The women’s bathroom is a mythical place, a haven for drunk people to text their exes or a safe bet for anyone in need of a confidence boost. We’ve all seen it — movie scenes where women slur their compliments to strangers, bonding with one another in the dim lighting. And if trashy TV is to be believed, it’s even an excellent hook-up spot.
It’s also a place for graffiti.
We’re Paige and Riley Hodder, two sisters attending the University of Michigan. We’ve found that women’s bathrooms have some interesting — hilarious, wildly inappropriate, uplifting, commiserating, communal — writing on the bathroom stalls. Things like “men ain’t shit” or “be my gf plz” or “middle stall gang!” dominate the sacred space, creating an atmosphere of informal yet important societal commentary. All of this and more got us thinking about femininity, community and systemic recurrences that matter.
And the frequency of the graffiti intrigued us. Throughout the semester, we’ve been exchanging pictures of any interesting commentary we find in the bathroom. After the exchange became a ritual, we began to hunt for the best vandalism on campus. Some of this graffiti students can still find, some of it has been covered over the course of the semester. What we found most common though, was a topic featured in almost every stall: sex.
We were then left wondering: why do the people who use these bathrooms leave these types of messages? What is it about the bathroom that seems to inspire raunchy sexual confessions and kind, loving affirmations? And most importantly, what else can we learn about ourselves by paying a bit more attention to the writing on the stall?
We’ve gone through the trouble of collecting instances of graffiti and talking to women on campus in an attempt to answer these questions. Though not all-encompassing, the deep dive felt like the right place to start. So… let’s talk about the writing on the stall.
“Have all the sex you want”
We knew that Angell Hall, one of the most used buildings on campus, would have interesting thoughts to share. Here, we found one piece of graffiti that sparked our interest: “have all the sex you want.” The suppression of female sexuality is an issue a lot of women face. Friends of ours often express embarrassment over their sexual encounters, and a lot of women seem to struggle to talk about sex at all. The question then circles back to: Why the bathroom? Is it because of the fact that it’s totally anonymous? Or maybe it’s that the audience is exclusive to anyone who is not a cis man? Or, could it be because the bathroom is an explicitly vulnerable place?
LSA senior Riley Annear thinks it’s a combination of these components.
“There is something about the anonymity and yet connectedness that comes with the graffiti on the stalls,” she wrote to us. “It is safe because no one will ever know it was you, and at the same time, it leaves a mark that could have a huge impact on any of the people who enter that stall after you.”
The liberation of sexuality is still a fairly new concept, especially for women, and as we progress towards a world where sex is less taboo, it’s clear to see that people still enjoy a certain level of comfort in anonymity. We don’t know if that’s the sole reason the bathroom has become such a unique space, but for now, we’ll enjoy reading the spicy comments.
“Gay Girls Do It Better”
Among the sexual commentary, there’s an overwhelming amount of graffiti concerning sexual identity. This sexuality-focused commentary pushed our exploration in a new direction, forcing us to think about what about this space makes people feel safe and at times encouraged, to express their women-centered love.
In the first floor Haven bathroom — a little old and hidden, tucked in a corner — there’s a piece of the paint on one of the stalls that have been scraped off. This carved-out space bursts with enthusiastic, colorful conversations on women. There are gay women expressing their joy over their relationships (“Married my wife two days ago” “GSI here – same! Been with my girl 4+ years”), admiration of the female sex (“women>>>”, “Pretty girl!!! Pretty girl???”), or simply just expression of attraction to women (“wLw,” “sapphie pride,” “I’m gay”).
This tiny space on campus wasn’t only notable to us; Annear wrote that it’s one she has “remembered ever since I (she) saw it.” She specifically recalled the declarations of long, committed queer relationships as something that was “so uplifting” for her.
“As someone who was newly in a relationship with a woman and was navigating the world as a queer person for the first time, seeing evidence of a relationship that continued beyond college made me feel so hopeful,” Annear explained.
