Bowel and Bladder Control During Sex

Politics and Shame Around Sexuality and Bowel and Bladder Control

The subject of bowel movements and bladder control during sex is one that most people avoid discussing at all costs. Ultimately some decide that they'd rather go without sex then ever talk with a partner or health care practitioner about it. Others want to keep having sex, but can't see a way to be both sexual and live with reduced or no control over their bowel or bladder. You always have the right to choose whether or not you want to have sex, and no one should try to convince you otherwise.

But if you think that there is some fundamental or biological conflict between the "sexiness" of sex and the "messiness" of bowel and bladder function, you should know it's just not so. And if you worry about losing control of your bowel or bladder during sex, and it's getting in the way of you having or enjoying sex, and you want that to change, read on.

Among the many lies we're told about sex, the lie that sex is always clean, perfect, and predictable is particularly pernicious. Sex, however you do it, is like life. You can prepare and plan as much as you like, but there are always forces, both unexpected and uncontrollable, that will influence how things go.

Sex is messy, and often it isn't sexy, at least in terms of how sexy is defined by public culture and the media. Our actual sex lives rarely look like sex in mainstream media, in pornography, or in other forms of art. And for some of us, possibly more than you'd imagine, losing control of our bladders (peeing or urinating) and having a bowel movement (pooping or defecating) is something that happens during sex.

It might happen just once, or once in a while, it might happen often. To quote the great writer and performance artist Cheryl Marie Wade, it "ain't exactly sexy" but if you want to have sex and you want to exercise your sexual rights, you're probably going to need to talk about it at some point.

The Bathroom Is Personal AND Political
Most of us learn early on that bowel and bladder function is private and personal.

The lesson is that what happens in the bathroom stays in the bathroom, and the "right" and "normal" way of being is to be in there alone. If you have trouble in the bathroom it's individual trouble, yours alone. Of course, this isn't the whole truth. Throughout our lives there may be times when we aren't alone in the bathroom, and the idea that there is one way to go to the bathroom and every other way is "trouble" is also not reflected in people's actual experience. It's important to acknowledge that these lessons, the ones that tell us bowel and bladder function must be kept individual and private, are political and social lessons, even if they are often framed as biological, or "rules of nature."

When you think about it, urinating and defecating are things that all of us do, experiences that all of us share. Just like sex, we don't all do it the same way but it's our silence around this topic that in part keeps us from learning, and discovering that far from there being one "right" way to eliminate waste from our bodies, there are multitudes of ways, that are tied to how our bodies work, to where we live, to how we live, and more.

In the above mentioned article, Wade writes specifically about people for whom part of their lived experience of disability is not being able to go to the bathroom on their own.

And it seems important to acknowledge, as Wade does, that people who have to have someone in the bathroom with them, helping them urinate or defecate, have fundamentally less privacy than those who don't need this assistance. We don't need to make this distinction in order to amplify "us" versus "them" categories, but we do need to point out that lived experience matters. There may be many things we can all identify with in terms of bowel and bladder taboos, but there are also social barriers that are systemic and that make it difficult to access even basic human rights, when you live with little to no privacy.

What does any of this have to do with bowel and bladder control during sex? Actually a fair bit. You may not be able to change the control you have over your bowel or bladder, so if you want to change something about the situation during sex, you're going to have to start thinking in more detail not just about the anatomy and physiology of bowels and bladders, but also about the social and even political context.

Do We Clean Up the Dirty Talk?
One place to start this deeper thinking is with language. In "It Ain't Exactly Sexy" Wade boldly calls for less euphemism and more blunt talk about what happens when you don't have control over your bowel and bladder function. She believes using terms like urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence, bowel symptoms, "accidents" and more all serve to keep us ignorant and ashamed. We stay ignorant because the generic and euphemistic language erases the diversity in bowel and bladder routines. And it keeps us feeling ashamed because we understand that despite the euphemisms, if we are someone who either has no control over our bowel or bladder, or sometimes urinates or has a bowel movement during sex , we don't fit the "norm". Some suggest that using direct and graphic language can serve to break through the social restrictions that keep some of us feeling ashamed and others of us just plain scared. Don't say "urine" when you mean "piss," don't say "defecate" when you mean "shit".

