Being a woman of the world, I've encountered quite a few strange fetishes in my life. However, my brother Mikey and his hopelessly blond girlfriend recently got into coprophagia. I'm a pretty open-minded gal, but I draw the line when I have to kiss the face that . . . well, you know. Alas, pointing out the bizarre and repugnant nature of his behavior has done little to change my lost sibling's ways. After reading a column on your site that referenced how food-service workers' not washing their hands after going to the bathroom could promote the spread of disease, I started to wonder just how dangerous coprophagia is. What are the risks? Beyond disease, what could go wrong? --Mistress Anastasia in San Francisco
You discuss kinky sex practices with your brother? Man, family dinner at your house must be a trip. Still, revolting though we may find coprophagia (shit eating, for you innocents), what's the Straight Dope for if not to illuminate the universe's darker recesses? Herewith a smattering of coprofacts, on the theory that forewarned is forearmed:
The professional and for that matter the popular literature on coprophagia is pretty thin. Marine biologist Ralph Lewin, in his delightful (really) book Merde: Excursions in Scientific, Cultural, and Sociohistorical Coprology (1999), devotes a scant six pages to the subject, and these are entirely given over to a discussion of coprophagia among animals. Apparently the practice is common among rabbits, some rodents, and other herbivores that despite a cellulose-heavy diet lack the elaborate digestive plumbing of ruminants and thus must eat everything twice to obtain maximum nutritional benefit. "As a result of what is called 'colonic sorting,'" Lewin writes, "the nighttime feces of rabbits are soft and black, consisting of partly digested grasses and other leaves, and are nibbled straight from the anus as a kind of breakfast." (Dogs are also notorious coprophages, doing it mainly to gross out their owners.)
In a follow-up article ("More on Merde," Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 2001), Lewin offers a few additional insights on coprophagy, including 1.5 paragraphs on its practice among humans, the general message of which is that only pranksters and crazy people do this. "However," his inner scientist compels him to observe, "consumption of fresh, warm camel feces has been recommended by Bedouins as a remedy for bacterial dysentery; its efficacy (probably attributable to the antibiotic subtilisin from Bacillus subtilis) was confirmed by German soldiers in Africa during World War II." What I want to know is how the Bedouins figured this out: "Whoa, bacterial dysentery. Let's eat some camel crap."
Combing further through the journals, we find near-unanimous professional belief that virtually all human coprophages are mentally ill, retarded, or otherwise missing a few teeth off the main sprocket. A 1995 study of a 47-year-old police officer who graduated from fecal smearing to full-scale coprophagia (Wise and Goldberg, Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy) notes, "The case is the first described in a nonpsychotic [but still nutty] adult of normal intelligence." You might want to advance medical science by having the authors out to the house to meet your brother, although, to avoid reinforcing cruel stereotypes, perhaps you should hide the blond.
OK, diseases. While the hazards of coprophagia as such have attracted little medical interest, it's safe to say initiates in the brown arts are susceptible to many of the same ills dogging devotees of anilingus, fellatio following anal intercourse, and other more widely studied pastimes. Risks include viral hepatitis and parasitic intestinal infections such as giardiasis (symptoms include nausea, sulfurous belches, diarrhea, and weight loss), amebiasis (bloody colitis in extreme cases), cryptosporidiosis (nausea, vomiting, low fever, cramps, diarrhea), shigellosis (nausea, diarrhea, fever), campylobacter enteritis (in extreme cases, severe diarrhea with blood and pus), and strongyloidiasis, or infection with roundworms (which in sufficient numbers can cause intestinal blockage). (To be fair, such ailments are less of a problem for a monogamous couple than for people having sex with multiple partners, each of whom may bring a new set of bugs to the table.) As for what could go wrong "beyond disease," I suppose there's always choking, although I found no reported cases of this other than one brain-damaged fellow who, if I understand the matter correctly, asphyxiated on hardened stool. Don't expect this recitation to have much effect on your brother, though. You think the prospect of roundworms is likely to deter someone who doesn't blanch when told to open wide?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.