what can bathroom cruising contribute to org theory?


(Note: I wrote this post before Tyler Cowen scooped me on part of the analysis. My inner economist told me to discount sunk costs and delete the post, but my outer sociologist never took micro and doesn’t understand what “sunk cost” means).

The big story a couple weeks ago was that Senator Craig (R-Idaho) was busted soliciting sex from a police officer in the Minneapolis airport mens’ room. While there are no end of ways to enjoy this story, like a lot of people the thing I found really fascinating was in learning the technical details of cruising for anonymous gay sex in public places, as reenacted in this Slate video. Basically, the initiating party discretely glances through a gap in the partition to assess the potential partner’s attractiveness, then waits for third parties to vacate the restroom and sits in the neighboring stall. That’s more or less what I’d always imagined but the interesting part comes next, where the initiator discreetly taps his foot then waits for a response in kind. The next step is for them to rub their fingers along the base of the partition. This is as far as Senator Craig got before being arrested, but apparently the typical escalation is then for genitals to be flashed under the partition and then for sex to begin either under/through the partition, in one of the stalls, or at some new location.
(I never took graduate level qualitative methods so I can only guess how much of this dates back to that ethically infamous tome, the Tea Room Trade.)

This is a fairly elaborate ritual but the interesting thing is it seems to be fairly institutionalized to the extent that vice cops consider the toe-tapping and finger-sliding to be incriminating enough to warrant arrest, without (as I’d always imagined) waiting for indecent exposure or a verbal proposition. It’s worth ruminating for a bit on what such an elaborate ritual accomplishes. The signal has to be clear to its intended recipients or else one will never get to have sex as even willing partners won’t understand your offer. By all accounts it seems to have been clear enough. However, it would be even more clear to stand at the door to the mens’ room and ask every reasonably attractive fellow who enters “excuse me sir, would you like to have sex?” The problem is that such an approach is likely to get you the Tucker Carlson treatment long before it gets you a willing sex partner. This highlights the second quality of the ritual: it is incomprehensible to all but the intended recipients, vice cops, and people who have read about the Craig arrest. I have in fact used the mens’ room at the Minneapolis airport and I didn’t notice anything unusual. I don’t remember if my neighbor had tapped his foot, but if he had, I would have ignored it, because, at the time I would have thought hey, people tap their feet, no big deal. That the significance of the signal would be lost on a non-cruiser is a big part of its appeal and it will be interesting if after the widespread publicity of the Craig arrest, cruisers now have to find a new signal (toilet paper origami? tying and untying their shoelaces? urinating to the rhythm of “shave and a haircut”?). So the whole ritual is a highly efficient and discreet way of sorting cruisers from more conventional users of restrooms. But where did it come from?

One of the criticisms that creationists intelligent design scholars like to make of natural selection is that some organs are only useful in their complete form and so it’s hard to see how they could have evolved. In fact biology has convincing explanations for the development of such allegedly all-or-nothing organs as wings and eyeballs, but it still is an interesting question to ask how did things that are especially useful in their complete form experience intermediate stages? This applies to communication systems as much as eyeballs. My dissertation advisor likes to ask, “who bought the first telephone?” Communications systems, whether they be the phone system, the internet, the English language, or cruiser-ese become more useful the more people are attached to the system, a dynamic known as “network externalities.” I experienced this today when my wife upgraded to the new version of skype, but I was on the old one, so some of the icons she sent me just showed up as text tags. If we were using the same version it would have worked properly (and of course if she was on skype and I was on AIM it wouldn’t work at all). These network externalities are so powerful that they can lock-in incumbent institutions at the expense of more technically efficient alternatives and for this reason network externalities have a cumulative advantage effect even more powerful than that of information cascades.(1) The concept originates from David’s 1985 AER article “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY,” which argued that the keyboard layout got locked-in once a critical mass of typists learned it, creating labor market network externalities. (Clio was the Greek spirit of history so the title is a cute way of saying history matters, which is no biggie to sociologists but was fairly radical for an economist). Conversely, communication systems are almost useless when only a few people belong to the system. This is particularly true when the relevant population is sparse. Relatively few people are interested in anonymous gay sex and so they require an especially efficient way to communicate.

So the really interesting question is, why did it ever occur to somebody to tap his foot to mean “let’s have sex” and somebody else to understand the signal and then think to tap back for “ok, but first let me see you touch the bottom of the partition.” According to a story in Slate, this ritual is decades old so you can’t posit that it was the result of some widely circulated internet “Bathroom Sex F.A.Q.” Rather, we must go back to Schelling, who famously wondered how we can improvise coordination without explicitly setting terms. Schelling’s favorite example was where to meet someone in Manhattan (a large plurality of people say under the clock in Grand Central). An even better example is in The Hunt for Red October when the Russian submarine has to signal their friendly intentions to the American sub but there is obviously no established protocol for “we wish to defect without alerting our own navy” and they decide to use a single radar ping (which the Americans correctly interpret). So Schelling tells us that it’s not implausible that people could spontaneously develop a subtle signal for this sort of thing. But why these signals? For that we can get some insights from Darwin, but not in the way that you think. While he is best known for the theory of natural selection presented in Origin and Descent, Darwin also gave us The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in which he explains communicative signals as being exaggerated ritual forms of technically efficacious actions. For instance, before biting, a dog (or a person) must retract its lips and bare its teeth. This can be done very quickly which is why we don’t spend our entire dinner hour grinning. However, the dog may bare its teeth far earlier than technically necessary for the bite itself in order to telegraph a threat to bite. Thus in dogs bared teeth signal aggression well enough that the dog’s antagonist may back down, avoiding violence to the benefit of both parties. Such a pattern of exaggerating technical features to signal proposed action is not limited to dogs. For instance, sending fighter jets to buzz another country’s airspace (as Russia recently did to Georgia and Israel occasionally does to Syria when Hezbollah is giving it trouble) is meant and understood as threatening to actually bomb the violated country.

