Cruising in the Age of Consent
Gay men once developed codes to ensure safety in the hunt for sex. Can they help #MeToo do the same?
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series about the gay-rights movement and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.
Hunting for answers to one of life’s great questions, the lesbian writer Rita Mae Brown pasted on a mustache in 1975 and walked into a bathhouse for gay men. “The adventure attracted me, but besides that I’ve been raised with the constantly repeated notion that women’s sexuality and men’s sexuality are absolutely different,” she wrote in her essay “Queen for a Day: A Stranger in Paradise.” The all-male zone of Manhattan’s The Club would, she hoped, teach her how male and female sexuality diverged.
A robe hiding her female form, she marveled at the sex being had around every corner, from a dimly lit “maze” of semi-blind groping to an “unbelievable orgy room” of group activities to a corridor of cubicles in which men lay waiting for partners. Quickly, she began to form theories. “Men look at each other differently than men look at women,” she observed. “The leer is gone, the thinly disguised hostility of the street vanishes … The transaction boils down to: curiosity, no connection, disconnection.”
The way people touched felt foreign, too. As a stranger reached for her groin, Brown’s “first response was to turn around and smash the offender’s face in.” Later, to one man who hugged her from behind, she whispered, “Thank you but I’ve been here for an hour and I’m tired.” The man left her alone. “The easiness of refusal is incredible,” she wrote. “If you say ‘no’ it means ‘no,’ that’s all, and that simple ‘no’ also protects fragile egos. Sex isn’t a weapon here, it’s a release.”
Read during today’s #MeToo wave, Brown’s vision of a “paradise” packed with men groping unabashedly yet respectfully may sound like a hallucination. But many gay men might not find the scene so strange. Yes, assimilation and smartphones—and, before them, legal crackdowns amid the AIDS crisis—have thinned the ranks of spots like The Club. Even so, 50 years after a police raid on the Stonewall Inn catalyzed the mainstream LGBTQ movement, gay people still maintain spheres of separation from the wider world: nightclubs, vacation spots, and dating apps where like can meet like. In those places, folks who otherwise might edit themselves for the straight world find the miraculous-seeming freedom to directly pursue their desires. This pursuit can take forms as mild as dinner and a movie. It can also involve a crossing of physical boundaries that bears an undeniable resemblance to the surprise kisses and below-belt grabs called out in the recent reckoning with sexual harassment.
In Provincetown, Massachusetts, where I’ve spent portions of the past few summers, I’ve found it impossible to avoid comparisons. Long a queer haven, the Cape Cod artist colony grew into an internationally renowned LGBTQ party spot during the same era when Brown made her New York–bathhouse visit. Now day-trippers of all sorts (heterosexuals, too) pop in, and the particular flavor of queer varies from week to week: lesbians for Memorial Day and the “Girl Splash” event, ab-flaunting men around Independence Day, scruffier types for July’s “Bear Week.” What’s constant is that an otherwise ironclad rule of life gets flipped to glorious effect. Instead of figuring that everyone is straight, you can figure that everyone isn’t.
I’ll never forget my first run to the Provincetown Stop & Shop, during Bear Week. The store was as overlit and Clorox-scented as any suburban supermarket, but the near-total absence of women pushing carts lent an almost science-fictional vibe. Shoppers scanned not only the wares on the shelves, but one another, in a way that recalled Larry Kramer’s description of “cruising” in his 1978 satirical novel, Faggots: “You give it a little look, pretending not to look, but being able to see, out of the corner of your eye only, if anyone else is pretending not to look back at you. If you see someone else pretending not to look, you look the other way. Only after a few moments do you look back, to see if he’s still looking.”
On offer in Provincetown are all the summer adventures typical of a quaint seaside destination: dining, sailing, pool lounging, beach-going. There is also easy sex for those who want it. Bars nestle close enough to houses and hotels that it’s common to meet someone, take him home, and then go out again. Certain establishments feature certain corners where men huddle and unzip. Other spots, though smaller than the bathhouse of Brown’s essay, function a lot like The Club, right down to her description of the orgy room: “The silence amazed me. Seventy-five to one hundred men packed [in] … and not one word was spoken.”
