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Ottawa police warn of impending crackdown on gay sex in public spaces

Officers gathering information about dalliances in downtown bathrooms

Credit: cc jessica@flickr / Flickr

Ottawa Police Service has been conducting a months-long investigation into men who cruise for gay sex in public spaces. Police tell Xtra they have collected photos and video and have letters from people who say they witnessed masturbation, handjobs or oral sex in public bathrooms in the downtown core.

Police have been in contact with the management of Sears in the Rideau Centre, Esplanade Laurier and Place Bell — all places where complaints have increased, they say.

Now police are warning that, unless the behaviour stops, they will start making arrests.

Staff sergeant Chris Rheaume is in charge of investigating the complaints.

“These men are meeting together and having sex — public sex,” says Rheaume. “We are talking in washrooms, and we are not talking in stalls — we are talking right on the floor, beside the urinals.”

Public sex is nothing new. Meeting in public spaces is, historically, the only way gay men could express their sexuality without fear.

David Hoe, an AIDS activist, is no stranger to washrooms, but he says arresting men for public sex is not constructive, since the men just move elsewhere.

“I am an old washroom-user; that is where we met in the ’60s and ’70s. That was the place that we met before bars,” says Hoe. “My experience of police crackdowns is that it does two things. One, the people move somewhere else. And two, a lot of people that use public washrooms are living in the shadows, and [an arrest] results in a lot of damage — disproportionate to the activity.”

Police regularly harassed cruisers in Ottawa’s public bathrooms and parks until the mid-1990s. Arrests were often made publicly, with the names of those charged released to the media. These tactics had serious social consequences — including suicide — for those charged.

Rheaume says that Ottawa police do not want to begin arresting people but they have to investigate complaints.

Rheaume showed Xtra a security video of two men meeting in the stairwell at Place Bell on Elgin St. The video captured the men giving each other handjobs and one man giving the other a blowjob. After the hookup, one man checked his BlackBerry, looked at the security camera — giving the police the opportunity to identify him — and carried on down the stairs.

Rheaume says that even though the Rideau Centre and Place Bell are public buildings, they are also private businesses. The men, therefore, can be charged with trespassing in addition to mischief and public indecency.

“You know it is happening and it needs to be stopped. If not, then the police have to respond to the complaints,” says Rheaume. “They [the men] will be charged with indecent acts, mischief, trespass[ing].”

Any charges could be damaging, but a trespassing charge could be disastrous if the men work in the building, like the two men in Place Bell. Bail conditions could forbid them from returning to their offices.

“Can you imagine if we arrest these guys and they go back to their boss and say we are not allowed back into the building?” says Rheaume. “We are going to [charge them with trespassing] and then we are going to put conditions on them. If they breach them, then it is jail time.”

Brent Bauer of the Gay Men’s Wellness Initiative hopes police don’t go that far.

“Whenever there have been arrests of individuals who engage in sex in public places, it is generally counterproductive. It often impacts on families and does not serve the purpose of reducing harm to individuals or to the public,” says Bauer.

Both Bauer and Hoe say that warning the men of increased security is the most effective strategy.

Rheaume says that before police launch a sting operation, they will continue looking at alternative ways to stop the incidents of public sex.

Police have been in contact with their counterparts in Toronto and San Francisco to seek advice. In Ottawa, they have contacted Ottawa Public Health, members of the queer community, Xtra and the Police Liaison Committee to the gay, lesbian, bi and trans communities.

Rheaume says Toronto police send out warnings, whereas San Francisco police arrest men and, if they’re convicted, put their names on the sex registry. Rheaume says Ottawa police prefer the Toronto model.

Inspector Ty Cameron spoke with the Police Liaison Committee on Oct 18.

Members offered suggestions that included posting warnings on cruising sites, contacting the AIDS Committee of Ottawa, working with public health and contacting Xtra. A few members suggested arresting the cruisers.

“They were totally on board, saying, ‘This makes us look bad. This is certainly not acceptable in our community, either. Get the word out and then start enforcement,’” says Cameron.

The liaison committee’s Oct 18 minutes show the matter of bathroom sex was discussed. The meeting minutes do not show the committee endorsing arrests or prosecution. Members did not reach a consensus.

Both Cameron and Rheaume agree that police would like to do more “upfront” work before resorting to arrests. Their main concern is the increasing incidents of exhibitionist public sex, where men use little or no discretion in where they have sex.

Hoe agrees that there is a distinction between exhibitionism and getting a quickie in a washroom.

“If I were to start having sex in any public place where my intention was to be seen, then I take what comes to me,” says Hoe. “It would be faulty to not look at it as the extreme, for want of a better word, in terms of any exhibitionistic behaviour — as [compared to] what is happening in all circumstances. I think that distinction is important.”

Police have also been following a gay cruising site called OhMojo, according to Rheaume.

The site, which ranks cruising spots across the city from Algonquin College to Vanier Library, gives men detailed information about where to shop for sex, the best place for a threesome, which stalls have peepholes, where to find poppers and what warning signs to watch for.

According to Rheaume, the police are monitoring hits to the site and have the names and photographs of the site’s cruising-spots tour guide. Rheaume says that “how this goes down” is up to his supervisor.

“My whole thing is that I am reaching out to you just to say, can you please get the word out that we’re going to start charging people — this isn’t acceptable,” says Rheaume.

But as Hoe says, public sex “is a complex matter that is not going to go away through draconian methods.”

Hoe’s solution is more grassroots — let a community meeting take place to discuss possible approaches (including a focus on HIV prevention methods within the public sex arena) and educational training for the police.