“Project Marie”: Policing Sexuality in Law, Ethics, Policy

eFORUM (feat. John Paul Ricco, Patrick Keilty & Kyle Kirkup)


John Paul Ricco
Comparative Literature, Art History, Visual Culture
University of Toronto

Yesterday (Nov. 25, 2016) I was one of four invited speakers for a roundtable discussion on policing sexuality, cruising and anonymous public sex, and police entrapment. This flash event, “Project Marie: Policing Sexuality in Law, Ethics, Policy,” was organized and sponsored bythe Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto, moderated by Mariana Valverde (Criminology, U of T), and featuring comments by Patrick Keilty (iSchool U of T), Simon Stern (School of Law, U of T) and Kyle Kirkup (School of Law, U of Ottawa).

It was a public forum organized in response to a recent two-month operation by the Toronto Police Service, called “Project Marie,” in which undercover police officers charged 72 individuals with 89 separate infractions for indecent exposure and sexual solicitation, in Marie Curtis Park, in Etobicoke, Ontario. Approximately 40-50 people attended, and many voices and perspectives were heard. It was an extremely successful event; one of those rare occasions when the university community and the non-academic community meet in order to talk about the relations between sex, ethics and publics.

Here are the remarks that I presented at the opening of the panel:

In today’s urban political climate, in which the stranger, the foreigner, the one who lingers, the solitary walker, the workless or out-of-work someone—and not least of all, the one who is simply curious—when each of these someones in the singularity of their anonymity, itinerancy, promiscuity, and clandestinity—and thus in their essential illegitimacy—are increasingly targets of suspicion and surveillance, bodies to be taunted, beaten, entrapped, and at times permanently marked as illegal, the cruising ground remains more necessary than ever, given that it is an ethical training ground.

A cruising ground is an ethical ground in the precise sense that it is a place where being together with others does not rely upon the law of identity and the logic of the name. Instead, it is a place consecrated to the joys and pleasures of the passing encounter, and the liberating fact that, as Tim Dean has intimated: strangers can be lovers and yet remain strangers. Meaning: sharing an erotic and perhaps sexual bond that is less structured in terms of attachment than separation, and that thus affirms that a mutual intimate experience can be had that does not require or ask for the assimilation of oneself into an other, but instead remains open to the outside.

But of course the cruising ground is also where such pleasures find a place in the world that in so many ways and in so many instances have pushed them out of the sanctioned spaces of domesticity and the family; the school and the church. That have relegated them to zones of the unthinkable by normative relations of sexuality (including those which go by such names as sexual relationship, monogamy, and marriage), and that have been expropriated by the gentrification of minds and bodies, no less than the gentrification of city neighbourhoods (as Sarah Schulman has recently argued). It is precisely those spaces, those norms, and those processes of gentrification that create conditions that are unsafe for some of us: the adolescent queer, the closeted, the exhibitionist, the spouse, the homeless. As Samuel Delany has argued, “if every sexual encounter involves bringing someone back to your house, the general sexual activity in a city becomes anxiety-filled, class-bound, and choosy. This is precisely why public restrooms, peep shows, sex movies, bars with grope rooms, and parks with enough greenery are necessary for a relaxed and friendly sexual atmosphere in a democratic metropolis” (Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, 127).

Lest you think that I am only arguing for the more practical political importance of the cruising ground, allow me to close by noting that the logic of the lure is not only driven by the need to escape the normalizing and criminalizing logic of the law, but that it is also an attraction to that which is imperceptible, un-nameable, transitory, and even unconsummated. But all of this also means that cruising offers us a sense of the ways in which erotic pleasure is not only sexual, but spatial, and that for some of us, where we do it, is just as important as who or what we do. Cruising eroticizes the essential anonymity of the common and urban intimacy, and so, to the extent that there are cities, there will be cruising, because in the cruising ground persist some of the essential truths of a city. Today we are faced with nothing less than the question of how to ethically create a city. In doing so, we must insist on the fact that “sex lives matter.”

*Thanks to Etienne Turpin for this phrasing.

Patrick Keilty
University of Toronto

Heteronormative coupling has long been the privileged example of sexual intimacy in our culture, often associated with privatization, familialism, and sexual reproduction. The police crackdown in Marie Curtis Park relies on heteronormative bias as a way to justify a politics of shame.  Over the past week and a half, we have heard from police and some residents about the need to protect families against rampant lewd behavior of deviant sexual intimacy between men. Their complaints tap into the vast power of sexual shame, disgust, and moralism in the name of heteronormative intimacy. They make sex seem irrelevant or merely personal, and privilege heteronormative conventions of intimacy in order to diminish the existence the non-normative and explicit public sexual cultures. Yet for gay male culture, many principle scenes of intimacy have been public spaces: tearooms, streets, bathhouses, public toilets, and parks – sites, according to Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, of “counter-intimacies” that have long provided scenes of queer world-making and counter-publics.

