Wikipedia defines “cruising” as “walking or driving about a locality in search of a sex partner, usually of the anonymous, casual, one-time variety.”
This is a fair definition, but some guys would define cruising more loosely: a basic sex hunt, not something you specifically set out to do but rather something you are always doing. We do it on the subway and in the office and anywhere a handsome gentleman might lift his shirt to wipe sweat off his forehead. In our minds, we lift his shirt the rest of the way and tug on the brim of his trousers with our teeth.
If you make eye contact with him and discover (wordlessly and without complete certainty) that you are both interested, then voila! You’ve cruised. Now all you have to do is work up the courage to talk to him, give him your number, or nod to the exit. The following hookup may happen in your apartment, in a public restroom, or in the alley out back. Wherever you choose, you are engaging in an art that gay and bi men have been perfecting for decades.
Check out these 24 classic cruising zones, some of which yielded better results in years past and many that are still used today. Happy hunting!
A Word of Warning From Writer Alexander Cheves
My name is Alexander Cheves, and I am known by friends in the kink and leather community as Beastly. I am a sex-positive writer and blogger. The views in this slideshow do not reflect those of The Advocate and are based solely on my own experiences. As with everything I write, the intent of this piece is to break down the stigmas surrounding the sex lives of gay men.
Those who are sensitive regarding frank discussions about sex are invited to click elsewhere, but consider this: If you are outraged by content that addresses sex openly and honestly, I invite you to examine this outrage and ask yourself whether it should instead be directed at those who oppress us by policing our sexuality.
For all others, enjoy the slideshow. And feel free to leave your own suggestions for sex and dating topics in the comments.
Hungry for more? Follow me on Twitter @BadAlexCheves and visit my blog, The Beastly Ex-Boyfriend.
Before anyone tries to convince you that bathhouses are no fun — that they are filled with creepy onlookers and tweaked-out drug addicts — go to one. Go to Steamworks in Chicago or Berkeley, Club Dallas, or any of the Flex spas across the country. If you are a kink pig looking for slings over saunas, find your nearest Slammer. If these are not options in your city, plan a trip. Big cities like Los Angeles and New York have bathhouses that, depending on the night, may have better crowds than the national chains — North Hollywood Spa, Tampa Men’s Club, Denver Swim Club.
The Everard Baths in New York City was the most written-about bathhouse in history until it closed in 1986 at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Everard was open for almost 100 years and was visited by such gay luminaries as Gore Vidal and Truman Capote. Today, New York is filled with cruising grounds, but its number of bathhouses has noticeably dwindled.
There are several reasons for this. Yes, AIDS was a devastating hit, one that made us fear the sexual spaces we used to roam. But other social changes contributed. The closet drew many men to bathhouses where they could cruise freely before returning home to their wives. For them, bathhouses were a necessity — spaces frequented out of need and desire. Gay life has changed since then.
I have heard some younger gay men — guys closer to my age — say they would never set foot in a bathhouse “because they are filled with old guys.” Let’s face a fact: This is often true. Many of the bathhouses I’ve been to are filled with older men, but this fact neither diminishes the fun to be had in them or takes away from their experience. Let go of your needless ageism and try something new.
There is something great about being naked in a gay space. Bathhouses are a dichotomy. hey are both erotic and comfortable, foreign and familiar. If you’ve never been to one and are ready to take the plunge, check out my article “10 Tips For Your First Trip To The Bathhouse” on Pride.com.
City parks were once the cruising grounds for gay men. In New York in the 1970s, public parks where places where you could not only find a hot guy but bang him in the bushes too.
Parks are harder to cruise today. Police patrolling has amped up, and there are obvious safety risks to cruising parks at night.
Antonio Da Silva has a thing for public cruising. The Portuguese director makes short films that blur the lines between documentary and pornography, art and voyeurism — which means his films are great. His 13-minute explicit film Beach 19 peeks in on the activities at a popular gay beach in Portugal.
