Cruising: A History
Cruising is the act of searching for a partner for public sex, engaged in by some gay, bisexual, and men who have sex with men.
Cruising is something men have been taking part in globally for many, many years. Just spend some time on Queering the Map (a community-generated archive of LGBTQ+ spaces) to see for yourself! Locations for and the act of cruising and gay friendly spaces have changed names over time, being called molly houses, tearooms, and of course, cottaging.
Before digital cruising and apps - when homosexuality was still illegal - men often had no alternative to the “neutral” space of public toilets for their sexual encounters. There were attempts to document cruising locations in zines and catalogues, most notably in the Bob Damron’s Address Book, first published in 1964. A bit like a gay Yellow Pages, the Address Book detailed gay-friendly spots in the United States where men could meet and hook up - albeit with the danger of encountering undercover police. A key code for each location was included, with terms such as D (Dancing), PE (Pretty Elegant), BA (Bare Ass), RT (Raunchy Types).
In the 1970s, the Address Book added a section for ‘cruisy areas’ that were to be ‘visited strictly at your own risk.’ It also provided a detailed explanation of the ‘Hankie Code,’ a handkerchief system designed to indicate which sexual acts you preferred.
The 1980s AIDS epidemic significantly impacted the practice of cruising. Many men had enjoyed a new sexual freedom in the wake of the gay civil rights movement, which gained momentum after the 1969 Stonewall Riots, and were exploring sex without fear of unwanted pregnancy or life-threatening STIs. As the epidemic spread however, sex in bathhouses and cruising spots declined, and some men chose to limit, or completely abstain from, anonymous hook-ups. Others continued but took greater precautions as saunas and bathhouses began to provide free condoms, as well as opportunities to arrange testing, or to talk to a counsellor.
The 1998 arrest of George Michael for sex in a Beverley Hills’ public toilet brought the act of cruising into the public eye. After being forced to come out publicly, Michael released the hit song ‘Outside’ about the incident, referencing elements of cruising.
The early 2000s saw a new age of digital cruising with the advent of websites like gay.com and Gaydar.com. There’s some debate about whether current hook-up apps and websites – like Grindr, Scruff, and Squirt – involve traditional cruising as meeting is not spontaneous. There are some comparisons to earlier forms of cruising though – men continue to meet for anonymous sex, and there are similarities between the codes and abbreviations used in the Address Book and the comments left on Squirt.org or a Grindr profile. At the core, new apps and websites continue to be used for the sharing of information about intimate spaces.
The advent of PrEP - a medication that significantly reduces the likelihood of becoming HIV positive from sex - has further enhanced the sexual liberation of gay, bisexual, and men who have sex with men. A 2017 report from AidsMap found that PrEP has allowed men to experience their sexuality in new ways – like the sexual freedom experienced in the 1970s. It has given the option of low risk condomless sex to men who find it difficult to use condoms consistently, or prefer bareback fucking. Importantly, PrEP does not protect against other STIs, so using condoms and getting tested regularly are critical for preventing STIs.
Since its inception, cruising has come a long way but it will undoubtedly remain a mainstay of gay and bisexual culture as a thrilling way to anonymously hook-up.
Have you been curious about cruising, or want tips on staying safe while cruising? Here are some resources from our SX project for you to check out:
- ‘Cruising: an intimate history of a radical pastime’ by Alex Espinoza (2019)
- ACT UP Oral History Project
- QUEERING THE MAP