Til death do us fart: Farting and social relationships
This post is dedicated to Cady Macon, whose questions about farting and intimacy reminded me that I have long been meaning to write a piece about the heretofore unrecognised anthropological significance of fart maps.
Although I was never a regular viewer of How I Met Your Mother, it was one of those TV shows I used to enjoy watching if I happened to flick over to it halfway through an episode. Perhaps the most memorable scene I ever saw on the show involved the longstanding couple Lily and Marshall being trapped in a bathroom together. I have little recollection of how or why this incident occurred, but the gist of the scene is that Lily has to break a time-honoured rule that she declares will ‘change the entire nature of our relationship’ when she is forced by a call of nature to pee in front of Marshall.
Of course, she’s not wrong. Peeing in front of someone does indeed change the nature of the relationship.1 It is a relationship milestone of sorts, because it bespeaks a degree of intimacy and familiarity most of us achieve with only a fairly select number of people.2 Obviously, there are exceptions. Most of us – especially males – discharge our bladders in front of (or, at least, within hearing distance of) complete strangers all the time. Likewise, infants and small children don’t much care where they urinate.3 But what I am speaking of here is an active choice to pee in front of someone: you can choose to close the door when you go to the loo, or you can choose not to; you can choose to pee while your partner is having a shower, or you can choose to wait until they have finished in the bathroom.4
Farting is much like peeing in this respect. For better or worse, intentional farting is a sign of intimacy. For most of us, the more comfortable we feel around someone, the more likely we are to voluntarily fart around them. In other words, we make choices about when and where to fart, and, most importantly, who we do and don’t fart around.5
Although the subject of very little academic research, as Kate Hakala notes in Mic magazine, the relationship between farting and intimacy has been widely discussed in popular culture. For example, in the film Love and Other Disasters, a relationship therapist played by the inimitable Dawn French presents her theory that the stages of a relationship can be defined by farting, beginning with a ‘conspiracy of silence: a fantasy period where both parties pretend they have no bodily waste’.6
In a bid to determine when it’s okay to start openly farting in a relationship, Mic surveyed 129 people and found that just under half the respondents had farted in front of their partner by the six-month mark, although a quarter waited at least six to twelve months to cut the cheese. However, it probably won’t surprise readers to learn that women were much more likely than men to wait for their partner to fart first: this was the case for 73% of women surveyed. In fact, I assume that of the minority of participants in the survey who ‘always leave the room’ when they fart, the majority were female.
There is evidence that some women aim to completely stifle farts in the presence of their partner.7 For example, there have been several highly publicised cases in Ireland and Brazil of women hospitalised as a result of stomach issues caused (ostensibly, at least) by holding in farts around their boyfriends. Clearly, the (ahem) pressure isn’t merely internal. The Daily Mail recently featured an article about an Australian woman, ‘Emma’, who was mortified after accidentally farting in front of her husband of nine years because he had not been able to overcome his distaste for the ‘disgusting and unladylike’ offence.
A rare academic study by the sociologists Martin Weinberg and Colin Williams on the faecal bodily habits of 172 American students does shed some light on these gender differences. Although focusing on defecation as opposed to farting per se, they found that heterosexual men were the least concerned about their bodily emissions being heard or smelled by others, and heterosexual women were the most concerned about this. Interestingly, non-heterosexual women were much less concerned about maintaining bodily faecal norms than non-heterosexual men.
However, amongst all participants, anxiety about their toilet habits being witnessed, overheard or smelled was greatest if they were sexually attracted to someone but weren’t dating them, followed by a situation in which they had just started dating.8 To quote one of the study participants, ‘There is a tendency to be watchful and careful about everything that you do – especially at the beginning of a relationship’. Notably, participants expressed less concern about being overheard by a stranger; they were generally even less concerned about being overhead by a person they were in a significant relationship with. Overall, people were the least concerned about being overheard by the person they were married to, suggesting that Dawn French’s therapist was broadly correct in her theory on farting and the stages of a relationship.
But this pattern doesn’t hold true universally. For example, on Misima, an island off the east coast of Papua New Guinea, farting is associated with tremendous shame and embarrassment. This is something my brother-in-law discovered while working on a mine at the island in the late 1990s.9 Naturally, I was intrigued by his reports, and my brother-in-law obliged by putting me in touch with Jeannie, a Misiman woman who was an administrator at the mine. Via email correspondence, she became my key informant on farting in Misiman society for a paper I was writing on the topic.10
Based on what Jeannie told me, farting was clearly a serious business on the island. In Jeannie’s words, ‘Farting is a very sensitive issue and it’s very shameful to a boy/young man, girl/young woman, son-in-law, daughter-in-law when they fart by accident in the presence of the wrong people’. For example, a boy or a young man could only fart around his family until a certain age, then it became taboo to fart around his sister, if he had one, or his cousin-sisters. His aunts, uncles and grandparents were also off-limits, along with women in general, or anyone who was ‘not family’. The only context where the rule could be relaxed was around male friends and cousin-brothers. However, once married, even the presence of his cousin-brothers required anal rectitude; only his close friends, and wife and children were safe to fart around, with the social ramifications for farting around in-laws particularly serious.
The rules were stricter again for females. According to Jeannie, from an early age they were trained not to fart around their families – the rule applied also to cousins (both cousin-brothers and cousin-sisters), as well as aunts, uncles and grandparents. In fact, the only person a woman could safely fart around was her own mother. Nor did the proscriptions against farting lessen once she was married: she was expected to maintain vigilance around her husband or children. To quote Jeannie, ‘One fart in the wrong place, at the wrong time, around the wrong people can cause a great embarrassment for a long time’.
