Communal showers

CW: oblique reference to abuse (no details)

It should be acknowledged, straight up, that most anarchists' experiences with communal showers – that is, with facilities that may be used by multiple people at the same time, without stalls – would be in the context of schools, prisons, or perhaps even in a barracks, if they had the misfortune to live in a country with military conscription or the even worse misfortune of joining the armed forces voluntarily before they knew any better. Not good experiences, in other words.

I wasn't very well prepared for communal showers in high school, i.e. the only institution in which I was regularly expected and able to use such facilities. My understanding is that, in other countries, there is (typically gender-segregated) use of communal showers in schools from a very early age, starting around 6 or 7. I'm not completely certain about it, but this seems like a pretty good idea to me, at least compared to what seems prevalent in North America. Experiencing communal showers from an early age means people will have long been exposed to the fleshy unremarkability of others' naked bodies.

To have this experience well before puberty hits, especially, seems like a key thing to me. Puberty is when many young people (quite understandably) get very confused and stressed about their bodies. Yet, in North American society at least, this is precisely the same time when people are most likely to first encounter the prerogative that they shower after gym class.

A theory of how this happened (in North America, at least):

Up to a certain age (which probably varies from person to person), kids need to be supervised in any sort of wet and slippery context – and particularly an unfamiliar one, or a public place, or a context in which there are lots of kids and they are hyping each other up and liable to go buck wild. I had such one experience of this, in the second grade, when we went on a school field trip to the aquatic centre. Before high school, the locker room at this aquatic centre was my only experience in a shared space with naked men and boys. There were adults, strangers, who were showering naked in another part of the space, well within view of our position at the benches. I remember I was very puzzled when my fellow schoolmates (all boys, of course) started taking their clothes off, including underwear. The good Christian that I was, I shoved myself inside of a locker and changed from my underwear to my shorts in there.

Again, we were kids, and we were overseen by a teacher, as we should have been. Like, I literally locked myself in a locker. I forget his name, but I recall that he asked me if I was doing okay.

Alas, there is something about this that – in a different sort of telling of the story – could come off as creepy. It probably wouldn't be too off-putting for most readers if I was speaking about a mom overseeing two very small, very naked kids in a bathtub. But the idea of it hits different when the adult is a man, as the kids get bigger, and so on. No need to get into why.

By about puberty age, kids are presumed mature enough to not slip hard on the floor, eat shit, and start up the waterworks, in that order. Puberty is also when they start to smell kinda bad if they don't shower (according to society!). And thus, showering is enforced – first and foremost by gym teachers, but this is all practice for these kids' bright futures as athletes following the orders of coaches, soldiers following the orders of commanding officers, prisoners following the orders of screws, or down-and-outs following the orders of social workers.

The sudden collision (usually between 10 and 14 years of age) of

  1. puberty (an eldritch biological nightmare),
  2. nudity (for most North Americans and many others around the world, a mystery that is probably conflated with sex, which is a mystery unto itself), and
  3. the larger context of a carceral institution and all of its endemic cruelty (which is precisely what a school is)

can fuck people up. For some, the anxiety and the sense of discomfort of being naked will dissipate, if it was ever felt at all – but that is not true for all people, many of whom get themselves out of institutions that required communal showering as soon as they can and make a point of never returning to another. This has been happening for a long time, and many people with these unhappy memories of communal showers (and perhaps a generally nudity-averse attitude to boot) are the parents of children, the administrators of institutions, the people who purchase gym memberships, the people who build and/or purchase small domiciles (which is to say, “starter homes”). And collectively, they have brought about a great diminishment in the number of extant communal showers in North America (and elsewhere) in a hundred different ways that shan't divert us now.

(Addition, February 12, 2020. As I noted already, communal showers have typically been gender-segregated spaces. In the pre-Stonewall era, these spaces may have been presumed to be devoid of sexuality, both by the architects and the people who passed through them – but this quickly became untenable in the decades since. Men, certainly, are now cognizant of the possibility of their bodies being subjected to an erotic gaze; this has had many social implications. I regret my failure to mention this earlier, but it is a big topic and probably deserves its own post one of these days.)

