If you're famous, there are all sorts of ways to respond to a public disgrace. You could issue a grovelling apology; you could repent on a talk show; you could say nothing and wait for the fuss to die down; you could retire. When George Michael was arrested for cruising in a public toilet in 1998, entrapped by a policeman who made a pass at him, he did none of these. Instead, he released "Outside" – one of the greatest pop songs of all time, and a defiant celebration of the very behaviour that got him into trouble.
In the video, Michael dances in a public toilet transformed into a glittering night club replete with mirror-ball urinals. If that wasn't enough, he's also dressed in a policeman’s uniform and suggestively wielding a truncheon. The whole thing is a glorious fuck-you: the state tried to shame him, the media tried to shame him, and he simply refused to acquiesce. Apart from anything, it’s incredibly cheeky. How dare he! It was enough to make the arresting officer try to sue him for emotional distress – a lawsuit that, happily, was unsuccessful.
"Outside" is a song about the erotic possibilities of public space. Twenty-one years after its release, the ways in which men have sex with men have radically altered – in large part thanks to the rise of hook-up apps like Grindr. Now that casual sex can be found so conveniently, what compels people to still go cruising? Are the values promoted by the song in danger of being lost? I went to "This is My Culture" – a party in Hampstead Heath celebrating George Michael's legacy, now in its third year – to find out.
It was late afternoon and still scorching when my friends and I arrived at the Heath. On the path down to the "Fuck Tree", where the event’s Facebook page had directed us, we saw our first cruisers of the day. I made some sexually charged eye contact with a handsome man as we passed but, unfortunately, was in the midst of a rant about the Cock Destroyer's journey into knowing self-parody. I decided I would find him later. The cruisers seemed vaguely annoyed to have us storming through their patch and gawping at them. If you were properly into cruising, I imagine this event might have been kind of annoying.
Arriving at the party itself, it had more of a village fete vibe than the depraved fuck-a-thon I’d hoped and feared. The speakers were playing a Hi-NRG remix of Will Young’s "Evergreen" at a volume unlikely to incur any noise complaints; there was bunting, a surprising number of kids running around, and people chatting politely around disposable barbecues. When we sat down, my friend pulled up Grindr and said, "There's that guy you walked past. You should go find him!"
But when I took out my own phone to message him, it promptly died. I would have to attempt a genuine cruising experience – no technology or convenient short-cuts, just eye contact, patience and good honest graft. I walked back to the path where I’d seen him earlier, until the noise of the party faded and it was quiet. I could hear every twig crunching, every animal rustling in the trees, every man pulling back a branch to make his way through the thicket. There was a sense of tense anticipation and, along with the obvious pleasure of walking through nature in the heat of the sun, I began to see why people find outdoor cruising so appealing.
The experience reminded me of the French film Stranger By The Lake, which is set over a summer in a cruising spot – a bucolic paradise that is interrupted by a series of murders. The main character falls in love with a man he suspects of being the killer: something he chooses to overlook simply because the dick is so good. Absent of incidental music, the whole film is heavy with the same pregnant silence I was experiencing there on the Heath, broken only by the subtle noises of nature, crickets and wind blowing through trees, or the occasional grunt or gasp of pleasure, a collage of sounds which become indistinguishable. Although the narrative of Stranger By the Lake could be taken as a warning about the dangers of cruising, the film also presents it as an ecstatic communion with nature.
I searched for this man through nettles and bracken, I stung myself and scratched my legs, but I never did find him. Returning to my jeering friends, I thought about how differently things might have played out had my phone not died. I felt like I’d been on a profound odyssey into our collective queer history, but I was informed I’d only been gone for ten minutes. In an effort to start interviewing people before I got any more drunk, I plonked myself down by a group of extremely handsome older men.
"So," I said, after we’d made our introductions, "in 1998, when 'Outside' came out, cruising was a necessity, whereas now with the hook-up apps it isn't, so I’m interested in why people still choose to do it."
"That's not true," Jakub said. "Cruising wasn’t a 'necessity' then. That’s just… inaccurate."
"That’s completely stupid," his friend Ben agreed.
My hypothesis was crumbling before my eyes. Devastated that my authority as a queer historian was being called into question, I replied, "Oh."
"Twenty years ago, the most sex you got was through people you met in pubs, or friends of friends," said Jakub, "but it's true that there was always a local cruising ground, wherever you lived. Hampstead Heath was the destination, like Heaven, but they were everywhere."
