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“Bag-the-Fag”: Entrapping Sex Offenders 

Martin County is located on Florida’s east coast between West Palm Beach and Port St. Lucia.  It took a modest hit from Hurricane Irma, with a few thousand losing electricity, three houses damaged and no lives lost.

A month earlier, the Martin County police arrested 45 men for allegedly cruising for — and engaging in — consensual sex in two local parks. The busts followed a two-month stake out — dubbed “Operation Mangroves” — with undercover cops and hidden cameras following every illicit liaison.  According to the local CBS affiliate, the “men were recorded on video performing lewd sexual acts in public.”  The police insisted “the investigation was launched in response to multiple complaints of lewd behavior taking place at Joe’s River Park.”  The report also notes, “During the operation, investigators discovered this lewd behavior was also taking place at Bob Graham Beach.”

While very much a local issue, the Murdock-owned New York Post jumped on the story.  Once tabloid rags were driven by a simple mantra: if it bleeds, it leads! Today, new-old journalism is driven by a new ethos: the lewd leads!  The grosser the story and the more it’s hyped, the more eyeballs it will capture – and the more it will promote a certain reactionary moral or political ideology.

The Post quoted the Martin County sheriff, William Snyder, “I think that this is a subculture of people who have their own methodologies for meeting each other.”  He added, “They seem to have their own verbal, non-verbal cues that let them know that they’re both there for the same reason.”  On its website, the Post includes a rogues-gallery of mug shots of those arrested as well as a video clip of an on-the-spot local reporter dishing the dirt.

The men displayed in the mug shots seem a sad-sack of lonely souls.  Being busted and jailed must take a lot from one’s spirit, so those presented surely don’t look their best.  Those busted don’t suggest the hip, hot young studs killed at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in June, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.  Rather, those busted in Martin County suggest the guy next door, the store clerk, the truck driver – the aging, just-getting-by all-American man.

Anonymous sex has long been engaged in by men and women, straight and gay, adults and youths.  In the good-old-days of a century or so ago, “pansies” caught in the act could be beaten, busted or shaken-down by the police for what they had in their pockets.  Today, the police mostly arrest those caught engaging in voluntary public sex and, after conviction, are put on a sex-offender registry.

The arrest of men – and sometimes women – for cruising to engage in an anonymous sexual encounter is a tried-and-true method of self-serving police work. Cops know where to find their prey, most often in a public venue like a park, pier, bar or movie theatre. The tactic, known within the law-enforcement world as “bag-the-fag,” has long been practiced.

The police often select their youngest, cutest officers, dress them in sexy outfits and place them in known cruising zones.  There, they act seductively, including making gestures to men that suggest they are interested in sex, and arrest those who respond.  The busts fulfill the first law of all civil-service employees: do something that makes them look good while changing nothing.

Why does American law prohibit – rather than encourage – sexual pleasure?  Why do Americans have safe and secure places to gamble, to ski, to surf and swim, but why are there no public venues for safe sex?

***

A couple of months before Martin County police undertook “Operation Mangroves,” the Volusia County, FL, police undertook “Operation Park Hopper.”  They targeted men cruising on the Ormond Beach,located on the Atlantic coast north of Daytona Beach.   The local media reported that “a four-day sting operation in six Volusia County parks resulted in the arrest of 17 men for lewd activity and one man for battery last week.”  Like their compatriots in Martin County, the police undertook their sting operations after receiving complaints from park patrons.

Appearing on a local TV newscast, Sheriff Mike Chitwood, lamented, “It’s disgraceful.”  He added, “there’s a bunch of dirty old men (whose) thrill is exposing themselves to other men in broad daylight, in the park. I don’t get it. But then again, I think most normal human beings would never get it.”  He concluded, “If you insist on going in our parks and trails and engaging in this type of despicable behavior, you may find yourself in handcuffs.”  The men he busted ranged in age from 28 to 73.  The sheriff warned, “It’s important that we set the tone that our parks and trails are safe for families.”

 

Unmentioned in news reports, Florida police have long tracked what they identified as sex deviants.  In 2012, a local gay publication, the South Florida Gay News (SFGN), revealed that the Palm Beach County police had conducted a five-year undercover operation targeting gay men cruising in local parks.  SFGN reported that “more than 600 arrests [were] made …”  It noted, “only a handful of the arrests – four to be exact — were between two men. The rest of them involved an undercover detective soliciting another man for sex using tactics that one lawyer called ‘disgusting,’ while another lawyer questioned the legality of the detectives’ behavior.”

