When private acts become public

New England Newspaper Association 2008 first place winner for social issues feature story.

Editor’s note: Due to the sensitivity of this story’s subject and the reluctance of people to talk openly about it, we have assigned fictitious names to those who have been arrested or who spoke to us candidly about their sexuality. The names Peter Stanley, Bill Foley and Greg Shepherdson are fictitious. Any association to real people with these names is purely coincidental.

By Noah R. Bombard
Originally published in Worcester Magazine October 11, 2007

He was president of a popular Central Massachusetts youth sports league and head groundskeeper at an area school district. With one rash decision, he lost it all.

Peter Stanley had been leaving work during the afternoon and heading to River Road in West Boylston, near the Central Mass. Rail Trail. The trail, surrounded by serene woods at the mouth of the Wachusett Reservoir, is a popular place to walk or ride a bike. River Road is located nearby and is a place where fishermen or walkers sometimes park. Stanley wasn’t looking to do any of those things, though. He was looking to meet another man. The man he met, however, was an undercover police officer. And what he got, was his life turned upside down.

Stanley was one of several men busted at the West Boylston location last year for soliciting sex. It was nearly a year before U.S. Sen. Larry Craig’s alleged actions in a Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport restroom made foot-tapping, hand-waving and wide stances the subject of news headlines and late-night talk show routines. The practice, however, is nothing new — men meeting other man they don’t know for sex, oftentimes in public places — restrooms, parks or parking lots. It’s the kind of thing that makes folks in polite circles blush, makes others snicker and makes some people downright disgusted. And local police departments have been struggling with how to deal with hot spots for such activity for years.

Why some men seek out such encounters, where they go to do it and the price they pay when caught are questions that are often uncomfortable to ask and difficult to answer. Society largely views people’s sexual practices as a very personal matter — what goes on behind closed doors should stay behind closed doors. But what happens when those very private acts occur in a public place?

West Boylston Police Chief Dennis Minnich had been getting complaints about the River Road location last year. That’s when he decided it was time to clean up the area. In an unmarked police car, he parked along the side of the road and waited. It didn’t take long to figure out the signals. A car drove by the chief and headed up a hill, tapping its brakes as it climbed. Minnich thought that was odd.

A few moments later, the car passed again. Minnich tapped his brakes in return. The chief got out and walked into the woods. Stanley, the man in the car, followed. What happened next would end Stanley’s presidency of the youth sports league, would cost him his job and publically embarrass him. According to the chief, after making some small talk, Stanley began touching himself and said he was looking for oral sex. That’s when the chief ended the charade, revealed he was a police officer and placed Stanley under arrest. The same week, police in West Boylston arrested another man, a prominent branch manager with a long career at an area bank.

Stanley was originally arrested for the charge of disorderly conduct and lewd and lascivious behavior, but then-District Attorney John Conte’s Office upped the charge to open and gross lewdness. If Stanley was convicted on that count, it would have forced him to register as a sex offender. It was a move the chief says he did not agree with. In the end, the court dismissed the charges. Stanley had his name plastered across area newspapers, however, forcing him to resign from his positions. The local bank manager arrested the same week lost his job as well.

High price to pay

The arrests of men seeking sex with other men in public places is a divisive issue. Is it homophobia or a legitimate public concern? And are there any victims?According to Minnich, the victims are the witnesses who are in public places where there is an expectation that you won’t see people engaged in sex acts — either homosexual or heterosexual.”If there’s no witness there’s no victim,” the chief says.

But as police in various Worcester area towns confront the reality of people — almost always men — having sex in public places, those who are caught oftentimes pay a much higher price than a fine.

One man who spoke to Worcester Magazine says he responded to an ad on Craig’s List from an 18-year-old male looking to hook up. Once he met him, the 18-year-old said he was struggling to get through college and asked for a few bucks. When the man agreed to give him a few bucks, that’s when police closed in. The arrest, he says, was only the beginning, though. Once the story made the paper, he lost his job and has had to pay $3,000 for a lawyer and still faces fines and possible jail time, he says.

“I lost my job and I have not had friends or relatives call me,” he says. “And if I do not find another job, I will lose my house. Does the punishment fit the crime?”

Regarding the men arrested in West Boylston, Minnich says he has no regrets about making the arrests. The high publicity, however, likely made the punishment for those individuals worse, he adds.

“Because of the media coverage, these guys probably paid a higher price than most,” says Minnich.

