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Public Sex

Public Sex

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Overnight, senator Larry Craig became the poster boy for public sex. But as Benoit Denizet-Lewis reminds us, the phenomenon is anything but new -- and it's not just a closeted republican thing. So what is it that still drives some in the gay community out of the bedroom and into the bathroom?

In 1980, a short time before AIDS began decimating San Francisco's gay population, CBS aired a documentary about life in the city called Gay Power, Gay Politics. "For someone of my generation," journalist Harry Reasoner said in the report's sobering introduction, "it sounds a bit preposterous. Political power for homosexuals?" He opined that this strange political movement raised "troubling questions...not only for San Francisco but for other cities throughout the country."

For CBS, the most troubling aspect of gay life in San Francisco was clear: Homosexuals seemed to be having sex everywhere--in public parks, S/M "torture chambers," and, if they could get away with it, right in the middle of Castro Street. In his book The Culture of Desire, Frank Browning noted that the total effect of CBS's report "was that of a strident alarm, a warning that the hidden agenda of the campaign for gay power was the legitimization of sex in the streets."

Many gay men were outraged by the documentary, which they saw as a salacious attempt to smear them all as public-sex fiends. "I don't know of anyone who is responsible who feels that [sex in San Francisco's parks] should be condoned or encouraged," one local gay man told the National News Council. "It's a matter of embarrassment to most of the people I know. It's a small percentage of the gay population that's involved in that scene."

I was reminded of the old CBS report (and of the ensuing attempt by many gay people to downplay the prevalence and acceptability of public sex among gay men) in the weeks after the Larry Craig scandal broke. In October the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation issued a series of recommendations for journalists covering arguably the biggest public sex news story ever. After the initial focus on Craig, the media had quickly turned its prurient gaze to toe-tapping, wide stances, and in-depth investigations best summed up as "What Are the Gays Up to in Bathrooms Anyway?"

GLAAD insisted that only a small minority of gay men engage in public sex and most gay people condemn the practice. The organization also highlighted the words of Michigan State professor emeritus of psychology Gershen Kaufman, who told ABC News that cruising is practiced mainly by deeply closeted men: "There is a lot of self-hatred and shame, and they can't allow themselves to come to terms with their sexuality."

Larry Craig was certainly the poster boy for that argument. A married conservative U.S. senator, Craig voted against equal rights for gays even as he allegedly engaged in bathroom sex with men. Craig seemed cast directly from sociologist Laud Humphreys's landmark 1970 study Tearoom Trade. Humphreys found that more than half of the men who cruised public toilets for sex were married. Many of these men also adopted ardently conservative views, which Humphreys dubbed "the breastplate of righteousness."

I could relate to GLAAD's frustration with much of the media response to the Craig story, where the fact that many bathroom cruisers are married and ostensibly "heterosexual" was lost. Months before, as I happened upon a segment about public sex on Howie Carr's conservative Boston radio show, I listened in horror as caller after caller voiced disgust with the public sex they seemed to believe was a requirement of "the gay lifestyle." These were likely many of the same people, of course, who rallied against gay marriage in the state. The callers' shock and disappointment at our supposed irresponsible behavior was disingenuous; they clearly didn't respect us whether we were loitering in the reeds of a park or enjoying a quiet dinner at home with our husband. I nearly called into the show to say that many public sex enthusiasts are in fact married to women ("Your neighbors!" I wanted to scream) and that if there were hundreds of women prowling Boston's public parks for men, you could bet that sex in the bushes would quickly become a staple of "the heterosexual lifestyle."

So GLAAD has a point. Many men who engage in public sex don't self-identify as "gay," and much of the reporting about public sex reinforces negative stereotypes about gay people. But George Michael also had a point when, after emerging from the woods of a London cruising area in 2006, he angrily said, "This is my culture." His words annoyed many gay people. Was Michael really playing the gay card to get himself out of another embarrassing sex jam? But to deny that public sex has long played--and continues to play, even as it becomes easier to be openly gay in America--a prominent role in the lives of many gay men is to engage in revisionist history, wishful thinking, or downright dishonesty.

Modern gay culture was founded partly on the idea of sexual liberation -- that we could have sex however, whenever, wherever, and with whomever we pleased. If straight society was going to criminalize the lovemaking we did in private, then why not rebel by appropriating public spaces for our needs? Before there were gay bars, there were train-station bathrooms and highway rest stops. And while most self-identified gay men now have other options to meet each other, some still choose to cruise sex in public places, including parks, bathrooms, beaches, truck stops, and gyms and fitness centers. For the purposes of this article, I'm not including bathhouses, which are designed primarily as a sexual space and today operate with little fear of police raids.

