Ruth Bass: Can cures outdistance the ailments?


RICHMOND -- In the days of outhouses supplied with corn cobs and pages from the Sears Roebuck catalogue, a man who had to "go" might toss off one of the euphemisms, such as "I have to see a man about a horse."

Decades later, hostesses would ask arriving visitors if they needed to "freshen up," which gave ladies a reason to go to the bathroom for more serious business without being mortified. These days, a well-dressed woman in a restaurant, on TV or in real life, is just as likely to push back her chair and say, "I have to pee," rather than "I am going to the ladies room." When she gets there, the door will be labeled "Women" not "Ladies," or in tiny establishments (or college dorms), the universal graphics for men and women will be on the same door.

We no longer live in delicate times. On TV, an appealing family of bears advertises toilet paper, playing on the old question of "Does a bear

- in the woods?" It’s not subtle, and who knows how many small children now believe that bears wipe themselves after doing their business.

The assaults on bathroom privacy may wreck a whole facet of the psyche of first graders. What will send 6 year olds into spasms of laughter in the back seat of the car when bathroom humor has been incinerated by the bright light of reality?

We’ve come a long way from the days when Victorian ladies covered their faces with an open fan at the least reference to bodily functions. In those days, it was verboten to even refer to a lady’s legs, limbs being the acceptable word. And no Downton Abbey footman ever served a breast of chicken.

The worst attacks on taste and delicacy, however, belongs to the pharmaceutical world. Some of us remember when The Berkshire Eagle’s great editor, Pete Miller, would not allow hemorrhoids ads in the newspaper because it was bad taste to even think about such a demonic (and painful) ailment.

We have graduated from that era and from a time when passing gas (humans supposedly do this 14 times a day, whether they admit it or not) was an embarrassment of the first order. Instead, on the wide screen, we meet a pretty woman who wants to know if the double-decker bus tourists have bloating, gas or constipation.

And the litany of side effects of every drug on the market threatens reactions that often seem far worse than the ailment treated -- things no one ever talked about in polite company in the past -- or even in their doctors’ offices. Consider vomiting, diarrhea, sudden bowel movements, flatulence, etc. (A drug may cure your ailment and give you a heart attack, but it’s always been OK to talk about heart attacks. Some people who’ve had one can’t stop talking about them.)

Then there’s the realm of sexuality. One of our offspring commented several years ago how amazing it was that in the past no one ever talked about contraceptives (or wanted anyone to see them buying such), and now the word "rubber" could be spoken over lunch. (We did not inquire about the circumstances surrounding tuna sandwiches and contraception.)

But beyond that, we now know from TV ads that millions of men in this macho-proud nation of ours are either impotent or living in fear of impotence, so we are bombarded with virile looking males talking about erectile dysfunction and drugs that will take care of it -- but may make your nose run, your head ache, your stomach churn or your vision blur.

We can’t wait until our inquisitive youngest granddaughter decides to go around the dinner table asking each man present if he has ED and what is that, anyway. We hope she passes on Low-T. The question is, if this is all about sex, then why are those two people in separate bathtubs?

Ruth Bass is author of two historical novels. Her web site is


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