Illustrations by Ella Strickland de Souza
In the darkness, Jake looks at me suspiciously.
"It don't get busy here much these days," he says. "I been down here maybe four, five times. Got lucky a couple of those."
Jake is 25, a clean-cut looking type with an office job in nearby Leeds. So what keeps him coming back?
"There's not enough people on Grindr around here," he says. "Just the usual alchies and pillheads and time-wasters. If you're lucky down the Lagoon you get cock a lot quicker."
We are at Kirklees Lagoon in Yorkshire. It's a local beauty spot, a river bordered by thick copses of trees. It's also a well-known cruising area where men go in search of quick anonymous sex. It hit the headlines in November of 2015 after the Brunswick Centre, a local HIV and sexual health charity, had residents up in arms by stapling condoms to trees. Families and the fishermen who use the area weren't impressed, but John McKernaghan of the Brunswick countered, telling the Mail Online, "We are just responding to what goes on there. The evidence suggests that whether or not we provide the packs, people are going to continue to use that particular location. Our priority is that people practice safe sex."
I've come to the Lagoon with a guy I'll call Derek*, a friend-of-a-friend, former cruiser and outreach worker, who has volunteered to show me around. Parking on a slip road just off the motorway we pass a hoarding for Christmas trees and a second-hand car showroom, before heading into the trees and the drizzle.
"There's not many out tonight," says Derek as we trudge through the mud. Indeed, rather than the orgy I had anticipated, in the twilight we see just a few figures pass by, their eyes staring straight ahead, searching. Discarded condom wrappers glint in the bushes like little stars.
"Poor fuckers," says Derek. "It's quite sad really, isn't it?"
There is something less than cheery about the sight of a bunch of lone men wandering around in the dark and rain. But cruising—or the act of looking for sex in public outdoor spaces like parks, woodland areas, toilets, and other public spaces—is a practice that goes back centuries.
Mark Turner, professor of 20th and 21st Century Literature at King's College London, and author of Backward Glances: Cruising the Queer Streets of New York and London, says, "Cruising has very likely been around long before it was recorded. In port towns, in public spaces of various kinds across emerging urban centers during the early modern period, there was surely cruising of a kind (one root of the definition of the word links it to sailors), and certainly by the 18th century there is plenty of evidence of cruising—allusions in poems and other writing." It's been such a feature of gay life, in fact, that when George Michael was snapped emerging from a bush in Hampstead Heath by News of the World photographers in 2006, he was quoted as saying, "Fuck off! This is my culture."
But nearly ten years later, is al fresco sex really still an intrinsic element of gay culture, or is it becoming a relic of the past, looking increasingly antiquated in a world where sex apps, instant messaging, and easy geographical movement facilitated via Google Maps is the norm? Certainly, judging by the rather poor turnout at the Lagoon tonight, that would seem to be the case. That said, according to Derek this place is still often buzzing, albeit not to the same extent as a few years ago. So what is the continuing attraction for those who still come here despite the weather and the risk of being caught by police?
"I'm sure there's a direct link between adrenalin and sexual stimulation," says Derek when we catch up over email a few days after visiting Kirklees Lagoon. "I've seen guys doing really crazy things. Walking around naked, getting tied up, wearing sexualized clothing, flashing themselves—all in pretty public places. For them it's obviously very titillating, and the danger must play a part. Some cruising areas are pitch black, so you don't even know who you're having sex with, which is fascinating and almost primeval in its anonymity and lack of concern with personal detail. Underlying this, if you regard someone as a sexual outlaw, they'll start behaving like one; impudence and rebellion is a consequence of repression and intolerance."
Derek, who cruised for several years and had found it "quite compulsive at times," has now hung up his cruising boots, finding the lifestyle incompatible with his job as an adult fine arts teacher. But he looks back on his time out in the field with fondness.
"As a young man I was really shy," he tells me. "A friend told me about cottaging and cruising. Eventually I summoned the courage to engage and quickly discovered casual sex was a great way of getting my rocks off while escaping some of my anxieties around meeting other guys. Although I was out on the gay scene, I didn't find it a very sexual arena. Cruising areas were a place where you could meet guys that just looked like everyday blokes. I liked that, and I also found the transient nature of the encounters very liberating. Although that later became a curse—repetitive empty sex can leave you feeling somewhat empty."