"Public sex is alive and well," says Joseph Couture, author of Peek: Inside the Private World of Public Sex. "Authorities are becoming more creative and effective at policing it, but horny men are very resourceful. You can have all the gay marriage you want, but public sex isn't going anywhere."

Some assumed that the Internet would do away with the need for sex in the bushes. After all, why leave the house when you can have your man delivered? Others hoped that as American society became more accepting of gay people, fewer gay men would engage in furtive, anonymous encounters. But websites directing men to public sex places continue to be popular, universities are redesigning their bathrooms to make them less conducive to cruising, and every month brings news of police crackdowns like the one in Johnson City, Tenn., where 40 men were arrested in 2007 for indecent behavior in area parks.

At least one mayor, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.'s Jim Naugle, proposed drastic measures to deal with the rampant "homosexual activity" in public restrooms. He wanted to spend $250,000 of the city's money on self-cleaning robotic bathrooms designed with doors that automatically open every few minutes, theoretically making sex inside them impossible. Naugle noted that he prefers the word homosexual to the word gay, because, he insists, most gay people are actually "unhappy." Outraged, gay activists began the "Flush Naugle's Bigotry" campaign and encouraged people to send rolls of toilet paper to the mayor's office to help him "wipe his dirty mind clean."

So what explains the pull of public sex for gay men? Why do some of us risk arrest, humiliation, gay bashings, and sexually transmitted diseases in order to get off in the shadows?

Couture offers what is likely an overly simplistic explanation. Public sex is "cheap, fast, and easy," he says, and "that's how many men, gay or straight, like their sex." Couture's book is both a how-to manual and an over-the-top celebration of public sex. He earnestly praises glory holes as the "singularly most brilliant invention of the homosexual known to man," he virtually canonizes elderly public-sex devotees ("The old guy could barely walk, but he still had life in him and he was living it to the fullest worshiping the almighty cock"), and he pens arguably the greatest chapter heading in the history of gay literature--"Of Twinks and Twilight: Advice from the Old Pros and the Young at Heart."

"Men who want to play games or talk about having sex go on the Internet," Couture tells me. "Men who want sex right away go out and get it. Public sex is far more efficient than going online. And in a lot of ways, the Internet is too personal for interpersonal sex. Many guys don't want their pictures out there, and they don't want to chat for a while first before hooking up. I personally don't want my tricks to talk. There are lots of guys that I would have sex with that I wouldn't have lunch with."

William Leap, an anthropologist and the author of the book Public Sex/Gay Space, says public sex allows for a level of buyer's remorse that the Internet doesn't. "If you start an encounter in public and you don't like it, or you're having second thoughts, you can walk away without really having to explain yourself or say anything," he says. "When someone knocks on your door that you've invited over from the Internet, where they may have sent you a picture that's not especially representative of how they actually look, there's this American cultural value of politeness that kicks in. You don't want to be rude or deal with an awkward moment, so you might go through with an encounter that you're not into."

For that reason, some guys choose to first meet their Internet hookups in public, where calling off the meeting is easier. Leap adds that many people in this country still don't have high-speed Internet access, while others share a computer with family members or don't have the privacy to spend hours online looking for sex.

And for gay men who live in small towns or rural areas without gay bars or community centers, public sex places are sometimes their only option for finding men for sex or dating. "Stonewall hasn't happened yet in Boise," says Jeffrey Chernin, a Los Angeles psychotherapist and the author of Get Closer: A Gay Men's Guide to Intimacy and Relationships. "People in small-town America are still living in a highly oppressive culture. Anonymous sex becomes their only option and the only way to express their identity."

Liam O'Reilly, a spokesman for, a popular Canadian-based membership website that features maps and pictures of cruising locations worldwide, concedes that oppression and homophobia are good for business. "Without homophobia, our site wouldn't be doing as well as it is," he tells me. "In many ways, homophobic right-wing society is what fuels Squirt." He later backpedals on his statement, saying that "without homophobia, people would still be on the site, but the motivations might be different."

One powerful motivating factor for many gay men seeking sex in public places is the belief that they will find the ultimate sexual prize there: "straight" men. You won't bump into many married or self-identified straight guys in gay bars, but you will find them in public sex places, where they believe their anonymity is best protected, and where they can get no-strings-attached gay sex without the hassle of having to actually talk to gay people (many public sex encounters are done without exchanging a word).

