Where Are They? And When Will They Arrive?
I'm writing this the day after being interviewed by
Larissa Romensky of the Australian Broadcasting Company.
The 2020 coronavirus pandemic was causing deaths and panic.
She had two main questions.
First, why is much of the British-derived world — the UK,
Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States —
The bidet is much cleaner for the user, and better for the planet.
Second, what would it take to change that?
This interview took place March 20, 2020, when the U.S. was slowly
beginning to take the worldwide pandemic of the COVID-19 coronavirus
Many people in the U.S. still believed that it was "just the common cold",
or even that it was entirely a politically motivated hoax.
But the conspiracy theories and lack of serious attention
hadn't stopped the
panic buying and hoarding.
Stores had been quickly stripped bare first of toilet paper,
then facial tissues, napkins, and paper towels.
Larissa wondered why bidets were so uncommon in the non-Asian parts
of the former British Empire.
And, could a world-wide run on the toilet paper supply change that.
Could a pandemic lead to bidets?
The Beginner's Guide to Using a Bidet
As for the first question, I had already included everything I knew
on the topic, at least for the U.S., in my
"Wipe or Wash?" page.
Simplified, it comes down to xenophobia and prudery.
People in the U.S. see the bidet as weirdly foreign and dangerously sexual.
For the few Americans who knew about bidets and wanted one,
a bidet once required a large financial commitment.
The French-style separate fixture was an
uncommon imported item with a high unit cost.
Maybe $1,200 or more.
Plus you had to pay to have it installed,
adding hot and cold water supply lines plus a new drain line.
Plus there's the impracticality of additional space in the bathroom.
Few homes happened to have an empty space the size and shape of a toilet
just waiting for a bidet to be installed there.
But for some time Japanese-style heated and plumbed seats
have dropped the cost to $200 and less.
And, they install on an existing toilet.
A homeowner can easily and quickly install one.
As for the second question, what would it take to drive
significant bidet use in the US and when might that happen,
I had nothing to offer during our conversation.
With some subsequent thought, I have concluded that it won't happen.
The bidet will never have a significant presence throughout
the United States.
There will be some in isolated pockets.
But xenophobia plus a perverse desire for backwardness and poor hygiene
will stand in the way.
Put simply, there's far too much White Trash in the US for a
foreign system of improved hygiene to catch on nation-wide.
The Naughty European Bidet
The initial American exposure to bidets began late in World War II
and continued into the following occupation years.
American troops encountered bidets in European brothels,
some in Italy and especially in France.
Bidets were still uncommon in France in the mid 20th century.
They were developed in the 1600s,
before public piped water supplies
You would have to carry water to your bidet,
or have someone to do that for you.
And, a bidet often took the form of another piece of furniture.
Therefore, the bidet was largely an indulgence for the upper classes,
the aristocracy, and royalty.
Brothels, however, had a practical need for bidets.
And, a brothel isn't a private dwelling, it's a business.
A few bidets, shared by the staff, make a good business investment.
And so, America came to see the bidet as a foreign brothel fixture.
There were just a few bidets in the U.S. and and Britain before World War II.
They were mostly associated with the misguided practice of
douching to prevent pregnancy.
No, douching doesn't really prevent pregnancy.
But this belief was another connection between bidets and hedonism.
Then the few American women exposed to bidets found that they were
especially useful during menstruation.
This meant that the bidet couldn't be mentioned in polite company
in the U.S.
It was associated with an unmentionable trio of "female failures":
prostitution, unwanted pregnancy, and menstruation.
Those Dirty Europeans
Leisure travel became more practical and affordable in the 1950s.
Visits to Europe were no longer limited to the upper classes.
Those Americans venturing overseas found things very different from
their homes and U.S. motels.
The toilet and shower in a European hotel were usually down the hall,
shared with everyone else on that floor.
There would be a sink and possibly a bidet in the room.
Of course the bidet was right there in the room,
it didn't have its own separate small room,
So, if you shared a hotel room with someone,
you really shared any use of the bidet.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S. on the relatively new medium of television,
the word "toilet" was prohibited.
Married couples were always depicted as sleeping in separate beds,
likely wearing more clothing than they did during the day.
But here in Europe, it was bidets and nakedness
right in your own private bedroom.
Here's the sink and bidet in my room at l'Hôtel de Medicis in Paris
in the early 2000s.
