The Triumphant Return of Dark Rooms and Cruising

Cruising never went anywhere, but it’s everywhere in queer nightlife now—and often more inclusive than ever before.
illustration of gay club QPO
Illustration: James Falciano

A few years ago, I frequented a gay cinema in the East Village called the Bijou. It was hidden behind an unmarked black door debased by graffiti, easy to miss unless you were looking. After 8PM, a Puerto Rican drug dealer who claimed to have the best coke Downtown loitered out front. You had to pass him and ring a doorbell to be buzzed in. 

Inside were hideous orange walls and a stairway that descended into a small movie theater where they mostly played 2000s rom-coms and animated films. Once, I watched half of Ice Age 2 there, but it was impossible to focus over the sounds of moaning men, most of them older and white, who gave each other hand jobs in the seats. Behind the seating area were about half a dozen stalls that smelled of unwashed balls where people went in to fuck. If you cruised through the dark hallway slowly enough, someone would graze your crotch and invite you in with a nod. Recently, I felt nostalgic for the Bijou and tried to go back, only to find out it had closed permanently in 2019.


The Bijou was an emblem of a pre-pandemic New York when cruising was confined to cum-filled basements and obscure sex parties you had to learn via word of mouth. But in the year and a half since the most stringent quarantine restrictions were lifted, we’re no longer trying to hide our horniness. Sure, queer people have Grindr and Tinder and marriage equality, too, but for some, nothing beats the primal sensation of feeling up a total stranger’s hard dick, surrounded by other total strangers’ hard dicks. 

Dark rooms are illegal in New York so nothing can be advertised as such, but rooms conducive to sex are still everywhere in today’s mainstream queer nightlife. The Q, a glossy, multi-level gay club in Midtown Manhattan that opened in the summer of 2021, has a boldly publicized cruising night on Thursdays in its so-called “Lockerrooms,” where people enter a dimly lit maze with the sole intention of fucking. Hush, another popular Hells’ Kitchen club that opened last year, has a “cruising-friendly” area on its top floor. Pop-up parties in Brooklyn like Dick Appointment sell raunchiness, while Whorechata, the party I run, recently incorporated the “Coochie Chamber,” an area for intimate moments that has become a signature of our parties. 


In the year and a half since the most stringent quarantine restrictions were lifted, we’re no longer trying to hide our horniness.

There is plenty of historical precedent that allows us to see why this moment in time might be particularly ripe for the return of cruising. In When Brooklyn Was Queer, historian Hugh Ryan explains that cruising and gay spaces came about in the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s waterfront in the early 20th century in part because different people with a lot of different desires and ideas about sex were suddenly living or working very close to each other. There was no such thing as a “gay community” then, but by gathering and fucking in underground spaces, they eventually created one. Cruising was an essential way for people to form a sense of self around what they liked to do behind closed doors.

A hundred years later, Ryan told VICE, “What it means to be ‘queer’ is going through a revolution again, particularly for Gen Z, so it makes sense cruising would have a new relevance. Because words [such as ‘gay’] don’t feel right anymore, or they feel limiting.” In an era where one in six Gen Z-ers identify as LGBTQ, and many more people seem keen on exploring their sexual desires and gender identities, dark rooms and cruising offer the space to explore what we are attracted to or what we could potentially be attracted to.


And we do owe a big part of the triumphant return of cruising to the pandemic. Alex Espinoza, who wrote Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime, sees parallels between what happened during the height of COVID and what occurred during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, both instances in which intimacy could cost us our lives and ultimately made us more freaky. “I think because of COVID you started to see a lot of men playing with the idea of wearing masks, the kink around the gloves and covering your face or your eyes,” Espinoza told VICE. “I think the more you try to eliminate something, the more you mark it as taboo, the more people are going to seek it out.” 

“The more you try to eliminate something, the more you mark it as taboo, the more people are going to seek it out.” —Alex Espinoza

At a time when human contact was meant to be confined to the Internet and Zoom, the only place to find anonymous sex was by going underground, through illicit parties, apartment orgies, or, if men were heeding the advice of the Canadian CDC, sucking anonymous dick through a wall. But by the time New York City reopened, several prominent gay nightlife venues, like the popular nightclub Therapy, had already closed for good. Suddenly, major gaps in nightlife needed to be filled.


Branden Suarez started NSFW, a sex and BDSM-themed party that’s “QPOC cruising-positive,” in July 2021. He said that before the pandemic, he was mostly behind the scenes bartending or hosting, but that post-quarantine New York and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement empowered people of color to start their own queer events. “Everyone was hungry to party. It was almost like New York City was starting from a clean slate,” Suarez told VICE. “During the pandemic, people were just so repressed when it came to our sexuality, and then with the monkeypox outbreak targeting us I was like, Let us be sexy. Let us be horny.” He points out that the return of cruising and dark rooms isn’t just confined to nightlife—it’s all over pop culture, including the latest season of American Horror Story, titled “NYC,” which is about a serial killer who targets gay men at sex parties. Or there’s Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ recent music video for “Unholy,” which features a presumably straight man sneaking into a very cruisy Alice in Wonderland-esque queer sex club called the Body Shop.

New York’s new parties also feel notably more welcoming to queer and trans people of color than the parties of even just five years ago. For much of the 2000s, gay bars and clubs were places for cis white twinks and muscle gays to dry hump each other to the beat of Calvin Harris remixes. Although the advent of sex apps was great for some, they still perpetuated racial stereotypes: Grindr had an ethnicity filter until 2020, and bios like “No fats, femmes, or Asians” were widespread when I first downloaded the apps. A similar thing can be said for many cruising spots and sex parties where, if you weren’t a certain type of person, you probably felt pretty undesired. “Even in cruising contexts, there are different definitions of what beautiful is, what is attractive,” said Tin Vo, a postdoctoral researcher who has studied the ways in which discrimination affects gay men’s mental health.


“What it means to be ‘queer’ is going through a revolution again.” —Hugh Ryan

Suarez agrees that in the past, cruising spots haven’t always felt like the most empowering spaces for people of color. “Whenever people like us want to dabble in cruising or a sex-positive spot, I feel like we are always taking a risk,” he said. “We are putting ourselves in a dangerous situation because we don’t know how they’re going to treat us or receive us.” In post-quarantine New York, sex-positive parties are no longer like that; now, cruising and dark rooms have become a way for people of color to reclaim sexual agency and to explore the bounds of what it means to be queer. The fact that we now have several cruising spaces to choose from that are intentionally inclusive for people of color is a monumental shift from the type of spaces that existed just a few years ago, including at the Bijou. 

Over the summer, I went out to a strip of gay bars in Queens with a friend. At around 2AM, we saw a group of people leaving—they told us they were headed to a parking lot nearby. In the shadows of that lot, sandwiched between Toyotas and Ford Focuses, at least a dozen men stood waiting with their pants down, watching each other, some trailing us. There were younger people, too, and someone grazed my crotch and asked me if we were mutuals on TikTok (we were). Most of the people at the parking lot lived public lives as gay men and have access to the apps, yet, in 2022, this is how they were finding their next hookup. An older woman stared down at the parking lot from her kitchen window and I couldn’t help but wonder if she imagined what was happening right under her nose. 

Maybe the pandemic made us hornier, but perhaps it’s simpler than that: The past two years made us understand that life is too short to resist our urges, if only because any chance we have to be with each other could disappear at any moment. Last year it was COVID. This summer it was monkey​​pox. Who knows what other fuckshit our future holds?

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