"The reality is that gay men are tripping over each other in public places to service the guys that carry themselves in the most masculine way possible, the guys that they believe will then go home to their wives or their straight lives," says Joe Kort, a psychotherapist and the author of 10 Smart Things Gay Men Can Do to Improve Their Lives. "Straight guys are the ultimate unavailable man, but for a few minutes in the darkness gay men can have them. And for many gay men it's the first time, and the only real place, where they will feel seen, accepted, and validated as sexual people by straight men. But in the context of public sex, it's a twisted form of validation."

Undercover cops looking to arrest men engaged in public sex understand that appearing straight carries currency in parks and bathrooms. Richard Tewksbury's study "Conversation at the Oasis" -- published in the March 22, 2007, issue of The Journal of Men's Studies -- details the following conversation between a cruiser and an undercover police officer on a park nature trail:

Suspect: You come down here much?

Officer: This is my first time. I just heard about it on the Internet.

Suspect: You're a good-looking man.

Officer: Thanks. My wife thinks so too.

The study surveyed police records of 127 cases of public gay sex in a California city between 1995 and 2005. Tewksbury found that awareness of the potential for arrest "does not appear to deter cruising activity," which might explain why Couture and others don't believe that Larry Craig's arrest will keep men from seeking out public sex. On the contrary, Couture says. "Thanks to good old Larry Craig," he tells me, "every man in the United States now knows exactly how to go about getting sex in a bathroom."

It's no secret that risk and danger are aphrodisiacs for many people and that public sex offers an adrenaline rush. But Kort, the psychotherapist, believes there's a more powerful force to explain why some gay men spend much of their free time cruising public places for sex and why they regularly risk arrest to do so. One man cited in Tewksbury's study, for example, had been arrested three times for cruising in the same park.

"What no one wants to really talk about is the role that sexual compulsion and addiction plays in this," Kort says. "I would argue that a majority of men who regularly engage in public sex are either addicted to the rush, the escape, or the shame of public sex. Many gay men will go to great lengths to say that this is a behavior that they enjoy, that they want to be doing this, but if you probe deeper, they're not happy. This isn't an activity that makes them feel good about themselves, but they can't stop doing it."

Kort adds that many self-identified adult gay men mistakenly believe that by coming out of the closet, they got over whatever self-hate and shame they'd felt growing up gay in a straight world. Anonymous public sex, Kort says, is sometimes a way for gay men to play out shame and self-hate -- to essentially retraumatize themselves. "I call it returning to the scene of the crime -- the crime scene being our childhoods, where we were often degraded or humiliated for being different and where we were told hundreds of negative messages about how gay life is only about sex and how we'll never find true love and don't deserve a quality life," Kort says. "The trauma of our childhoods get sexualized, and we express it at 3 a.m. on a cold night with a stranger in a park or in a rank bathroom along a highway."

It will be interesting to see how future generations of gay men -- who likely will be growing up with less shame around their sexuality -- feel about public sex. Thirty years from now, will GLAAD still be insisting that only a small minority of gay men engage in the practice, even if many parks and public restrooms remain popular cruising areas? It's unlikely that public sex places -- or homophobia, for that matter -- will ever vanish completely, but I agree with John Shiers's essay "One Step to Heaven?" published in the anthology Radical Records: Thirty Years of Lesbian and Gay History: 1957-1987. Shiers writes that "if we did live in a world where homosexual relationships were treated in every way as equal and valid as heterosexual relationships," that the pull toward casual and public sex "would correspondingly decline because men would grow up without any taboos or inhibitions about being close, sensual, and warm with one another."

Until then, the culture of public sex probably isn't going anywhere, even as many young gay men profess to find the practice disturbing. When I told a 21-year-old gay friend that I was working on this story, he was aghast that gay men still met each other in bathrooms and parks. "That's so sketchy!" he said. I asked him to define "sketchy" and reminded him that he sometimes meets men for quick sex on websites like Manhunt. What made trolling through Internet profiles so much more acceptable in his eyes than trolling through bushes? He struggled to articulate a reason, but it was clear where he draws the line. Sex with strangers is fine -- for some gay men, it's a birthright. But the public aspect -- the cheap sideshow decorated with discarded condoms and cigarette butts -- is what's distasteful.

Some older gay men, meanwhile, say cheapness is part of the point. "Gay men who first ventured into the forbidden zones of furtive homosexuality in the 1960s or before find genuine nostalgia in the imagery of the public-toilet stall," Frank Browning writes in The Culture of Desire. "The tawdriness, the stench of urine, the glory hole between the stalls..."

Because parks and bathrooms are the place many older gay men first experienced sexual intimacy with men, public sex can become mystical for some. "I felt very close to God," writer Armistead Maupin once said, adding that he learned valuable lessons about humanity while on his knees under the stars. "I learned that you could tell the difference between a nice guy and a bastard in the dark."

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Benoit Denizet-Lewis