Tapping Into The Secrets Of the Stall

Sen. Larry Craig at a news conference Tuesday, where he said he pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge
Sen. Larry Craig at a news conference Tuesday, where he said he pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge "in hope of making it go away." (By Mike Vogt -- Idaho Press-tribune Via Associated Press)

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By Lynne Duke and DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 30, 2007

Consider the bathroom stall, that utilitarian public enclosure of cold steel and drab hue.

It can be a world of untold secrets, codes and signals as invitations to partake. Like foot-tapping: Who knew?

Let us peer in, shall we? Let us peer into the stall as intently as Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) allegedly did in a bathroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in June, when his searching blue eyes were visible to an undercover cop, who would later title his police report on Craig's arrest "Lewd Conduct" and write that police had made "numerous arrests regarding sexual activity in the public restroom."

Foot-tapping, the odd Morse code of anonymous bathroom sex, is "a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct," wrote airport police Sgt. Dave Karsnia. But there are many more ways to communicate desire in this sexual subculture, say legal and behavioral experts as well as law enforcement officials. Consider eye contact and the three-second rule. The lingering at the urinal. And any bathroom will do, be it in an airport, a department store, a mall or a highway rest stop.

While the Craig case has created another political scandal, with two Republican senators yesterday calling for his resignation, it has also pulled back the curtain on a sexual practice that takes place furtively, in the most public of places, and on the police stings designed to rout it.

Internet message boards on "cruising" are constantly abuzz with come-ons written by those seeking partners for anonymous bathroom sex. The boards also bristle with warnings about locations where law enforcement is cracking down.

Therapists also hear plenty about this world in the torment of their patients -- both married and gay men and those who eschew the word "gay" and describe themselves as "men who have sex with other men."

Whatever they call themselves, they are often driven by a craving, much like that which drives a drug addict, said Fred Berlin of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma at Johns Hopkins University.

"We use words like 'pervert' and we just demean and make very hard judgments," Berlin said. "What I found is that many of these people are hardworking and struggling hard to be in control. . . . Anybody can have a compulsion, whether it's a sexual compulsion or some other compulsion. That doesn't necessarily mean it's a measure of their character. Their character is something different."

This kind of sex is not a source of torment for everyone.

"Anonymous sex is a huge turn-on for many," said Lt. Alberto Jova, commander of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department's Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit. "They do it also for pleasure. I mean, it's sex."

Compulsive sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual, has similar drives, experts say.


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