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America has never embraced bidets. The toilet paper shortage could change that.

Why Americans have long been reluctant to adopt bidets, and why they shouldn’t be.

A bidet and toilet side by side in harmony
John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

The best item I’ve ever bought for my home is a machine that shoots warm water at my bare butt.

Its formal name is the Toto Washlet, a realization of a vision first set forth by fancy Japanese toilet manufacturer Toto and Toto president Kazuchika Okura in 1917. Okura’s original dream was a future of cleaner living and a more pleasant bathroom experience. The first Washlet came out in 1980. Today, not only does the Toto have a heated water feature, it also heats its seat, dries your butt, and deodorizes the toilet bowl, too. Some models even have more features like playing music to hide the sounds of defecation.

Standalone bidets and bidet attachments like the Toto aren’t by any means new. Bidets appear to have been invented in the late 17th century; in the 18th century, Marie Antoinette apparently owned a bidet trimmed in red. These days, bidets and bidet attachments are common throughout the world from Europe to Asia. Bidets have been touted to be more sanitary than toilet paper alone and more sustainable since people don’t have to use as much toilet paper to clean themselves.

For more than a century, the promises of living more cleanly and sustainably, and of improving one’s toilet experience, have not been enough for bidets to achieve mainstream success in the US.

But now that toilet paper has become difficult to find amid the coronavirus pandemic, that might be changing, as consumers face the prospect of shortages lasting for while.

The effort and expense required to add a bidet to your bathroom will vary according to the type of product and experience you’re looking for. But there’s really no better time to get acquainted with the idea.

Here’s what to know about bidets, their advantages, and why American hard-headedness has made Americans so reluctant to adopt them — even though they’re a clearly superior option than the toilet paper status quo.

1) What is a bidet?

The term bidet can refer to either the standalone type commonly found across Europe — which looks kind of like a sink for toddlers — or an attachment to an existing toilet. Though they are different apparatuses, all bidets and bidet attachments share a common goal: to wash your genitalia (for women), perineum, inner buttocks, and anus after you go to the bathroom.

There are variations depending on the type and model. Some bidets are sophisticated enough to heat water and control pulsation and water pressure, while others just give you a simple fresh stream of water to clean yourself. The idea is that a rinse gets your backside cleaner than you would be able to achieve with dry toilet paper. But despite how sensible that sounds, the concept hasn’t ever really caught on in America.

2) Is it weird to spray water at your butt after you use the toilet?

No, I don’t think so.

Every time we step into the shower or sink into a bath or a hot tub, water comes into contact with our butts, without a second thought about whether it’s weird or not. Using a bidet isn’t really that much different, it’s just a bit more targeted.

If you’re afraid of throttling your backdoor with intense water pressure, rest easy, because most bidets allow you to adjust the pressure and intensity of the spray. Higher-end models even have features like oscillation and nozzle positioning to customize the experience and make it as comfortable as possible.

I realize this might sound over-the-top, or awkward, or even embarrassing to anyone who isn’t familiar with how bidets work. For many people, changing their behaviors and cultural norms is extremely difficult — even if those behaviors and norms involve pooping and then using only dry paper to clean themselves.

Research has shown that Americans tend to shower more than people in other countries. But most Americans also don’t use bidets. There’s a reason the term “skid marks” — which describes literally poop-streaked underwear — exists. Still, as disgusting as soiled undergarments are, to many people, bidets seem bizarre.

If Americans got poop on any other part of their body they would repeatedly wash it and not rub it around with paper, so why don’t they care about their butts?

3) Why don’t Americans customarily use bidets?

Bidets have been common in France since the late 1600s, spread further into Western Europe during the 1700s, and eventually made their way to Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia. Today, around 80 percent of households in Japan have a toilet with a bidet function or attachment.

