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So Fresh, So Clean: The Bidematic attaches to the toilet, bathing the user's underside with fresh Sonoma County water.

A Bidet Runs through It

How a simple stream of water can change one man's life

By R. V. Scheide

Ladies and gentlemen, please forgive me, but there's just no polite way to say this: I haven't wiped my ass for more than a month. Since installing a bidet in my bathroom at home, I no longer have to rub myself raw with toilet paper. Instead, I direct a bubbling fountain of cool, soothing Sonoma County tap water toward my nether region. In seconds, I'm clean as a whistle. Thanks to my new bidet, keeping clean down there is no longer a problem.

But it definitely was a problem at one time, and I know I wasn't alone in sharing it. Who among us has not experienced the nagging itch caused by an inadequately cleansed bottom? Yet serious discussion of the topic is strictly taboo and rarely occurs in our culture, even within academic circles.

Instead of asking whether wiping has failed us as a hygienic technique, we point the stained finger of shame and ridicule at ourselves. I once knew a man nicknamed Skidmark because someone had seen his soiled underwear while he was changing for work in the company locker room. What role, if any, did toilet paper play in his humiliation? No one dared to ask.

It's as if all alternative solutions have been flushed from our minds. Bidets are for sissies like the Japanese and the French. Here in the good old U.S.A., we wipe. We wipe harder, we wipe faster, and most of all, we wipe more. According to toilet-paper industry estimates, it takes 15 million trees annually to satisfy our voracious appetite for butt-wipe. Toilet paper production reached 100 million rolls per day in 2001. One of the latest marketing trends is larger packaging, like the 96-roll bundle offered by discount toilet-paper company ShitBegone (www.shitbegone.com). The company's motto speaks for us all: "Wipe your mind and your ass will follow."

All of this merely compounds what Jorge Rebagliati has come to call our "problem." The Santa Rosa resident and entrepreneur grew up using bidets in his native Argentina, and upon emigrating to the United States, found our culture's custom more than a little abrasive. On a visit back home, a relative introduced him to a product that has been manufactured in Argentina for the past 20 years, an easy-to-install plumbing fixture that turns any standard toilet bowl into a bidet. Rebagliati had a revelation.

"This is the answer to your problem," he tells me in his Santa Rosa living room, proudly holding the device, called the Bidematic, up for display. Rebagliati has become its sole U.S. importer, hoping to mainstream use of the product via his one-man company, Quest. Tall, gangly, with gray-tinted red hair, Rebagliati began appearing at local trade shows last December with a banner proclaiming the device to be "the solution to your problems."

"I didn't know I had a problem," more than one person commented snidely. Others skittered away from the Bidematic like it was a chrome spider waiting to spring out of the bowl. "Come closer," he'd tell them with his lilting accent. "It's not going to hurt you." He realized he had a hard sell on his hands when even his progressive friends shied away from the bidet. So far, he's only sold about 60 of them.

"It's a paradox," Rebagliati explains. "Here, there are so many gadgets, you can get a gadget for anything you can think of . . . yet the bidet is still something of a hurdle."

It was a hurdle I felt compelled to leap. With little urging, Rebagliati loaned me a demo model, a cold-water unit that retails for $129 (a hot-and-cold-water model retails for $147). Unlike the standalone bidet most people are familiar with, the Bidematic is easily installed on your existing toilet, saving space and actually making the whole operation more efficient, since you don't have to get off one commode to squat and clean yourself over another.

Photograph by R. V. Scheide

Man With a Mission: Jorge Rebagliati has a solution for your 'problem.'

The Bidematic is a simple enough device, comprised of a control valve and a hinged wand that swings out to the center of the toilet bowl for use and folds neatly back under the rim out of sight afterward. It attaches to the bowl using one of the seat-cover bolts; a braided stainless-steel line attaches to the toilet's water-supply valve. After installing the demo, I opened the unit's control valve, and a small fountain of water bubbled straight up out of six tiny nozzles in the wand's tip. I eagerly anticipated the next morning's constitutional.

The time came, and after doing my business, I swung the wand out to the center of the bowl and slowly cracked open the Bidematic's supply valve. I heard the water bubbling up out of the wand, then felt a gentle, cooling spray. I opened the valve further, and the spray intensified into a firm, pulsing jet. If my anus could sigh, it would have. I became an instant convert.

In the month that has passed since then, my appreciation for the bidet has only grown. Like most people who take the plunge, I've found that cold water is plenty warm enough for the task and even pleasing to a certain degree. I keep a towel handy for drying off afterward. Because I am so much cleaner, I feel better about myself; there's a new jaunt to my step.