Sex spaces such as these call back to when queer life had to be furtive, for fear of danger, but also when, almost paradoxically, gay men found safety and eroticism by surrendering privacy together. Cruising in gay America now mostly happens online, but some patterns of behavior haven’t died. Whether in a hushed hookup spot or against the blare of a nightclub, encounters can begin with a nod or an eye-flick. Some begin with a touch. To dance on a summer night at Provincetown’s Atlantic House, one of the country’s oldest gay bars, is to feel the loss of bodily autonomy that comes in any crowd supercharged by the wide presumption of flirting. No one’s lower back, at the very minimum, goes ungrazed by strangers.
I haven’t experienced anything traumatic amid the casual manhandling. Still, uneasy situations do arise. You might hear someone at Tea Dance—a jam-packed seaside cocktail hour—dissect the previous night with a joke about how what happened was dicier than anything Aziz Ansari was accused of. You might see a couple fend off an uninvited set of limbs inserting themselves into a leather-party make-out session. Last summer, a man wearing a kilt and nothing under it paid a social visit to the house I was staying in and, without warning, lifted his hem and straddled a housemate who’d been reading on the front lawn. The guy’s behavior was gross, we agreed. It was also laughed off as “gays being gays,” as my somewhat rattled friend put it after he pushed his way out from under the kilt.
Gays being gays sounds a lot like the boys will be boys excuse-making that the #MeToo movement has discredited. But it also recalls Brown’s conclusions about the bathhouse. There, she wrote, “you get groped, but it’s gentle compared to the kind of grabbing a woman gets on a subway.” She understood gay male spaces as different—not just because of the force of the grabs, but also because of their context. In the straight world, despite the “sexual revolution” (she put it in quotation marks), men were “geared to pursue you,” and refusals were fraught. For women, sex remained “a bargaining tool”—something too socially significant to be casual, and something that could be taken, possibly by violence. At The Club, by contrast, everybody really was after the same thing: sex for the sake of sex. Brute coercion didn’t appear to be an issue. She walked away wishing that she had her own bathhouse to go to—that such free pleasure might be possible for women, too. And yet something still nagged at her. “Is this fuck palace the ultimate conclusion of sexist logic,” she wondered, “or is it erotic freedom?”
Today, a related question looms for gay men. The handsiness that can arise between guys has been condemned as a sign of male entitlement and predatory sexuality. It has also been celebrated as the liberated practice of a minority that fought hard for the right to its desires and for places to express them. In truth, gay male spaces—physical, digital, cultural—reflect a long and imperfect process of managing what happens when masculinity, homosexuality, and an often hostile wider society intersect. They deserve scrutiny both on their own terms and for what they reveal about the problems that gave rise to #MeToo.
Even as the queer movement has popularized an ever more fluid understanding of gender, #MeToo has highlighted a stubborn reality: Men violate boundaries in ways that women rarely do. A 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that even among lesbians who had experienced sexual violence other than rape, 85 percent of them reported that their attackers had exclusively been male. That’s not to say women don’t ever abuse. Nor is it to suggest that patterns of sexual misconduct neatly fit a binary conception of gender (bisexual and trans people face some of the highest rates of sexual assault). And lots of men, of course, don’t harass. But the male gender is the one that is most urgently being called to account lately—and a room full of gay men is a room full of men.
Sure enough, gay men joined the reckoning almost as soon as #MeToo went supernova, in late 2017. Just weeks after the fall of Harvey Weinstein, the actor Anthony Rapp alleged publicly that Kevin Spacey had tried to “get with me sexually” when Rapp was 14 and Spacey was in his 20s. More than a dozen men, some professionally subordinate to Spacey, came forward with their own accounts of sexual harassment and assault; many of them said Spacey grabbed their crotch without warning. (Spacey tweeted that he did not remember the encounter with Rapp but apologized for “what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.” Spacey’s representatives have since denied at least two of the men’s allegations, and Spacey is currently fighting two lawsuits arising from other accusations.) As the list of alleged same-sex predators began to grow, the film director Bryan Singer and the Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine appeared among the names. (Both men deny any wrongdoing.)
