Filmmaker Steven Jackson in his documentary “Pee Shy.” Photos courtesy of the filmmaker

As the old saying goes, “When you gotta go, you gotta go.”

But what happens when you can’t?

That’s the subject of Portland filmmaker Steven Jackson’s short documentary “Pee Shy,” which is wrapping up a months-long shoot in Maine, Massachusetts, California and essentially anywhere human beings have difficulty urinating when there’s anyone else around.

What is “pee-shyness?”

Technically termed “paruresis” by the medical community, pee-shyness refers to the all-too-relatable anxiety that comes when you find yourself unable to pee when there are other people – or sometimes even the prospect of other people – anywhere near you. As filmmaker Jackson, himself a lifelong paruresis sufferer, explained concerning what he’s learned in making his short documentary, “I’ve gotten the sense that most everybody can relate to elements of it, that everybody experiences it to some degree.”

What causes pee-shyness?


According to Jackson, an acclaimed audio storyteller, podcaster and NPR contributor, “There’s literally a visceral connection to peeing. With restrooms, especially public restrooms, we’re all conditioned to behave in a certain way, right from our earliest development. Coming online in terms of memory makes the experience run so deep in our psyche – it makes it weirdly emotional sometimes.” With Jackson noting how the phenomenon disproportionately affects men, some scrutiny must be cast upon our society’s rigidity with regard to how males are conditioned to behave with other males. (The cliché that you don’t take the urinal right next to another guy is grounds for all manner of sociological study.)

What made Jackson take on such a personal issue for all the world to see?

“I’ve always thought about doing something around my shy bladder,” said the 2013 graduate of Portland’s Salt Institute. “It’s always been a part of my life, and always something I found equal parts frustrating and mortifying, with a side of, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ With my audio background (Stevens’ impressive podcast resume and other works can be found on his website,, I did think of going with audio storytelling at first, but the whole premise of social anxiety, the promise of being perceived, to have myself on screen would, I thought, create a tension between camera and subject.”

“Pee Shy” is kind of a funny title, though, right?

“There’s something inherently funny about this,” said Jackson. “It’s infantile and absurd, like a lot of anxiety. Or maybe it’s as simple as my lowbrow sensibilities – I think bathroom humor is funny.” The more Jackson talks about his film and his personal experience, the more “Pee Shy’s” vibe becomes clear. Jackson says his film’s mix of cringe comedy and sincerity partakes from the same well as Nathan Fielder’s work (“Nathan for You,” “The Rehearsal”) where it’s an endurance contest to see who among the creator, his onscreen partners or the audience will be made more comically uncomfortable.

Still, Jackson is dead set on making a film that tackles a deeply personal issue with the right blend of heart and humor. “It’s a coping strategy on my part, maybe. It helps to laugh about it a little bit. When you approach something with a sense of humor, it earns you the right to be a little more earnest about it,” he said.


I’ll chime in to agree wholeheartedly. Jackson and I talked about stand-up comics like Maria Bamford, Chris Gethard, Gary Gulman and others, whose onstage courage in addressing some very intense mental and emotional pain with insightful comedy makes what they have to say that much more affecting – and hilarious. I’d also point to the Season 10 episode of “Bob’s Burgers” titled, “Poops!… I Didn’t Do It Again,” where the otherwise fearless Louise’s terror of defecating anywhere but at home makes for a surprisingly emotional and funny outing. (It should be noted that this cousin of paruresis is called parcopresis.)

What it was like taking his shy bladder public, so to speak.

Jackson, who moved back to Portland in 2021, claimed, “I didn’t expect my short film to be a launching pad into so many deep conversations. In doing this kind of project, it’s so easy to veer off into sort of navel-gazing self-aggrandizement, but in talking to others dealing with the same issue, it helped expand the scope and turn it into a larger story.”

Jackson, who describes his paruresis as relatively mild on the spectrum of the condition, talks about the experience of going to a conference for fellow sufferers in Massachusetts alongside Portland producing partners Kaitlyn Schwalje and Alex Wolf Lewis and sound guy Ashley Kotzur. “There were about a dozen people there – all men – for a mix of support group and graduated exposure therapy (essentially practice peeing). Everybody knew about the project and nobody was under any pressure to participate, but at the end, almost everybody signed the release form. The interviews became like collaboration. As Jackson chuckled, “It was really fulfilling and made this feel a lot less like some sort of fanciful (expletive) project.”

So what’s to be learned from a documentary about peeing?

Said Jackson of his film, in which he’s seen asking strangers at the Maine Mall about their own urinal shyness, “Shame is not really helpful most of the time. This feels counterintuitive, but keeping secrets and hiding – the thing you want to hide most, that gives it more power.” He added, “The film sort of toggles back and forth between silliness and earnestness. On the one hand, there’s the sense that the size of the problem doesn’t matter that much. But for some people, this is functionally akin to agoraphobia. It’s something out of your control, the sense that you’re doing something so natural wrong on some level, and that can be fraught with all kinds of anxieties. There’s a gender element, a performance element – it’s all about privacy in a public space, and how that affects a lot of people.”


Next up for “Pee Shy.”

Steven Jackson’s certainly not keeping his own battle with a shy bladder a secret. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the 12-15 minute “Pee Shy” is currently finishing up shooting, with Oregon native Jackson currently on the West Coast interviewing family and planning a comic dream sequence alongside other Portland filmmakers (involving a black void and a monolith-style “2001” urinal) before the film heads out into the wide world of the film festival circuit this summer.

Look for Steven Jackson’s short documentary “Pee Shy” at film festivals later this year. To learn more, check out the film’s website,

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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