Wednesday, August 29, 2007

What is the state interest in forbidding public restroom sex?

Idaho Senator Larry Craig's insistence that he is "not gay," despite having pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct for soliciting sex from an undercover cop in the Minnesota Airport was for me an occasion not only for sadness---saying what it does about the persistence of the closet---but also nostalgia.

First, of course, one wonders whether Craig's choice of words reflects a Clintonian precision. Does it depend on what the meaning of "gay" is? If Craig likes to engage in anonymous gay sex but otherwise leads his life as a heterosexual, then perhaps he's right that he's "not gay." Perhaps he's bi. Or simply on the down-low.

The incident also recalled for me an even odder occurrence. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard in the mid-80s, I would sometimes notice graffiti in the stalls of the men's room in the Science Center basement urging patrons to, uhm, engage in sexual acts. Then, one day a story appeared in one of the student papers explaining that this particular restroom was a world-renowned pickup spot for anonymous gay sex. The university responded by, get this, removing the doors from the stalls. The dean of students at the time explained that this was "the standard solution." Whether or not this was true, the result was predictable: the sex in the restrooms ceased but almost no one used the stalls for their intended purpose either.

From the reports on the Craig story, it appears that the "standard solution" has been replaced by or supplemented with a new approach to this problem: undercover police soliciting sex. It is not obvious that this strategy will work. After all, it has been quite ineffective against the drug trade.

But talk of the best way to combat public restroom sex raises a different question: What is the legitimate state interest in forbidding this activity in the first place? I don't mean that as a question of constitutional law. Whatever constitutional protection there is for anonymous sex, surely the state can forbid it in public. Nonetheless, the question lingers as a policy matter.

Obviously, one reason to forbid restroom sex is that it can tie up the stalls. This seems an insufficient explanation, however. I doubt there's a good empirical study (okay, I doubt there's any empirical study) of the question, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that anonymous restroom sex is a relatively quick affair, substantially quicker than, say, reading the newspaper, an activity that can also tie up the stalls.

Another justification for the prohibition might be to protect people from being grossed out. To my knowledge, I've never been in a public restroom in which sex was occurring in one of the stalls, but I imagine that if I did hear the telltale sounds of sex (whether gay, straight or other) I'd be at least a bit alarmed. But would that fear rational? Isn't it more likely that the participants would be more scared of being discovered? (This recalls the age-old advice given to scared children: Don't worry, I'm sure the bug is more afraid of you than you are of him.)

As this excellent (if catty) entry on the Huffington Post notes, out gay men are unlikely to resort to restrooms for sex. This is a venue more likely to be favored by the closeted. So efforts to shut down restroom sex don't exactly have a disparate impact on gay men as such, but there is nonetheless something vaguely unfair about such efforts.


David said...

To my mind, the more interesting question is what the state interest is in forbidding sexual propositions in a public restroom (supposing that the solicitor plans on consummating the sexual act not in the actual stall but rather, say, in a motel room). It surely can't be because that the restroom is a public place, because one can obviously make sexual advances in a bar, a farmer's market, a park etc. The only obvious reasons that I can come up are rooted in homophobia.

Leaf said...

FYI, the use of undercover operatives to bust people having sex in public restrooms is hardly a new occurence. It has been going on in this country and in the UK since at least the early 1960s. Setting up these stings has also been a preoccupation of the NYPD, which supposedly in the 1970s and 1980s maintained a squad of officers who would engage in sex with men in semi-public places (such as central park) and bust them only after the act had been completed (although I somehow doubt this was ever official policy). As far as i know police presence has never had much deterent effect.

Michael C. Dorf said...

For Leaf: Yeah, I think I was aware that this was not a new tactic. I introduced it that way to juxtapose it with the ridiculous "standard solution."

Sobek said...

"...but also nostalgia."

Here I thought you were about to regale us with stories about picking up on closeted gay Republican Senators during your reckless youth. Oh well. Maybe some other post.

Adam P. said...

This post was almost enough to make me forget im no longer on a mexican beach vacation and have to go to some "Federal Courts" class on Tuesday.

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