These stories fit a familiar pattern of powerful guys taking monstrous advantage of their status. What, if anything, such accusations reveal about queer men hasn’t prompted much discussion beyond suggestions that the closet (whether the victim or the aggressor or both are in it) makes reporting crimes harder. Yet as alarm has intensified about drunken, horny subcultures of straight folks—nightclubs, frat parties, music festivals where women report rampant abuses—some gay men have begun to wonder whether their own confabs are consent catastrophes. Broaching that idea in public risks reviving old images of gay promiscuity and predation at just the moment when such stereotypes are losing their bite, thanks to the growing visibility of the queer experience in all its variety. But now that harassment of every sort is on trial, the issue seems unavoidable.
“How does Harvey Weinstein happen? Visit a gay bar with me,” the journalist Marc Ambinder wrote in a 2017 USA Today column about the way queer guys grind and grope on the dance floor. In a 2018 piece in the LGBTQ magazine Wussy, the writer Alex Franco recounted his memory of an app-facilitated hookup that turned menacing when the other man tried to prevent Franco from leaving. Gay men, he wrote, “can either start the work now, making clear-communicated consent a foundation of our interactions, or we can wait for a scandal to ignite.”
That unwanted advances frequently harm gay men is already clear. According to a CDC survey based on self-reports, the share of gay men who have experienced sexual violence other than rape is almost as great as the share of straight and lesbian women who have. Though gender difference is out of the picture, the worst cases of same-sex abuse still tend to involve power inequalities: disparities of wealth, age, clout, physical size, and intoxication levels. Race can figure in too, as when a black man at a predominantly white bar risks being taken for the threat rather than the victim if he resists harassers. Gay men often don’t report attacks to authorities out of fear of being outed, mistreated by homophobic cops, and subjected to stigmas that cast male victims as weak.
Among competing explanations for the particular maleness of predation, one theory rests heavily on biology, and the gay cruising mentality can serve as a prop for that case. “Remove women, and you see male sexuality unleashed more fully, as men would naturally express it, if they could get away with it,” the columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote in an online piece for New York magazine titled “#MeToo and the Taboo Topic of Nature.” “It’s full of handsiness and groping and objectification and lust and aggression and passion and the ruthless pursuit of yet another conquest.” This testosterone-focused view—which paints the #MeToo movement as hopelessly naive about gender—comes close to excusing male lechery as inevitable. It also implies a depressing perspective on homosexuality. Those guys who were called sissies throughout their youth? They grow up to embody the very aspects of masculinity now widely seen as destructive.
An alternative analysis of predatory male sexuality comes to the same sad conclusion by pointing to nurture—the way men are raised in a sexist society—rather than nature. Here, too, gay men can be deployed as an object lesson. In a 2017 essay for the queer web publication them, the activist and writer Darnell L. Moore fretted that even his quietest ogling of attractive men was, fundamentally, rooted in rape culture. “I was taught that people are bodies, are things, are objects, are ours to own and consume,” he wrote. “The ardent faith in the superiority of maleness, manhood, and masculinity (even among men who rightly deviate from those ideas) is the reason so many men believe the exterior and interior parts of another person’s being are ours to access and dominate.” Plenty of gay scenes are indeed steeped in machismo: Just check out self-proclaimed “Masc4Masc” Grindr users who sneer at lisps and loose wrists. But the queer art of cruising the street—born of lonely, thwarted yearning for touch—has always relied on a silent, probing gaze. In Moore’s telling, that gaze is inseparable from the piggish entitlement of catcallers and casting-couch creeps. By this logic, it’s not behavior that most urgently needs reforming, but desire itself.
Any portrayal of gay men as a lab-pure reduction of maleness—whether inborn or socially constructed—is too simple. Maybe many queer men do believe that male valor is proved by conquest. Or maybe they’ve transcended traditionally blinkered social messaging about sex and moral virtue. Maybe they’re living out some evolutionary drive. Maybe they’re propelled by all of the above, to different degrees, depending on who they are. In any case, sexism does not bear down on them in the same way that it does on women. Gay men’s classic sources of trauma and violence stem less from being hit on than from being literally hit by homophobes. Safety hasn’t typically meant freedom from carnal pursuit; safety has meant the possibility of it.
