We may view fragments of prose scribbled on the walls of public bathrooms as something to pass the time as we heed the call of nature, but to sociologists they serve as a glimpse into the human mind. A recent study compared the bathroom scrawl written in both men and women’s toilets and found that even in our most private moments we are still bound by gender roles and social hierarchies.

For the study, which is currently published in the journal Gender, Place & Culture, Pamela Leong, an assistant professor of Sociology at Salem State University, studied graffiti left in 10 bathroom stalls (five male and five female) at an unnamed college that served disadvantaged low-income students. Using the data collected from the bathroom stalls, she soon began to notice a clear pattern of gender-specific communication.

According to the press release, the graffiti in the men’s bathroom walls were replete with sexual content and insults referring to sex acts and organs. The content of the response and reply conversation chains showed that some men clearly fell into submissive and dominant roles. This suggests, according to the study, that social hierarchies of power still exist even without the actual presence of people.

The graffiti on the female bathrooms was far more abundant (accounting for around 70 percent of all the graffiti in the study) and revealed a different story. The content was far less sexual, with messages more orientated toward support. The author noted that the female content also often made references to bowel movements, which she interpreted as a need to discuss such behavior without fear of being judged.

Leong believes that the bathroom content reflects the reinforced gender roles of masculine power and female subordination prevalent in U.S. society. These roles seems to be so engraved in the minds of some individuals that "even in anonymous spaces some people are more equal than others." Graffiti, Leong wrote, serves "to discipline gender through the intolerance of anything feminine … and … reveal relationships of power."

This was not the first scientific investigation into bathroom graffiti. It follows Alfred Kinsley's work in the 1950s. Kinsley also observed that male graffiti was far more sexually crude than female and he gave a similar explanation as Leong. As reported by The Atlantic, Kinsley hypothesized that the tendency for females to produce less erotic graffiti was not caused by a lesser sex drive but rather a greater regard for moral codes and social conventions.

Source: Leong P. American graffiti: deconstructing gendered communication patterns in bathroom stalls. Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography. 2015.