While a trip to Portugal or Limanakia Beach in Greece (another famous gay beach) sounds awesome, outdoor cruising and nature sex can be found in the United States too. Baker Beach in San Francisco, Black’s Beach in San Diego, Maui's Little Beach, and of course Fire Island Pines, a historic gay dreamland, are still fun places to visit. And while you might not be able to have sex on the beach itself (at least not in the daylight), you can still find a partner to take home. A note on the Pines: Few guys get naked on the beach itself, but many wander to the little “anything goes” coastal forest nearby.
I must here give a word of caution. Public sex always invites the risk of getting caught by someone other than a voyeur or hot participant. Law enforcement, unsuspecting passersby, and happy children can stumble by. While this risk is totally part of the fun, getting caught can land you in jail.
The Advocate is not responsible for your incarceration should you choose to participate in “public lewdness” — a funny term invented by lawmakers that we must take seriously. You will find the term “public lewdness” on warnings posted in gay-heavy gyms (“Any public lewdness in the steam room will result in immediate termination of membership and possible legal action”) and cruising hotspots where a manager has caught wind of what’s been going on. In most cases it means anal or oral sex — flashing your junk in areas that are not clothing-optional is called “indecent exposure.”
A cursory history of gay New York must include the West Side piers — a gay landmark that, for many gay men in the '70s, was the epicenter of the art and sex movement that happened between Stonewall and the onset of the AIDS epidemic. The piers weren’t much to look at — a series of decaying wood and steel structures jutting into the Hudson River from Christopher Street up to Chelsea — but their location as well as their storied nightly sex spots solidified their place as the most famous gay cruising site in the United States. Take a pilgrimage to see them — it will be bittersweet, considering how many died during the plague years — but save the public cruising for one of New York’s many gay nightclubs.
Above image: Shelley Seccombe, "Sunbathing on the Edge, Pier 52" (1977), contemporary archival digital print, source: LeslieLohman.org
Like all other parts of gay culture, gay bars have changed. Many of their playrooms have been converted into well-lit lounges or additional bar space — a fact that makes me die a little. And (you guessed it) hookup apps have all but gutted these spaces of the crowds that used to flock them. But the quintessential gay bar — that tawdry dive with a rainbow flag in the window and a glory hole in the bathroom — is important, because long before chat rooms and mobile apps, gay bars were some of our original cruising zones. Sexual overtones aside, gay bars were places where we could meet, organize, let loose, and foster community.
I haven’t figured out the formula of what makes a gay bar stay open, but I imagine there are many factors: hot bartenders, hot crowds, and the seemingly unavoidable threat of getting priced out. I almost never go to nongay bars, because I give my dollars to spaces that exist for me. Keep our sanctuaries alive!
The birthplace of gay circuit parties, underground discothèques were where gay men danced in the '70s — and have not stopped since.
But first, a clarification: “discothèque” is a term rarely used in the United States anymore — most people simply say “club” or “dance club” — but you can still find self-identified discothèques in Europe.
The beauty of dancing in a room full of gay men (and typically getting high with them) is something I can hardly describe. When I have those nights, I feel part of a gay tradition that started in the pre-AIDS sex reverie, survived a plague, and is still alive today.
Different scholars, homos, club kids, and gay partiers will argue when dance clubs really came into being, but their significance in gay culture (and gay cruising) is undeniable. Their bathrooms have long been homes to cruising and gay sex.
Large department stores — particularly the tragically understaffed kind where you can topple over a pile of bedding sets and no one will notice for hours — often have unstaffed fitting rooms and lots of places to hide. Here’s a rule of thumb for cruising: Anywhere you can possibly find privacy or meet other men can become a cruising zone — particularly the menswear section in your local department store.
On my first day in San Francisco, I went to a popular shopping mall (I won’t say which one since I don’t want to ruin this cruising zone for the local guys). I had to pee badly and, after some searching, I found a restroom on the second floor. As with many mall restrooms, you reached this one at the end of a long hallway after a couple right and left turns (in other words, you have to really look for it). There was one other guy in there, standing at the urinal.
Normally I am pretty perceptive, but this time I really had to pee. The guy was standing at least one foot back from the urinal and I could see every inch of his massive cock. When I looked up at his face, he was looking directly at me. We shared a triangle of gaze between my eyes, his eyes, and his dick. This lasted until he stopped peeing and shook his dick 12 or 13 times before he slowly and begrudgingly pulled it back in his pants.
