When you're away from home and nature calls, it can be challenging to find a clean, well-lighted place in which to answer.
But one Baltimore-based organization is on a mission to change that. The nonprofit American Restroom Association is dedicated to promoting the availability of sanitary, safe, and well-designed public restrooms across America.
"My vision is that ARA becomes the AAA of public restrooms," says ARA cofounder Steven Soifer, Ph.D. An associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work in Baltimore, Soifer helped launch the group in 2004. Although his academic specialty is community organizing, a personal interest in paruresis, or "shy bladder" syndrome, has opened up a veritable Pandora's Box of potty issues.
Soifer is now best known for his efforts to help those who have difficulty urinating when in the presence of others, and a large part of that outreach involves lobbying for greater availability of—and improved privacy in—public bathrooms. "For men, especially, the ideal design is more European, meaning fully enclosed water closets," he says.
A significant number of men and women, he says, are uncomfortable being seen or heard while relieving themselves. And millions of Americans struggle with incontinence, he adds.
Many businesses either fail to offer modern toilet facilities to the public, or they skimp on accommodations to save money. But, as Soifer suggests, "A lot of people make decisions about where to shop and eat based on how the restroom is designed. So in the long-term, they're losing customers, and therefore revenue."
In addition to its efforts at home, ARA sends a delegation to the annual World Toilet Summit, where public sanitation is addressed in a global context. There's also a Toilet College in Singapore, for those with an urge to learn more.
While Soifer spends much of his time focused on this issue, leading workshops across the country and around the world, he's at odds to explain the average American's squeamishness with the topic.
"People can talk easily about sex, even sexual abuse," he says. "But they just won't talk about their bathroom habits."
That's where Soifer comes in, we're guessing.