First, an (elderly) joke.

A Harvard man and a Yale man are at the urinal. They finish and zip up. The Harvard man proceeds to the sink to wash his hands, while the Yale man immediately makes for the exit.

The Harvard man says, “At Hah-vahd they teach us to wash our hands after we urinate.”

The Yale man replies, “At Yale they teach us not to piss on our hands.”

My question: why is it customary for males to wash their hands after urination? I never do, which shocks and disgusts some of my guy friends. I bathe daily and wear fresh underpants, so how does my penis get dirty? It’s not like I dig a ditch with it. However, my hands might get dirty from daily activities. Is it not more sensible then to wash my hands before touching my clean penis? Is posturination hand washing a throwback to the bad old days, when sex was “dirty” and so, by extension, were sex organs? I’m serious about this. Please advise. –Tom Sharpley, Los Angeles

Good (if elderly) joke. Common (but stupid) attitude. Rank (but important) topic. Some facts:

(1) The purpose of washing is not to get pee off your hands.

(2) No amount of washing will make you clean.

(3) You have to do it anyway.

I’ve said this before: your boxer-shorts region–from belly button to mid-thigh–is crawling with germs known as coliform bacteria. These bacteria originated in your intestine, and some of them are deadly. Remember punji stakes? They were sharpened sticks that the Vietcong concealed point up along trails and daubed with excrement. If you stepped on one you had a good chance of contracting a fatal infection. Similarly, an otherwise not-so-serious gunshot or knife injury could kill you if it perforated the intestine and allowed coliform bacteria to spread around your abdomen.

But you know this (or at least you ought to). What you may not know is that washing will not make the coliform bacteria go away. They’re holed up in the pores of your skin and nothing short of sandblasting–certainly not your morning shower–is going to get them out. Showering merely gets rid of the ones that have strayed onto the surface. The bacteria won’t do much harm if they stay put, but when you urinate your fingers come in contact with Mister P. long enough for the coliform bacteria in your pores to hop aboard. Your fingers subsequently touch lots of other infectible items. If you don’t wash your hands with soap and water (soap gets rid of the skin oil that the bacteria stick to)… hello, Typhoid Mary.

It now dawns on you: jeez, if merely touching my privates is enough to transmit bacteria, it doesn’t matter if I pee or not! Just so. Urine itself is actually fairly sterile. Cecil has read reports of it being used during wartime in poor countries as–I’m not making this up–a sort of battlefield Bactine. (U.S. doctors generally blanch at this.) The lesson to draw from this, however, is not that you can go forth dripping (yuck), but rather that just because you didn’t pee on your fingers doesn’t mean you can skip washing up.


I told you not to buy stuff at those Kiev flea markets. The original atomic bomb used nuclear fission, in which big atoms (uranium or plutonium) were split into littler ones in a chain reaction, releasing vast amounts of energy. The hydrogen bomb employs nuclear fusion, in which little atoms (various forms of hydrogen) fuse together to make bigger ones (helium), essentially the same process that occurs in the sun. Fusion bombs are a thousand times more powerful than fission bombs, which are a million times more powerful than chemical ones. Wouldn’t you be just as happy with, say, a cherry bomb?


Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611, or E-mail him at

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.