Wednesday, September 05, 2007


America's toe tapping menace

Like many people, I have mixed feelings about the downfall of Larry Craig. His politics are reactionary and his moral posturings repulsive. Yet, he was trapped by a cop who led him on. That’s as repulsive as Craig’s moral pose as an upstanding preserver of traditional values.

Police should have better things to do—chasing criminals, maintaining a presence on the street and in the hood as a friend and guardian rather than an occupier.

I’ve known enough gay guys to know something about this kind of cruising. It has a frightening element of risk. For a lot of people, adrenaline addicts, this is about as good as the sex itself. It isn’t a particularly healthy addiction. It’s one thing to cruise in pick-up bars and clubs, but it’s something else when it’s with total strangers who are, often, totally anonymous. “Looking for Mr Goodbar” is dangerous enough in heterosexual scenes.

And the vice squad cops. Well, it’s hard to think of anything good to say about them. It’s degrading work with people who are already degraded. I don’t think it does anybody very much good.

The New York Times
September 2, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor
America’s Toe-Tapping Menace
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.

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.

. 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.”

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.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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