Michael Barnett: Bathroom sex: it happens here

This story is part of The GW Hatchet’s 2006 Life Section Sex Issue.

There’s something about a five-by-two elevated cubicle and a toilet that is ideal for anonymous male sex. Ever since the advent of public restrooms, men have been having intercourse in them. You’d think that GW, with its relatively clean, well-trafficked facilities, would not be a magnet for such activity. But you’d be wrong – and I have the crime statistics and the unfortunate phone calls to prove it.

In September, a friend of mine, without my knowledge, thought it’d be humorous to scrawl my cell phone number in a Marvin Center bathroom next to a solicitation for sex. Some harmless graffiti, he thought. There’s no way someone will call the number.

Well, about an hour later, I got a phone call from a D.C. number I, thank God, didn’t recognize.

“Hello?” I answered. I sensed shyness at the other end of the line – surprising, I thought in retrospect, since this person was about to ask me to do something very far from shy.

“Hello,” said a deep-voiced, middle-aged man, “this is . Steve. I saw your number on a Marvin Center wall and was wondering if you’d like to meet up some time.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”


Upon the man’s hanging up on me, I instantly knew who had falsely advertised my services. A phone call to my friend did not dissuade him from writing my number on a Marvin Center wall again – and again and again.

Accordingly, I received more phone calls. To date, I’ve gotten about seven or eight. Middle-aged men calling me for anonymous sex was pretty coincidental, since I am in the small percentage of people on campus who are aware that men have sex in GW’s bathrooms.

As a freshman crime reporter, I covered one or two incidents in which men were caught for such illicit behavior. In October 2002, for instance, three men were barred from campus for exposing themselves to undercover University Police officers in the Marvin Center and Corcoran Hall (two buildings that, inexplicably, account for almost all reported bathroom sex).

Yes, you read right. UPD sends plainclothes officers – those brave souls – into bathrooms to nab men behaving badly. In coincidence with the launch of Web sites devoted to the behavior, public sex in GW restrooms hit a high point in the 1990s. Since then, public sex has significantly abated, which UPD Chief Dolores Stafford attributed to stepped-up undercover operations.

In 2002, UPD had six cases of bathroom sex in the Marvin Center; in 2003 and 2004, it had three each; in 2005, it had eight (keep in mind that a case can involve multiple people, and usually does when it concerns sex). Stafford said six of the 2005 cases stemmed from a UPD special operation last summer that resulted in 10 subjects barred from campus and one student referred to Student Judicial Services.

“Web site references have some relation to the activity, but word of mouth over the year is likely also a factor in attracting outsiders to the Marvin Center,” Stafford said. Well, I guess Marvin Center – named after a bigoted University president, of all people – is more than a conference hall.

As with all crimes, the number of people caught for bathroom sex constitutes only a percentage of those engaging in the activity. “We are unable to calculate the number of offenses that are successfully concealed or go unobserved by anyone but the perpetrators themselves,” Stafford said.

Academics and journalists have churned out a decent amount of literature on anonymous public sex, and have made some jarring findings. The seminal study on the topic is the infamous “Tearoom Trade,” by Laud Humphreys. For his dissertation at St. Louis’ Washington University, Humphreys studied scores of men who had sex in the city’s park restrooms in the late 1960s (Humphreys’ book is in Gelman Library. I also recommend two works concerning black men: “Double Lives on the Down Low,” a 2003 New York Times Magazine article by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, and “On the Down Low” by J.L. King).

In his dissertation’s opening pages, Humphrey sets up the scene: “At shortly after five o’clock on a weekday evening, four men enter a public restroom in the city park. One wears a well-tailored business suit; another wears tennis shoes, shorts and t-shirt; the third man is still clad in the khaki uniform of his filling station; the last, a salesman, has loosened his tie and left his sports coat in the car.”

Given GW’s much-touted location in the heart of D.C., the professional possibilities for its bathrooms are endless: Democrats giving it to Republicans (actually, it’s more likely to be the other way around); lobbyists hooking up with members of American Indian tribes; non-profit managers with corporate lawyers. It’s not a stretch: in October 1964, Walter Jenkins, one of then-President Lyndon Johnson’s closest confidants, was arrested for having sex with another man in a Washington YMCA.

Humphreys succinctly sums up bathrooms’ attractiveness for men of Jenkins’ ilk: “They are accessible, easily recognized by the initiate and provide little public visibility.”

The most startling discovery by Humphreys and others is the composition of the bathroom sex participants. The majority of Humphreys’ research subjects (54 percent) were married and living with their wives; many more of them had girlfriends. Denizet-Lewis’ article solely concerns heterosexual men who discreetly engage in homosexual acts but don’t consider themselves gay.

The apparent discrepancy among these men’s actions, their beliefs about themselves and their martial statuses has yet to be resolved in psychological literature. My half-baked theory is that otherwise straight men seek the sexual services of members of their own sex because women can’t satisfy their innate desires. In other words, I don’t think many women would, on their lunch breaks, have sex with anonymous men in public restrooms in the park. But then again, I may not be giving enough credit to members of the fairer sex.

I used to think phone numbers on the bathroom wall were the stuff of high school immaturity and pop culture (remember Tommy Tutone’s 867-5309/Jenny”?) But now I know better – and so should you. In the pithy words of the UPD chief: “You could probably write your phone number in any bathroom, anywhere and get responses. That is not unique to GW.”

I don’t doubt it. One public sex Web site, in addition to listings for GW, has one for the National Cathedral.

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