JUNE 12, 2019
ALEX ESPINOZA’S NEW BOOK about cruising — the venerable practice of men picking each other up in public spaces for sex — is part history, part memoir, and part political and social commentary. It takes the reader from ancient Rome, where “men searched for sailors in the vicinity of districts close to the Tiber,” to modern-day Uganda, where discreet cruising persists despite a law that punishes gay sex with life imprisonment. Along the way, Espinoza writes of his own history of cruising. That includes his sexual initiation when, as a confused 15-year-old working-class Latino boy, he was picked up by an older man. According to Espinoza, that encounter
broke a seal inside of me, released a flood of emotions and hormones and urges which, until that moment, had remained just below the surface. […] I had crossed a threshold and before me was a world of secret exchanges, of fleeting acts of intimacy occurring in public places. It was a world where I was noticed, where I could perform, where I was needed.
Espinoza’s overwhelming affirmative first experience of cruising sets the tone of the book.
For Espinoza, cruising has profound social and political implications. “Cruising has provided a safe outlet for sexual exploration,” he writes. “It is devoid of the power dynamics that plague heterosexual interactions and exists outside of traditional hierarchies. True cruising allows people to set the terms of their own desire and both leave satisfied. It is founded on equality.”
These are bold claims, but he makes a reasonable argument for them. In a patriarchal culture, male privilege is upheld by an institutionalized misogyny that rigidly enforces gender roles in which men must always be the sexually active partner (a point Espinoza illustrates in his discussion of ancient Greek and Roman homosexuality). The act of men having sex with each other as equal partners, especially mutual penetrative sex, represents a sexual fluidity that undermines those rigid gender roles and, by implication, male privilege itself. Moreover, because cruising sex is undertaken purely for pleasure and, as the phrase goes, with “no strings attached,” it also implicitly rejects “natural law” notions that conflate sex with procreative or family-building purpose; cruising isn’t functional — it’s Dionysian. Espinoza’s further argument that cruising is “founded on equality,” refers apparently to who can play rather than who gets chosen. Cruising is equal in the sense that the man tapping his foot invitingly in the toilet stall next to you might be a day laborer or a United States senator. Doubtless, even Espinoza would agree that the same problematic hierarchies of attractiveness that prevail on cruising apps like Grindr operate in park bushes and shopping mall bathrooms. Finally, as his own experience shows, cruising can be initiatory, particularly for gay men who have no other outlet to explore their sexuality.
For these reasons, civil authorities have persistently and unsuccessfully tried to eliminate cruising grounds for centuries. In Renaissance Florence, the Office of the Night, was created “to curb, through criminalization, the act of sodomy in Florence,” and “offered informants a reward and protection from retaliation.” Gay men in 18th-century Paris were pursued by “pederasty patrols” and “undercover police known as mouches (or ‘flies.’)” The Society for the Reformation of Manners performed the same function in contemporary London. As Espinoza notes, these efforts ultimately backfired. “Gay men who may have thought they were abnormal in their sexual preferences were made aware through official government ordinances that other men existed, who not only shared the same forbidden desires, but were acting upon them as well.”
One of the most interesting discussions in the book asks whether the contemporary hook-up culture promoted by apps like Grindr and Scruff is an extension of cruising or an entirely different practice. Espinoza comes down of the side of the former. “Though the excitement of a potential sexual exchange is tempered somewhat through the use of apps and websites, there is nonetheless a pleasant efficiency that comes with the use of these new tools that past generations have not had,” he explains. “But that doesn’t change the fact that it remains essentially cruising.” Along with this “pleasant efficiency,” however, comes the kind of racism that masquerades as “preferences,” a controversy Espinoza notes but does not discuss at length. Indeed, there are many thorny questions raised by the culture of cruising that Cruising side-steps or simply does not ask.
Cruising is a relatively brief book and clearly meant to be celebratory. As such, it is hardly the last word on the subject. If it was simply a memoir, based on Espinoza’s positive experience of cruising, it could be taken at face value. But cruising as the practice of men having sex in public spaces raises some tough questions and, because the book calls itself a history, however brief, a reader might legitimately ask why they were not addressed as part of that history.
