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Social Distancing Diaries: Cut the Crap and Embrace the Bidet

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a countrywide toilet-paper-buying frenzy. But there’s a better way to clean up that’s good for your butt, your wallet, and the environment.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The sports and pop culture calendars have paused. The safest thing that you can do right now is stay inside. And millions of people are looking for creative ways to pass the time. The Ringer is here to help. We’re starting a series called the Social Distancing Diaries, with our staff’s ideas for finding comfort, joy, community, or distraction while doing your part to flatten the curve. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be diving into what we’re passionate about and want others to discover—from bidets to buried treasure and everything in between.

One useful creation to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is a website called “How much toilet paper?” The site, which was built by a London-based software developer and artist after a discussion about how their toilet paper use would change during the pandemic, allows users to calculate how long their toilet paper stockpiles will last based on the number of rolls remaining and toilet visits per day, along with several “advanced options” such as number of people in the household, sheets on a roll, sheets per wipe, and wipes per trip.

It stands to reason that personal toilet paper consumption would increase slightly at a time when people are rarely leaving the house. (Digestive problems, including diarrhea, are also symptoms of the novel coronavirus, even though it’s primarily a respiratory ailment.) But the toilet paper panic-buying that’s swept the world—despite scant indication of a lasting shortage on the supply side—indicate that not enough people are consulting Amazon has sold out of toilet paper, physical stores have seen their stocks run low, and desperate would-be wipers have turned to toilet paper heists and TP alternatives that are likely to clog pipes and sewer systems. Summaries of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs don’t typically lead with defecation, but the empty shelves in TP aisles across the country suggest that somewhere on the fundamental, physiological level, along with “What will I eat?,” “What will I drink?,” and “Where will I sleep?”humans must wonder, “How will I wipe?”

There’s one way to satisfy the deep-seated desire for an antiseptic, aromatic anus while entirely eradicating the need for toilet paper: the humble bidet. As the fight for toilet paper intensifies, bidet sales are soaring. It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to convert the country to an environmentally friendly advantage of modern, civilized life, but at least the bidet boom is belatedly here. Yet many Americans still insist on clinging like a dry bowel movement to the time-honored, primitive practice of wiping one’s own ass. So as a recent bidet buyer who’s never returning to toilet paper, I’m here to help those of you who’ve just boarded the bidet bandwagon, as well as those who are still struggling with the difficult decision about whether to turn each trip to the toilet into a hands-free, spa-quality experience, or to keep manually excavating your orifices like a person from the pre-industrial age.

My wife and I bought a combination bidet-toilet last December—not because we knew before epidemiologists did that the virus surfacing in Wuhan would soon make it tough to buy toilet paper, but because we’d been dreaming for years about transitioning to a toilet-paper-less life and finally decided to shit hygienically or get off the pot. Bidets have been around in low-tech form for a few hundred years, but today’s bidets come in many varieties, ranging from stand-alone models that are intended only for washing to toilet add-ons that bring bidet functionality to your preexisting porcelain.

You can buy a basic bidet attachment for your toilet for $50 or less (though many cheaper models are currently sold out) or spend hundreds or even thousands on a fancier flusher. We went with a washlet—an electronically powered cleansing seat—made by Toto, the Japanese company that pioneered the product in 1980. Bidets are common (or even mandatory) in many parts of the world, and more than three-quarters of Japanese homes have washlets, although they’re relatively rare (if increasingly popular) outside of Japan and South Korea.

If you haven’t bought a bidet because you’re worried about bathroom real estate, stop stall-ing: The washlet fits onto the top of your toilet seat, so it takes up no extra space. As long as you have an open electrical outlet in range, it’s easy to install (you won’t need a plumber, and even the outlet is optional). If you can afford the investment—which will probably pay for itself in the long run in reduced spending on toilet paper—you can stop wiping and start spraying with very little lead time.

The washlet we got as a Christmas gift to ourselves came with a bunch of bells and whistles. It automatically opens and closes, although we disabled that function because we don’t have a huge bathroom and the washlet kept expectantly lifting its lid when we were just using the sink. It has a heated seat, heated water, a dryer, and a night light. It mists the bowl with electrolyzed water before and after each use to keep it clean, and its air deodorizer actually makes it so our shit doesn’t stink. It has rear and front-facing jets to cover all kinds of anatomy, and the seat temperature and the angle and strength of the streams are adjustable via remote control. (The jets also oscillate and pulsate on command, although those settings aren’t as titillating or as efficacious as they sound.) Preferred settings can be saved for multiple poopers. It’s like a defecation-friendly version of Larry David’s futuristic, reinvented bathroom, with no strenuous squatting.

The cheaper the bidet, the fewer the extras. But even a bargain-bin bidet will free you from the tyranny of toilet paper. Modernity has its downsides, but life in the 21st century also comes with conveniences most of us wouldn’t want to forgo. You drink from a faucet instead of drawing water from a well. You take the elevator instead of climbing the stairs. You use a stove or a microwave instead of starting a fire. And you (hopefully) flush your current toilet instead of throwing your waste out the window. So why wipe when you could simply sit and make a machine do the dirty work? This isn’t one of those cases where we worry about automation doing away with a precious human element. Until some tech company disrupts digestion, the human element will still be part of the process. You just won’t have to worry about some of that element ending up on your hands.