In June, a Northboro police dispatcher was arrested, along with a Shrewsbury man, for engaging in oral sex near the Oak Island boat launch on Lake Quinsigamond. The dispatcher was subsequently suspended without pay from his job.

Bill Foley is a former closeted gay man who used to cruise public places for sex. He was married, had kids and was struggling with his sexual identity.

“I felt an intense desire for sexual contact with other men,” he says. “Anonymous public sex was the only outlet available to me. At the time, the last thing I would’ve admitted to was being queer. Now, I’m out, divorced and living on my own. I don’t cruise public places anymore. Hooking up isn’t enough. I want more. I’d like to find a relationship.”

Consequently, it may not be a surprise to learn that Foley thinks the way law enforcement has reacted to men cruising for sex is an overreaction driven by homophobia.

“Nobody should be outed in such a humiliating way,” Foley says.

He cites the raids on the Paris Cinema in Worcester several years ago. The adult film theater was the location of several arrests when police received tips that people were having sex in the theater.

“Although technically in violation of the law, those men were in a location where there were no children and nobody could possibly be shocked or offended by their behavior,” Foley says. “Their only crime was patronizing a business that embarrassed the city.”

There seems to be little attempt in Worcester County to crack down on public sex to the same extent that the Minneapolis Airport has. At the end of August, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune reported that airport police had arrested 41 men for sexual misconduct in a three-month period. A spokesman for Worcester County District Attorney Joseph Early Jr. says no statistics for these types of crimes in Worcester County were available. But the arrests happen — as seen in various police incident logs in towns throughout the county.

Why they do it

The entire concept of anonymous sex in public — or even semi-public — places is one loaded with risks. AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases continue to be a real threat. There’s the risk of being beaten or mugged by a stranger, arrested by police, fined and worse — having your career, family and reputation destroyed. So what would drive someone to seek out such activity despite the overt dangers?

Robert J.S. Ross is a professor of sociology at Clark University in Worcester. Although sexuality is not his area of expertise, Ross says there are some basic sociological principles that help explain this behavior.

“The participants are there because they are unable to have a successful social life in which their sexuality is public,” Ross says.

Essentially, says Ross, there’s something they seek in their sex lives that they can’t get or express in the lives they are leading.

But there’s more to it than that.

“There’s an element of rashness involved that speaks to either arrogance or a pathetic need for sexual contact that is truly a pathetic desperation,” Ross says.

It’s that desperation, says former Worcester resident Greg Shepherdson, which drives men into situations to connect with people who understand their desires.

“There are many of them who want to have people they can be candid with, because you can’t go to your church or your friends and admit these kinds of things,” says Shepherdson, who describes himself as a bisexual Christian.

Shepherdson says he’s never cruised for sex in public places, “that’s just disgusting to me,” but he is concerned police overreact to such instances, arresting men whose lives are subsequently wrecked when a simple “move along” would better serve both the public and the individuals seeking out such sexual encounters.

But “move along” doesn’t always work. The bank branch manager who was arrested last year in West Boylston had been seen by police before. When Minnich brought the man back to his unmarked cruiser, another officer who was on the scene immediately recognized him.

“He had seen him walking in the area before and told him that police where patrolling the area because it was known as a local hookup for gay sex,” Minnich says.

The man came back anyhow and was arrested after soliciting sex from the chief, who was working undercover.

Are they gay?

To Chief Minnich, the question of whether the men seeking sexual encounters with other men off River Road in his town are gay is mostly self-answered. Although he can’t make a judgment on their sexuality, he says, the fact is, they are seeking out homosexual encounters. That’s not the public’s concern, he says, but the fact they’re doing it in public is.

But does the fact that these men are seeking sex with other men mean they are gay?

Larry Craig, who denies the Minneapolis charges even though he initially confessed to them, has reiterated several times that he is not gay. The implication being that because he isn’t, he wouldn’t do such a thing.

But Ross says such gay or straight compartmentalization just doesn’t fit reality.

Many homosexuals have public lives that are superficially heterosexual,” Ross says, “but I think many people who engage in same-sex activities are bisexual. Humans don’t easily fall into all the boxes that we have for them.”

That’s a controversial principal pioneered by Dr. Alfred Kinsey, founder of the Institute for Sex Research, who avoided using categories such as straight, homosexual and bisexual. Most people, Kinsey argued, have varying degrees of sexuality.

“It is difficult to draw boundaries and say that people are heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. People — and their sexuality — are much more complex than that,” states an article on the Kinsey Institute’s Web site.

