Rob Lowe is in deep s--t with people who have trouble peeing.
It may have struck most viewers as a harmless joke when, in a DirecTV commercial from October, "painfully awkward" Rob Lowe says, "I can't go with other people in the room," while standing at a urinal. (This nerdy version of Lowe has basic cable, as opposed to charming movie star Lowe, who has DirecTV and can successfully urinate at will.)
Well, the advertisement wasn't so hilarious to the International Paruresis Association, which spreads awareness of an anxiety-related disorder that prevents an estimated 7% of the population from using restrooms outside of their own homes.
The organization's complaint against DirecTV sparked a huge amount of controversy and dismissive reactions, and DirecTV spokesman Darris Gringeri told the Associated Press, “The ads will continue to run for the vast majority of viewers who have told us they enjoy the spots and understand that, like all of our commercials, they take place in a fantasy world and are not based in reality.”
It even provoked these tweets from Lowe himself:
We asked Steve Soiffer, head of the International Paruresis Association and a sufferer himself, to respond to Lowe's tweets and address the widespread charges of oversensitivity.
MTV News: Were you surprised that Lowe didn't offer an apology or "if I've unintentionally offended anyone..." statement?
Soiffer: I am. First of all, we expected an apology from DirecTV -- maybe not yanking the commercial, but acknowledging [it was offensive]. Customer service said they would apologize, but the VP said, "Let them take a joke, we're not going to pull it."
With Rob Lowe, you'd expect more sensitivity -- he had this whole possible sexual assault, or having sex with a minor [scandal in 1988, though he wasn't charged], and it appears on the surface that he's grown a lot, living the clean life and doing charitable stuff, so I would've hoped he would've shown a little more sensitivity on this issue. The fact he could blow it off like that bothers me.
MTV News: How do you feel about the "lighten up" message specifically?
Soiffer: I think he's absolutely wrong. Stephen Colbert [on the Comedy Central show "Exit 57"] did a skit a number of years ago about shy bladder that was funny. "SNL" did a skit about shy bladder for its 35th season opener. We have a sense of humor.
What Rob Lowe did was portray us in a very negative light, saying we need to get a life and we're losers. That's disgusting. You don't make fun of people that way -- like I said [to the Associated Press], what if people didn't have an arm or a leg or an eye? That crossed the line. We don't mind humor, but that was distasteful.
MTV News: What kind of response are you getting from the public?
Soiffer: Some of the emails I've gotten are just unbelievable. People cannot relate to other people having problems. If you think about the number of people in society who have problems -- one out of five people have phobias, or anxiety disorders, or depression -- you would think most people would understand that people could have many issues. But in the case of Mr. Lowe, it doesn't appear that way.
MTV News: This may be a stupid question, but is the middle urinal dilemma -- where you don't want to pee between two other dudes -- a mild form of the disorder?
Soiffer: It may or may not be. Some people will [leave the restroom] so they don't impinge on the space of people who would be on either side of them, but some people do it because they do have paruresis and can't go in that situation. It really varies.
Scientists did an experiment in the '70s where they measured how long it took people to start a stream based on how far away someone was from them, and -- it's intuitively obvious -- the closer someone is, the longer it takes to initiate a stream. Almost everyone I talk to -- even people without paruresis -- have an instance where they can't go.
MTV News: Is there a similar problem for going #2?
Soiffer: They're similar but unrelated. I can count the number of people on one hand who have both. A guy I know wrote a book about it, "S--t Doesn't Happen." The big difference is people have to defecate less on a daily basis, so you can get by with it much easier.
MTV News: For most sufferers, is a Starbucks-type public restroom -- where only one person goes in at a time -- easier to deal with?
Soiffer: Some people find it easier, because it's a single locked stall -- there's no one in there -- but some people freak out about the possibility someone is waiting for them outside the door, and they can't go. It's the same thing on planes with those lines that build up for the plane bathroom.
MTV News: For something 7% of the population apparently has, does it seem like it's not a well-known problem?
Soiffer: Given the comments I've gotten, both personally and reading responses to the news article, absolutely [people are ignorant about it]. I'm really surprised by some of the vitriolic comments -- I thought we were over these attitudes, but apparently not.
People don't understand how debilitating this can be. We know people who've committed suicide over this problem. They don't leave their house, don't have relationships, don't travel. Unless you have it, you don't appreciate how life-limiting it can be.
Have any of those comments you've received risen to the level of threats?
Soiffer: Not threats, but one guy wrote me yesterday saying I was oversensitive and "you're what's wrong with America, grow a pair, you p---y." That's about as baldfaced as you can get without out-and-out punching someone in the face. That was a low blow.