Wiping is so ingrained in our culture (not to mention our rear ends) that I still sometimes catch myself unconsciously reaching for the roll, like Rush Limbaugh reaching for the Oxycontin. Another aspect of bidet use points more directly to a possible cause of its lack of widespread acceptance in the United States. Because you don't throw wads of paper into the bowl, you can actually see your own stool.

It startled me the first couple of times, until I realized it has always been down there, hidden beneath a curtain of toilet paper. That's where we'd like to keep it: hidden. As UC Santa Barbara anthropology professor Francesca Bray notes: "In American culture, excreta must be completely disassociated from the individual generating them. They should be invisible, unscented, and above all anonymous."

In her study "American Modern: The Foundation of Western Civilization," (viewable online at www.anth.ucsb.edu/ faculty/bray/toilet/index.html), Bray explores a variety of cultural attitudes toward what might be the most taken-for-granted technological development of the industrial age: the porcelain toilet and the vast system of hidden, underground sewers that support its use. She acknowledges our technological contributions to the field, but still finds us wanting.

"[A]re Americans the world's cleanest people? They scent their toilet paper and decorate it with flowers, but unlike the Japanese, they are not 'a people who like to wash their bottoms,' and neither the French bidet nor the Japanese Toto toilet finds many customers in the United States. We think taking cleanliness so far is dirty."

Bray, reached by telephone in Santa Barbara, said that assessment is continually verified by "the horrified, shocked reactions of students" every time she presents "American Modern" in class. Why is that we don't like talking about our own shit?

"It's just such a delicate question to ask," she chuckles.

There's surprisingly little hard data available on the subject of our ablutions. A survey by online retailer Toilet Paper World at www.toiletpaperworld.com finds that the average person uses 57 sheets of toilet paper per day. A smaller informal study revealed that only 60 percent of the respondents look at the paper after wiping. How do the 40 percent who don't look know that they're clean? They don't, and apparently it doesn't bother them.

"We don't want to know where our shit goes," says Larry Robinson, a Sebastopol City Council member and practicing psychoanalyst. "Every organism's waste is another organism's food, but there's some notion that we as human beings are above the cycle of life and death. We don't want to know what comes out the other end."

A scholar of European history, Robinson traces our break with nature back to the plagues of the Middle Ages and the industrial revolution that followed. By the 19th century, our modern system of enclosed, underground sewers was in place, just in time for Scott Paper's introduction of the first toilet-paper roll in 1890. Since then, there's been no looking back. Our break, Robinson postulates, has metastasized into an abject terror of sexuality and defecation.

"Our ethos of conquest and environmental destruction has distracted us from nature and our own bodies," he says.

The widespread use of bidets might just help us mend this break with nature, at least according to some distributors of the device. In another one of the many paradoxes swirling around the issue of our own bowel movements, the United States manufactures most of the world's bidets, yet personal use here remains sporadic. According to American bidet distributor Magic John, "If every household in the U.S. replaced just one roll of 500-sheet virgin-fiber bathroom tissue with 100 percent recycled ones or our bidet, we could save 297,000 trees, 1.2 million cubic feet of landfill space, equal to 1,400 full garbage trucks, and 122 million gallons of water, a year's supply for 3,500 families of four."

The water savings cited would come from the manufacturing side of the toilet-paper equation--it takes an enormous amount of water and energy to transform wood into paper. Jorge Rebagliati is convinced that there would also be significant savings of water on our end locally if we all started using bidets. While I have been unable to find a study that compares the two hygienic methods, Susan Keach, an environmental compliance inspector for the Sonoma County Water Agency, thinks the idea has merit.

"It couldn't hurt to keep the paper out of the water," she says. Keach became fascinated with human-waste disposal after viewing raw sewage effluent through an electron microscope while a student at UC Davis. As if paraphrasing Robinson, she relates a detailed explanation about how the appetite of microbes for human waste has been harnessed by technology down at the local sewage plant. After they do the dirty work, digesting toxic sewage sludge and excreting a less toxic bio-solid, the microbes are wiped out with chlorine in typical human fashion. The little buggers literally eat shit and die, spending the entirety of their minute lives in a murky stew of feces, dissolved toilet paper, chicken blood, tampons, dental floss, condoms, and anything else that gets flushed down the drain.

Even though toilet paper is designed to completely dissolve in water, the chemicals in it, including carcinogenic dioxins, still become part of the waste stream. Having less paper would make it simpler to reclaim so-called gray water, but Keach doesn't expect people to rush out and buy bidets anytime soon.

"As long as people flush the toilet and it doesn't come back up, things are pretty good for most people," she says. As a culture, we don't want to know anything more than that. She has a friend who can't even say the word "poop," and instead refers to going number two as "the other." It's that old, dark fear of what lies beneath. We wash the darkness out to sea, regardless of how much water it takes. "People just think we'll make more," Keach says.