This is one perspective, and people should have the right to use the words that work for them. People should also be encouraged to experiment with language and not just use the words we're given. But some people will always be more comfortable using words like "poop" or "urine" than "shit" and "piss" and they don't need to feel any more ashamed for that then those who find strength in using more graphic words to describe bodily functions.

Dealing with Shame
When people describe losing bowel or bladder control during sex, they often talk about the embarrassment they felt, feeling ashamed or horrified when it happened. When you ask, many people will tell you that they avoid sex altogether, or at certain times, because they are scared of losing bowel or bladder control again, or even for the first time.

Ultimately it's an individuals choice to have sex, and we shouldn't make this another occasion for people to feel pressured into having sex. But for someone who wants sex without, or with less, fear or shame, dealing with the shame that so many people experience around bowel and bladder control, is an important and ongoing process.

There is no one way, or quick way to deal with shame (for that matter, shame isn't the same for each of us). But one place many people start is by naming the thing that is tied to feelings of shame and then talking about it. In this case, a general question to start with might be: what is it specifically that you feel shame about. Are you

  • bothered that a partner is seeing/smelling your bodily fluids?
  • thinking that loss of bowel or bladder control signifies something else to you?
  • feeling like sex is supposed to be clean or perfect or serious, and a bowel movement or urinating during sex ruins it?
  • taking on the responsibility of how the sexual encounter goes, and if it is "ruined" then you're to blame for "ruining sex"?

Those are just a few questions to start with. Take some time to ask yourself what your feelings of shame are triggered by, or what thoughts come with them.

Then, for many, speaking out, not just about how your body works, but specifically about the feelings of shame, can be a powerful way to change the experience. One question to ask yourself is this: if you could go outside and scream to the world something out about bowel and bladder control, something about how you feel, what would you scream? It's not necessary to do this, but sometimes it can help to give ourselves the freedom at least in our imaginations, to speak completely honestly without thinking of how others will respond.

Next, think about how you can start a conversation about bowel and bladder control with a partner. If it's someone you haven't had sex with before, timing can be tricky, and it might help to practice by talking about this with a trusted friend. But ultimately one of the things that makes sex feel so high stakes is the idea that we aren't supposed to talk about it in advance. Most sex educators would agree that communication is key to great sex, so while it's true that many people have sex without ever talking about it, it may be equally true that those who aren't talking about it aren't having the sex they want.

I might help to talk with others who have also dealt with this. If you don't know people you can go online and look in forum discussions. For what it's worth, you'll usually find that partners never think this is as big a deal as the person who had a bowel movement or urinated during sex. This particularly true when the partner describes the sex that was going on as really good. This doesn't diminish your feelings, but if one of the things that is keeping you silent is the fear of how a partner will react, reading about partner's reactions may help you let go of part of that fear.

The Bottom Line
Hopefully once you start to think about bowel and bladder control during sex in more detail, you can come up with an understanding for yourself of what the real problem is. Is the problem that this is happening, or that your body works one way and not another? Is the problem more about your expectations of what sex should be like? If you believe that only those who can control and time when they urinate or defecate get to have sex, you should know that ANYONE can lose control of their bladder or bowels during sex. It might be tied to a disease, or surgery, or some other kind of medication or treatment, but it can also happen as a response to intense pleasure, or stimulation or pressure.

It's a lie to say that some people have 100% control of their bodies. No one does. Living with a lot less control over your body does make a difference, it does matter. But saying that because you can't control your bowels or bladder you are therefore less of a person, or you don't deserve to be desired or have hot sex, isn't a fact. It's a lie.