It was pretty much the same as when
Jim Morrison stayed here
The Middle Ages: Not As Dirty As Many Think
Queen Isabella of Castile supposedly boasted that she had bathed only twice
in her life: on the day she was born, and on the day she married
Ferdinand of Aragon.
But her own daughter, Juana of Castile, bathed and washed her hair so often that her husband feared she would make herself ill.
Juana's husband, Archduke Philip, worried because the medical theory
of his time held that too much washing could weaken the body.
But too much was bad, while regular washing was seen as helping
It removed visible dirt, and also invisible excretions such as sweat.
Medieval physicians urged daily washing, especially before meals.
They cautioned against washing during epidemics, because sickness could
spread easily in bath houses.
But not all their advice makes sense to us today.
Heating the body would "open the pores to allow disease to enter",
and physicians said that bathing could cure bladder stones and melancholy.
Physicians also urged patients to wash their hair, because medical
thinking of the time held that hair was a form of excrement.
Waste products of digestion in the form of fumes rose to the head
and came out as hair.
And, washing your hair opened the pores of your head and
released bad vapor before it became hair.
The wealthy could afford elaborate bathing facilities and the staff
to operate them.
But all but the poorest could afford a large wooden tub and large jugs
to transport and warm bath water.
Town dwellers could go to the public baths.
By about 1200, there were at least 32 public baths in Paris.
There was, however, one sector of medieval society that actively embraced
poor hygine, including lice — the extremely pious.
Some who came to be saints embraced filth as asceticism.
After Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral,
the monks who prepared his body for burial discovered that his
undergarments were "swarming... with minute fleas and lice."
They interpreted that as a sign of his holyness and status as a martyr.
Professor Harvey wrote:
Most medieval people probably were dirty, and perhaps even smelly,
by our standards — however hard you try,
it must be nearly impossible to make a cold, muddy river
work as well as a power shower and a washing machine.
But only a tiny number of medieval people were truly filthy.
Even fewer actually wanted to be dirty.
Meanwhile, France Was Dirty Not That Long Ago
The first half of the 20th century brought two world wars to France.
Between 1940 and 1945,
over 16% of French buildings, more than 2 million structures, were damaged.
A quarter of those were damaged beyond any hope of repair.
Many communities in France did not have public water and sewage treatment
until after World War II.
Through the 19th century in France,
the lower classes simply did not bathe or wash their clothes.
Church authorities considered the human body to be "an instrument of sin".
Too much care for the body would lead to people looking at their body,
then touching it, and from there straight into "evil thoughts".
The medieval idea of the filthy pious ascetic was still alive.
The schools and the army became the agents of modern hygiene,
starting in the mid to late 1800s.
An 1865 law required teachers to make sure that their students
washed their hands, faces, necks, and feet;
that their hair was free of parasites;
and their clothes were reasonably clean.
But progress was slow.
A Moveable Feast
described malodorous shared toilets in apartment buildings in 1920s Paris.
From "A Good Café on the Place Saint-Michel",
its first chapter:
Café des Amateurs was the cesspool of the
Rue Mouffetard, that wonderful narrow crowded market
street which led into the Place Contrescarpe.
The squat toilets of the old apartment houses,
one by the side of the stairs on each floor
with the two cleated cement shoe-shaped elevations
on each side of the aperture so a locataire
would not slip, emptied into cesspools which were
emptied by pumping into horse-drawn tank wagons at night.
In the summer time, with all windows open, we would hear
the pumping and the odor was very strong.
The tank wagons were painted brown and saffron color
and in the moonlight when they worked the
rue Cardinal Lemoine their wheeled,
horse-drawn cylinders looked like Braque paintings.
Then from the third chapter, "Shakespeare and Company":
home in our two-room flat that had no hot water and no
inside toilet facilities except an antiseptic
portable container that was not uncomfortable to
anyone who was used to a Michigan outhouse,
but it was a cheerful gay flat with a fine view
and good mattress and springs for a comfortable
bed on the floor, well and tastefully covered,
and pictures that we liked on the walls,
I told my wife about the wonderful place I had found.
Less than 500,000 new dwellings were built in France between 1945 and 1955.
However, by the 1970s France was building that many dwellings annually.
Indoor plumbing for sinks led to toilets, showers, and tubs.
In the mid 1970s French children were 10 centimeters taller and
living 10 years longer than in the mid 1940s.
See Steven Zdatny's
in The Journal of Modern History for the details.
