If you think interrupting a cartoon show for live coverage of a man blowing his brains out on the freeway is as sleazy as TV news gets, guess again. On Monday, Fox 5 treated its viewers to hidden-camera footage of men cruising in rest rooms.
Three toilets where Fox 5 secretly placed its cameras–at Bloomingdale’s, Rockefeller Center, and Sears–are on private property, but the proprietors all insist they were taken by surprise. ”We were not aware of the segment until after it had been done,” says Steve Rubenstein, spokesperson for Rockefeller Center. ”I can state unequivocably that we did not give anyone permission to enter our rest rooms,” says Sears spokesperson Jan Drummond.
Bloomingdale’s was even more emphatic. ”If the store had been asked for permission, the filming certainly would have been forbidden,” notes Anne Keating, senior vice president of public relations. ”We find it reprehensible and irresponsible.” And illegal, says Malachy Kavanagh at the International Council of Shopping Centers. ”If they were caught, they’d be subject to arrest.”
But a Fox 5 spokeperson, reading from a prepared statement, notes that ”our news department works closely with our legal department on investigative stories.” Indeed, when it comes to hiding cameras in a rest room, the law in this state has little to say. ”We don’t have much legislatively to rely on,” says Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union. And surveillance cameras, Siegel points out, ”are increasingly everywhere. The technology is cutting edge, and both government and the private sector are using it in ways that concern us.”
Fox 5 refused to reveal how it got cameras into the can. But in the limbo between what is legal and what is proper, the hot hand of tabloid-TV news is free to roam–especially during sweeps month.
Sex in the toilet–or ”tearoom trade,” as it’s known in gay parlance–is not breaking news. ”It goes back to the beginnings of public rest rooms in the late 19th century,” says historian and MacArthur fellow Allan Berube. ”As soon as rest rooms were in place, they were used for a number of unintended purposes, as were parks, bathhouses–all the achievements of the public sanitation movement. There’s always been a battle between the authorities who set up these places and the people who use them.”
Police surveillance of rest rooms–including spying and even filming–was common until the mid ’60s, when it was curtailed by various court decisions. But it’s unprecedented for TV crews to sneak cameras into public toilets. ”It opens a new door to surveillance beyond what has ever been permitted,” says Rebecca Isaacs, political director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. ”If there’s anywhere people expect privacy, it’s in the bathroom.”
But over the past three months, at least 20 news crews from stations all across the country have invaded restrooms, airing lurid reports that focus on the threat to children who might come upon men performing a sexual act. ”You’ll think twice” about allowing your child to use a public rest room, Fox 5 warned viewers in its promo spots. ”Sexual deviants are roaming our local stores and malls.”
But the timing of these exposes suggests that the real news here is the ratings race. The wave of rest room reportage first crested in February–at the height of the winter sweeps–and then died down, only to arise again during the spring sweeps in late April.
This sweeps month is crucial to Fox 5’s fortunes. ”Fox 5’s struggle with falling ratings [is] especially damaging during its 10 p.m. newscasts,” wrote Crain’s New York Business on April 20. The station’s newly hired general manager, Michael Wach, told Crain’s, ”I’m here to stem the downturning tide.” One of his strategies apparently is to bring toilet-tryst journalism to New York. (This reporter was interviewed for the Fox 5 story.)
It all began–like grunge–in Seattle. Last February, a reporter for KOMO-TV interviewed Keith Griffith, a/k/a Cruisemaster, the operator of a Web site called cruisingforsex.com. For three years, this domain has listed public places across the country where men meet for sex. KOMO put a camera in one such tearoom and let it roll.
The story was promptly picked up by KGTV in San Diego, which staked out a university bathroom mentioned on the Web site. The station parlayed its footage of men dropping to their knees and masturbating under the partitions–with their genitals and faces scrambled–over several nights during the February sweeps. This was better than the San Antonio station that screwed up its scrambling so the audience saw two men in flagrante, with their faces showing.
Meanwhile, the KOMO reporter, joined by a colleague from a Houston affiliate, wrote up his scoop in The TV Rundown, a tip sheet for news producers. The rest is sweeps-month history.
”You could discuss this topic without showing men masturbating,” says the outraged Cruisemaster. ”It’s totally for shock value.” But that’s not how Steve Alvarez, a reporter for Miami’s WPLG-TV, sees it. Concerned about stories he had heard–including one about an entire Little League team stumbling upon rest room sex–he carried a shoulder bag with a hidden camera into several toilets at local malls. Alvarez turned up no evidence of boys witnessing men having sex in the john. (Devotees of this scene say the sex would stop in that event.) But he insists, ”I don’t care if a child stumbles upon sex there. I don’t want to walk into a rest room and stumble upon sex.”
Not to worry, writes sociologist Laud Humphreys in his landmark 1970 study, Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places. ”Because of cautions built into the strategies of these encounters, no man need fear being molested in such facilities.” Elaborate codes indicate mutual interest in a sexual encounter. One of them is lingering ostentatiously on the can.
Alvarez says he never signaled the man who approached him as the reporter sat on the can ”recording what went on.” But Alvarez had been there for some time, getting up to wash his hands and then sitting down again. In the tearoom trade, Humphreys notes, that’s an invitation for someone to approach and masturbate.
Alvarez offered to share his videotape with the Miami police, ”but they weren’t interested. They told me cruising has been going on forever in public places.” But in Charlotte, North Carolina, the response was very different. WSOC anchor Michele Harvey says the vice squad was eager to view the station’s tapes of rest room sex. ”They are very happy with what we have done because it caused them to do an investigation, and they have arrested at least 11 men.”
Once the media turn up the heat it’s hard to know where a gay-sex panic will end. Courts have been more receptive of late to the use of surveillance cameras by police. In Michigan, a pending bill would allow cops to confiscate the cars of men who cruise in public parks. And even in New York City, the Anti-Violence Project maintains there has been a marked increase in arrests for public lewdness. Says activist Bill Dobbs, ”We’re still being stalked by the media and hunted by the police.”
Will they stop at the toilet stall? ”The people who were arrested two days ago were in the woods,” Harvey notes. ”Maybe we’ll be going there next.” Stay tuned for the summer sweeps.
Research: Nita Rao
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 19, 1998