Like many young men, Taylor, a 22-year-old in Maryland, hates peeing in public restrooms. He’d rather just get in and out without being noticed or, worse, finding someone in line behind him — but the anxiety makes him freeze up. Unable to pee, he ends up standing at the urinal for much longer than he wants, feeling the emotional and bladder pressure build even more.
It was a vicious cycle, Taylor says, until he remembered a “trick” from his childhood: to just tickle the tip of his scared, flaccid dong.
“You use your palm and rub the tip of your penis lightly in a circle,” he explains. “Then, bam, instant urination. It’s basically the same principle as tickling your nose with a feather to induce a sneeze.”
Today, Taylor says, he does this anytime he’s in a public restroom. But “always in a stall, never at the urinal.” It would look pretty strange for any onlookers.
Andrew, a 20-year-old in Maryland, also utilizes the “rosy palm” method to help open his urinal floodgates.
“For some reason, if you apply some odd pressure and motion when you cant piss ’cause of stage fright, it makes you feel the intense need to urinate,” he says. “I’ve always had severe anxiety my entire life, so not a surprise I got super-freaked-out trying to use urinals in a packed bathroom with people waiting on me.”
Like Taylor, Andrew says he learned the method “through coincidence… just a young boy touching his peen, learning about masturbation,” adding that he thinks he actually “learned about this before learning about real masturbation.”
This reporter was put through the public-urination wringer at a young age, forced to brave the infamous piss troughs at Wrigley Field. As a result, I don’t really experience such pee anxiety. And if I do, I add some numbers in my head, which to me is a slightly more subtle gesture than furiously palming my D like I’m playing Pedal Power in Mario Party 64.
So why is a little tickle such an effective hose unblocker? I asked Dr. Koushik Shaw of the Austin Urology Institute. Shaw explains that the male bladder is deeply intertwined with the complex human nervous system. “The bladder is innervated by the sympathetic nervous system, from the lumbar spinal cord and the parasympathetic nerves from the sacral nervous system,” he says. “Additionally, some of the sphincteric nerves — controlling the open/close valve — are in the pudendal nerve, which is located in the pelvis.”
Being tied to both the parasympathetic nervous system (which controls things you do automatically, like breathe and digest) and the sympathetic nervous system, urination is actually quite complicated. In fact, there is a name for this type of hybrid: “Urination is a ‘spinobulbospinal reflex,’” Shaw explains, “where part of the brain tells the lower body to relax the urinary sphincter and contract the bladder to urinate.”
So when guys like Andrew stimulate the glans of their penis, he’s actually triggering the spinobulbospinal reflex. “Touching yourself can stimulate the lower sacral nerves to create a reflex that activates the spinobulbar reflex to relax the sphincter, contract your bladder and let the rivers flow,” Shaw says.
In other words, you’re simply bypassing the unconscious part of your brain that jumpstarts the Rube Goldberg machine that is your bladder. You’re “telling the lower body to do its job by activating this reflex,” the doctor concludes.
Dr. Michael Ingber, a urologist in New Jersey, says we don’t really know why stimulating the nerves in the penis jumpstarts the bladder-release reflex, but it does — to the point that urologists use it to help patients.
“Sometimes we do procedures that stimulate some of the pelvic nerves we can help men and women urinate easier,” he tells MEL in an email. “There is no real great explanation for this, but there are a lot of theories.”
Now, before you grab that pipe and go to town in the Target men’s room, know that this technique doesn’t work for all people. In fact, Dr. Shaw says, the reflex stimulation and location of stimulation can differ with each person. “For some folks, a good tickle in the belly button can stimulate the reflex,” he says.
“[For] others, stimulation of the head of the penis, the clitoris or stimulation of the scrotum or perineum” will trigger the reflex. “For yet others, especially [people] with spinal cord disorders, tickling the lower back can stimulate urination.”
While Dr. Ingber says he doesn’t see any issues arising from doing this too much, both he and Dr. Shaw advise seeing a doctor if you’re having “continued or sustained issues with urination.” Especially if it’s outside the realm of social phobias where “tricks” like this can help, Dr. Shaw advises, “ring up your local friendly urologist to get an evaluation.” There could be a number of serious issues preventing you from peeing, and frantically palming the head of your penis isn’t going to fix anything.
Take it from Andrew. Since seeking therapy for his anxiety, he no longer has problems in public restrooms. But, for the sake of journalism and science, he still took a minute to confirm the technique is still effective.
“I just went and tried it,” he tells me. “Still works. Good to know if I need it, it’ll be there.”