Friday, Oct. 17, 2003 | 4:46 a.m.
For people such as Steven Soifer, the most problematic leak these days isn't in the White House.
It's the one he can't take.
"There was a time I couldn't use the bathroom if my parents were in the house," said Soifer, who suffers from paruresis, or shy bladder syndrome.
The condition is exactly what it sounds like -- a disorder in which people cannot urinate in front of others. A dozen sufferers from across the country are in Las Vegas this weekend for a workshop by the International Paruresis Association.
Soifer, a social sciences professor at the University of Baltimore, co-founded the association seven years ago with a therapist who also suffers from the disorder. The two discussed it when they met at a Passover Seder.
"It was after the fourth glass of wine," Soifer said. "He said he had it too. And the first two people I told at my university said they had it. We had no idea what we were starting."
Soifers estimates about 7 percent of the U.S. population suffers from some level of public tee-tee tension.
"It is a common social problem," he said. "But no one talks about it."
Talking about it is the first thing workshop participants do.
"It's such a relief -- no pun intended -- to meet other people who have it," he said. "I know people who haven't used a public urinal in 25 years."
Some are able to pinpoint a specific incident when the fear set in, such as a locker-room taunt. Others tell of a fear that set in gradually. About 75 percent of cases start in puberty, and nine of 10 sufferers are men.
(Hardly a wonder. Women may go to the bathroom in packs, but we don't have to stand next to each other once we get there.)
Workshop participants select bathroom buddies and commence a series of exercises in which they work up to using a public bathroom on the casino floor.
Hence, the visit to Las Vegas. It wasn't the slot machines, buffets or shows that brought Soifer's workshop here.
It was the bathrooms.
"Casino bathrooms are very well-designed," he said. "There are dividers -- sometimes floor-to-ceiling -- and it's very nice."
But the United States is an easy potty place compared to Australia, where Soifer also hosts workshops.
Dividers for privacy? Forget it.
"You have to pee against a stainless steel wall," Soifer said.
Still, just talking about the condition will have been challenge enough for some of the 12 men who took the weekend workshop here.
"The biggest fear is that someone's going to laugh at you," Soifer said.
But laughing helps (as long as you don't laugh too hard for too long). Those with a sense of humor about their bashful bladders tend to recover more quickly, he said. But others face depression, alcoholism or similar problems that result from the isolation. Soifer encourages them to seek help for those demons first.
"I know people who have never dated because of it, and they're in the 40s or 50s. People don't travel. There are jobs they didn't take because of the (urine) drug-testing issue," Soifer said.
Imagine trying to tell friends why you went to Vegas, and why they weren't invited to go along.
"The biggest problem for these people is clicking the button to register for the workshop," Soifer said.