Bidets haven’t ever been widely embraced in American culture. A common origin story for this reluctance is that bidets were seen as lascivious because they were used in brothels as a form of emergency contraception. And because Puritanism was entrenched (voluntarily or not) in American culture, there was little chance that Americans would allow a device associated with brothels and sex into their homes.

“American soldiers first saw bidets in French brothels, which made them think they were naughty,” Kate Murphy wrote in the New York Times earlier this month. “An often-told joke was that a wealthy American tourist in Paris assumed the bidet in her hotel room was for washing babies in, until the maid told her, ‘No, madame, this is to wash the babies out.’”

What Murphy is referencing is the standalone type of bidet that looks like a mini-sink for children, rather than more modern toilet attachments. Those came with their own barriers; after World War II, if Americans were able to set aside the bidet’s morality-challenging associations, they’d likely have to renovate their bathrooms — by adding plumbing, moving fixtures, and more — to accommodate the free-standing device.

“To install one and retrofit an existing bathroom with one of them [would have been] really costly — you have to knock into the floor and into the wall and you need to hire a plumber to do it,” Jason Ojalvo, CEO of Tushy, a company that sells bidet attachments, told Vox. “It would end up costing you thousands of dollars.”

Because bidets weren’t a part of American bathroom culture, bathrooms weren’t really designed with space for two toilet-sized units. But bidet innovators eventually realized that adding a bidet could be as simple as incorporating a hose attachment that hooks up into the water line — and in 1980, the Toto Washlet was born.

The Washlet offered rear cleansing, a dryer, and a heated seat. Installing it was as simple as replacing one’s toilet seat with the Washlet, hooking up a few tubes, and plugging it in. Washlets now start at around $325 for the most basic models, and competitors like Kohler have models beginning at around $575.

A more inexpensive bidet attachment is the Tushy, which launched in 2015. The Tushy, whose basic model sells for $79, is a small device that attaches under the toilet seat. You can also purchase a variety of low-cost bidet sprayer attachments online.

These simple devices and their relatively nimble installations make them less of a burden than a standalone booty-washing station. Many newer, fancy toilets made by Toto and Kohler also have built-in bidet options, but according to Vice, Kohler found in a 2016 survey that 53 percent of Americans were unwilling to use a bidet.

“Toilet paper was invented in 1857 and nothing’s changed,” Ojalvo told me. “And I feel like just the way Americans are, they think everything they do is the best. There’s just this mindset where it’s just like, that’s just the way it’s done and I don’t care that other cultures have embraced the bidet and think it’s cleaner. It’s just like no one wants to change.”

4) Are bidets more sanitary than just using toilet paper?

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, people have been told over and over to wash their hands and wash them properly. But pandemic or not, washing your hands is the most important thing to do after you go to the bathroom since fecal matter is how some germs spread. A bidet washes your backside, reducing the risk of excrement-to-hand contact. However, a bidet is not going to wash your hands for you. So bidets plus proper hand-washing make a great combo. But a toilet-paper-only human who washes their hands thoroughly is likely to be more sanitary than a bidet user who doesn’t wash their hands at all.

Additionally, there have been studies that show how bidets can mimic the beneficial effects of a sitz bath like reducing anal pressure. For women, cleansing with clean water is generally seen as less abrasive than toilet paper or vaginal wipes on sensitive areas — though there are studies that warn against over-washing. And as a colorectal surgeon recently told the New York Times, bidets can also reduce skin irritation because they’re made to be less abrasive than toilet paper.

“A lot of people who come to see me have fairly significant irritation of their bottoms,” Dr. H. Randolph Bailey told the Times. “Most of the time it has to do with overzealous cleaning” — wiping too vigorously with toilet paper or using wipes, which often contain harsh fragrances and chemicals.”

From personal experience, I can tell you there is no comparison between the alleged “clean” you get from dry toilet paper versus the combined power of a rinse and a wipe.

5) Are bidets more environmentally friendly than toilet paper?

