Why Some Men Find It So Hard to Use Urinals
A fear of urinals isn't often discussed, but it's more common than you'd think.
Illustration: Eliot Wyatt
It's a busy Saturday evening in my local pub. After three vodka sodas with fresh lime and a splash of cranberry (yes, I'm gay), the familiar tingle of my bladder greets me. After heading to the men's toilets, my fears are confirmed: they're mobbed. Not only is the cubicle engaged, but the dreaded queue for urinals is, unlike me, in full flow.
For a man who doesn't like peeing at urinals, these circumstances present two choices. First, you wait in a separate, somehow more humiliating queue for a cubicle, publicly signalling to every man in sight that you're desperate for a shit – even though you aren't. Alternatively, you can wait it out, hoping that when you get there your bladder will perform. Regrettably, I choose the second option. After about 30 seconds of inaction, the panic sets in, soon evolving into full-blown mental catastrophe as I realise that nothing is coming. I quickly improvise a performance of faux penis shaking and hand drying, before exiting sheepishly.
I've always hated using urinals. It almost always ends in the above result, unless I've had seven of my beloved vodka sodas. As a gay man, I've got no beef with penises in most situations – in fact, quite the opposite – but the expectation to use a urinal and to pee standing up are the two biggest downsides of penis ownership. At home, I take a leisurely approach, often sitting down while judging other people's meals on Instagram. But as soon as I enter a public toilet, I'm out as quick as possible.
It turns out I'm not alone in my urinal antipathy. James, 29, tells me that, around five years ago, he began getting "stage fright" when using urinals. "I never used to have an issue with it," he explains. "But I once had an awful pee block at one of those exposed four-way festival urinals, and maybe that left some kind of mental imprint?" In terms of avoiding them, James says it's "a real case by case deal – if it's an empty loo, I'll use a urinal. But if there's another person in there and there's a spare cubicle, I'll use that."
It's common for men who use urinals to position themselves far away from other men. In fact, online urinal simulator urinalman.com is dedicated to this split-second dilemma. Used almost 3 million times, the simulator reveals that the majority pick urinals that are furthest away from other men when given different options.
But there are exceptions to this rule. Liam* stopped using urinals at work after a senior member of staff kept peeing next to him. "There's a line of five urinals at work, and even if I use the end one, there is one sales director who will always come and pee next to me and chat," he explains. "It's like a power play, like he's daring me to feel uncomfortable."
Henry* also tries to avoid urinals, singling out one toe-curling memory of "stage fright" in particular. "I was staying with my in-laws for the first time. I'd never met my girlfriend's dad, so was keen to make a good impression," he explains. "One day, we went to the cinema. In the post-film rush I ended up pissing next to my father-in-law, because the long queue dictated which urinal became available. I was unable to pee and I was so embarrassed – to this day, I still wonder if he noticed. I've not used one since."
According to registered psychologist Rachel Hard, Paruresis – or "shy bladder" – is extremely common in men. It essentially refers to finding it difficult, or being unable, to urinate when others are around. It is impacted by stress, which causes a tightening of the sphincter muscle, preventing urine from passing. "Once urination has been paired with a situation that causes stress, the individual might develop worried or negative thoughts surrounding urination, like, 'I can’t do it,' or, 'People are watching and thinking I'm not normal,'" she explains. "These thoughts will then interrupt the flow of urine, and this difficulty or inability to urinate starts being reinforced."
Senior therapist Sally Barker agrees that pee-related tension is one of the most common forms of male social anxiety. She describes it as an example of a typically male "all or nothing" style of thinking: "Men sometimes allow an experience of slight anxiety or uncomfortableness around peeing in public to dominate their thinking, until they feel completely blocked, forgetting any occasions when they were problem-free."
Both Rachel and Sally mention that childhood memories of using public toilets – particularly near older strangers or family members in scenarios that seemed intimidating – can haunt men into their adult lives. I certainly remember being a little boy and not wanting to go into the men's toilets alone, so my mum would often take me in with her instead.
Stephen*, a fellow urinal-shy gay man, has a similar experience. "[The idea of] 'stage fright' reminds me of when it became my responsibility to enter the 'big boy' bathroom and I felt scared," he explains. "When I got a bit older, maybe I felt a little turned on too, which brought with it shame and confusion. It's similar to how I feel in a gym locker room, which I find pretty triggering because they remind me of school changing rooms – but at least there I'm not required to perform a bodily function."
Other gay men I spoke to shared Stephen's unease in "men's spaces". According to LGBT+ identity coach Gina Battye, urinal-related anxiety can trigger psychological factors that are common in gay men, such as body dysmorphia and issues with physical intimacy. "Stage fright" can also bring back memories from childhood of feeling insecure or inadequate. The shame that gay children can feel as they resist being "conditioned to live in a heterosexual world" can be particularly intense in "men's spaces", such as toilets and changing rooms. These gendered spaces were founded on the assumption of heterosexuality, making it uncomfortable to navigate them.
Gay urinal-phobe Jake* describes a paranoia that other men will know he is gay: "I get worried that straight men will think I'm looking at their dicks, even if they don’t know I'm gay and I'm not looking," he says. Josh* only uses urinals in gay venues: "I often avoid urinals in straight bars, particularly if there's football on. But in gay venues I find it easier to relax because it's already presumed that I'm gay."
Feeling comfortable enough to use urinals is a recurring theme – and not just among gay men. "There's always a weird atmosphere if the urinals are crowded. If only one is free and there's a queue, most times people will hesitate or wait for a cubicle," Matt* explains. "Some guys are bold and can piss anywhere, but the atmosphere affects me. If I'm out of my comfort zone I might feel too insecure, but if it's somewhere that I feel in my element, then I'll pee near anyone."
Because men are often shamed for being vulnerable, discussing these insecurities can be difficult. Young boys are already aware of the pressure to be "brave" when they first venture into the adult toilets. Confidence coach Lisa Phillips reasons that urinals – and potential failure to "perform" at them – present "a risk of being shamed externally when the individual already feels internal shame".
Phillips suggests that childhood shame can stay with us. Prakash* recalls urinal-related teasing based on his culture. "I was raised in South Asian culture, where it's the custom to either squat or sit while you pee," he explains. "I never questioned it until I moved to the UK, and my friends used to make fun of me because they thought I was always going for a shit. As an adult, unless I really, really need to go, it won't come out while I stand – it just feels unnatural." As the only Jewish boy in his class, Jonathan's* circumcised penis was ridiculed at school: "This was discovered when I first used a urinal. I'd pulled my pants all the way down, so was mid-way through being mocked for that. But then they noticed what my willy looked like. I quickly got into the habit of using a cubicle after that."
Men struggle with peeing at urinals for a variety of reasons, but a recurring theme is a specific time where they felt uncomfortable of suffered from confidence issues. Unsurprisingly, given that the penis is so frequently referred to as our "manhood", the inability to conform to the expectation to pee publicly, standing close to each other, can be frustrating. Urinals and public toilets are a space where the performance of masculinity – in which we all partake in different ways – can be difficult to reconcile with emotions tied to upbringing, sexuality, culture or a desire for privacy.
We men – both the pee-shy and the pee-bold – should absolutely continue talking about the parts of life that make us uncomfortable. But pee at a urinal? Me? You've got to be taking the piss.