Sen. Larry Craig was arrested in June for soliciting sex in an airport bathroom, Roll Call reported Monday. According to the police, Craig had “tapped his right foot … as a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct.” After pleading guilty to a charge of misdemeanor disorderly conduct, the senator paid $575 in fines and fees and was sentenced to a year of probation. But since then, he has said he regrets his guilty plea and that his actions were “misconstrued“—he merely has a “wide stance” when using the toilet.
This incident raises all sorts of questions about cruising signals, congressional privilege, and the logistics of bathroom sex. Here’s a roundup of our favorites.
Is tapping your foot really code for public sex?
Yes. The signal has been around for decades in the United States and Europe. Generally, one person initiates contact by tapping his foot in a way that’s visible beneath the stall divider. If the second person responds with a similar tap, the initiator moves his foot closer to the other person’s stall. If the other person makes a similar move, the first will inch closer yet again. The pair usually goes through the whole process a few times, just to confirm that the signals aren’t an accident.
Next, one of the men will slide his hand under the divider. This usually means he’s inviting the other person to present himself, as if to say, “Show me what you got.” The partner can respond by kneeling on the floor and presenting his penis or rear end underneath the divider. Or he can swipe his own hand under the divider, as if to say, “You go first.” Some married men make a point of displaying their wedding band (like Sen. Craig allegedly did) to make themselves more alluring.
Just how sexy can you get when there’s a divider in the way?
It depends on the bathroom. If the participants were in the last stall in a long row, they might have enough privacy to get it on right there beneath the divider. Alternatively, one person can enter the other’s stall by surreptitiously ducking out and back. Positions vary depending on the space, but one classic setup has one man sit on the toilet while the other straddles his legs and receives oral sex. (In the 1970s, some men frequenting the popular bathrooms at Bloomingdale’s in New York would hide their legs by standing in a pair of shopping bags.)
As a U.S. senator, doesn’t Craig have special protection from the law?
Yes, but that doesn’t mean he could have used it. In Article I, Section 6 of the U.S. Constitution, the so-called “arrest” clause says that senators “shall in all cases, except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same.” At the time of Craig’s arrest, he was on a layover during a trip from Boise to Washington, D.C., a Craig spokesman told Slate. Since he had votes to make that evening, he could have argued for the special privilege. That said, courts have ruled that the speech or debate clause doesn’t protect members of Congress from arrest in criminal and civil cases.
Members of Congress have invoked the privilege before, but not always with good results. Former Iowa Sen. Roger Jepsen was widely mocked in 1983 for invoking the speech or debate clause to wriggle out of a traffic ticket. Back in the early 1960s, New York Rep. Adam Clayton Powell used the law to avoid facing a defamation lawsuit back home. Both of these cases drew a lot of attention to the lawmakers. So, if Craig wanted to let the incident pass unnoticed, he was smart not to invoke the clause.
Can Craig still maintain his innocence after pleading guilty?
Sure, but that doesn’t change his legal status. Whether or not he committed a crime, Craig may have hoped that pleading guilty would be the best way to avoid scandal. Either way, the plea counts. As Dahlia Lithwick wrote in a 2001 Explainer, “Since up to 90 percent of criminal convictions result from plea bargaining, and at least 90 percent of the people in prison seem to insist that they are innocent, it stands to reason that the criminal justice system will not necessarily invalidate a guilty plea simply because the defendant makes out-of-court statements about his innocence.”
Is it wise to use a “wide stance” when you go to the bathroom?
No. When you’re sitting on the toilet, spreading your feet and leaning forward tightens the levator ani muscles that control defecation. If you’re having trouble passing stools, you should take the opposite of a wide stance, and lean back. Doctors recommend this technique to relax the bowel muscles.
Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.
Explainer thanks William Leap of American University, Don Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office, and Robert Theobald of Comprehensive Colorectal Care.