So what might Schelling and Darwin have to say about communication between a couple of cruisers, who are by definition strangers and thus cannot have articulated a cruising protocol in advance? Foot-tapping is the most obvious way to discretely get the other guy’s attention. Responding in kind is an obvious way to acknowledge that “yes, I know you were intending to get my attention and don’t just happen to have a wide stance.” So far we are entirely in the realm of Schelling. However other aspects of the ritual are more in line with Darwin. Glancing in the prospective partner’s stall is necessary to see whether the partner is an attractive adult but also communicates one’s interest to the partner. Likewise, touching the base of the partition is an exaggerated ritual of preparation to either move under the partition or touch one’s partner’s genitals. This similarity to the next stage towards consummation is what makes partition touching intuitively meaningful to a potential cruising partner.

Schelling’s concept of coordination without communication is widely recognized as important to industrial-organizational economics and international relations in political science. However much of the literature treats the exact form of communication as something of a black box. A more micro-interactionist perspective, starting with Darwin, can give more clues as to how exactly such coordination occurs. This could be useful not only for cruisers (and vice cops) but for recognizing such things as oligopolistic bid-rigging and price-fixing. Likewise, neo-institutionalism in sociology has an enormous amount to say about how institutions diffuse, but not about how they are first invented. Ironically, invention was a great focus of our closed-system ancestors in the Carnegie school. What I am suggesting is that Darwin and Schelling may have interesting implications for a distinctly open systems approach not only to diffusion (on which we are strong) but on invention (where we are weak and tend to revert to closed-system approaches). While some institutions probably did originate entirely within a firm and then diffuse outward, others are irreducibly communicative and could not have done so. For instance, consider the  academic institution of the fly out and job talk. The irony of an implicitly closed-system approach to invention is compounded since institutionalism assumes that all institutions (even prima facie internal ones) are in part about signaling legitimacy to the environment.


(1)The difference is that in an information cascade, popularity increases perceptions of utility whereas with network externalities popularity increases objective utility. For an example contrast the popularity of google and that of ebay. Google benefits from an information cascade in that its popularity is widely taken as a sign that it’s good, but google would still be a great search engine even if you were the only person in the world using it. Google’s utility as a search engine exists objectively apart from our consensus about it. In contrast, ebay benefits from network externalities in that it is only useful because it is popular. If you were the only one in the world on ebay, it would be useless. Since cascades and externalities have similar predictions, distinguishing them is one of the challenges for complexity research. One tentative pattern is that while cascades lead to pretty high levels of conformity, externalities lead to nearly absolute uniformity, or what economists call “natural monopoly.”


P.S. The mens’ room in the basement of the UCLA sociology department has a long-standing reputation for cruising and maintenance has bolted steel plates on some of the partitions to patch holes drilled by cruisers. The interesting thing is that this building was closed for three years in the late 1990s for earthquake renovation. This would seem to be enough of a gap that the cruisers would take their business elsewhere but the notion of this being the place to go seems to have survived the test of time as I’ve seen partition patches both before and after the renovation. I sometimes like to think that when Haines Hall reopened in 1999 there was some guy waiting outside with a battery-powered drill saying to himself “today’s the day!” Fortunately my office is on the second floor so I tend to use the third floor mens’ room which is tidy and has a chaste reputation.

P.P.S. The other connection of bathroom cruising to the problem of coordination is that John Nash’s life collapsed when he was arrested in a public park restroom across the street from Rand. The film “A Beautiful Mind” removes the solicitation element from the arrest and moves it to the more pleasant setting of a quad at Harvard.


Written by GR

September 13, 2007 at 6:47 pm

6 Responses

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  1. I wonder if there’s bathroom cruising among women? As far as I know, all female bathrooms have chaste reputations, regardless of their cleanliness. And if there isn’t female bathroom cruising, why not? What explains this gender difference?



    September 13, 2007 at 11:28 pm

  2. Portions of this post need to be filed under “far too much information.”



    September 13, 2007 at 11:55 pm

  3. Other portions should be filed under: How will this affects UCLA’s rank in sociology?


    Fabio Rojas

    September 13, 2007 at 11:59 pm

  4. I just adore your posts, Gabriel. Yay guest bloggers!



    September 14, 2007 at 12:43 pm

  5. […] what can bathroom cruising contribute to org theory? […]


    celebrity! «

    September 14, 2007 at 4:13 pm

  6. […] Gabriel Rossman comments on the Larry Craig scandal […]


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