Whereas the graffiti in other stalls often cover a variety of topics, sexual and not, these stalls specifically are all pretty focused on queer life and experiences. Full of arrows and hearts and direct responses, it’s also some of the most conversational and communal graffiti we encountered, fostering a sense of belonging.
Annear affirmed this sense of community, writing: “I feel like on this campus, there is so little representation of women loving women, it is a really invisible group. So this kind of expression on bathroom stalls was a way for me to feel connected to other women on campus who also loved women. It made me feel so much less alone.”
Anonymous but interconnected, this graffiti has seemingly become a source of momentary and joyful community.
While we found a great deal of positive sexual expression, we also found that sometimes the topics were far more painful. Walking into the Modern Languages Building bathrooms, we didn’t think we’d find much on the black stalls. Yet once we took out our phones and used our flashlights to see, we found “Rape Hurts” scratched into the paint. The fact that the sentiment was scratched suggested to us a permanence of these pained, hurt feelings, and made us believe that someone, somewhere was desperate not to be silenced or covered.
This had been the first piece of graffiti we had seen that was so vulnerable and expressed such pain. Our hearts broke when we read the words, and we wondered if other women had the same reaction. Yet while we were more than willing to be the audience, we wondered if the person who had written the message would ever know that someone had seen it.
And as we continued our exploration, we found more vulnerable messages than just this one piece of graffiti. A sticker plastered on the bathroom stall read, “Porn is fucked up” In the third floor Mason Hall bathroom, we found the conversation: “You are beautiful and god loves you” and with an arrow pointing in response, “God is a misogynist.” Both voices had important messages, and the stark contrast of their sentiments seemed so unique to anything we’d seen inside of the bathroom and out. But what about the women’s bathroom encourages these intense expressions of anger?
With a lack of a male audience, we once again theorize women feel more comfortable talking about uniquely feminine issues. With a society so centered around the opinions and thoughts of men, the women’s bathroom also seems to give way to a place where dominating patriarchal ideals don’t matter, allowing for more vulnerable, outspoken, heartbreaking sentiments to be expressed. All we can do is read these violent, pained, angry proclamations and hope that this helps someone feel seen.
“I understand. Love heals.”
Almost in direct response to the graffiti we found in the prior section came: “I understand. Love Heals” — a glimpse of hope among hundreds of other comments. It embodies another type of graffiti to be found on these walls: words that are affirming, uplifting and truly kind.
This instance was not isolated, as we found validating messages that varied significantly, from “I look at you like you look at your crush,” to “this is ur sign to get ur nips pierced.” It was when coming upon these messages that we realized our investigation had changed. Although we had gone looking for sexual discussions and bathroom confessions, we discovered powerful insights into the social support embedded within graffiti that we couldn’t have anticipated. The writings deeply strengthen our sense of the community created in this space. The creators of the joyful messages seem to us to have recognized some sort of need for validation in these women-centered spaces and sought to fulfill it.
And the encouragement does not go unnoticed. LSA freshman Arianna Ontko described these messages as, “a little gift.” The instances of affirming graffiti are similar to ones she can even remember encountering in high school, offering small moments of positivity. While seemingly small or insignificant, it seemed telling to us that, of all the graffiti, the motivating messages left a lasting impression on her.
All of the graffiti mentioned throughout this essay was concentrated in one or two stalls within each restroom. It seemed likely to us that this was a result of one person writing something and the others following. Though it is impossible to tell who wrote what, or which doodles were directly related to one another, it is clear to us that it takes one person to find the courage or inspiration to pull out a pen and share their thoughts. Some women can be hesitant in sharing opinions (and we’re working on it), but we found it beautiful that one brave person could inspire so many others to join in.
We don’t claim to know any of the definitive answers to the questions we’ve asked throughout — but we do have some ideas. Community and anonymity, recognition and confession, cries of pain and joyful affirmations; we think these complexities might invite and afford the unique space in the bathroom. The transgressive liberation of loudness, but the freedom of unaccountability.
Even as the years pass and coats of paint try to silence these voices, they have continued to return and demand attention. And we think everyone should take a bit more time and consideration to listen.
Statement Contributors Paige Hodder and Riley Hodder can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.