The whole time I was wondering, Why is he standing so far back from the urinal like that? It wasn’t until after he left and after I peed that the reality of what just (almost) happened hit me like a brick. It was a massive missed opportunity — no pun intended.
Cruise-heavy mall bathrooms are pretty common. There’s a cruisey mall bathroom in Augusta, Ga., one in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (and probably many more), and a friend on the inside said even Disney World has a few cruising bathrooms — although, he admits, these are hard to have success stories in.
If New York’s Christopher Street taught us anything, it is that a street in a gay part of town is the ultimate cruising ground. I applaud the guys who make hookups happen simply from exchanging glances with the men they pass on the sidewalk. Doing so takes game, body-reading skills, improvisation, and guts. I have not mastered the art of street cruising, but I have felt that heightened tension when walking down a sidewalk in a gayborhood — the Castro in San Francisco, the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood — and knowing that I am in cruise territory. The eyes are on you.
Second to circuit parties, gyms are some of the most erotic places in the world. A place where sweaty guys work out in minimal clothing, strip in front of each other, take showers, and sometimes sit together in a steam room is going to be a gay cruise zone — how could it be anything else?
Some gyms will have a stronger cruising vibe than others, depending on the neighborhood. Gayborhood gyms are almost asking for public sex, while gyms in smaller towns and conservative communities might be higher risk. In general, though, you are bound to face some repercussion if you get caught by a staff member.
Many people, myself included, like to people-watch at coffee shops. Coffee shops are places where you can retreat from the bustle of life, read a book, do some work on the computer, and sip your overpriced lavender mocha. A good coffee shop has a feeling of de-stress and coziness. And since I love being around men — their presence automatically makes me feel comfortable, like being in a locker room — I love coffee shops in gay neighborhoods. Cruising comes naturally to these places, since people-watching and cruising are basically the same thing, and what better way to lick the foam off your lips than having someone lick it off for you?
My parents suspected I was gay years before I even knew what “gay” meant — maybe all that finger-painting and borrowing my mom’s eyebrow pencil gave something away — and they installed a parental blocker on our Internet that blocked absolutely everything. The blocker restricted sites according to keywords. “Gay,” I later learned, was one of them.
Internet porn was never an option, so I didn’t grow up missing it. When we went shopping, my parents would leave me in Barnes & Noble for hours while they went with my sister to try on jeans. Parents, if you don’t want your kids to be gay, do not leave them alone in a bookstore.
Barnes & Noble is a treasure trove of homosexuality. I discovered the seminal book The Joy of Gay Sex by Charles Silverstein and Edmund White in the LGBT section when I was 10. And the magazines! Unzipped, Attitude, and The Advocate were my first signs of gay life; the first proof I had that others were out there. When I stumbled across Rare Flesh, a collection of erotic male photography by David E. Armstrong, my life was changed forever. I grabbed the book and ran to the restroom. I sat in a stall for an hour, turning the pages slowly, trembling.
Several years later, when I was able to drive to bookstores by myself, I was again sitting in the bathroom of Barnes & Noble, probably looking through a copy of Unzipped magazine, when the guy in the stall next to me said, “Hey…you okay, dude?” And that was the first time I had public sex.
Bookstores are pits of sin. Visit them as often as you can. Literacy is important.
Some of the best cruising happens in places where you least expect it — at museums, art galleries, theatres, libraries, and the opera. At these places, stay primed and ready, and go with your instincts if you are getting a cruising vibe from one of your fellow fine art patrons. When the handsome guy in a suit is eying you in the bathroom mirror during intermission, don’t doubt yourself. He is not studying the Mame poster behind you. He’s looking at you.
Linger until everyone has left the restroom. If he finds reason to linger with you, wiping his hands incessantly with paper towels, he’s probably interested. Bend him over in the bathroom stall or, better yet, find some austere and dramatic place you two can tuck away for some privacy.
It’s the theater, after all — guys are always fucking in the wings. You might miss the first 15 minutes of Act Two, but nothing ever happens in the first 15 minutes of Act Two.
