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The first urinals were introduced in Paris in 1830 as a solution to rampant street urination.

Called Rambuteau columns, they were twelve foot tall structures with an alcove carved out in which to relieve oneself. The newly empowered middle classes didn’t like them, however; it was still possible to catch a glimpse of a penis as you walked by. To eliminate these amoral sight lines, the structures were made more and more complex, adding partitions and drainage, until the columns started to resemble small buildings, an architectural design popularly known as “monkey closets.”

 

Only now there existed on the busiest thoroughfares of the city semi-private enclosures where

men would frequently congregate together. The walls, frequently in need of whitewashing, became fertile ground for lewd messages and phallic drawings. The attempt to rid the city of one public nuisance had in fact created the ideal space for another.

 

A sign on the wall of a sauna declaring No Funny Business is not the refusal of gay sex so much as its most fundamental material. Likewise, sex between men at a urinal is less an intrusion into public space than the product of it. A refusal would be to say that sort of thing doesn’t happen here. For instance, in the popularity of the phrase “what people do in the privacy of their own homes,” when discussing certain liberal anxieties over the perceived threat towards sexual rights, with the very modern conflation of privacy and home taken for granted. So too is the need to specify public sex as a particular kind of gay preference, a shift from tautology to fetish.

 

Once a certain sexual technology disappears, so too does its attendant desire. In our time of mass technological displacement, desires are born and die off in rapid succession, like a ship of Theseus whose planks of wood are not faithfully reproduced to create an identical ship in reverence to some mythic past but rather improved upon as they are replaced until eventually they form something new–a steamboat, an airplane—which could subsume its purpose.

No longer is it a question of the stability of identity over time but instead the function of identity at all once the desires that underpin it have been lost.

 

 

Text by Kevin Champoux

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