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The elephant in the room at the ongoing child pornography trial of R&B icon R. Kelly is the fact that the man shown in the amateur sex video—the prosecution's key piece of evidence—seems to take pleasure in urinating on his sex partner.
Tearing away from the heinous possibility that the girl in the video may be underage, a question on the minds of many who have followed Kelly's case is: Who on earth would want to urinate on someone else, or be urinated on themselves?
The question might not make for polite dinner conversation, or even a topic normally discussed in a family newspaper. But that has not stopped people from talking about it.
The act performed in the video has gained widespread notoriety in the realm of popular culture. An episode of "Sex and the City" once explored the practice. Comedian Dave Chappelle brought the issue into millions of homes in 2003 with a mock music video in which he dresses and croons likes R. Kelly, guzzling a gallon bottle of water, spraying dancers with a garden hose and singing a song titled "[I Wanna] Pee on You."
The intermingling of sex and urine—known by the euphemism "watersports"—has been around for centuries, but it still makes most people cringe.
Lawyers in the Kelly case warned prospective jurors that they would have to witness "acts you've never seen before." Journalists reporting on the case have had to tiptoe gently around what is often viewed—some would argue incorrectly—as a deviant act.
Sex therapists say that while watersports are not a common practice, plenty of healthy, consenting adults engage in them for an array of reasons.
"There are indeed people who do it as an act of anger," said Gloria Brame, a Georgia-based licensed therapist and author of the book "Different Loving." "But there are a lot of people who think it's groovy. . . . It's a breaking of taboo."
Taboo breakers, however, are rarely viewed fondly by mainstream society, and many assume people who engage in unusual sex acts suffer some form of mental disorder.
The American Psychiatric Association puts sexual fetishes under the category of paraphilia, a disorder that could involve all manner of acts that deviate from what is considered normal sexual activity. But for the disorder to be officially diagnosed in a person, the sexual act in question must result in "clinically significant" mental distress or social impairment.
Until 1973, the APA's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health listed homosexuality as a paraphilia. Clearly, psychiatry changes with the times.
"As American society gets more open about sexual practices, the APA is loath to put in a disorder category any act that's happening between two consenting adults," said William Narrow, associate director of the APA's research division. "There has been some scientific debate as to whether these paraphilias should actually be classified as mental disorders or not."
Margie Nichols, a New Jersey sex therapist and member of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists, puts it this way: "If it's consensual between two adults, who cares? It's unusual, that's all."
Many in the sexual education field are pushing for the APA to further de-pathologize non-typical sexual acts like watersports and S&M, with the caveat that they are performed between consenting adults.
"People are going to stigmatize sexual behavior anyway, you don't need a diagnostic manual to do that," said Russell Stambaugh, a sex therapist in Ann Arbor, Mich. "This is not a public health menace. An act doesn't constitute a mental disorder."
Which is not to say the behavior lacks a psychoanalytical component. Many believe the enjoyment of more adventurous forms of sexual activity has roots in an individual's past.
"Tell me how you were loved as a child, and I'll tell you how you make love as an adult," said Joe Kort, a therapist and an adjunct professor of gay and lesbian studies at Wayne State University.
Patients who engage in watersports, Kort said, have often traced their desires back to issues surrounding potty training. Or perhaps moments when they wet their pants and were humiliated.
"Some of these moments can become so painful to deal with, the psyche blocks it, buries it down," Kort said. "But nothing stays locked down. It will come out somewhere and you will re-enact it until you heal it. It's sort of like trauma turns into triumph. The event becomes eroticized."
Then there are those, experts say, who, despite our societal norms, simply find the act of urinating sexy.
"It's a very intimate sort of act," said Susan Wright of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, an advocacy group based in Baltimore. "It's a little naughty, a little exciting, a little titillating. I think it really is considered a very innocuous sort of activity."
Rex W. Huppke is a Tribune