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This guide begins by describing the problem of illicit public sexual activity and the factors that contribute to it. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem, and what is known about them from evaluative research and police practice.
Public sexual activity includes a range of behaviors, such as solitary nude sunbathing, flashing, streaking, solitary or mutual masturbation, fellatio, and vaginal or anal intercourse. While some behaviors do not involve sexual activity per se, they involve sexual content of concern to both the public and the police. These behaviors are consensual, meaning that the person or people involved willingly engage in them.† Both males and females participate in the full range of behaviors, and both opposite-sex and same-sex interactions occur. Jurisdictions vary in the specific criminal charges attached to these behaviors (e.g., indecent exposure, public indecency, lewd conduct).
† "Dogging" is engaging in consensual sexual activity in public to attract an audience; the audience either observes or joins in. See Bryne (2003) and Mendenhall (2003).
There are widely different perspectives on public sexual activity. Some do not believe the behavior constitutes a public safety threat; some view the behavior as a "victimless crime" involving two consenting partners; and some see the behavior as a threat to the community's "moral decency." "Impersonal," "casual," and "anonymous" sexual behaviors have negative connotations to many people, as they stand in contrast to ideals of romantic love, monogamous relationships, and long-term commitments.1 Moral overtones pervade discussions of nudity and sexuality, particularly when they address same- sex interactions. These judgments often underlie the public's concern. Community morals and beliefs about how the law should regulate morality will affect how each community addresses the problem. This guide does not adopt any particular moral perspective; it is intended to inform you about the effectiveness and consequences of various approaches to controlling public sexual activity.
Primarily, such activity constitutes nuisance behavior and does not pose a serious threat to community safety. However, there are many reasons why the police should care about it.
The responses to public sexual activity can be fraught with difficulty. Charges of harassment, entrapment, bias and discrimination against homosexuals have historically surrounded efforts to address public sexual activity between men. Therefore, it is vital that you objectively analyze the problem so that you develop fair and effective responses.
Public sexual behaviors, and the factors that contribute to them, occur in several other contexts of concern to the police. These related problems, not directly addressed in this guide, require their own analysis and response:
Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.
Both men and women engage in public sexual activity. Same-sex participants may constitute the main offenders in some locations, while opposite-sex offenders predominate at others. How researchers and law enforcement personnel have conducted their efforts has largely determined what is known about the participants; regardless, participants vary considerably in terms of age, socioeconomic status, marital status, and occupation. Any patterns, or lack thereof, are consistent across studies of the various types of public sexual behaviors.2
Certain patterns (e.g., opposite-sex coupling at a "lovers' lane") have not been studied empirically, while others (e.g., same-sex contact in public restrooms) have been studied much more extensively. It is important to note that engaging in same-sex activity does not necessarily imply a homosexual identity; in fact, many men who have sex with men in public places are married or otherwise heterosexually involved, and do not consider themselves to be gay.3
When apprehended, many offenders may suffer substantial social repercussions, in addition to any criminal justice-related consequences that may ensue. Threats to their marriages, friendships, jobs, reputations, and social standing often cause them to try to distract attention from their behaviors by showing exaggerated degrees of respectability, such as strong ties to the religious community or passionate condemnation of homosexuality.4The larger the community's moral objections to public sexual activity mean that participants have much to lose if they are discovered.
The definition of "public" is not always clear. Some consider any place other than a private residence to be public. Others believe that places out of public view, even though they may be in public areas, are private. So-called "quasi-public" places provide some kind of physical barrier (e.g., car, bathroom stall, or bushes) between the participants and others.5 Except for exhibitionists (e.g., flashers or streakers)—those who expressly seek observers—many participants want to remain out of view.
Some activities, such as flashing or mooning, occur in a wide range of locations, while others most commonly occur in locations that specifically facilitate them. Some guidebooks and internet resources identify specific public places where sexual activity occurs.
Locations where illicit sexual activity occurs are often advertised locally with graffiti or to a wider audience using the Internet. Credit: David Corbett
† They are also common locations for both heterosexual and homosexual prostitution.