Gay-owned businesses are not always cruising zones, but LGBT people tend to feel comfortable in them and patronize them, so you are more likely to find an guy who is down-to-fuck in, say, your local gay-owned ice cream shop than Ben & Jerry’s.
We support these businesses because we assume their workers have workplace protections and/or same-sex partner benefits, and we assume that their environments, if they cater to the public, are at least LGBT-friendly. This is why your local gay-owned café is probably a cruising zone. Maybe it is located in a gayborhood, or maybe it is the one business in your conservative town where you can be yourself. Visit often, be friends with the people who work there, and keep an eye peeled — ready and restless guys are around every corner.
I knew my barber was a keeper the first time I sat in his chair: “I want a typical gay haircut. Zero on the sides.”
“Say no more,” he said. Unlike all the straight barbers I have had in the past, my barber is a 6-foot-tall sweetheart who knows exactly what haircuts gay men are wearing these days (undercuts, fauxhawks, pompadours, high-and-tights). But what he did not know is that his shop is total cruising zone. That is, until I filled him in.
“Dude, every gay man in town gets haircuts from you,” I said one day while he was trimming my ear line, “and since I can’t move my head, I am literally forced to look at all the guys waiting. I’m practically on display.”
Many barbershops are cruising zones, especially if they have gay-heavy clientele. As we wait, we are watching men being groomed, knowing that at some point we will be up there, turned and swiveled for the guys to inspect from every angle.
Following the logic of the barbershop, any waiting room can be a cruising zone. The waiting area for the health clinic at the Los Angeles LGBT Center was a total cruise fest. You can feel the cruising vibes as soon as you walk in and sign your name — always wear something sexy when you go get blood work done.
I have never been to a gay AA or CMA (crystal meth) meeting, but I have heard from friends who attend them that these groups are notorious eye wars. The erotic vibe is heightened, they say, from the fact that you’re in a room full of gay men who already know something personal about you. This makes sense to me because I have attended a few HIV support groups, especially after I first tested positive, and the cruising vibes were strong.
In these cases, however, I am not sure “cruising” is the correct word. People come together and need each other when they are in difficult places, and sometimes sex is part of that. In my lowest moments, I have cruised for sex simply because I needed to be around someone else or forget my problems for a little bit. There is something important about this type of cruising, because while it might not be totally healthy, it is totally human.
Craigslist was launched out of San Francisco in 1995. Almost immediately, people began posting personal ads for sex services, companionship, kink, and to satisfy every fetish you can imagine, from sitting on cakes to voyeurism to some considerably darker fare (minors, cannibalism, you name it). Craigslist changed the game for men seeking men.
Sites catering exclusively to gay dating and personals came later. Gay.com launched in 1996, Manhunt in 2001, and Adam4Adam in 2005. Gay sex sites came with them — BarebackRT.com (colloquially shortened to BBRT by users) and AssPig.com are still my favorites. Gay cruising had found its home on the web, and suddenly we needed to spend more time in front of our computers.
Then the smartphone happened.
In 2009, the fabric of gay life changed again. In the future, we will look back at a massive turning in gay culture — when gay hookup apps, which locate other users through the geolocation devices in your smartphone, hit the market. Joel Simkhai launched Grindr, with its distinct orange skull/hockey mask icon, on March 25.
In 2012, Grindr had 4 million users in 192 countries across the globe, with 1.1 million users online every day. Based in the United States, the app reported usage as far away as Iraq, Israel, and Kazakhstan. Those numbers have doubtlessly increased today.
Any mention of Grindr in 2016 will inevitably result in some eye rolls. Tiresome arguments between guys who hate hookup apps and guys who love them continue to rage across gay media outlets. Some say Grindr and other apps have destroyed gay life. Others say they have simply redefined it. Regardless which side you fall on, hookup apps are here to stay.
I think the success of hookup apps was fairly foreseeable. If you give gay men an effortless way to hunt for sex on-the-go, everywhere they go, all the time, they are going to go for it. We have always have been doing this — Grindr simply made cruising easier.