Which is to say that gay men have long needed to balance the free, equal, and even crass seeking of sex against the possibility of its abuse. If the #MeToo movement has asked men to rethink their desires with an eye toward the danger those desires can entail, that’s not a new challenge in queer history. Nor, however, is the worry that the wider world’s moralizing could destroy the refuges that have been built. “It’s inevitable that during this cultural shift, gay men should question their leniency regarding the grope,” the writer and dancer Rennie McDougall observed in Slate. “But the sanitization of gay spaces—a total cleaning up of our sometimes messy brushes with desire—would be a profound loss.” Many fear that treating gay people’s #MeToo issues as identical to straight people’s will end up equating safety with, to use McDougall’s term, the “sex-phobic propriety” that gays have battled against.
That battle over the past half century has led to a radical cultural achievement. Walk around Provincetown at the height of summer and you’ll see gaggles of drunk young bros, throuples in padlocked chain collars, and also actual daddies doting on their actual children. You’ll see singlets and jackboots and tutus and wigs. You’ll hear casually misogynistic comments alongside exceptionally woke ones, sometimes sparking loud arguments about sexism. (Do straight guys do this?) On display is the wide range of gay male life—the variety of ways in which a group of people move past being told that they’re not men, that they must hide, that their desires are perverse. In the process, gay men have helped make room in the broader culture for different kinds of manliness. Situationally sensitive rules of the road have developed—evidence, perhaps heartening for #MeToo, that men can be made to moderate themselves.
In 1975, Martin S. Weinberg and Colin J. Williams of Alfred Kinsey’s Institute for Sex Research visited gay bathhouses across the U.S. and made observations very similar to Brown’s about the nonverbal cues that men used to negotiate liaisons. “Sexual invitations follow an etiquette involving simple and nonabrasive rituals … that are characterized by their gentleness,” they wrote. “Usually they are not forceful or persistent.” Such codes of conduct were often “an import from the wider homosexual culture,” which is to say that how people cruised appeared to be learned behavior. The generally nonjudgmental Kinsey researchers compared getting a lay at the baths to browsing at a shopping center, but more than two decades later, in a 1999 essay about bathhouse design and etiquette, the artist Ira Tattelman wrote that Weinberg and Williams had overstated the “impersonal” aspect of cruising. “By the late 1970s, men were lining up to get into the baths and arriving at the baths in couples,” attesting to a new “intersection of private lives and public personas” for gay men, he wrote. Sex could be social.
Even the most secretive kind of hookups have relied on community. “One man I interviewed was only half joking when he argued that the Rambles in Central Park was the safest place in New York City at night,” the sociologist John Hollister reported in a 1999 article on men who have sex with men in public. “Some met regularly with the same people and sat at picnic tables watching who was following whom, and occasionally intervening if someone was threatened by a predator.” In his 1998 essay collection, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, the novelist Samuel R. Delany described his decades-long habit of having sex with men in the seats of New York City’s now-shuttered pornographic cinemas as not just titillating but downright edifying. Strangers across social strata made connections as they got off together and kept watch for troublemakers—predators, narcs, thieves. Delany once brought along a female friend curious to gawk (a reprise of Brown). “I thought it would be more frenetic—people just grabbing each other and throwing them down in the shadows and having their way,” she told him afterward. “But it was so easygoing. And you didn’t tell me … that so many people say ‘no.’ And that everybody pretty much goes along with it.”
The Eros 1 theater feels a long way away from 21st-century gentrified gay bars, where a vodka-soda can cost $10 and a too-sloppy make-out session can result in expulsion. For queer folks to find one another may once have involved groping in the dark, but now all the courtship rituals that straights partake in—from meet-the-parents holiday dinners to elaborate wedding preparations—are available. At the same time, explicit adventuring clearly retains its appeal. As before, what may look like free-for-alls can actually be governed by a sort of forbearance. A friend of mine noticed last summer that during the sweatier shirtless gatherings of Provincetown’s Bear Week, the grope had been replaced by a chummier form of contact. “Someone would lightly rub your tummy and look at you as a way of gauging if you were interested in anything,” he observed. “You could just touch their hand lightly and respond ‘No thank you’ without any ill will.” He’d been annoyed by unwanted touching at parties in the past, but found this variant—rooted in a specific place and set of people—charming.