Perhaps the most favorable evidence supporting the widespread use of bidets comes from the health field, but once again objective medical data available to the general public is about as thin as the tissue most of us wipe our butts with. We're left with plausible-sounding claims such as those made by the manufacturer of the Biffy Personal Rinse, a bidet that's similar to the device being marketed by Rebagliati: "The Biffy Personal Rinse was developed by physicians and nurses for your personal health. Rubbing with paper is not only unclean and archaic, it is very irritating to delicate tissues and spreads bacteria around the rectal and vaginal areas.

"The resulting contamination can feel uncomfortable and lead to vaginal colonization. The problem is more than one of aesthetics and discomfort. Using toilet paper is a major cause of bladder and urinary tract infections. The Biffy is effective at reducing or eliminating urinary tract infections."

The bidet is recommended by doctors as a primary treatment for hemorrhoids, rashes, anal fissures, and anorectal itching. Some physicians advise their female patients to wash their genitals with a bidet every time they change a feminine pad to maintain ideal cleanliness. It's also suggested for women recovering from childbirth, patients recovering from colon-rectal surgery, and the disabled who, for whatever reason, can no longer wipe. In more than a few ads for bidets, doctors claim the device may even prevent colon cancer, but I've found no study so far that substantiates that.

Despite the lack of hard data, it seems reasonable that just the thought of a device that might prevent surgeons from one day removing a substantial portion of your rectum would create a frenzied run on bidets. We're tremendously concerned about what we put into our bodies, as countless fad diets demonstrate. But the same has so far not held true for what comes out of our bodies, at least in this country. Our fear of shit trumps even our fear of death.

The writers at the irreverent website Poop Report (www.poopreport.com) aren't afraid to look at their own shit--or anybody else's, come to think of it. They're on a mission to wipe out poop's terrifying aura, and part of that mission includes the promotion of bidet use. A writer who goes by the name Colon Bowell describes his first experience with the bidet: "I've felt the winds of change blow through my bathroom," he writes. "For once, this wind was not flatulence. Instead, it came in the form of a cool, comforting geyser of water, hosing down my overused undercarriage."

Bowell thinks that the lack of acceptance for bidets in the United States stems mostly from men, who view them either with a sort of homophobic disgust or as products for the affluent, women, and the infirm. The website recently held a contest to rename the bidet to make it more marketable to red-blooded he-men. "Buttsink" was the top vote-getter, followed by "the rear admiral" and "the gravy drain."

"Bidet manufacturers of the world, take note," the Poop Report reports. "Your product has a new name and a new target market. You can't sell a man a bidet, but you can sell a man a buttsink. And men of the world, take note. You can have a pain-free ass-cleaning experience without feeling like a sissy. You don't have to feel intimidated or threatened--it's not a bidet, it's a buttsink."

Heath Doolin, a sales manager for Magic John, which markets more than a dozen different Japanese-manufactured bidets in the United States, thinks it's going to take more than a name change for bidets to become the next big thing.

"Generally, when it comes to private areas like that, people will stick to the tried and true, what they grew up with," he says. "Once people try it, they find it really works. Before I first started, I thought it was weird. I didn't want water shooting all over."

Phone calls to several North Bay plumbing supply stores confirmed that the primary market for the device remains a few affluent home owners who want the latest gadget, customers from cultures where bidets are more accepted, and patients seeking treatment for medical conditions--the same customers Doolin deals with on a daily basis.

"It's still in its infancy, but we're getting more and more calls every day," he says. He thinks it's going to take some sort of widespread recognition, such as a national hotel chain adopting the bidet, before it really takes off.

"It's going to take a revolution," says Jorge Rebagliati. It's a battle he doesn't mind leading. "I have a natural instinct to break taboos."

He's approached the Santa Rosa Water Conservation Program as well as the Marin Municipal Water District about using the Bidematic as water-conservation device. They've yet to get back to him. He's traveled to Las Vegas, where one major hotel expressed interest in the device before turning him down. An ad in the San Francisco Chronicle produced a few sales, and he's planning to put up a website soon. And there's always the construction trade shows.

He's the Che Guevara of the derriere, this lanky redhead tilting his chrome-plated brass wand at the windmills of our ignorance, at our unspeakable problem. In me, he has already found a convert. Whether he will succeed in his mission, I do not know. However, I do know that if it comes, the revolution will be sanitized.

Bidet-curious? The Bidematic can be purchased locally from Jorge Rebagliati Quest, 707.578.6049. Check out the Biffy Personal Rinse at www.biffy.com. A variety of different bidets can be viewed at www.magicjohn.com.

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From the November 20-26, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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