For anthropologists, the existence of such explicit rules about who one can and can’t fart around immediately call to mind joking relationships. A topic that has long been a staple in anthropological studies of kinship, a joking relationship is a certain type of kin relationship revolving around ritualised – and often obscene – banter. To provide an illustration from the work of Donald Thomson, an Australian anthropologist who conducted extensive fieldwork amongst Aboriginal communities in the Cape York Peninsula in the 1930s, a Wik-Mongkan man might say to a classificatory father’s-father: ‘Your scrotum is like a bag with eggs’, to which the appropriate response was something like, ‘Would you like the eggs to cook?’
As the anthropologist Robert Parkin notes, in societies where joking relationships occur, they are typically accompanied by relationships of an avoidance type: kin you are required to avoid entirely or express extreme deference to. Anthropologists have theorised these relationships in a wide variety of ways. For example, in opposite sex contexts, the rules around joking and avoidance relationships are often impacted by factors such as marriageability: the joking/non-joking dichotomy hinges on who is marriageable vs who it would be considered incestuous to have sex with. In the context of same-sex joking relationships, they have been theorised as occurring where there is tension between kin categories – such as kin created through marriage rather than blood.
Now, I’m not suggesting that social rules about farting map directly onto rules about joking and avoidance, but I do think they are equally revealing in terms of what they tell us about social structures and relationships – especially given the ways that farts are perceived to dissolve bodily boundaries between individuals. Viewed in this light, it makes sense that some cultures would strictly regulate olfactory contact between particular categories of people via explicit fart rules, especially in the context of opposite-sex relationships and those characterised by hierarchy vs equality (e.g., in-laws vs age-mates).
In fact, although this has never, as far as I’m aware, been studied, I’m reasonably confident that mapping the rules around farting, a.k.a. a fart map,11 would provide anthropologists with a distinct set of insights into social relationships in the communities in which they work, regardless of where those communities are located. While these rules might not be formalised in western countries in the same way that they are in societies where kinship forms the core unit of social structure, it’s clear that most of us do carry around mental fart maps, although the maps change as our relationships evolve.
Beyond their anthropological applications, they are a potentially valuable therapeutic tool as well – as Dawn French’s speech in Love and Other Disasters attests. So if you really want to understand the nature of someone’s social relationships, don’t just draw a kinship diagram: make a fart map! You heard it here first.
1 Although peeing on someone presumably changes it even more.
2 Being of the firmly held view that I’d rather not have anyone pee in front of me, thank you very much, ‘achieve’ is probably not the right word. I recall being somewhat shocked when a former colleague peed in front of me. (We were in a public toilet with only one stall and she left it open while peeing.) She was a good friend, so I think she assumed we’d reached the free-pee stage of our relationship. Little did she know that I have not ever reached that stage voluntarily with anyone, although I’ve had it inflicted on me on countless occasions, primarily by my partner and family.*
*I am distinctly unfond of the sound of people peeing, which I attribute to the fact that my bedroom growing up was located right next to the loo and no one (except, obviously, myself) bothered to close the toilet door when peeing. To this day, I am still able to identify family members by the sound of their peeing. (Niagara Falls? That would be my father. A garden hose working out a kink? That would be my mother.)
3 In fact, my brother’s strongly declared preference as a small child was to ‘pee in the grass’.
4 Am I thinking of anyone specific here? Given that Andrew has expressly told me that I have to stop writing about him, rest assured that these are purely hypothetical scenarios.
5 The primary exception is, of course, long-haul flights, where you are trapped in an intimate environment with complete strangers. To make matters worse, everyone gets gassy because of changes in cabin pressure. Airlines can boast all they want about their air filtration systems being effective against 99.9% of viruses and bacteria, but none can possibly work fast enough to overcome the stench of a plane full of people crop-dusting their way down the aisle.
6 Clearly, the infatuation phase is accompanied by an infartuation phase (boom!).
*Mum, you were right: movement farts are a thing.
8 Techniques people used to prevent their significant other from hearing them having a bowel movement included going early in the morning or late at night, choosing a less proximal toilet to use, excreting as quickly as possible, putting toilet paper in the bowl first to minimise the sound, turning the fan on, flushing the toilet to disguise the sound, etc.
9 Not wanting to alienate my entire family in a single post, I will leave it to the reader to discern how he came to this realisation.
10 Sadly, the paper was never published, being considered unfit for the pages of an academic journal. I have written about that experience in Silent but Deadly: The Underlying Cultural Patterns of Everyday Behaviour.
11 Although I believe I’m the first person to endorse the use of fart maps, I have found one reference to the concept on StarCraftII Mapster: a site that enables users to create custom maps and assets for players of the game. In 2010, on one of the site forums, ‘ForgeUser4527’ proposed creating a Fart Map, noting, ‘I’d like for the content of this map to be completely original, and utilize a wide variety of farts from a wide variety of ethnicities. Different countries have different fart dialects… Please respond with your ethnicity, as well as a link to previous audio work with flatulence, as well as any technical skills you might have’. Presumably the post was a joke, although with fandoms, one can never be sure (after all, there is a Klingon Language Institute). Despite various offers of fart recordings and technical support from other site users, a moderator locked the thread, so we never get to learn whether the fart map was ultimately created (or, indeed, what different ‘ethnic’ farts sound like). In any case, I think you’ll agree that ForgeUser4527 was employing the concept in a rather different way to my usage here.