Don’t let Big Toilet Paper’s marketing campaigns convince you that water won’t clean as well as paper. As many bidet boosters have observed, one wouldn’t clean up most messes with dry paper alone. If you stepped in mud or dog crap, you wouldn’t wipe it off with toilet paper and consider yourself clean; you’d look for a faucet, a hose, or at least an unflushable wet wipe. The same principle applies to the messes we emit. Although I haven’t seen any studies on the excrement residue remaining after wiping vs. spraying, I can testify to feeling fresher. Even if you consider yourself an expert wiper, the existence of visible skid marks is a sign that even careful conventional cleaners aren’t catching every poop particle. You think the Charmin bears, who don’t even have visible buttholes, aren’t getting crap caked on their fur and leaving stains when they sit on the furniture?

And then there’s the comfort factor. Although some bidet virgins may worry about how their first time will feel, the sensation isn’t much different from an extremely localized shower. We’re not talking about a power washer-strength stream: It’s forceful enough to do the job, but it isn’t an enema. And if you have any conditions that make you delicate down there—or if you’re the college roommate of mine who habitually bled when he wiped—some doctors endorse the less abrasive bidet. Bidets may help prevent certain types of infections, and they can be blessings for people with limited mobility or intestinal disorders.

In addition to being beneficial for your butt, bidets are beneficial for the environment. Americans use a lot of toilet paper, and that paper comes from forests. In general, the softer the paper, the more trees gave their lives for your wiping pleasure. Recycled paper cuts down on cutting down trees, but it’s potentially toxic in other ways. What’s more, the toilet paper manufacturing process uses much more water and electricity than a bidet does in an equivalent number of toilet trips. Worse still, toilet paper providers use bleach to whiten the rolls, which can seep into the surrounding water supply. If you don’t want to hasten the Earth’s transformation into Venus but also don’t want to try composting your poop, buy a bidet.

And if you want to withdraw from the pandemic-induced competition for toilet paper, do it today. I got LASIK surgery several years ago primarily to avoid the lifelong expense and inconvenience of contacts and glasses: the dry eyes, the foggy lenses, the nose indentations, the near-sighted stumbling and fumbling in the middle of the night. But it did cross my mind that I was also apocalypse-proofing myself. If society descended into lawlessness, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about broken lenses, like Piggy in Lord of the Flies. The same goes for the bidet. As long as I have indoor plumbing and power, I can sit out the Mad Max–esque struggle among hoarders who can’t spare a square. The bidet makes my social distancing sustainable: Not only am I ordering in as often as Mallory Rubin, but when it’s time for me to make a delivery of my own, I don’t have to depend on any outside products.

Aside from the initial expenditure, there are only three bidet downsides I can see. The first is that each no. 2 will take a while. Unless you want to walk away wet, you’ll have to sit for a spell while the dryer does its work. My wife, who grudgingly gave me permission to write about our bathroom habits, informs me that the dryer doesn’t work as well on women’s private parts, so our bidet is seemingly sexist.

On the plus side, the seat is warm, and you’ll save some time on the back end (so to speak) by not needing to wash and dry your hands. People already bring reading material with them to pass the time on the toilet, and a bidet will keep you from contaminating your phone or bathroom book. Nor will you want to hurry back to your humdrum post-toilet life. There’s something truly luxurious about presiding over an apartment on a resplendent plastic throne that cleans my behind better than the opulent poop receptacles of monarchs and millionaires from time immemorial. Hong Kong entrepreneur Lam Sai-wing may have sat on a solid-gold toilet, but he still had to wipe.

A second downside is that the unenlightened wipers of the world may try to toilet shame you and belittle your bidet. In the U.S., there’s still a stigma surrounding bidets—and, for that matter, even talking about toilet etiquette—and the skeptics and bidet doubters will be quick to question your purchase. As my sister-in-law asked after we told her about the bidet, “Did you hook up the butt squirter?” Granted, maybe my wife and I brought this on ourselves by bragging about our bidet like other couples gush about their newborn babies. (You gotta see the bidet!) But every visitor who’s tried it has sounded impressed. All visionary leaders have to deal with detractors; they laughed at Lister and Pasteur, too.

The other downside is that after you become accustomed to parking your butt on a bidet, you won’t want to go back: Toilet paper will start to seem as antiquated as the corncobs, coconut husks, and seashells (!) humans used to use (and, in the case of corncobs, still evidently do). Yet someday, self-isolation will end, and you’ll venture back out into the intolerant, pro-wiping world. Just as you’ll sometimes still have to pay not with credit, but cash—speaking of things that are full of fecal bacteria—you’ll also have to wipe periodically, unless you’re gifted with incredibly regular bowels or superior sphincter control. When you’re forced to reach for a roll after embracing the bidet, wiping will seem almost medieval, like bloodletting or trepanation (and not the scientific kind). But it’s better to have bideted and lost than never to have gone without wiping at all.

In these unsettling times, when toilet paper is at a premium and normal social lives are off-limits, it’s comforting to take care of the basic requirements. As our slow federal response to the outbreak reminds us, the U.S. lags behind leading countries in many crucial respects: health care, gun control, acceptance of the metric system. An inordinate attachment to traditional toilets pales in comparison, but it has helped contribute to the current toilet-paper problem, which is itself a minor manifestation of the anxiety that’s taken hold of a country in crisis. Most individuals can’t affect sweeping societal change or escape the consequences of dysfunctional government, but if they buy a bidet, they can at least liberate themselves from a regressive restroom regime. When you play the game of thrones, you win or you wipe. There is no middle ground.