Meanwhile, the anonymous cruise has gotten an update with apps such as Grindr and Scruff, where the hunt for sex is assumed and where conversations sometimes kick off with the sending of an explicit picture (a male tendency notoriously irritating to women on Tinder). Faces can be obscured, and the exchange of names an afterthought. Though abuses do occur, conduct on these platforms is ritualized for safety and mutual understanding. Many profiles include HIV status, and asking when someone was last tested for STDs is pro forma. Banter also inevitably involves the question “What are you into?,” which invites discussion of who tops and who bottoms, whether both parties just want to cuddle, and so on.
What are you into? could be thought of as the unfussy, even hot, prelude to something often derided as a feminist pipe dream: affirmative consent. The popular sex columnist Dan Savage, who’s gay, frequently advises straight people to import this norm. It starts a conversation about expectations, can be a form of dirty-talk foreplay, and recognizes that a hookup doesn’t necessarily mean penetration. “If a man is getting with a woman, the conversation about consent usually ends with ‘Let’s go to bed,’ ” Savage told me. “Because what’s next is assumed. It’s vaginal intercourse.” But with gay men, “half the time, when somebody says ‘What are you into?,’ they just want to do oral, or mutually masturbate, or some fantasy thing.” Widen the conversation to a range of possibilities, he suggests, and a less fraught sexual paradigm—less all-or-nothing, conquest-or-defeat—emerges.
It was just this kind of openness about naming and pursuing one’s most visceral desires that Brown coveted as she left The Club in 1975. “Despite changing attitudes toward sex, we can’t create our version of the baths because, for most of us, sex for the sake of sex is still wrong—whether you are a heterosexual woman or a lesbian,” she wrote. “We scramble to invest sex with love and we call men dogs because they’ve been taught to separate the two.” Much has changed for women since then, of course, including anti–“slut shaming” campaigns to cheer on the female pursuit of casual sex. Bathhouses catering to women of all sexualities, though rare, have cropped up to offer experiences that, by reputation, seem aligned with Brown’s dream: “Our Xanadu would be less competitive than the gay men’s baths, more laughter would ring in the sauna, and you’d touch not only to fuck but just to touch.”
Yet being allowed to “distinguish between sex and love and her needs for both,” as Brown put it back when that freedom felt out of reach for a woman, has not stopped the kind of abuses that have inflamed #MeToo. Take the case of Brooklyn’s much-publicized House of Yes, a female-founded “temple of expression,” where sexually charged events like the “Pants Off Dance Off” take place. Since its 2015 opening, the venue has heard complaints about the same male groping of women that has long plagued nightlife. Now the dance floor is patrolled by “consenticorns”—trained volunteers wearing light-up horns, part of a consent program that includes cautionary signage and waivers—who watch to make sure that everyone parties respectfully, and are ready to intervene if necessary. “People think of this as an ‘anything-goes’ kind of club,” one of its co-founders, Anya Sapozhnikova, told Vice. “But by ‘anything goes,’ we mean extreme self-expression, rather than extreme sexual harassment. There is a difference.”
Consenticorns might seem like a parody of safe-space coddling. But to judge by the continued sold-out crowds at House of Yes, and by the hot-and-heavy atmosphere of the disco extravaganza I dropped into recently, the initiative hasn’t tamped down the fun. Indeed, in spirit if not in specifics, the consenticorn agenda resembles the sort of policing to protect pleasure that queer subcultures have long experimented with. Bringing casual sex into the open—for the gay world, yes, but also the straight one—was a first step. If participants, and especially men, turn out to need some taming, the goal is not to chasten them but to enable more fun.
For gay guys, the choreography of cruising—the nod of encouragement, the welcomed touch, the ascertaining of who wants what—will keep evolving as people become freer to talk about the ways in which it can go wrong. Recently, the friend who told me about the Bear Week belly rubs showed me an emailed invitation to a private all-male sex party in a major city. It warned that “NO MEANS NO,” but also got specific with a rule “not to pile onto another couple or group” without the participants clearly expressing interest—the opposite of the impromptu grab-and-parry paradigm Brown described in the orgy room of 1975. Yet laden with pictures of muscled bodies and information about the sex supplies on offer, the invitation could hardly be called prudish, unliberated, or panicky. Why would it be? The excitement of any queer enclave relies not on risk but on shared security, the core of a Xanadu that many might welcome—and that is still under construction.