Whereas heteronormative forms of intimacy have been supported by cultures of representation, legal structures, institutional support, domestic architecture, and the zoning of work and politics, and whereas queer intimacy has long been stigmatized, subject to social opprobrium, and criminal sanction, queer culture has found it necessary to cultivate counterpublics that support forms of affective, erotic, and personal living that are public in the sense that they are accessible, available to memory, circulate knowledge, and sustained through collective activity. Because heteronormative cultures of intimacy leave queer cultures especially dependent on ephemeral world-makings in public space, queer cultures are particularly vulnerable to municipal regulations that aim to restrict counterpublic sexual culture. While the mobility of these sites makes them possible, it also renders them hard to recognize as world-making because they are so fragile and ephemeral, or trivialized as “lifestyle.” “To understand them only as self-expression or as a demand for recognition would be to misrecognize the fundamental unequal material conditions whereby the institutions of social reproduction are coupled to the forms of dominant understandings of [intimacy]” (Berlant and Warner 1998, 561).

The separation of public and private spheres characteristic of modern liberal societies does not limit the field of power over sexuality but instead functions strategically to extend the reach of power and to multiply techniques of social control. The effect of sexual liberation has been not (or not only) to free us to participate in counterintimacies but to require us to express intimacy in ways that count as “sexual freedom” according to dominant heteronotmative understandings of intimacy as private, delimiting where and when to draw the distinction between sexual and nonsexual expression. Sexual freedom in the name of liberty imposes on us a brand of liberty that constructs freedom as a privilege that “we must, on pain of forfeiting, use responsibly and never abuse” (Halperin 1995). That “respectable” gay men occasionally pander to popular prejudices and uphold normalizing standards in matters of sex reveals the strength of cultural imperatives to maintain public respectability. They also assume they owe nothing to the sexual subculture they think of as sleazy, even though their success, their way of living, and their political rights would not have been possible but for the existence of the queer world-making they now despise.

I hope that part of the response to “Project Marie” might be to take up Michael Warner’s call for an ethics of sexual autonomy. Aware of the limits of the autonomous subject, Warner asks us to rethink the ethics of controlling someone else’s sex (when it’s not harmful or coercive), imposing one’s own way of living as a moral standard for others. “It would be nice,” Warner writes, “if the burden of proof in such questions of sexual morality lay on those who want to impose their standard on someone else” (1999, 5). For Warner, failure to recognize when sexual regulation comes down to a politics of sexual shame leaves policies pious and disingenuous about sex, cows individuals out of sexual dignity, involves silent inequalities, unintended effects of isolation, and a lack of public access. Sexual autonomy is more than freedom of choice, tolerance, and liberalization of sex laws. “It requires access to pleasures and possibilities, since people do not know their desires until they find them” (7). Moralism, on the other hand, can only produce complacent satisfaction in others’ shame by taking for granted dominant forms of intimacy that privatize and isolate sexual pleasure.

Finally, it’s telling that residents say they want to “take back” the park, a rhetoric that currently aligns with Donald Trump’s (and now, Kellie Leitch’s) message of taking back a nation from people they deem deviant and criminal. I see in this rhetoric an amplification of the inhumanity that has sadly taken hold just south of our border. Our obligation in the wake of Trump’s election is to refuse that amplification here.

Berlant, Lauren and Warner, Michael. “Sex in Public.” Critical Inquiry v. 24, no. 2, 1998, pp. 647-566.
Halperin, David. Saint Foucault: Toward a Gay Hagiography. Oxford University Press, 1999.
Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Kyle Kirkup
Faculty of Law-Common Law Section

In Canada, we have a conventional story that the carceral state no longer targets queer people. Many people point to the federal government’s recognition of same-sex marriage in 2005 as solidifying a new legal position for queer people in Canada. This story may be partially true, particularly for the most privileged members of queer communities.

But only certain members have benefitted from the promise of marriage equality–those who can don the garb of coupled, privatized, presumptively monogamous respectability. Others, especially those who are visibly associated with sex, have not benefitted from this promise; they continue to find themselves targeted by the carceral state.

In a book length project I’m currently working on, I point to a number of junctures where queer people find themselves ensnared in the repressive aspects of criminal justice–sex workers targeted by police on the street, HIV-positive people charged with aggravated sexual assault for failing to disclose their status, and trans women placed in men’s prisons because they haven’t undergone gender-affirming surgery, among others.

The most recent example–Project Marie and the policing of public sex–is best understood in a longer history of carceral apparatuses targeting those queer legal subjects associated with criminality, promiscuity, and deviance.

  • 1981: Project Soap – Toronto Bathhouse Raids. A galvanizing moment in queer history — protests and creation of a legal defence fund.
  • 1996: Project Rosebud – Undercover sex sting operation at Burlington’s Botanical Gardens.
  • 2000: Pussy Palace – Male officers enter into a women-only bathhouse event, purportedly in search of liquor licence violations. Eventually, the charges are stayed because the police violated the women’s Charter Rights. We also see a human rights complaint that leads to the first LGBTQ-related training for the Toronto Police Service.
  • 2016: Project Marie. One more time with feeling, the police target non-normative sex.

At the same time, we have seen the emergence of a countermovement of sorts–attempts to wrap police cruisers and prison vehicles in rainbow flags. In the book project, I call this the “law and order queer movement”–one that runs the risk of bolstering carceral agendas and logics. Queers, I argue, are being marshalled to provide crucial ideological support for a system that continues to violently target the most vulnerable members of our communities.

Ultimately, Project Marie provides yet another example of why our communities ought to remain skeptical of wrapping punitive agendas in rainbow garb. Instead, as we have seen most recently with Project Marie, we must work to provide support to those who find themselves ensnared in the repressive aspects of criminal justice, while also returning to logics and analytics of decriminalization.