London throughout the 1700s was horny as hell.
Although sodomy — or anal, as it’s now better known — was illegal, the city’s streets were full of hidden gay cruising spots, where we’d wait eagerly to seek each other out for sex. Bathhouses, cinemas, parks, public toilets: when it came to clandestine boning, our queer ancestors would gladly seize the opportunities that came their way. Then, there were the molly houses. Part-brothel (depending on which histories you believe), part-gay bar, these often-raided premises were comparatively safe havens for queer people to meet, mingle and fuck to their heart’s content.
These early cruising hotspots are key parts of queer history, whether we like it or not. For too long, our stories have been sanitised for straight audiences and shamed by puritans who still argue there should be no kink at Pride. Well, fuck that. Cruising is proof of our resilience and defiance, and it’s also extremely sexy.
Here, I’m speaking from experience. The first time I got my dick sucked was in the corner of a supermarket car park. I was young, boned-up and excited by my blossoming queerness, so when I locked eyes with a guy who beckoned first to his erection and then to some nearby bushes, I knew what I wanted. That electrifying mixture of fear, adrenaline and sheer pleasure is one I’ve never forgotten, and one I’ve often chased again. I’ve been sucked off in gay bar toilets, had horny fumbles in back-alley cruising spots and sneaky hand-jobs on quiet beaches — and I’d do them all again in an instant.
Cruising Culture 101
Clearly, I’m not the only queer to have ever been railed in secret. Ben Gove’s Cruising Culture: Promiscuity, Desire and American Literatureis a sexed-up history of 20th-century America, which delights in the intimate tales of saloon back-rooms and deserted side-streets. Here, he shows cruising has always been part of queer culture.
Harlem is exemplary. The New York borough is best known for its legendary ballroom scene, as well as the iconic Harlem Renaissance of the ’20s and ’30s, which reimagined Black culture through innovative new lenses. But it’s in the after-hours of these fabled Harlem nights that things got sexy. Parties would end, and everyone would end up at so-called 'buffet flats’, which became bona fide cruising spots in their own right. Here, queer revellers would drink, gamble and try out ‘cafeteria-style’ lists of sexual pleasure, moving from body to body in search of another orgasm. Seemingly, sex was embraced by the gay artists of this Renaissance. According to Gove, famed painter Richard Bruce Nugent “delighted in shocking the prudish with his erotic drawings and his openly homosexual promiscuity”.
These raucous years of glorious debauchery alerted the law to cruising. When we clean up queer histories and erase sex, we also cover up tracks of persecution. For example, law enforcement managed for decades to successfully use the tactic of entrapment, planting plainclothes officers in known cruising spots to seduce queer people, luring them into arrests for indecency. Gay bars, often mafia-owned, were sporadically shuttered by cops specifically because guys would cruise for sex inside them. In others, gay people were barred. It wasn’t until a series of 'sip-ins' in the mid-1960s — led by early LGBT+ activist group the Mattachine Society –– that laws prohibiting bars from serving gay people were revoked.
“When we clean up queer histories and erase sex, we also cover up tracks of persecution.”
As the decades rolled by, queer activism and queer sex continued to go hand-in-hand. In the ’70s, San Francisco’s famous Castro district was declared “the most active cruising strip in the city — perhaps the country” by author Frances FitzGerald in her groundbreaking non-fiction book Cities on a Hill. The abandoned piers of Manhattan, just a stone’s throw away from the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, were hotbeds of horny activity after dark, filled with cruisers looking to get their rocks off. The backstreets of Lyon were ‘cruising beats’ shared by sex workers throughout the 1970s. This proximity forged a deep bond, which led to the city’s queer community showing solidarity with sex workers when they famously occupied a church in demand of their rights in 1975.
Everything changed in the 1980s, with the arrival of the AIDS crisis. Initially named GRID (gay-related immune deficiency), the virus threw fuel on the fire of homophobic stereotypes, which painted gay men as promiscuous vectors of disease.
The legacy of this stigma lives on today, which is precisely why we should celebrate cruising and its pivotal role in queer activist history. Of course, cruising looks different now. Hook-up apps like Grindr have been blamed by some for eliminating the thrill of old-school cruising, the rush of anonymity that comes with scoring a blow job from a stranger. There’s an argument to be made for this case, but old-school cruising does live on. I was recently in a darkened cinema at a midday screening of a queer film, alone apart from a queer couple in the second row. About halfway through the runtime, I saw the shadow of a head bobbing frantically. Then, a few tell-tale stifled groans of pleasure, followed by a turn of their heads to check if I was looking. They giggled afterwards, evidently turned on by the proximity of a queer stranger.
This random encounter with a cruising couple put a huge smile on my face, largely because queer people have had to fight harder than most to fuck freely. There’s an element of subversion that will always linger around queer sex, beautifully summarised by Richard Scott’s classic poem, even if you fuck me all vanilla like. The deliciously queer art of cruising embodies that resilience, that determination to experience the hot, hard thrill of taboo sex against all odds.