A Conversation with the Pee-Shyness Advocate Who's Mad at DirecTV

We chatted with the CEO of the International Paruresis Association. He's not mad that a DirecTV commercial made a joke about pee-shyness, just that they made such a lame one.

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Nov 6 2014, 5:00am

​​For a few months now, there's been a DirecTV commercial on the air featuring Rob Lowe as a white Steve Urkel stand-in called Painfully Awkward Rob Lowe (PARL). The conceit is that DirecTV is slick and cool, and used by slick, cool Rob Lowe, star of stage and screen. PARL, the goofus of this universe, is too clumsy and weird for such things and needs other, lamer ways to watch TV. To illustrate how clumsy and weird and lame PARL is, the big punchline of the commercial is that he can't pee if anyone else is in the room. LOL! Subscribe to DirecTV!

It wouldn't have made waves had it never drawn the ire of actual pee-shy people. But then it emerged yesterday that (a) pee-shy people exist, and in fact many of them belong to an activist organization called the  ​International Paruresis Association, and (b) they're pissed off—as it were—about the ad. Like all highly shareable PC-gone-mad stories, it went viral. A blog called ​Barstool Sports got to the story early on Tuesday, referring to it as evidence of the "Pussification of America." 

Yesterday, I had a conversation with Steven Soifer, CEO and acting spokesman for the group, and found out that he's more interested in helping people learn to pee in public than making a public commotion and that he's a huge fan of pee-shyness jokes, just not this lame one. He even pointed me to an SNL skit that's about ten times funnier than this commercial.

VICE: Could you tell me about your organization?
Steven Soifer:​ We have about 1,600 members around the world. Most of them are in the US, and [we have] a much larger mailing list because of people who have actually paid dues and decided to take the plunge of being publicly identified as having paruresis. For the last 15 years I've been doing workshops for people who have this problem around the world, everywhere: Europe, Australia, the UK, I've been to Russia—so it's a worldwide phenomenon. We estimate about 7 percent of the US population has the problem, which is about 20 million people.

How do you pronounce paruresis?
​I tell people paruresis rhymes with ​enuresis. That's bed wetting.

I'm not sure that helps. Tell me about your campaign against this DirecTV commercial.
The vice president of the organization saw the ad on TV and was so sick of seeing it that he wrote a letter to DirecTV, and then a couple of our other members sort of independently did, because we found it highly offensive. Then they got this form letter back from DirecTV saying, "Thank you for writing... We appreciate customer feedback and we'll pass it along the chain and we can't guarantee you'll hear back from us, but blah blah," then nothing.

Like a standard customer-service complaint. What was your next move?
We issued the press release. [Then an] AP reporter mined a story out of it, and it sort of went viral. What shocked me the most was DirecTV's response in the article. Basically, they said, "No, we're not gonna remove it. They should be able to take a joke."

Can you take a joke?
The DirecTV guy said it was funnier than most Saturday Night Live skits. Well, ​SNL actually did a much funnier skit about shy bladder for their 35th anniversary.

Are you worried that DirecTV is enjoying this free publicity?
The article made it to India. So it's been in India, it's been in Germany, it's been in the UK, Canada or whatever, and they've put the commercial with it! So DirecTV is getting international exposure if they didn't have it before, by getting this aired internationally.

Back to your organization: Do you have meetings, like alcoholics?
We do! We do have meetings. I do a lot of things, including therapy with people who have this problem, and I've probably seen over 1,000 people, either individually or in the workshop format, who have this difficulty.

What's that workshop like?
​People will get together and they fluid-load, or drink a lot of water, and they practice peeing in a mall bathroom or a Starbucks or whatever facilities are most conducive to people getting together. We start people out in a hotel room with what we call a "pee buddy" and they put that person wherever they feel they'll be able to go the first time. So often it's having someone sitting in the hotel room with let's say the TV on—not DirecTV!—and sitting on the bed. Then they'll be fluid loading, they'll pee for, like, five seconds, stop, then bring the person closer, eventually they'll have the person standing behind them because we try to simulate what it's like in a public restroom with people waiting for you in line. 

Wow. It sounds like there's a lot of trust involved. How do you introduce going in public?
Once people get to that point in the room, we go to non-buddy public bathrooms, usually in the hotel, and people practice there with buddies. Then by Sunday, people are ready for the mall, or some other challenging venue. When we do the workshop in Detroit, we always go to a Tigers game and go to Comerica Park and practice there. And people, for the first time in their lives sometimes, are peeing next to either someone from the workshop or a stranger at the urinal! And it's quite a fantastic feeling for folks. The hard part is maintaining that when you go home, so there's a lot of what we call recidivism. That's why we have the support groups and why people often come back to workshops a couple of times.

Can you cure people who are pee-shy?
Curing is a strong word. I don't use that word. It's more like the AA model: recovery. But yeah, we do something called cognitive behavioral therapy or graduated exposure. It's the same principles that are used for any kind of fear or phobia, and people are gradually introduced to being afraid of going into a bathroom where other people are and getting to the point of being able to go up with members of the group and peeing together.

I'm sorry, but that's hilarious.
​It may sound funny, but the process actually works. 

People are saying you're complaining about nothing. How bad is paruresis, really?
I got some nasty comments by email today from some folks, and what people don't understand is that this can be severely debilitating to people. In fact, some people literally stay home and don't go out anywhere because of the problem. There are no safe bathrooms for them anywhere, outside of their own home. 

That could be a major disruption. What do they do?
They will not work in some cases, or do odd jobs like delivering newspapers at night. They won't date, they often have very few friends, and in some cases, people get severely depressed, and we even have anecdotal stories of people committing suicide because of the problem. 

How's your own struggle with paruresis going?
Until I was 40, I thought I was the only person in the world with the problem. Then I found out otherwise and worked on my own recovery with someone who helped co-write our book on the topic. It's been about 20 years now. The best part of it was I did a workshop in Moscow, and I met my wife there! That was something that wouldn't have happened otherwise. It's interesting what can happen as one recovers from their personal wounds.

Follow Mike Pearl on ​Twitter.

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