The SFGN provides extensive discussion of men who were busted, both gay and straight.  A straight man jogging in a park stopped to wash his face and “noticed two men acting strangely in the restroom, mistook the undercover detectives for potential muggers”; the cops busted him for loitering in a public restroom.  A gay man reported, “[Two men] approached me. I was standing there for a minute. I wasn’t giving off any signals.” He adds, “They asked me what I like to do. [The undercover detective said] my friend likes to fuck. Do you want to get fucked? I told him not really.”  However, after they flirted, he exposed himself to the detectives who promptly arrested him.

Five years earlier, in 2007, the Port Richey, FL, police undertook Operation MANgrove to crackdown on gay sex in public park — similar in name to the Martin County campaign, “Operation Mangroves.” The Florida police like man-groves.

***

Bag-the-fag programs have long been employed by local police to impose sexual disciple.  On March 21, 1958, at 2:00 am, Benito Feliciano approached Joseph Curry in front of a Turkish bath at 10 St. Marks Place, a popular spot among New York gay men.  Looking provocatively at Curry, Feliciano placing his cupped hand on Curry’s crotch and offered to give him a blowjob.  Curry was an undercover cop and busted Feliciano for violating the city’s Penal Law, section 722, subdivision 8, engaging in disorderly conduct.  At trial a week later, the Magistrate’s Court judge overturned the arrest because it lacked proof that the encounter intended or actual breached the peace.

During the same post-WW-II period, a reporter at a Greenwich Village lesbian bar on Gay Street witnessed a NYPD female undercover officer bust a woman for allegedly “fondling” another woman.  The cop claimed they women were engaged in lewd behavior as “both above and below, if you know what I mean.”

Earlier this year, the New York’s Legal Aid Society (LAS) brought a class-action lawsuit against the New York Port Authority police for targeting men suspected to be gay or gender non-conforming in the 42nd Street bus terminal’s public restrooms.  The police allegedly targeted men suspected to being gay or gender non-conforming and were arrested for public masturbation or indecent exposure.

The plaintiff’s attorney reported that the policed spied on men through the slats in the dividers in the men’s bathroom and then claimed the men were engaged in lewd conduct.  More troubling, the attorney noted that the police practice dated at least from 2004.  However, the man who was initially arrested for allegedly engaging in public masturbation was tried and found not guilty; he was awarded “substantial damages.”  Nevertheless, the police continued this dubious practice.

How far the LAS suit proceeds in the courts is an open question.  However, police bag-the-fag busts will more than likely continue in New York, Martin County and elsewhere.  Gay men and women cruising or involved in other “lewd” activities are easy targets.  However, the early-21st century is an era in which the boundaries of the nation’s sexual culture is considerably freer than it was a half-century ago, let a century ago. It might be a perfect historical moment to imagine a new model of public sexual engagement.

A century or so ago, local progressive legislators around the country experimented with a form of zoning to regulate unacceptable or lewd conduct.  So-called “red-light districts” operated in cities throughout the country. (The term “red light” is apparently derived from the early days of prostitution in Kansas City when a railroad brakeman posted a red light outside a whorehouse while he was engaged inside.)  Prostitution, gambling, alcohol consumption and other social vices proliferated.  One historian noted, “[In] these sporting resorts with their streets lined with brothels, saloons, and hotels, the air [was] filled with the odor of tobacco and the sounds of blaring music, [and the windows bore] images of women making obscene gestures…. “

Both the religious right and progressive secularist, especially feminists, were deeply disturbed by the wonton excesses taking place in the red-light districts.  They lamented that these commerical zones of sin and moral depravity were deeply disturbing to public life, eyesores to many decent Americans.  Who could condone the debauchery of painted women; the smoking, drinking, gambling and whoring by men of every class; the spread of venereal diseases to innocent wives and children were affronts to civic virtue?  These districts were genuine threats to public health and well-being — and had to be shut down.  The coming of WW-I provided a great opportunity of moral uplift to do so.

Over the last century, the boundaries of Amerian morality have profoundly shifted.  Nearly a century after alcohol was outlawed, revenues from the sale of  alcohol in 2016 were estimated at $211.6 billion; gambling is wide spread, with casinos in Las Vegas, on Native-American “reservations,” on riverboats and throughout the country; commercial sex is estimated to be a $15 billion business; and pornography to meet any fantasy is just a couple of keystrokes away.

So why not establish designated “free sex zones” where consenting adults could visit to cruise or engage in a non-exploitative sexual activity?  Such zones could be clearly marked, restricted areas in public parks, beaches, etc., blocked off from families with children and individuals with different values.  Such zones would be analogous to current efforts to commercialized marijuana and to stop the criminalization of low-level civil offenses (e.g., smoking a joint, turnstile jumping).

Just a thought.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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