Sex in Public
What our laws against public sex say about us
Published: February 12, 2014
She was driving and she wouldn’t tell me where we were going. Steve Kroft certainly wouldn’t have approved of such folly, letting a girl I met on the internet take me to an undisclosed location, but she was a tall drink of water, so I put aside my tendency to know better and let her. Good plan. She pulled into the Dixon Aircraft Observation Area out by BWI, and we pushed our seats back to watch the planes fly in and take off, filling the time in between with a little necking. And then a bright light was shining in on us—a cop’s flashlight knocking to remind us that the parks closed at dusk and us kids had better move along. We drove away giggling, and I was happy to tick this rite of passage off my list 20 years after an exceedingly chaste high school career.
A lot of us have a similar stories of our sexy shenanigans in parks and parking lots, bar bathrooms, and back rooms at work. Sex is supposed to happen only in the privacy of our own homes, usually in bedrooms, and often in the dark. Sex in public is off-limits, and that is part of what makes it so hot, that doing-what-we’re-not-supposed-to in places-where-we’re-not-supposed-to-do-it. For some of us, we can push that boundary without much fear. Heterosexual couples of the same race can walk down the street holding hands or neck at bus stops without much fear of reprisal; for the rest of us, even the simple act of holding hands can put us in a dangerous situation with passersby who have no trouble regulating the morality of the public sphere with pointed stares and tsk-tsks. And that’s the thing about regulating sex in public: It is often about regulating identities, not just acts.
In gay male communities, for example, public sex is an open secret. When Larry Craig, senator from my home state of Idaho, was arrested for soliciting sex in an airport bathroom, lots of men knew his “wide stance” was code for something other than taking a big shit. In several walking tours of city neighborhoods with Baltimore Heritage, local LGBT historians Gary Sachau, Louis Hughes, Shirley Parry, and Richard Oloizia have regaled attendees not only with facts about the founding of the GLBT Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland or the first Gay Pride block party, but also with stories of cruising in Wyman Park Dell in the 1970s and 1980s, the gay bathhouse in Mount Vernon, and the secret passageway from the restaurant in front to Leon’s, the oldest continuously operating gay bar in Baltimore, situated just behind. Cruising may have moved from the Dell to the Home Depot (according to internet rumors, anyway), but it remains an important part of our history, our communities, and our present.
If all this talk has you worried you’re going to see something you don’t want to see this lover’s weekend, stop: Unless you’re looking for it or know the codes, in cruising culture, chances are you’re not going to see anything you don’t want to see.
Then again, someone is probably watching. It’s worth noting that Craig was picked up in a sting. That means police knew the stalls at the Minneapolis airport were a likely cruising spot, and they knew how to read the signs of solicitation. The open secret wasn’t a secret anymore, but why? Why are we so concerned about public sex, even when it happens in the relative privacy of the bathroom or behind the bushes? Theorist and science-fiction writer Samuel Delany has argued that the existence of cruising areas—or what he calls “contact zones”—is part of what makes our urban places alive and full of possibility.
Think about it: When we consign sex to private spaces, we ensure intimate contact and pleasure stay private, and usually between people who know each other from settings like work and school, where we often share very similar backgrounds to one another. Baltimore is Smaltimore not because it’s such a small town but because most of us move in very small circles with people very much like us. Sex in public moves intimacy outside, and that can be a very good thing.
And here the chorus sings: What about the women? The children? Do we really want the Eddie Jenkins Jrs. of the world knocking on doors and making us watch him have sex with himself? Jenkins spent much of 2012 and 2013 knocking on Annapolis doors and forcing residents to watch him masturbate, and he certainly wasn’t the only person up to this particular kind of no-good. And there are plenty of other sex crimes plaguing our area. Howard County just approved a human-trafficking task force in response to the growing problem of forced sex work in our region; three arrests were made in the county just last year. Rape rates in Baltimore City have been on a steady upswing since 2008, and that’s not even touching the fact that the vast majority of sexual assaults and rapes go unreported. There is clearly a problem here that suggests public sex might not be the issue we should go to bat for.
But does policing public sex solve any of these problems? A quick look at Maryland’s statutes concerning crimes of morality shows that the major concern is keeping children’s eyes away from images of “sexual excitement, sexual conduct, and sadomasochistic abuse.” Under this law, minors cannot be shown images “flagellation, torture, or physical restraint” by or against someone who is “nude, wearing only undergarments, or wearing a revealing or bizarre costume,” ruling out many an episode of Law & Order: SVU and anything involving Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney. They also cannot be shown “the condition of the female breasts when in a state of sexual stimulation,” which not only means put away almost all the advertisements, but it also makes all breast-having humans potential lawbreakers should we daydream in public. Oh, but no one will arrest you for that.
Or will they? That’s the thing about these morality codes. They are there to be marshaled against us at the will of the state, which means we are under scrutiny less often for what we do than who we are. Because who pays the price for sex in public? It isn’t the frat guy in Federal Hill putting the moves on someone in a booth in the back of the bar, or Cosmo magazine on the rack at the Safeway checkout line with its nipply model on the cover. And it is not the friends and colleagues and spouses who statistics show are far more likely to be the perpetrators of sexual violence inside our homes than strangers getting off in the streets. It is the already-marginalized, the dykes and faggots and trannies and whores, for whom “take it outside” all too often means ending up inside a cage downtown. And the laws empower the rest of us to police the streets; the Charles Village Community Benefits District* runs its own nighttime patrols, calling the cops on trans women, whether they are actively engaged in sex work or not, because hey, aren’t they all sex workers anyway? I just got a ride home and a good story out of my trip to the park that night, but that’s just my luck, or better, my privilege.
* An earlier version of this story attributed the patrols to the Charles Village Civic Association. City Paper regrets the error.
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