WASHINGTON — Consider the restroom stall, that utilitarian public enclosure of cold steel and drab hue.
It can be a world of untold secrets, codes and signals as invitations to partake. Like foot-tapping: Who knew?
Let us peer into the stall as intently as Sen. Larry Craig allegedly did in a restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in June, when his eyes were visible to an undercover cop, who would later write that police had made "numerous arrests regarding sexual activity in the public restroom."
Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, but later denied he was soliciting sex.
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Foot-tapping, the odd Morse code of anonymous restroom sex, is "a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct," wrote airport police Sgt. Dave Karsnia. Any bathroom will do, be it in an airport, a department store, a mall or a highway rest stop.
Internet message boards on "cruising" are constantly abuzz with come-ons written by those seeking partners for anonymous bathroom sex. The boards also bristle with warnings about locations where law enforcement is cracking down.
Therapists hear plenty about this world in the torment of their patients — both married and gay men. They are often driven by a craving, much like that which drives a drug addict, said Fred Berlin of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma at Johns Hopkins University.
"It is often a case of people with very strong sexual cravings that are difficult to resist, people who are very conflicted and struggling" with their feelings and the stigma and embarrassment of having family members or the community find out, Berlin said.
A place like a public restroom is often the only place these men feel they can safely risk such an encounter, he said.
But this kind of sex is not a source of torment for everyone.
"Anonymous sex is a huge turn-on for many," said Lt. Alberto Jova, commander of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department's Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit. "They do it also for pleasure. I mean, it's sex."
Men who frequent restrooms are not trying to target or approach men using the restrooms for their intended purpose, police say. "They are not looking to force people who are uninterested," Berlin said.
The Minneapolis undercover officer was part of a sting operation prompted by complaints of sex in the airport restroom. A similar sting in Ada County between 2001 and 2003 on Plantation Island near the Greenbelt led to the arrests of about 10 men.
"I think all but one were married, all were Caucasian, and almost all were over the age of 45," Garden City Police Chief Jim Bensley said.
Several adult Web sites have lists of public restrooms and other places where men can seek each other for sex. Keith Griffith owns such a Web site. He said anonymity is important, and men seek other men with similar interests.
"That is the reason this sounds so new to people, when it has been going on for years," Griffith said. "This is a code that is supposed to lead to discretion. That is what it is for."
Shawn Henderson, moderator for D.C. Young Poz Socials, a support group for HIV-positive men, said he has heard of many ways men indicate they want to have "public" sex.
If a man is in a restroom stall, "you tap your foot, and if the person next to you taps a foot, you keep going back and forth until one person makes a move," he said. "Someone will then stick their hand underneath. Or they will pass a note on paper. Or, what I've heard is, when they think it's safe," they will move on to sexual contact in the space beneath the partition.
"Some people are absolutely blatant" about showing arousal in public bathrooms, he said. "I've seen this in malls and witnessed that myself."