Some have described this trend as France finally modernizing,
accepting the germ theory of disease and fighting it with improved hygiene.
Others see it as westernizing, following the American
trend of domination by megacorporations like
Northrup Colgate–Palmolive Grumman
who sell the trappings of modern clean life.
Bidets Spread Around The World
Bathing has been extremely important in Japan for centuries.
But it had always occurred in onsen,
natural pools at springs.
The American inventor Arnold Cohen founded the American Bidet Company in 1964,
adding a spray attachment to a toilet seat.
Americans wanted nothing to do with this.
But in 1980 the Japanese company Toto unveiled the Washlet,
basically Cohen's toilet-bidet combination plus a wall-mounted control panel,
and the spray bidet took off in Japan.
Above and below are a toilet at the Khaosan World Asakusa Ryokan and Hostel
A small panel beside the seat controls water spray pressure, temperature,
and direction, plus a drying air stream.
The hostel has added English labels to help their foreign guests.
So The U.S. Is Next, Right?
The bidet is too clean, and too foreign.
French peasants of the early 1900s
"considered grime a sort of carapace",
and even "regarded strong body odor as a sign of rude good health
and sexual prowess" as
By the 2000s, a century later, most French people want to be clean,
while a large number of American peasants are celebrating dirt.
But not out of piousness.
I'm writing this the day after the ABC interview,
and at my parents' house in southern Indiana,
which is deep in the Neo-Confederacy.
Yes, like all the other houses and trailers shown here,
this structure is occupied.
Indiana had been in the Union during the Civil War.
The northern side, against slavery.
But a century later, when progress in Civil Rights was starting to
threaten White Supremacy, a lot of the U.S. decided to switch sides
to the Confederacy.
The town where I grew up, with a population still under 3,700,
has recently been listed by the
Southern Poverty Law Center
as the headquarters for three white nationalist organizations operating
This small town was getting the attention of the
New York Review of Books,
The New York Times,
The Washington Post,
in the UK
They and many more national and international media outlets
described the organized racism and violence.
Someone from this small town in Indiana was a major planner of the
"Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
That was the event where various neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups
were described by the U.S. President as "very fine people".
This isn't The South, so people work extra hard to play that role.
There's a town in southern Indiana named Versailles.
People in Indiana are careful to mispronounce as "VUR-sales".
There's a county named Dubois.
It is carefully mispronounced as "DOO-boys".
The town of Peru is
is carefully mispronounced as "PEE-roo".
Because, you see, if you pronounced them correctly it would show
that you have a little education, and that's bad.
Besides, they're all non-English names or words,
and mispronouncing them is another way to show your dislike of foreigners.
In the past six months I had been to Georgia for a one-week work trip,
and three week-long trips to Texas.
No one in those actual southern places spoke such uneducated approximations
to English as what you find here.
The locals insist that the national capital is "Worsh-in-tun".
"Ain't" is inadequately uneducated, so they work harder
to always say "hain't".
The below is the house where my family lived when I was little.
It used to be nice.
But it seems to have had no maintenance for the past 30 years.
My father practiced dentistry.
So of course he recommended dental floss to his patients.
He told me of patients who would say:
Aw, doc, Ah cain't use thet strang.
Good oral hygiene didn't fit their intentionally crude lifestyle.
But beyond that, they didn't allow themselves to say "dental floss".
They had to call it "thet strang" to demonstrate that the
role they were playing didn't know what it was,
weren't able to pronounce it if told,
and maintained a primitive lifestyle.
Their role models are pawn shop employees and bounty hunters.
Businesses fail and property is abandoned.
Gun stores with Confederate flags do OK, though.
Literacy is not prized.
Higher education is mostly unknown.
"Haneing Baskets" are sold.
The hillbilly play-acting includes more than the speech.
There's the personal grooming and dress.
Here's a guy wearing three different camouflage patterns at the same time.
Just in case.
There wasn't any hunting season on.
But Hunter cosplay is a big part of his persona.
reported on a recent
study by Penn State University researchers
which concluded that men can be unwilling to recycle or use reusable
shopping bags because they perceive those behaviors as gay.
Researchers should look into grammar, diction, and hygiene.
The bidet would be too foreign,
and too gay.
People like this wouldn't have anything to do with bidets.
And today's America has a lot of Neo-Confederates.
Why Do People Hoard Toilet Paper?