One such issue is the very basic question of whether society has a legitimate interest in banning sex in public. In the exercise of its broad, so-called “police powers,” government may regulate any number of legal activities to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. For example, it’s not a crime to get drunk, but California’s Penal Code section 647, subdivision (f) makes it a misdemeanor to be drunk in public. Cigarette smoking in public places is likewise heavily regulated, notwithstanding that smoking per se is not a crime. It could be argued, of course, that smoking restrictions are justified because of health concerns about the effects of secondhand smoke. But restrictions on public drinking have no such public health basis; they seem more in the nature of protecting bystanders from nuisance.
Banning sexual activity in public spaces would also seem to fall into this category of preventing nuisance. But is nuisance prevention a sufficient and reasonable justification for criminalizing sex in public? Is the presence of men having sex in the bushes a few feet from a hiking trail in a public park so disturbing to public order that they should be liable to arrest and prosecution? Is the man quietly masturbating in a toilet stall in a park bathroom in hopes of attracting a partner so offensive to public decency that he should go to jail? Exploring and answering those questions would seem fundamental to a history of cruising.
There are also challenging questions specific to the LGBTQ community. For example, should the community be expending its political capital to defend the practice? This is not an easy question to answer. From its very inception as a mass movement, a foundational right claimed by queer activists was the freedom of sexual expression. It could hardly have been otherwise. In the early 1970s, when the Gay Liberation movement, as it was then known, first emerged, every state but Illinois had a sodomy law that criminalized sex between people of the same gender. The criminalization of their sexual practices was the legal edifice on which all forms of discrimination against the gay and lesbian community was based. Inevitably then, decriminalization of sex between people of the same gender was a basic plank in the platform of gay rights. Thus, from its earliest days, the LGBTQ rights movement has included some form of advocacy for the right to freedom of sexual expression.
In the more recent years, some LGBTQ activists have downplayed this central principle of the queer movement, fearing undue emphasis might alienate potential straight allies. That’s a mistake. It feeds into the belief held by some straights that demonstrations of same-sex affection as innocent as hand holding or kissing are “icky” or unnatural and should be confined to private spaces. This, in turn, fuels verbal and even physical violence against queer people who refuse to keep their hands to themselves in public. Clearly, the LGBTQ community should defend the right of its members to publicly display the ordinary physical expressions of love that heterosexuals take for granted. But, where to draw the line? Does this right to PDA include the right to have sex in parks and public toilets? Is that a hill the queer community is or should be willing to die on?
Espinoza quotes, with apparent approval, novelist Edmund White’s distinction between queer “radicals” who, White writes, are “urban and fearless and proud and promiscuous” versus the “‘dull normals,’ […] more obsessed with emulating their straight counterparts than resisting the dominant culture’s infringement on our way of life.” The implication seems to be fucking a guy in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park is a revolutionary act but marrying him is a reactionary one. But given the history of the LGBTQ community, this assertion could not be more misguided.
As Espinoza’s book documents, men have been finding each other for sex for millennia. What gay men have been historically denied is not sex but the right to form culturally recognized and legally protected relationships with each other if they choose to. It’s not fair or accurate to imply that LGBTQ people who would rather marry than have sex in a toilet are self-oppressing squares. Not only is White’s distinction smug and condescending, it begs, rather than answers, the question of what position the community should take on public sex.
A related question: Should the LGBTQ community be defending men who engage in public sex but deny that they’re gay? There are undoubtedly openly gay men who like to cruise for all the reasons that Espinoza lays out in his book. It is likely, however, an equally large number consists of closeted or straight-identifying men unwilling or afraid to seek out partners for sex in identifiably gay spaces. Such men may not only not support the LGBTQ community’s political and legal goals but may, like ex-Senator Larry Craig (he of the “open stance”), vigorously and actively oppose them. The very existence of the LGBTQ community and its successes are based on the willingness of its members to come out of the closet and forcefully advocate for their rights. Are closeted, self-loathing men like Larry Craig — men who troll airport bathrooms for a quick blow job while opposing the rights of the very men they’re soliciting — the kind of people the LGBTQ community wants to defend? Again, this is a problem that complicates a simply positive and bucolic view of cruising.
As a memoir, Cruising is touching, resonant, and deeply felt. As a history of cruising it is, if not definitive, a provocative starting point. Whatever its omissions, Espinoza’s book invites us to think about the right to freedom of sexual expression and where it fits in within the larger aims of the LGBTQ community. That’s certainly a discussion worth having.