Our Man In New York: You daren't tap so much as a toe in the city of voyeurs

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The Independent US

Everybody had something to say last week about Idaho Senator Larry Craig and his shoe-bumping encounter with a cop in Minneapolis Airport. My gay friends focused on the hypocrisy of his record of opposing gay-friendly legislation. A few straights meanwhile seemed shocked that such things go on in public facilities. No man in America will enter a stall now without firmly crossing their feet when seated.

Less discussed is what the police are doing running around trying to catch gay men engaged in carnal activities. It surely has to do with lingering homophobia.

Is the same energy expended on catching heterosexuals coupling in places beyond the bedroom? Didn't Richard Branson recently boast of a youthful indiscretion that qualified him for the Mile High Club (with a married woman no less)? His admission elicited nothing more than knowing giggles. He was not obliged to give up the stewardship of his companies. (Under duress, Craig resigned from the Senate on Saturday.)

Maybe it's an American thing. When it comes to gays and lesbians in this country, you might imagine that the police would be better employed protecting them against discrimination and violence. (The 10th anniversary of the killing of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, is next year.) Sure, quickie liaisons in a public loo seem sleazy, but the reason so many straight people didn't know that such things go on is precisely because it is hidden behind stall doors. It is also, presumably, consensual.

America is homophobic and also puritanical. There is no gain for politicians here in signalling the slightest liberalism when it comes to defending any of the hedonistic pleasures like smoking, drinking, sex and certainly not drugs – or a long-time political peer when sexual foibles are exposed.

New York is a bit different, or used to be. This is the season when newcomers pour into the city – college resumes this week – and the landings of my walk-up building are jammed with moving cartons. Part of the reason young people come to live here is to flee the closed-mindedness of their home towns. Here, they hope to experience a degree of naughtiness with relative anonymity.

But even in Gotham things have changed. Rudy Giuliani, our former mayor and front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, forged his reputation in part through his sanitising of the Apple. Michael Bloomberg, his successor, has followed much the same course. He began with smoking in bars. Others have meanwhile felt obliged to leap on the same bandwagon. Take the new anti-peeping law now before the city council. This, as they say, is a doozy. Peter Vallone, a councilman from Queens, is declaring war on what he calls "nonconsensual voyeurism", in response to a specific problem on the subways. There is a man who likes to lurk beneath stairways to platforms to catch glimpses up the skirts of female passengers. That is not nice, clearly, but didn't anyone just think of fencing the areas off?

According to the law, anyone guilty of ogling another person's "sexual or intimate parts" will be slapped with a fine of up to $500 (£250) and 90 days in jail.

We are a city of voyeurs. Who remembers the Hitchcock classic Rear Window when Jimmy Stewart, bed-bound in a leg cast, spends his day idly watching the comings and goings (and carnal shenanigans) in the apartments that his own overlooked, until he concludes that, in one, a man has murdered his wife?

Well, we all have views of the lives of others here.

I once lived in an apartment that shared a courtyard with a posh hotel on Madison Avenue.

About three months ago, I turned a corner where I live now to see a gawping crowd at a corner on Third Avenue. A shirtless woman was virtually hanging from a high-up bedroom window while enjoying the attentions of a man who was as skinny as she was large. It was better than the raunchiest show on Times Square until Giuliani closed them all down.

As the New York Times pointed out, sales of binoculars are buoyant in New York, as are those of telescopes, even though the city's bright lights obscure the stars. Given a free spectacle we will always watch. And those in this town who aren't voyeurs are exhibitionists, whether we are talking outrageous fashions on Canal Street or participants in not-quite-private sex. For some, there is a thrill in being caught.

Not so Senator Craig. Whatever he had in mind, he was caught doing nothing. But that was enough to ruin him. The police and Mr Vallone need to get sex off their minds.

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