Why Don’t Americans Use Bidets?

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Invented centuries ago in France, the bidet has never taken off in the States. That might be changing.

Louis-Léopold Boilly

“It’s been completely Americanized!” my host declares proudly. “The bidet is gone!” In my time as a travel editor, this scenario has become common when touring improvements to hotels and resorts around the world. My heart sinks when I hear it. To me, this doesn’t feel like progress, but prejudice.

Americans seem especially baffled by these basins. Even seasoned American travelers are unsure of their purpose: One globe-trotter asked me, “Why do the bathrooms in this hotel have both toilets and urinals?” And even if they understand the bidet’s function, Americans often fail to see its appeal. Attempts to popularize the bidet in the United States have failed before, but recent efforts continue-and perhaps they might even succeed in bringing this Old World device to new backsides.

The classic bidet is a miniature, bathtub-like fixture situated next to the toilet, with taps on one end. Its tub is filled with water, and the user straddles themselves over it to wash below the belt. But it took centuries before arriving at this version.

While wipes are far more accessible than washlets, costing a fraction of the super-thrones (a 252-pack costs $9.92), they’ve also created major damage to sewer systems. Once flushed, the wipes glom together with any fat from food waste and can form what are called “fatbergs”-iceberg-style blockages that can clog a whole system. To extract a fatberg and make the needed repairs can be incredibly pricey; in London back in 2015, one 10-ton fatberg cost the city $600,000. And last September, the city discovered another that’s approximately 140 tons, which could very well cost 10 times as much to remove.

These troubles have prompted lawsuits, legislation around the term “flushable,” and, in May 2015, the removal by the Federal Trade Commission of a certain brand wipe, made by NicePak, that was deemed unsafe for sewers. Environmental groups have also vocally condemned wet wipes for their plastic fibers, which, they say, add to the glut of garbage floating in the ocean and harm marine life.

Given these downsides, are Americans ready to abandon this disposable solution and finally embrace a simple spritz of water? Miki Agrawal, the founder of Thinx, says yes. Agrawal has captured mainstream attention with her Thinx panties, an environmentally conscious pad/tampon alternative. Thinx faced criticism for lewdness for some of its ads (which proves in some ways that the stigma around menstruation is alive and well), and the company took a huge hit when Agrawal was accused of sexual harassment. But the press for the product itself has been generally positive-especially among millennials.

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Now Agrawal, along with other investors, is backing a toilet attachment called Tushy, which adds a small water spigot under the rim. It amounts to a spritzing jet attached to a standard toilet seat-there’s no separate washing basin or newfangled washlet functions-but at $69, it could be the Goldilocks middle ground between high-end washlets and dirt-cheap wipes. Arnold Cohen had trouble advertising his Sitzbath, but marketing has changed since the 1960s. Tushy’s website doesn’t bother with euphemisms, plainly saying that its product is “for people who poop.” On the home page it commands, “Stop wiping your butt, start washing with Tushy,” and bluntly argues, “If a bird pooped on you, would you wipe it? No, you’d wash it off.”

With this frankness, together with streamlined web design and a chatty blog, Tushy is taking hard aim at the female millennial market that responded so well to Thinx. If Tushy succeeds, it will show that the bidet can be embraced for the very reasons it was once shunned: its feminine associations. And maybe as it finally crosses the Atlantic, it can also cross the gender divide.