"It was the fastest access," explained Ben. "It was the Grindr of the time – the easiest way to satisfy that impulse."
When I asked if they had noticed a decline in the popularity of cruising over the last two decades, Ben said: "Yes – but if you go to a toilet at Liverpool Street station, it's still there. The biggest thing that’s happened has been the shift to Grindr." Does this shift represent a loss? "Maybe. Grindr is a shopping list; it's like going to Argos. It's brutal. You’re critically judged on three pictures."
At that point, an Irish man named Frank – who had the same energy as the opium-smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland – walked by.
"So why do you like cruising?" I asked him.
"It happens… outside," he said, taking a deep toke on a spliff.
"It makes sex feel less artificial, less corrupted by modernity." Another toke. "Gay men are left doubly wanting by conservative forces who tell us sex is unnatural, and liberal forces who say sex should be restrained by apps, drug laws, licensing laws, noise complaints, the demands of property… cruising is an escape from all that."
Almost everyone I spoke to contrasted outdoor cruising with using Grindr, speaking about the latter with, if not outright negativity, then ambivalence. "There's no mystery on Grindr," another man I spoke to, named Reg, elaborated. "By the time you meet someone, you’ve already exchanged pics and discussed what you’re into. It’s like ordering a pizza. Whereas, with cruising, there’s a lot of adrenaline. You don’t know what’s going to happen!"
Personally, I’m not a fan of hooking-up via apps, largely because I find it hard to tell whether I will be attracted to someone based on photographs alone. Whether or not I think someone is hot depends more on their body language, mannerisms or accent than their physical appearance (this isn’t any less shallow). With Grindr, I always have the fear that I’ll turn up at someone’s flat and realise I don’t want to sleep with them, but still feel compelled to do so out of social awkwardness. Reg agreed with me on this, saying, "Once someone is at your flat or you’re over at theirs, it’s quite a big thing to say, 'No sorry, go away.' There’s a sense of obligation built into the situation."
All sorts of biases, whether based on race, body type or gender expression, are cemented by dating apps. A few people I spoke to suggested that cruising can transcend this, to some extent. It’s easier to take a chance on someone who's not your usual type if they’re right there in front of you, if there’s something about the way they carry themselves that you find appealing.
There’s so much about a person that can be erotic beyond how many boxes they tick on your fetish check-list. Even something as simple as thinking, 'Well, I’ve travelled 40 minutes to get here and I don’t want to leave until I’ve got my bit,' might encourage you to take a leap outside of your usual type or preferred position. I’m not saying this is noble – it’s motivated by base horniness – but the end result might be positive. A way of broadening your sexual horizons. I don’t imagine for a second that people abandon their biases the minute they step foot on the Heath, but in opening up a space for spontaneity, cruising can allow these biases to be transcended in a way that's difficult elsewhere.
There were plenty of men on the cruising area of the Heath, standing around and chatting in a way that seemed platonic. However many people claim to be looking for "mates" on Grindr, dating apps rarely facilitate this kind of non-sexual intimacy. Most often, if you’re not attracted to someone, you simply ignore their message (at best – many people respond with cruelty), but it’s not so easy to do this in the real world, which demands a degree of basic courtesy. If you go cruising and you don’t find what you’re looking for, then a pleasant conversation with a stranger – in which nothing is demanded another than fleeting companionship – must ease the sting of rejection.
Ultimately, it isn’t helpful to exalt outdoor cruising at the expense of apps; they are two distinct things and they both have positives and negatives. But cruising has always had a place in gay history, and for many of the people I spoke to it still plays an important role in their lives. Where apps enable a series of private encounters in private rooms, cruising grounds are a public space – and this is something we should defend. The last few years have seen a number of attempts by the state to curtail cruising, from the disappearance of public toilets in Soho to the re-landscaping and evening closure of Bloomsbury Square. It’s hardly fair, then, to suggest that Grindr alone, in collusion with our own laziness, has killed it off.
Cruising isn’t just a response to repression that will disappear if or when that repression does (as I discovered, you’d have to go back pretty far in history for cruising to be considered a "necessity"). It offers a fundamentally different sexual experience, which many still find appealing. As George Michael told us 21 years ago, there’s no shame in being done with the sofa, the hall and kitchen table, and going outside in search of sex. In fact, it’s something we should celebrate.