For example, according to the article, studies show some people who engage in sex with both genders only have romantic feelings for one. It’s a difficult concept to embrace for a society that sees things largely in terms of gay or straight — and even a more difficult world to live in for those who supposedly fall outside those categories.

Where they go

West Boylston’s River Road may have gotten a bad rap from publicity of the crackdown last year, but it is by no means the only place where men have been known to hook up in the area. A quick look at Craig’s List, as well as several “cruising” sites that purport to list places and give advice for guys looking to meet other guys, reveals a number of hot spots.

Parks are big — Green Hill Park and Boynton Park in Worcester. Barrett Park and Prospect Park in Leominster get listed, as does Robinson’s Park in Westboro and Cogshall Park in Fitchburg. And of course, the restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport isn’t the only restroom hotspot in the country. The Johnny Appleseed Visitors’ Center on Route 2 in Leominster, a public rest stop on the highway, is reportedly a frequent site of encounters.

One gay cruising site actually gives tips on the popular rest stop: “Occasional state trooper enters, but not too often. You can just park and wait, someone will usually walk by.”

Of course, one state trooper is all it takes. In September, a trooper making a routine check of the rest stop reported seeing two unattended vehicles in the parking lot. When he went inside the bathroom he discovered two men engaged in oral sex. The men were summonsed to court, pled guilty to disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace and paid fines.

Restrooms at the Solomon Pond Mall in Marlboro are also frequently cited on cruising Web sites, something Marlboro Police Chief Mark Leonard says his department has heard about over the years. Leonard says they have yet to find anyone engaged in illegal activity or make an arrest at that location, however.

But the fact these spots get mentioned doesn’t mean they’re necessarily problem areas — or that they are the only places it’s happening.

“It’s not like that mall’s bathroom has a problem,” Shepherdson says. “Any mall bathroom is a place where that can go on.”

In fact, Worcester Magazine monitored ads from guys looking for sex from other guys for several weeks and found most were looking for someplace private, where they wouldn’t be seen or disturbed. Public areas, however, often provide a convenient meeting spot.

The problem, says Shepherdson, is that there really aren’t any private places for men seeking this sort of outlet to go.

“We’re so bombarded with sex in our culture and at the same time, people are learning all these different things but there aren’t any social outlets,” he says.

Why not just go to a gay club?

“If a guy goes there who’s married, it’s too risky,” Shepherdson says. “Besides, if they go there, the people there will likely label them as gay and they either may not be or may not be ready to go there. So they seek someplace they think is safer.”

But is the fact that they’re seeking homosexual encounters a factor in the public’s reaction?

“Heterosexuals having sex in a lovers’ lane are rarely arrested and prosecuted,” says Foley. “But it happens to gay men all the time. On the other hand, in some places, guys have brought public attention to cruising by being very indiscreet, leaving lots of discarded condoms and other litter or having sex where people can see them.”

For Minnich, that public aspect to sex marks when someone has crossed the line and made their private acts public.

“If they were driving up some deserted road and going into the woods, I wouldn’t like it,” Minnich says, “but I probably wouldn’t be out there in a cruiser looking to bust them.

“These guys,” he says regarding the River Road area, “weren’t hiding. You could see them from the rail trail.”

In fact, a few months after police busted three individuals soliciting undercover police on River Road, police received a call from a woman walking on the nearby rail trail who was disturbed to see a naked man on the other side of the river.

Do police crackdowns work? Officials say they do, to some extent. Minnich says activity along the River Road location has disappeared since word got out police were watching. The town also placed signs on the road stating that the area is monitored by police.

Cruising signals

For the majority of the non-cruising public, foot-tapping and hand-waving under bathroom stalls is likely bizarre-sounding behavior. For those who cruise public places looking for sex, it’s part of a signaling system men use to indicate their interest to each other.

Lest you be caught unaware, here are some common signals used:

• Tapping of car brakes is a common signaling method used at roadside or parking lot cruising spots. One person will tap their brakes, and if another person recognizes the signal and is interested, will tap his brakes in return.

• Tapping of a foot in a bathroom (a la Larry Craig) is also a long-used signal. Typically, a person seeking an encounter in a public restroom will head to a stall on the far end. The tapping of a foot is a signal. Someone looking to participate will tap back.

• Sometimes a look, nod or smile is all it takes — although most often done along with one of the other signals. After exchanging signals, participants often exchange glances, one of the men will walk off toward an area where the activity will take place and the other, if interested, will follow.

 Taken from various Internet sources and from the observations of law enforcement officers.

 

Tags: