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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Book of Bathroom Signals

Turns out, there IS a Book of Bathroom Signals.

The author is an Episcopal Priest.

Of Course.

Everybody rush right out and buy your copy.

That picture of Sen. Craig? Well, here's the deal: I'm offering a free weekend retreat at our wee cottage Llangollen for the best photo caption.

Op-Ed Contributor

America’s Toe-Tapping Menace
Published: September 2, 2007
WHAT is shocking about Senator Larry Craig’s bathroom arrest is not what he may have been doing tapping his shoe in that stall, but that Minnesotans are still paying policemen to tap back. For almost 40 years most police departments have been aware of something that still escapes the general public: men who troll for sex in public places, gay or “not gay,” are, for the most part, upstanding citizens. Arresting them costs a lot and accomplishes little.

In 1970, Laud Humphreys published the groundbreaking dissertation he wrote as a doctoral candidate at Washington University called “Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places.” Because of his unorthodox methods — he did not get his subjects’ consent, he tracked down names and addresses through license plate numbers, he interviewed the men in their homes in disguise and under false pretenses — “Tearoom Trade” is now taught as a primary example of unethical social research.

That said, what results! In minute, choreographic detail, Mr. Humphreys (who died in 1988) illustrated that various signals — the foot tapping, the hand waving and the body positioning — are all parts of a delicate ritual of call and answer, an elaborate series of codes that require the proper response for the initiator to continue. Put simply, a straight man would be left alone after that first tap or cough or look went unanswered.

Why? The initiator does not want to be beaten up or arrested or chased by teenagers, so he engages in safeguards to ensure that any physical advance will be reciprocated. As Mr. Humphreys put it, “because of cautions built into the strategies of these encounters, no man need fear being molested in such facilities.”

Mr. Humphreys’s aim was not just academic: he was trying to illustrate to the public and the police that straight men would not be harassed in these bathrooms. His findings would seem to suggest the implausibility not only of Senator Craig’s denial — that it was all a misunderstanding — but also of the policeman’s assertion that he was a passive participant. If the code was being followed, it is likely that both men would have to have been acting consciously for the signals to continue.

Mr. Humphreys broke down these transactions into phases, which are remarkably similar to the description of Senator Craig’s behavior given by the police. First is the approach: Mr. Craig allegedly peeks into the stall. Then comes positioning: he takes the stall next to the policeman. Signaling: Senator Craig allegedly taps his foot and touches it to the officer’s shoe, which was positioned close to the divider, then slides his hand along the bottom of the stall. There are more phases in Mr. Humphreys’s full lexicon — maneuvering, contracting, foreplay and payoff — but Mr. Craig was arrested after the officer presumed he had “signaled.”

Clearly, whatever Mr. Craig’s intentions, the police entrapped him. If the police officer hadn’t met his stare, answered that tap or done something overt, there would be no news story. On this point, Mr. Humphreys was adamant and explicit: “On the basis of extensive and systematic observation, I doubt the veracity of any person (detective or otherwise) who claims to have been ‘molested’ in such a setting without first having ‘given his consent.’ ”

As for those who feel that a family man and a conservative senator would be unlikely to engage in such acts, Mr. Humphreys’s research says otherwise. As a former Episcopal priest and closeted gay man himself, he was surprised when he interviewed his subjects to learn that most of them were married; their houses were just a little bit nicer than most, their yards better kept. They were well educated, worked longer hours, tended to be active in the church and the community but, unexpectedly, were usually politically and socially conservative, and quite vocal about it.

In other words, not only did these men have nice families, they had nice families who seemed to believe what the fathers loudly preached about the sanctity of marriage. Mr. Humphreys called this paradox “the breastplate of righteousness.” The more a man had to lose by having a secret life, the more he acquired the trappings of respectability: “His armor has a particularly shiny quality, a refulgence, which tends to blind the audience to certain of his practices. To others in his everyday world, he is not only normal but righteous — an exemplar of good behavior and right thinking.”

Mr. Humphreys even anticipated the vehement denials of men who are outed: “The secret offender may well believe he is more righteous than the next man, hence his shock and outrage, his disbelieving indignation, when he is discovered and discredited.”

This last sentence brings to mind the hollow refutations of figures at the center of many recent public sex scandals, heterosexual and homosexual, notably Representative Mark Foley, the Rev. Ted Haggard, Senator David Vitter and now Senator Craig. The difference is that Larry Craig was arrested.