Cruising, however, is not an exclusively gay preserve. According to Mark and Derek there are plenty of heterosexual guys out there doing it, too—married and closeted, in denial, or straight-identifying and simply in search of some fun.
"I've never been attracted to gay stereotypes—pretty boys or narcissistic types, a lot of which populate the gay scene," says Derek. "Cruising areas were a great way of meeting everyday guys, and because there's little communication you can fill in all the unknown bits with your perfect fantasy of who they are. Yes, a lot of them were married and/or fucked up like crazy about being attracted to other men, but that didn't matter for the duration of a brief encounter."
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For some, cruising takes on an almost narcotic aspect.
"My ex—bless him—got addicted to it," Derek tells me. "Every night he'd go down to these well-known motorway service station toilets, take a couple of bottles of wine with him and sit there all night, drunk, having sex or looking for sex. He was obsessed with masculine blokes, motorway workers. He's the epitome of a tortured soul. Drowning his sorrows with booze. Endless sexual encounters pretending to be seeking that perfect and completely impossible man to fill his gaping emotional void."
Others, of course, simply like the buzz of anonymous sex. Do they find cruising easier than using apps?
"Apps are just fantasy land for so many men. Getting sex is all a bit too time delayed and stressful," says Derek. "At least when you go to a cruising ground what you see is what you get. If you decide you're not into him, just walk away—next! That's hard to do with app meets when you've been sending reams of saucy texts, promising all manner of exotic acts, then you discover they're repulsive, nothing like you imagined."
It makes sense. But at the same time, Jake and the other guys we see at the Lagoon tonight aren't even having sex—they're just wandering around, searching. Could it be that this ritual—the searching—is actually a draw in itself for some men? Ironically, for Derek there's a parallel to be drawn between the cruisers and the local fishermen they've pissed off.
"Cruising is a great way to distract yourself from reality," he says. "I compare it to going fishing. You're just waiting for the next big fish to come along. The anticipation of the next encounter is pleasurable enough to drive away the woes of real life. I'm sure anglers will describe a similar feeling."
It's 4 PM in Central London. Christmas shoppers are carrying huge Primark bags, while office staff in gaudy jumpers sink pints outside the pub on the corner of Soho's Berwick and Broadwick streets. But down the staircase into underground toilets just outside a nearby posh Chinese restaurant, there's an altogether different kind of revelry going on.
The guys down here are a mixed bag. There's a man in a smart pinstripe suit with an immaculate spearmint green tie. Another, his face smudged with oil, wears a cycling jacket and looks like he might be a courier. A third, who looks a little like Eddie Large, wears a knackered old biker jacket and a ripped T-shirt.
Each of the urinals has a man standing in front of it. Most of them appear to be cruisers pretending to pee while actually looking around for interested parties. One guy in a Fila tracksuit, 21-year-old Rich*, has his ear pressed to his iPhone 6—I'm keen to find out why he's cruising in a public toilet when he has Grindr one click away.
"I was 17 when I ran away," he tells me. Having been in and out of trouble with the law since his father left home, he'd finally snapped after a stint in a children's home near Leicester. In London, while living in a squat in Kentish Town, he got by with a bit of dealing and a bit of thieving. Then he got a girlfriend, straightened up his act, moved in with her in Acton. Now he does repairs part time. He still hangs out in the Broadwick Street cottage two, three times a week, but he's also on Grindr. So why cruise toilets?
"It started off as a money thing," he says. "You'd get high, suck someone off, get 20 quid for it. Now it's more like—it's a habit, I guess."
Does he identify as gay or straight?
"Oh, straight for sure," he says. "No question."
So a lot of people will be wondering what's with the cruising?
"It's hard to explain," he says. "I have a high sex drive, is the thing. Sometimes if I want a quick hook-up I used Grindr. But other times, if I'm in town and I've got an hour or two to kill, then I come down here. It's like you're searching and it's right there in front of you. It makes you forget everything for a while."
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Once again, cruising is portrayed as an aid for escape.
