As a teenager in San Bernardino, California, Chingy Long fantasied about having kinky lesbian sex. She didn’t know many other queer people her age, and even fewer who shared her particular sexual interests. Long opened an account on the kink-focused social network FetLife the second she turned 18, where she met a woman who lived in Los Angeles.
“I took the train from San Bernardino to LA that weekend to let her beat me, fuck me, pee on me, and taste me,” said Long in a phone interview. “We did really dirty things.”
Once she moved to the Bay Area, Long started cruising regularly, looking for casual sex partners at queer play parties and bars. Now in her mid-twenties, she’s a fixture on the queer cruising and kink scenes in her area and Los Angeles. “If I'm at queer parties or gay parties and see a lady in a harness or something, I'm probably going to try and talk to her.”
LGBTQ history typically attributes the art of the anonymous, same-sex public hookup to communities of gay men, but lesbian cruising—not to be confused with the lesbian cruise—is a long-honoured tradition among many women-loving women.
Shug, as she’s known by friends and her community, was an art student and punk musician in mid-80s San Francisco, a historical centre of queer, kink, and leather scenes. In her early twenties during the heyday of queer cruising culture, meeting women was as easy as dropping by the local cruising hotspots. The lesbian-owned Amelia’s Bar, Artemis Cafe, and Osento, a historic lesbian bathhouse, were all popular locales in Shug’s neighbourhood. “Cruising happened in bars, it happened in art galleries, it happened on the streets,” said Shug in a phone interview. “Everything was right there. It was like I moved into nirvana.” On the street, many women wore big boots, leather jackets, labrys symbols, or a strategically-placed hanky to signal their interest in other women. “Sometimes a cock ring on the jacket, up on the epaulette, either left or right to signify ‘top’ or ‘bottom.’ Any kind of crystals or esoteric, mystical type of jewelry item could also be an indicator,” said Shug.
Now in her 50s, Shug is a visual artist living in Los Angeles, where she regularly meets women in leather bars, gay clubs, and queer play parties. Shug doesn’t use hookups apps, and says she doesn’t need to as she finds plenty of opportunities to cruise without using her phone. “It just feels better for me. I'm a hands-on gal, I always have been, and I like to be out where the people are,” Shug said. “I want to see them, I want to smell them, their pheromones. You have to know if there's chemistry or not.”
In queer hubs like the Bay Area, traditions like hanky codes (also called "flagging") live on among people of various queer identities as a form of sexual signalling designed to facilitate casual hookups. Hanky codes fell out of widespread use after the 1970s, but Long appreciates the homage to queer cultural history. “Most days I’m in the Bay, I see at least one or two queers flagging,” Long said. “It’s a fun, coded expression of radical gay sexuality. To folks out of the loop, you’re just accessorising. To the gays in the know, you’re showing something downright obscene. There are few other languages that allow you to say ‘Hey, I’d really love if someone spit in my slut mouth while I fisted their holes’ without actually uttering a word—just a red hanky on your left and a light yellow on your right.”
Queer-friendly bars and Pride parties offer plenty of opportunities for casual hookups, but as lesbian bars and public social venues continue to die out, the internet remains the most accessible lesbian cruising scene, particularly for those living outside of urban queer centres. Long belongs to several Facebook groups for lesbian cruising where she occasionally posts requests for kinky encounters. Outside of the scene, however, she feels her reputation as an active non-monogamist puts her at odds with other queer women in her social circle. “When I hook up with anyone or even state that I have multiple partners, I’ve more often than not been referred to as a ‘lesbian fuckboi,’ she said. “It sucks having my sexuality looked down upon.”
Long’s experience points to larger misconceptions of queer women’s sexuality that often permeate communities of queer women themselves, shaming those who engage in casual, no-strings-attached sex. Mid-aughts Showtime series and canonical lesbian text The L Word epitomised and villainised the lesbian fuckboi archetype in Shane, a promiscuous heartbreaker whose primary character flaw was her tendency for one night stands. Unfortunately, the fear of being labeled “a Shane” still persists. A 2004 paper by researcher Denise Bullock in Journal Of Homosexuality indicated that slut-shaming affects queer and lesbian women’s sexual behaviour and beliefs about casual sex. Stereotypical perceptions of queer women as serial monogamists stigmatise those who prefer casual sex and reflect larger cultural myths about women in general, particularly the idea that women instinctually crave monogamy and emotional intimacy with their sexual partners.
“There’s a sexist misconception that women are gay for emotional commitment and love. This denies women our sexuality and capacity for lust and depravity. It pushes down the parts of gay and lesbian culture that are seen as vulgar or debaucherous,” Long said. “I am capable of having a sexual connection with someone without it leading to dreaming about moving in together and owning puppies.”
As queer culture and identities become more integrated in mainstream consciousness, the movement for queer respectability minimises cruising’s past and present. Corporate marketing campaigns often paint queer women as a monolith and lean toward overtly tender and heartwarming depictions of women-loving women, which further stigmatises those who reject marriage, monogamy, or vanilla sex. However, community efforts like the @_personals_ Instagram account, though less overtly sex-forward than their historical predecessors, maintain spaces for casual encounters between those who seek them. “We’re taught to believe that women who desire women are predatory and shameful, but it’s not predatory to want someone and let them know it. It’s not predatory to desire another woman in a purely sexual manner,” Long said. It’s only predatory if you are being disrespectful of someone’s boundaries, body, and personhood.”
For Long, cruising is both a personal and cultural practice that reclaims ideas of queer perversion as a source of pride and pleasure. More than a short-lived physical experience or explicit text exchange, cruising uplifts queer love by celebrating queer sex at its most joyfully deviant. “Heartwarming’ is a woman stepping on my chest,” she said. “That's heartwarming to me.”
Correction: This story originally said that Chingy Long grew up in San Bernardino. She actually grew up in LA, but moved to San Bernardino as a teen.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox weekly.
Follow Sofia Barrett-Ibarria on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.