The climate likely has an influence on outdoor public sexual activity. Obviously, the colder it is, the less likely the activity. To the extent that public sexual activity may occur at a particular event or as a tradition occurring at a specific time of year (e.g., Mardi Gras, Spring Break), the season also may affect the amount of activity. The time of day's effect on such activity depends on the location's primary legitimate purpose. For example, at truck stops, activity may increase in the late-night and early-morning hours, when truckers have stopped for the night.15 As some department stores and shopping malls are closed on Sundays, no sexual activity occurs in their restrooms then.
Although people engage in public sexual activity for various reasons, some common patterns exist among the main types of behavior and location.
Exhibitionism occurs in a wide variety of settings. When taken to an extreme, it suggests the exhibitionist is prone to paraphilia,16 "a pattern of recurring sexually arousing…behavior that involves unusual and esp. socially unacceptable sexual practices..." (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.). Milder forms of exhibitionism, such as nude sunbathing or flashing during Mardi Gras celebrations, often occur because the participant feels anonymous in a large group. Crowds stimulate people to act in ways they would not normally do among their peers or in more regulated situations.17 Drinking alcohol, and the resulting loss of inhibition, is often identified as a contributing factor.18 While perceived anonymity may facilitate the behavior, participants also crave the attention, admiration, and validation they may receive from those who observe them.19
In contrast, some couples—particularly teenagers—engage in sexual activity in public because they have nowhere else to do so. A lack of privacy may also be the reason for male sexual activity in public restrooms. In particular, men with heterosexual identities may want to conceal their behavior from significant others. Their heterosexual identities also deter them from using other, less-public venues such as gay bars or sex clubs.20 Some homosexual men also lack the freedom to pursue same-sex partners privately due to family or peer disapproval.21 A community's condemnation of homosexuality may drive the behavior to remote, although public, locations, particularly among those exploring their sexuality and not yet connected to the gay community.22
Public sexual activity is not always simply a solution for those lacking a private alternative. Those who engage in "dogging" want strangers to watch them. Having an audience heightens their pleasure, and they may feel validated by others' wanting to watch and enjoy their "performance."23 For others, the risk of being caught engaging in public sexual activity serves as an aphrodisiac and increases their overall pleasure.24
Sexual activity in "tearooms," parks, rest areas, and truck stops is usually impersonal and anonymous, and does not lead to complicated entanglements involving commitments, obligations, or expectations from either party.25 Those dissatisfied with their sex lives with their partners may consider engaging in anonymous and impersonal sexual activity as less problematic than having an affair.26 And there's no need to solicit a prostitute, as the sex is free.27 Finally, those engaging in anonymous sexual activity generally needn't worry about assessments of their physical attractiveness or social class, judgments often made in formal dating situations.28
Researchers know more about what leads to some forms of public sexual activity than they do about others. Why people sunbathe nude or teenagers park at "lovers' lanes" has not been well researched. In contrast, researchers better understand flashing during Mardi Gras. The widespread occurrence of flashing during the festivities has been attributed to the accumulation of beaded necklaces in return for doing so.29 The "negotiations" regarding the exchange serve to legitimize it.30
With the advent of the Internet, the practice of "dogging" has become more widespread. Those who want to be observed engaging in sexual activity use Internet chat rooms to provide potential audiences with dates, times, and locations.31 People also use chat rooms to offer tips to those interested in watching or participating in public sexual encounters. For example, the patterned use of parked vehicles' turn signals, interior lights, and window openings can serve as signals to interested parties.
Men seeking anonymous sexual contact with men in public restrooms must adhere to a highly structured and sequential pattern of interaction.32 These "scripts" generally involve eye contact, movement, and position in the restroom, and very rarely include any verbal exchange.33 The specific patterns differ, but are just as compulsory, in other settings such as truck stops and rest areas.34 Legitimate park or restroom users may be concerned about being sexually propositioned by other men. However, given the complexity of the behavioral scripts guiding these transactions, mistaken propositions are unlikely.35
Engaging in public sexual activity carries with it many risks, including the following:
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