It is what it is – and, in my humble opinion, another refutation of the idea of Progress. But moving on!

In my city, and I think most places in North America at least, most households now have a single-person bathtub/shower in a private bathroom. People shower alone, with the presumption of complete privacy. North America has a completely atomized culture of hygiene, in fact. Hygiene is each person's individual responsibility. It is up to each person to remember and find time to take a shower, which we know is actually difficult for a lot of people a lot of the time (see: depression! also, homelessness!). There is neither shared routine nor shared practice around which a family – be it of kin or queers – or a community can coalesce. There isn't even a possibility of developing such routines and practices there are very few accessible, affordable communal bathing spaces left. To the extent that such spaces exist at all, they are often explicitly sexualized (and typically gender-segregated) spaces, e.g. gay bathhouses, or one has to pay not just for access to the showers but also for access to the attached gym. Why bother, if all you want to do is shower, and you probably already have a functional shower at home?

Things could be, and should be, different. First of all, a shower in every home is inefficient, unecological, and until recently not the reality at all. A wholly collective way of life probably isn't for everyone, but neither is a wholly autarkic existence a possibility for everyone, insofar as that existence ought to include all aspects of a well-lived life. Communal bathing facilities could be, and have been, a means to provide masses of people the possibility of a certain degree of hygiene and comfort without every person needing to construct and maintain their own facilities (or more realistically, pay a landlord to have access to an apartment with adequately functional facilities). This was the case in my own city until well into the 1960s, if not significantly later.

It's fucked that, in North America today, communal showers are almost wholly associated with institutions that control the subjects that pass through them (prisons, schools, armies) – because they could be, and have been, freely entered into, according to a person's own will (though probably in exchange for a bit of currency, in the context of most present-day and historic urban societies). The quality of dedicated facilities such as these ought to easily match, if not exceed, the facilities of most affordable apartments. Were communal baths clean enough, close enough, and affordable enough, I think a lot of North Americans would use them!

Architecture, and the layout and organization of space in general, does a lot to determine sociality. I know some friends who have built houses on land they've managed to gain title to. It's unfortunate, I think, that their houses don't look that different, very often, from houses that anarchists didn't construct. Oftentimes, there was no innovation beyond what was already acceptable in society at large.

The most boring people alive are also living in houses where the kitchen and the living room are in the same open space. There is nothing usefully transgressive in this idea.

Consider the following idea, instead:

The next time any anarchists have the chance to build their own house with a bunch of people that they trust enough to live with, or the next time someone is knocking down some walls in a squatted building that they want to put some work into, they should consider the construction of a dedicated shower room that is designed to be able to accommodate more than one person at a time.

The shower room should be adjacent to, but definitely separate from (to a greater degree than is the case in most North American private bathrooms), any toilets; I think some kind of intervening hall (or locker room-type area) would probably be a good idea.

The dedicated shower room does not need to be fancy. It just needs to be well-constructed (so as to avoid expensive plumbing problems).

Perhaps, in most cases, the prospective number of residents won't justify communal showers (I would guesstimate the sweet spot is around ten residents) – and obviously, in many cases, the residents in question will carry all the baggage of growing up in North America, even if they are anarchists. Perhaps they don't really care that much about nudism, y'know? Especially at the cost of other relationships (for instance, with conservative rural neighbours).

But, to the extent that people can recognize that there is a problem in a completely individuated practice of hygiene (see: this entire post!), it should also be recognized that the reproduction of the problem is principally the fault of architecture. Almost all residential units are built with an individuated idea of hygiene in mind, and thus it's hard to do anything different.

It's possible, too, that these residential units will outlive the people who built them (and the conservative rural neighbours too), and that these new occupants will have different ideas about nudity then the people who built the place, perhaps borne in part by a hotter climate (and on that subject, you should find the time to read Desert if you haven't yet).

A final word.

Communal showers can be used privately, of course. The shower in my current apartment, on the other hand, cannot really safely accommodate more than one person, even if I've occasionally had a shower with a friend. So, even if my roommates and I wanted to do things differently and start having little collective spruce-ups, the way this place was constructed decades ago determines that we probably can't do that – not without going full HGTV on the bathroom, at least.