The Semiotics of Sexual Behavior Allegations of lewd conduct in a public restroom by Sen. Larry Craig raise the question of how foot-tapping or hand-waving in a toilet stall can lead to an arrest. A researcher of sexual cues discusses the case.
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The Semiotics of Sexual Behavior

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The Semiotics of Sexual Behavior

The Semiotics of Sexual Behavior

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Whatever the political outcome for Senator Craig, this story raises some questions that we thought needed more explanation. I, at least, have never encountered foot tapping or hand waving in a bathroom stall.

Joining us is Professor Michael Reece. He's associate professor of public health at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he's also affiliated with the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender and Reproduction.

Professor Reece, welcome to DAY TO DAY.

Professor MICHAEL REECE (Indiana University): Thank you.

CHADWICK: Let me just ask, the idea that there would be suggestive foot tapping strikes me as something - I don't know how you tap your foot suggestively.

Prof. REECE: Well, I think you can tap your foot in numerous ways depending on what you want to achieve. The notion of foot tapping within a space where two people might be seeking to have sexual interactions with one another really is a ritual that developed out of the need for some sense of privacy. You think about two people sitting side-by-side in a public restroom; the only visible part of the body would be the foot. It's a silent way of letting someone next to you know that you're maybe there for reasons other than what that space is intended for.

CHADWICK: Say decades of experience in public restrooms, I've never encountered foot tapping. And if I did notice someone tapping their foot, you know, maybe their listening to their iPod.

Prof. REECE: Well, it could be and so I don't - I think one of the important things to point out here is that there's no need for mass panic that the next time you're in an airport restroom, that you see the person's foot next to you moving, it might be in fact that they are tapping, listening to their iPod.

The notion of sexual encounters occurring in these public spaces has occurred - has evolved over time back to the earliest studies of this published in the 1970s. And these rituals have developed out of a need for privacy.

CHADWICK: So you're saying that indeed there is a ritual of foot tapping and I just simply hadn't noticed it.

Prof. REECE: I think...

CHADWICK: Nor, I must say, had the other straight men on the DAY TO DAY staff that I talked to earlier today. We were all bewildered.

Prof. REECE: Well, you probably didn't notice it because you may not have been looking for it. And I would ask you to think about it this way. There are probably other rituals for different behaviors or habits that you and others participate in that you recognize that others wouldn't. I would say, you know, it might be foot tapping in a public restroom, but maybe there are other rituals that people use in other spaces. There are probably established rituals of how people express sexual interest to one another when they pass each other in the isle of a grocery store, but if you weren't looking for it, you may not notice it.

CHADWICK: Is this still a common behavior? I mean I assume that people now meet each other over the Internet or in other sorts of ways. How common is this, do you think?

Prof. REECE: Well, there's actually been a very limited amount of research on this. Our research team here at Indiana University thinks that the notion of public sex in these spaces probably is rather generational. It does have historical foundations back to when past generations had no spaces where men who were seeking sexual interactions with other men could find each other. In fact, the spaces where that could occur were illegal and - but today, you know, there are legal spaces for people to meet and the Internet has certainly changed this. What we think is that the ritual of where people used to go looking for sex in public spaces is probably on its way to being replaced by the Internet.

CHADWICK: Michael Reece is associate professor of public health at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Professor Reece, thank you for being with us on DAY TO DAY.

Prof. REECE: Thank you very much.

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