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Incredibly Obscene Research in the Age of Purity: Four Pioneering Studies on Toilet Graffiti

By Hans Schouwenburg

In a previous article I showed how fraternity students in the Utrecht University Library use phallic symbols to define their mutual identity vis-à-vis other groups. This time, I will look at the researchers who have studied toilet graffiti. I will review four pioneering studies on the subject that were published in the decades just before and after World War II by a recalcitrant etymologist, a famous group of sexologists, an informal seminar at Northwestern University, and a Freudian folklorist respectively. At the end of the 1960s these publications culminated in a true graffiti mania in the social sciences. In themselves they provide four interesting sources about ground-breaking research into dirty topics during a time when such things were strictly taboo.

Read’s Low Element in the English Vocabulary

The story begins in the 1920s with a remarkable American etymologist: Allen Walker Read (1906-2002). Read, a postgraduate in English at the University of Iowa at the time, became interested in ‘racy words’ and other folk dirt. He was the first American folklorist who published, without mentioning the word itself, on ‘fuck’. Prim and proper America was far from ready for his shabby endeavors. Thus, after an extensive fieldtrip through the United States and Canada in pursuit of toilet wall writings in the summer of 1928, Read was unable to find a publisher for his collection.


However, because for Read “no emanation of the human spirit is too vile or too despicable to come under the record and analysis of the scientist” (pp. 5) he had the book privately printed in Paris in 1935 under the title Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy in Western North America: a Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary. Because of the “abominably, incredibly obscene” (pp. 6) content, the small catalogue was limited to 75 copies, and solely intended for “students of linguistics, folklore, abnormal psychology and allied branches of social sciences”. Due to the limited edition of Folk Epigraphy – only ten copies of the original still exist – Read’s efforts remained practically unnoticed for three decades. It would take almost twenty years, and a world war, before another group of researchers, associated with the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University, re-discovered graffiti.

Kinsey’s Reports

Like Read, Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956) was a true trailblazer in his field of study. Where Read became interested in the word ‘fuck’, Kinsey was the first biologist who systematically studied the ‘deed’ itself. In the 1940s, Kinsey, together with his research team at Indiana University, interviewed thousands of men about their sexual behavior. When the group decided to conduct the same research on women, they were faced with a problem: their new target group was rather reticent to talk about sexuality. As a result, Kinsey needed to look for other ways to investigate ‘sexual behavior in the human female’. Accidentally, the group discovered sexually-laden inscriptions on the walls of female restrooms, which they compared with texts from male toilets. In their final report Kinsey et al (1953) argued that toilet graffiti, like Freud’s erotic jokes or dreams, contained ‘uninhibited expressions of sexual desires’ and that, for this reason, they could be used to inquire into ‘basic differences between male and female sexual psychology’ (1953, pp. 87).

Alfred Kinsey

Alfred Kinsey

According to Kinsey et al’s findings, men produce more graffiti than women, because women are more inclined to respect social conventions which inhibit writing on walls and expressing sexual desires. Most inscriptions on men’s toilets, furthermore, are ‘erotic’, i.e. refering to sexual intercourse, and also homosexual, because of the male-only space in which they are written. Women’s graffiti, on the other hand, tends to be ‘romantic’, that is allusions to being in love, rather than ‘erotic’. Here, then, Kinsey et al (1953) argued, lies the main difference between male and female sexuality: men look for erotic stimulation, while romanticism is more important to women. The reports on human sexual behavior made Kinsey into a celebrity. The graffiti mania in the social sciences, however, had yet to break loose.

Webb’s Unobtrusive Measures

This happened after the publication of two more works on the value of graffiti as a data source to research in the social sciences. One of these publications was the result of an informal colloquium at Northwestern University in which participants tried to outstrip one another by proposing new methodologies for social research. The aim of the seminar, more precisely, was to come up with alternatives to participant observation, interviews and questionnaires, to study human behavior without affecting it. In 1966, four participants of the seminar, led by Stanford professor Eugene J. Webb (1933-1995), published an extensive list of ‘unobtrusive measures’, that is, physical human traces such as garbage, footprints and ‘accretion measures’. Example par excellence of the latter, Webb et al (1966) argued, were graffiti, especially toilet inscriptions.

Webb Dundes’ Latrinalia

In the same year, folklorist Alan Dundes (1934-2005) published the results of his study on graffiti, which he had collected in men’s restrooms in and around Berkeley in 1964. Dundes (1966) made a passionate plea for the study of dirt: “the concept of dirt is part of our culture and as such it falls into the province of the cultural anthropologist” (pp. 93). One of the few places to encounter accounts of dirt, Dundes argued, is in toilet graffiti or ‘latrinalia’, as he called them.

After providing several entertaining examples of latrinalia, Dundes speculated about the psychological motivations for scribbling them. Drawing on Freudian psycho-analysis, he suggested that toilet graffiti are cultured substitutes to ‘infantile desires to play with feces’ (1966, pp. 104). Men, moreover, write more graffiti than women, because of ‘pregnancy envy’: while women are able to bear children with their bodies, jealous men need to look for other ways to be corporally creative. Restricted by cultural norms to smear feces, then, they write dirty words on toilet walls.

Stares of Disbelief

Each in their own way, these four publications all made a plea for research into toilet graffiti. When Robert Reisner (1967), drawing on Read, Kinsey, Webb and Dundes, published a non-specialist collection of graffiti ranging from the ancient world to his own day, in which he argued that wall writings reflect changes in social trends, graffiti became all the rage. The New York Times devoted an article to the subject, and hundreds of psychologists and folklorists threw themselves into public toilets to collect ‘latrinalia’ either as barometers of social attitudes, expressions of sexual desires, unobtrusive measures, and/or traces of cultural taboos. Conducting research in this unusual fieldwork site, though, was not without practical problems: “not everyone understands why someone is loitering in toilets”, two social psychologists noted. “One may protest that it is for science, but the stares of disbelief or the knowing leers are intimidating” (Sechrest and Flores 1969, pp. 10).


Hans Schouwenburg is a PhD candidate at Maastricht University. He wrote his MA thesis about graffiti in the Utrecht University Library (link: Next year he will publish a block-calendar (scheurkalender) which contains an anthology of the toilet graffiti he encountered during his research (link:


Allen Walker Read (1935) Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy in Western North America: A Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary, Privately printed by Lecram-Servant. Reissued as: Read (1977) Classic American Graffiti, Maledicta Press.

Alfred C. Kinsey, Wardell Pomeroy, Clyde Martin, and Paul Gebhard (1953) Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Philadelphia: Saunders.

Eugene J. Webb, Donald Campbell, Richard Schwartz, and Lee Sechrest (1966) Unobtrusive Measures: Nonreactive Research in the Social Sciences, Chicago: Rand McNally.

Alan Dundes (1966) ‘Here I sit – A study of American latrinalia’, Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers 34, 91-105.


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