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
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?"
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
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
O'Reilly, a spokesman for Squirt.org, 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
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).
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."
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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
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."