When I was speaking to Ojalvo, he made clear that Tushy’s marketing is aimed at environmentally conscious consumers. The main selling point of the Tushy is that it allows you to use less toilet paper; the company essentially says that the Tushy minimizes the environmental impact of using toilet paper since it only requires, on average, one pint of water to clean your bum.

“The average American uses 57 sheets of toilet paper every single day,” Ojalvo told me, referencing Tushy’s statistics. “That comes out to like 36 billion rolls of toilet paper every year just for Americans. And those are made from 15 million trees. So if everyone overnight adopted Tushy then there’d be 15 million more trees.”

According to Tushy, cutting down our use of toilet paper would also save 437 billion gallons of water, and 253,000 tons of bleach that are used to produce said toilet paper. Toto touts the same basic idea, proclaiming on its website that “there’s no need to use toilet paper, so you’re saving trees and the water used to manufacture each roll.” And after a 2019 study, Ethical Consumer magazine found that many toilet paper brands have decreased their use of recycled paper to produce their products, meaning more trees are being consumed to make toilet paper.

One important thing to keep in mind for bidet neophytes: You will still need some toilet paper, albeit a much smaller amount, to finish the drying process, even with a device like a Toto or Tushy. One could ostensibly air dry, but sitting on a toilet with a damp crack seems like a commitment too far for most, including me.

6) Are bidets easier to find than toilet paper right now?

Thanks to a perfect storm of hoarding, stay-at-home guidance, and disruptions in supply chains, there’s currently a toilet paper shortage in parts of the United States and manufacturers don’t know when it’ll reliably be back on shelves. The result, Ojalvo says, has been a huge surge in sales at Tushy.

“I’ve been the CEO for two years and we’ve more than doubled every year anyway,” Ojalvo told Vox. “But then even on top of that, just in March, our revenues went up about 10 times. It went up like 10 times what it had in February.”

Ojalvo said he thought that there would be an interest in bidets and Tushy during the early stages of the pandemic because of people wanting to be as sanitary as possible. All of the directives from health authorities have involved frequent hand-washing, and he predicted that people would want to be more sanitary and hygienic in all aspects of their lives.

But he said the push didn’t come until toilet paper grew scarce.

“We’ve always had an outside following in areas where people care about sustainability,” Oljavo said. “New York, LA, San Francisco, Austin, Seattle, Portland — the usual suspects. But then with the toilet paper shortage, it’s spread out even more.”

While Tushy and simpler bidet attachments like it are seeing a surge in sales, more expensive apparatuses with features like heated water, like the Toto Washlet, might see similar interest but not see the same sales effect right now, Ojalvo theorized.

You can still purchase a Toto Washlet online, but in order to install one, you must have an electrical outlet within three feet of the toilet. Similarly, Tushy’s $109 upgraded warm water “spa” bidet requires a hookup to your bathroom sink’s hot water line. For some consumers, that may require renovations or plumbing assistance that wouldn’t necessarily possible at the moment.

7) Even if there wasn’t a toilet paper shortage, would you recommend buying a bidet?

If you were looking to break my heart by eliminating one thing in my apartment, that item would be the Toto. I don’t bake enough, so my oven can go. Take my dishwasher and my rice cooker; I can do dishes by hand and make rice on the stove poorly. I’m fine with showers so I don’t need a tub, and I could sleep on my couch if you wanted to take away my mattress.

Taking away my Toto would sentence me to the insidious feeling of walking around with a dirtier butt. And that’s not even taking into consideration the reduced environmental impact that having a bidet achieves.

Toilet paper shortage or not, Americans should seriously consider the beauty of the bidet. We live in a world full of modern conveniences that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors. We can control lighting from our phones and have robots that vacuum our floors, yet we still wipe our butts with dry paper — just like our ancestors did. Perhaps a toilet paper shortage is the shock to the system Americans need to realize the joys of having a clean, non-irritated, environmentally friendly butt.

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