Last month, a man obsessed with feet was caught collecting photos of specimens in Harvard Square, sparking a citywide foot fetish scare. Not only did he give the local population of foot fetishists a bad name, but he also illuminated the fact that Massachusetts law makes it nearly impossible for anyone without vanilla sexual tastes to commit sexual assault.
According to police reports, on April 12, around 1pm, a 28-year-old man wearing ripped designer jeans and a white sweater that came down to almost mid-thigh walked into Neena’s Lighting in Harvard Square. The usual sales clerk wasn’t there, however — instead, her building manager, a 41-year-old woman from Roslindale, was covering for her.
The man, whose name is being withheld by police despite being suspected of a crime, was described as 5’8″ and as both “Middle Eastern” and “Indian.” He approached the building manager, asking for a “foot light” for “his restaurant.” The manager, confused by his strangely garbled speech, asked him to explain. In response, the man took off his shoe and pointed to his foot. His gestures must have been imploring, because then the manager took off her own sock and shoe and pointed toward her own foot.
The man reached out and began touching and squeezing the building manager’s feet. Then he said something overtly sexual: “Open your legs,” he ordered. The building manager backed away from him, and as she did, he brought his fingers up to his nose and inhaled.
Thoroughly uncomfortable, she inched toward the door. The man followed. Eventually, she got him outside and asked him to leave. Once he was gone, she called the police.
Because of the unwanted touching, the incident was filed as an assault and battery, but nothing came of the police report until August 10, when the same woman spotted the man walking along Mass. Ave. in front of the Hong Kong restaurant. She called the police and tailed him, but then lost him. The cops arrived, and as she was talking to them, the man reappeared, walking straight toward them.
He was just leaving the scene of another foot encounter, this time with a yoga instructor named Annie Carter. The cops detained him, and then Carter walked up. “This person just pulled my sock off, grabbed my foot and took a picture,” she said, pointing at the man.
While she was stretching in the Dahn Yoga studio down the street, Carter said that the man had walked in, smelling of booze and asked for a demonstration of “foot stretches.” Again, he was difficult to understand. He began touching Carter’s feet, and then he pulled her sock, pulled out his camera phone and snapped a picture.
Unlike the victim at Neena’s Lighting, Carter wasn’t particularly perturbed. The man hadn’t said anything sexual and had barely touched her, so, she told the police, she concluded that he was just “weird.”
With two victims present, the police asked if they could see the man’s cell phone. He handed it over, insisting that it wasn’t his. On it, the police counted 21 different photos of women’s feet.
That detail was enough proof for most media outlets to generate a night’s worth of titillating news coverage. But it was also the best thing that he could’ve done in his own defense.
In the police report, the police state that as they investigated the man’s photo folder, they were incredulous at the fact that there was no other, more salacious, content. “No nudity, no pornography, no photos of children, just women’s feet,” they wrote. Without any overtly sexual content on his phone, the man was free to go.
“We’re not sure if it’s even borderline assault,” explained Frank Pasquarello, the Cambridge Police Department spokesman, to the Globe. “There was no criminal intent that we know of,” he told WCVB 5.
“Cambridge police say he has not broken any laws. Liking feet is not a crime,” Bianca de la Garza, WCVB 5’s TV correspondent, concluded.
Legally, it’s a hard call, says Jerry Cohen, an attorney at Burns & Levinson. When it comes to taking photographs of people in public, there’s a distinct difference between taking pictures of someone’s crotch and taking pictures of their feet.
“Intrusion is about the expectation of privacy,” Cohen says. “Any reasonable invasion of privacy is actionable. In your home, you have an expectation of privacy. When you get out on the street, you don’t have an expectation of privacy.”
Everything changes, however, when sex, as “reasonable” people define it, enters the picture.
“Then that’s a major nuisance, harassment, basically a form of assault,” Cohen says. “If I had parked on the floor between a woman’s feet [to take pictures up her skirt], that’s a form of nuisance and assault. It’s putting her in the same situation as if someone was raising a fist at her. She’s got to do something to protect herself.”
Taking pictures of a woman’s naked foot, even in a private business, however, just won’t elicit the same legal response. “That would be on the cutting edge of a [privacy] case,” Cohen says. “Did the person have an expectation of privacy? If there was no expectation, there was no violation.”
Feet, as the law sees it, just aren’t a sexual zone. “There are boundaries,” Cohen says. “You don’t know what they are, exactly, but you know when you’ve crossed them.” And unfortunately for the Harvard Square fetishist’s two victims, feet aren’t on the assault side of that line. You can chalk this blind spot in the law up to the Bay State’s fundamental prudishness about kink, and it cuts both ways for the fetish community. On the one hand, says Princess Kali, the local organizer of New England’s premier foot fetish event, Footnight, it protects responsible foot fetishists — the kind that don’t force themselves upon strangers — from persecution.
Princess Kali organizes carefully controlled events where foot models and foot lovers get together. Feet get massaged, worshipped, licked and smelled at these gatherings, but always with the consent of both parties (everyone attending signs a waiver) and, thanks to the law’s view of feet, without any technically “sexual” contact at all.
“There is absolutely no ‘sexual touching’ going on, because as of right now, our government has not declared the foot a sexual organ,” says Princess Kali. “Footnight is very strict and very straightforward in that there is no sexual interaction in the way that the law defines it.”
On the flip side, because the law doesn’t acknowledge the existence of their very real sexual feelings about feet, foot fetishists can’t be open about their particular proclivities. For foot fetishists, there’s no clear boundary between permissible ogling and assault as there is with, say, a T&A man.
“I get creepy men looking at my breasts all the time,” Princess Kali says. “I have had men take pictures of me out on the street. And that’s just accepted: Men look at tits. That’s OK. The moment he wants to look at feet, it’s ‘Oh man, he must be weirdo.'”
For example, according to several witnesses, men armed with cameras regularly haunt Downtown Crossing, taking pictures of the breasts of passing young things. The legal difference between them and the Harvard Square foot fetishist is negligible — they’re both taking pictures of body parts in public — but the difference in how they are perceived is enormous. The Downtown Crossing photographers aren’t particularly shocking; the Harvard Square foot fetishist is an exotic pervert.
Princess Kali says that this double standard keeps Boston’s respectable foot fetishists living in fear. If anybody can attack a woman’s foot without permission and be totally immune from sexual assault charges, the fetish has a long way to go before it can be accepted without disgust and fear.
“I’ve been doing these parties in Boston for three years, and we’ve got one of the largest mailing lists [in the national franchise], second to LA,” Princess Kali says. “However, I had a very difficult time getting the men to actually show up, because of their insecurities about being discovered and being labeled.”
Instead, inevitably, it’s the creepy foot fetish loners who take advantage of conventional expectations about sex to roam the streets, indulge their desires without consent and walk away without being charged.