Public sex is certainly a public nuisance, but criminalizing consensual acts does not help. “The only harmful effects of these encounters, either direct or indirect, result from police activity,” Mr. Humphreys wrote. “Blackmail, payoffs, the destruction of reputations and families, all result from police intervention in the tearoom scene.” What community can afford to lose good citizens?

And for our part, let’s stop being so surprised when we discover that our public figures have their own complex sex lives, and start being more suspicious when they self-righteously denounce the sex lives of others.

Laura M. Mac Donald is the author of “The Curse of the Narrows: The Story of the 1917 Halifax Explosion.”



Grandmère Mimi said...

Elizabeth, no caption. I'm not good at that sort of thing.

I assume these rules apply only to men. In all my years, I have never had the sense that someone was signaling me about sex in a public restroom. Perhaps women intuitively know that this is not a good thing.

4mrwrdn said...

Does the author have a proposal for where my nine year old and five year old boys might relieve themselves without encountering a public sex act?

I don't suppose that the initial contact is a problem, but if it is going to lead to an early childhood education for my sons, then I'm happy for the police to be in the bathroom if needed.

PseudoPiskie said...

Well, I don't think this artificial hand will work. It's ok for passing under the stall partition but it has to curl farther than this to be useful.

Rowan The Dog said...

"Now pay attention boys...I'm going to show you one more time. It's palm up, like this see..."

Mike in Texas said...

On YouTube:

Senator Larry Craig's Guide to Mensroom "Signals"

Suzer said...

There is at least one thing MacDonald is incorrect about in this article. The consensual sex acts described are not in themselves criminalized. It is the fact that these overtures and sex acts are being carried out in a public bathroom that creates a public nuisance that is the problem. If a pimp were doing business in a public men's restroom, with his prostitute then engaging in hetero sex in a public bathroom, I would expect the police to arrest the wrongdoers in that situation as well.

I also disagree about this being entrapment, but that is a legal argument I won't delve into in your comments section. :)

I'm all for consenting adults doing whatever sexual acts they want to when not in public. Though my personal moral and religious convictions might be against casual sex, I wouldn't dream of stopping someone wanting to fornicate wherever they chose *in private*. (I don't know how to do html to get bold or underlining, so * will have to do.) And while I personally feel Sen. Craig's behavior abhorrent on many levels, I realize he has the choice to do it. Just not in a public bathroom.

(I am not blind to the homophobia that is also supported by having police set up stings in these situations, but I also happen to agree this is a public nuisance and should be moved to a more appropriate, non-public venue.)

PseudoPiskie said...

Another try for the weekend.

From the guy way in the back: This is getting embarrassing.

PseudoPiskie said...

Meanwhile. I don't know about sick or perverted. I suspect Craig is a victim of a religion and a party that preach fear of hell and dehumanize people who are different so they don't have to love them. In other words, he is his own victim and too blind to see it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sick? Perverted? Whatever. Craig is a sad charicature of the person who seeks public sex - a horror to parents of young children, to gay / bi men whose sexuality includes anonymous sex, to gay / bi men who are are married and on the "down low."

"Don't ask / don't tell" never promotes anything healthy.

Jim said...

I am 61 and have flown for a living (consultant.) I have never been approached or witnessed anything sexual in an airport washroom.

I suspect this is much ado about not much.


Martha said...

How long has it been dead?

Rowan The Dog said...

Jim is right. It's probably a very small thing indeed.

Suzer- It may interest you to know that despite Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 anti-sodomy laws remain on the books in 21 states. It's a felony in about half of those. The penalty in the senator's home state of ID is not less than five years in prison. In MN it's only one year and maybe a fine. The Supremes have spoken but the states have not yet responded.

Not sure what the charges were, probably not sodomy since such a conviction would surly be struck down, but the laws are there.


Anonymous said...

Please, Please no more about Larry Craigs searching for love in all the wrong places. He's guilty as charged, let him take a poly but he won't come within a 1000 feet of that truth finder. I just worry about his grand kids and when he plans to take his sick behavior to the next level. Larry at least go out with a least one truth. You like mens private parts as disgusting as that is. I feel so sorry for you unknowing wife and your step children no matter what they say to the camera they know your a sick, sick gay man that doesn't have the guts to finally tell the world. Jesus knows and you can't fool him

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hope you feel better after that, Anonymous.