September 4, 2007

Senator Craig: "The breastplate of righteousness"

Much of the public debate surrounding Larry Craig's arrest centers on whether the senator is "gay." This completely misses the boat.

Back in the 1960s, a sociologist named Laud Humphreys conducted groundbreaking research into bathroom sex, or so-called "tearoom trade." He watched men engaging in sex in 19 public restrooms around St. Louis, Missouri. He surreptitiously noted their license plate numbers and later knocked on their doors in the guise of conducting an innocuous social sciences survey.

His findings, confirmed in more recent research, are that most of the men were married, religious, socially conservative, and heterosexually identified.

In other words, they were just like Senator Craig.

In fact, married men who engage in public sex are not only conservative; they often exhibit an exaggerated form of propriety. They drive late-model cars that are clean and polished, they maintain well-manicured lawns, they are impeccably groomed and dressed, and they attend church regularly. In short, they present themselves as proper, moral, and pious.

Although public sex is risky for these men, it allows them to maintain this veneer, which Humphreys labeled the "breastplate of righteousness."

As Humphreys' research demonstrated, public sex has been around a long time, and it is pervasive. Police have been stymied in their efforts to eradicate or even reduce it. In response to this longstanding dilemma, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) has published an interesting manual on how to control such "illicit sexual activity in public places."

An innovative solution proposed in the manual, which only works if a community is amenable, is to tolerate some amount of public sexual behavior in clearly delineated areas, as is the practice in certain European communities.

Less effective, the manual cautions, is the decoy approach used on Craig:

"While using undercover officers to pose as interested parties in illicit same-sex public activity can lead to many arrests, such operations have not had long-term effectiveness in reducing overall activity levels. At best, they temporarily displace the activity to other locations, and the activity usually returns to prior levels once the operations have ceased. Further, given the active role that undercover officers must take to confirm suspects' intentions, the police may be vulnerable to entrapment claims. In addition, many officers are reluctant to serve as decoys because of the customary behavioral scripts they must follow. Finally, some may see the serious social consequences of the publicity following an arrest as disproportionate to the severity of the offense."
For a social science perspective on the Craig scandal and its relevance to issues of sexual identity, denial, and prejudice, see Gregory Herek's insightful blog post, "Tearooms, Labels, and Double Standards."

Photo credit: cybertoad (Creative Commons license)

Additional resources:

Humphreys, L. (1970). Tearoom trade: Impersonal sex in public places. New York: Aldine Publishing Co.

Johnson, Kelly Dedel. Illicit Sexual Activity in Public Places. 2005. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

Nardi, P.M. (1995). "The Breastplate of Righteousness": Twenty-Five Years After Laud Humphreys' Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places. Journal of Homosexuality, 30, 1-10.

Desroches, F.J. (1990). Tearoom Trade: A Research Update. Qualitative Sociology, 13, 39-61.

Dignan, J. 2004. Manhunt. Sacramento News & Review, (2004).

Frankis, J., & Flowers, P. (2005). Men who have sex with men in public sex environments: A systematic review of quantitative literature. AIDS Care, 17, 273-288.

The Wall Street Journal's online edition links to the above post.