"There can be something compulsive about [cruising], or monotonous, or boring, or repetitive," says Mark Turner. "That narcotic-like effect isn't so far from the kind of experience one has on the dance floor, moving in the same way, over and over again, for hours on end, only to realize that a whole evening has passed. It's possible to get 'lost' in cruising—to step outside of routines of normal time—in the same way it is possible to get lost on the dance floor, or even just walking through the city. Like other urban practices, cruising opens up another kind of spatial, and even temporal, experience."
So when George Michael allegedly suggested that cruising was central to gay culture back in 2006, was he right? And, if so, is that still the case today?
"I don't believe there's a single monolithic thing as 'gay culture,' and I don't think gay-identified people are the only ones who cruise—not by a long shot," says Turner. "But it's true that cruising has long been a part of some gay men's daily lives. Partly out of necessity, in a pre-liberation world, partly out of a desire for non-normative, dissident forms of sexual and other encounters. Whether it's dying out or not, I'm not sure. You can still go cruising in almost any city in Euro-America, and [it's] pretty easy to figure out where.
"But it's true that apps and other social media provide other forms of making contact, and there is a danger of losing the sense of unexpected, unplanned contact one finds in cruising. Apps tend to be about excluding, blocking and confirming a person's conscious desires, whereas cruising can lead to more unplanned encounters."
Certainly, with Rich in mind, it's pretty clear that cruising is an activity that cuts across all sexual dispositions. But isn't it a bit odd that a guy who has grown up with smartphones and access to apps and the internet should be so willing to go lo-fi?
"Lots of things might compel a millennial kid to go cruising—not least a desire to explore unconventional forms of erotic encounter, beyond the state-sanctioned ones that now organize our lives," offers Turner.
Which is getting to the heart of it, really, isn't it? There's something anarchic about cruising, something primal that seems to stick two fingers up at the increasingly monolithic, "safe" heteronormative culture that is growing up around us, at the increasing conservatism of much of the gay scene, at the gentrification that is making our cities so anodyne.
"Some toilets are still packed, but many fewer than, say, 10 years ago. It used to be that central London had a rich and varied cruising scene, in which men might drift from park to park, from cottage to cottage, in a kind of choreographed cruising of the city," says Turner. "Bloomsbury Square and Russell Square were at the very centre of this scene, with linked up cottages at nearby universities. That's virtually gone. There used to be cruising in Hoxton Square back in the 90s, before it became the Hoxton we think of today. That's all gone. I could go on. Still, cruising still goes on, and one reason is that many men—straight, gay, bi, whatever—get pleasure out of dissident, non-normative, non-monogamous forms of intimate encounter. It's really not that unusual; it's just that there are fewer places where it's done."
Gentrification has ruined a lot of the fun for everyone, of course. "Yes, the loss of public space—and the increased privatization of formerly public space—is a bad thing for the gay community, but for virtually all other communities, too," says Turner. "Except those who control those spaces and tell us what we can and can't do in them."
The slow but increasing acceptance of queer cultures in wider society has surely also had an impact. "Cruising areas are definitely less frequented these days," says Derek. "Perhaps the more accepted and integrated we become, the less we feel the need to be sexually subversive and rebellious. I get the feeling that young people are much less into cruising areas and much more comfortable with app sex. I also think the easy access to pornography via the internet has really dented men's libidos, lessening the need for going out on the hunt."
But as I watch Rich walk out into the night and back down Berwick Street, I'm almost heartened that there is still a sizable minority of people out there willing to take a walk on the wild side.
"Ultimately, men love to get their rocks off," Derek says in an email. "Whether it's nature or nurture, some guys are excited by impersonal, anonymous encounters, and this lack of detail allows fantasy to fill the unknown bits. As long as there are enough superficial prompts to support a sexual fantasy, the brief encounter will be successful."
*Names have been changed.
Topics: cruising, cottaging, the Brunswick Centre, Kirklees Lagoon, UK, LGBT, Grindr, Berwick Street, Soho, dating apps, Mark Turner, Backward Glances: Cruising the Queer Streets of New York and London, Hampstead Heath, gay, LGBTQ