I have to admit my bias here — I’m a Scruff guy. Scruff was launched in 2010, the year after Grindr hit the app store. Scruff is an app that essentially does the same Grindr does, but with different features (unlimited profile text, more in-app search tools) and, some would argue, catered to a slightly different user base. In 2015, Scruff reported 8 million users worldwide.
I like Scruff’s unlimited profile text — goodness knows I’m long-winded — along with the app’s attention to minority demographics within the gay community like leather guys and HIV-positive guys (both groups I fall into). Read my article in The Advocate about Scruff’s inclusion of PrEP in its list of safe sex practices, which were included in the launch of Scruff 5 last year.
Today, there are dozens of gay dating apps in addition to these two: Daddyhunt, GROWLr, Jack’d, Hornet, Mr. X, and many others all trying to get in on the action. Take your pick.
Leather festivals like International Mr. Leather in Chicago and the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco are automatic cruising zones. In fact, I have heard some guys say that you really can’t “cruise” at IML or Southern Decadence or CLAW because, to them, cruising involves nonverbal communication, secrecy, and discretion.
Nothing is discrete at Folsom. Last time I was at the famed leather festival in San Francisco’s South of Market district, a gentleman wearing a leather apron went up to me, lifted his apron, and pulled my head down to suck his dick — which was, of course, huge. While public sex is typically not allowed at leather events themselves, the plethora of parties happening in conjunction with them are the main sexual fare.
And that brings me to my next slide.
Real Bad. Magnitude. Papa Party. Black Party (The Saint At Large). White Party Miami (the whole week of it). White Party Palm Springs. Black & Blue in Montreal. Purple Party in Dallas. Winter Party Miami. Gay Days Orlando. The Pines Party on Fire Island. Southern Decadence. Fireball. The list goes on, and on, and on. All over the world, from Tel Aviv to Rio de Janeiro, gay circuit parties have turned modern gay life into something global and glamorous — and expensive.
Cruise culture has changed — no doubt about that. Some guys say cruising is dead, simply because it is harder to cruise for sex in public now. Train stations, parks, and public restrooms have more security personnel and fewer cruising patrons — particularly when many guys can just sit at home and hookup on Scruff.
Cruise culture is alive, but it has been monetized. Circuit parties, which are essentially massive cruising fests, are beautiful, expensive things that cater to gay men with enough disposable income to afford tickets and travel (and clothes, and drugs, and hotel rooms, and harnesses, and all the many other costs that inevitably factor in).
My impulse is to wag my finger at an industry that caters to the rich — but I also love circuit parties. Why? Because they are evidence that “free love” is back and gay men are celebrating their sex lives again. After the devastation of the AIDS epidemic and after generations of gay men seeing their lifestyles portrayed in ugly ways, the feeling of being in a warehouse filled with gay men celebrating themselves and their sex is radical and life-changing. It is a feeling I think every gay man should experience.
Photo above from the Black Party, 2015.
I saved the best for last. The proverbial “playroom,” “dark room,” or “backroom” is a lights-off, “anything goes” space typically used for sex and drugs, and were once common features of gay establishments.
If you’ve ever been in a gay dance club or leather bar and wondered what that dark hallway across from the bathrooms is used for, this is it. Backrooms are relics of an earlier time, when managers and owners generously created a space where their patrons could do what they needed to do with each other and looked the other way — or perhaps joined in. But gay bars today are now flocked with bridesmaids and visited by health inspectors and must struggle to stay afloat in a world where hookup apps have hurt their business, meaning backrooms have all but disappeared.
Backrooms are useful when you’re a little fucked up and the guy you’ve been dancing with and rubbing on the dance floor decides to take matters into his own hands. It is true that you don’t really cruise in the backroom. You cruise on the dance floor — backrooms are where the cruising takes you.
I love backrooms and see them along with public cruising as part of the same picture, one that composes a big part of our history as gay men. Regardless of your views on sex, cruising defined our world at one point. It was how we met each other, how we fell in love, and constituted the whole of our sex lives years before apps and websites would take out all the guesswork (and, for many, all the fun as well).
Be on the lookout for a cruising zone near you. One is closer than you think.
Magazine spread above from Life, June 26, 1964, photographed by Bill Eppridge.