I surveyed said they peruse social media, while 68 percent watch videos and 62 percent read the news. The next most popular options were catching up on emails and texts (49 percent), and watching an episode of a TV series (24 percent). Some others said they read a book (14 percent) or make calls (8 percent).
A few blamed “boredom”, others “relaxation” and “hygiene”. But the most common response, with almost 80 percent of the vote, was that they were in there “to get some alone time”.
Andy, a 30-year-old who lives in Belfast, tells me he uses his average 25-minute toilet time to plan meals and “mull things over” – but admits it has caused a “few arguments” with his partner.
“It’s just something I’ve always done,” he says over the phone, adding that what he has to mull over has changed as he has gotten older. “Now that I live with my girlfriend, I often use that alone time to plan dinners for the both of us and just generally take stock of the days ahead and what I’ve got going on.”
“That time on my own can be very productive,” he says.
Meanwhile, Harry, 25, tells me he has taken “roughly 20 to 30 minutes” to go to the toilet “for as long as I can remember”.
“It genuinely can take me longer to do what I’m in there to do,” the London-based sports teacher says with a laugh, “but I’d be lying if I said I’m not usually longer because I’m on my phone or watching the footy.”
Speaking to psychotherapist Benjamin Jackson, who specialises in men’s issues, it becomes clear that men might rely on this alone time to “build back up diminished testosterone levels”, caused by pressures such as socialising, work and even sex.
“I call it cave time,” Jackson says, acknowledging the cliché. “I always ask the men I work with where they get this time to themselves. If they live in small flats or big house shares, that place can often be the toilet.”
Explaining his hormonal theory further, Jackson tells me: “Oxytocin [the social bonding and intimacy hormone] decreases testosterone, so if you’ve got a man spending a lot of time in a room on his own, he is actually trying to increase depleting levels so he can be the partner [or housemate] that he feels he ought to be.”
Habitually, he says, men tend to perform “single focus mental activities, like watching a football match or reading the news” in order to ease stress. “According to basic gender stereotypes, men prefer thinking and doing in these situations while women prefer feeling and being,” Jackson says. “That’s why – generally speaking – talking to friends is so much more important for women.”
It adds up, considering 63 percent of men who responded to the survey said they purposely took longer in the bathroom when they felt frustrated at work or at home. Why? Because they consider it a “safe space”.
As Andy, from Belfast, puts it: “It’s a chance to reset and it is guaranteed uninterrupted time for you and you alone.”
Clearly, the bathroom is much more than a space for men to relieve bodily waste – it is one they occupy for psychological relief too, which actually says more about the state of men’s mental wellbeing than it does about why they spend longer in the bathroom than women.
The shame so many men associate with talking about their feelings is well known: A 2019 study revealed 58 percent of men in the US, UK, Canada and Australia still feel under pressure to be “emotionally strong and to show no weakness”. It’s hardly surprising, then, that what Jackson appears to suggest is that a man’s ideal therapy session – which is essentially what his trip to the toilet becomes – consists of him spending up to an hour on his own, without having to talk to anybody at all.
“The cave is an important place,” Jackson says, “so long as it doesn’t become a den of avoidance.”
The fact one survey responder described the toilet as somewhere he could enjoy “a quiet moment to myself without any of life’s pressures” suddenly seems a lot more poignant than it did before.