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.
"Some people are really compulsively driven to seek sex frequently, anonymously," says Eli Coleman, director of the human sexuality program at the University of Minnesota Medical School. They are often driven by the need to reduce anxiety and regulate their mood, to feel good temporarily, Coleman says.
"But oftentimes the behavior only gives short-term relief, and because of its furtive nature, they feel guilty and shameful and [tell themselves] they're not going to do it ever again, and then they're back out there."
Craig's arrest occurred a month after the Idaho Statesman newspaper played him an audiotape of a man who claims he had had sex with the senator in Union Station. Craig has denied the claim.
Neither Union Station management nor Amtrak Police would comment on their law enforcement activities. Although Meridian Hill Park in Northwest, also called Malcolm X Park, is known as a sexual cruising spot, U.S. Park Police spokesman Robert Lachance would not discuss enforcement activities there.
Across the country, official attempts to crack down on public sex have stirred controversy. Jim Naugle, mayor of Fort Lauderdale, recently drew criticism from gay activists when he suggested that single-occupancy bathrooms on the beach would inhibit "homosexual activity." Rather than "gay," he said, homosexual people were "unhappy." In Rehoboth Beach, Del., a string of arrests in July on public sex charges prompted some gay residents to complain about entrapment.
A distinction must be drawn, say some, between public sex and anonymous sex.
"I know of plenty of people who have anonymous sex, but not public, meaning in their own homes," says Shawn Henderson, moderator for D.C. Young Poz Socials, a support group for HIV-positive men.
"I know people who are determined to hook up to someone online on Craigslist. They will list a scenario in which a person is blindfolded. The person they invite comes over to their home and has sex and leaves." Public means "in malls, restaurants, airport restrooms -- obviously -- and public parks," he said.
He says he has heard of a number of ways men indicate they want to have "public" sex.
"From what I've heard, foot-tapping. Online [dating and chats] is another blatant way. As far as the other ways, if you are walking through the mall, someone might make eye contact. If you walk down the street and you see someone you are interested in, you lock eye contact."
Then you apply the three-second rule.
"Once you pass that person, you wait three seconds and turn. If they turn, you follow that person or you keep going your separate ways. Or you exchange numbers and make plans to meet later."
An early reference to foot-tapping is made in the 1975 book "The Tea Room Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places," by Laud Humphreys, a sociologist. It is based on Humphreys's 1960s study of public sex.
"In tea rooms where there were doors on the stalls, I have observed the use of foot-tapping as a means of communication," Humphreys wrote. He added that "doors on stalls serve as hindrances rather than aids to homoerotic activity."
Henderson offers a more detailed description of the contemporary practice.
"If you are in the stall, you tap your foot, and if the person next to you taps a foot, you keep going back and forth until one person makes a move," he says. "Someone will then stick their hand underneath. Or they will pass a note on paper. Or, what I've heard is, when they think it's safe," they will move on to sexual contact in the space beneath the partition.
"Some people are absolutely blatant" about showing arousal in public bathrooms, he said. "I've seen this in malls and witnessed that myself."
The reaction? "That depends," he said. "For people who are not of that same persuasion, they yell and call names. I've seen people escorted out by security, and I've witnessed people gesturing back, reaching over and grabbing them. That's when you roll your eyes and walk out."
This behavior violates the "unwritten code of conduct that men observe in bathrooms," said John Davidson, legal director at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Lambda has published a "Little Black Book" of legal advice for people who engage in public sex, on the theory that men seeking sex with men are targeted for easy law-enforcement action.
"Don't the police at the airport maybe have better things to do than sit in the bathroom?" Davidson said. "They're sitting there waiting in order to catch men trying to have sex with men. . . . I thought we had reasons to be concerned about things going on in the airport other than that."
And those caught often do not fight the charges, he said.
"Most people arrested for this conduct, because they're so ashamed, they just want it to go away," said Davidson. "And so they frequently will plead guilty."
Some gay activists suggest that sex in the stall is born of life in the closet.
"I think that the closet is a product of discrimination and prejudice against gay people," said David Smith, a vice president at the Human Rights Campaign. "And because of that prejudice, people can't be open and honest about who they are and have to go to extreme measures to hide it."