Before Grindr, Growlr, Manhunt, and Craigslist personals, anonymous gay sex encounters began on CruisingforSex.com. A favorite of those seeking a thrill in the early Internet age, as well as more than a few closet cases, the site has long been home to detailed information about where to seek anonymous trysts in (mostly) public locations—from a cruisy toilet near the Disney World monorail to a steamy locker room in the basement of a Moscow health club.
To ensure the publicly horny aren't caught in a sting by law enforcement—who have historically played the part of affable co-masturbator, until they arrest you for solicitation—users were (and still are) encouraged to report any suspicious behavior to the site itself as a "heads up." Despite this tool, Cruising for Sex remains a goldmine for law enforcement, some of whom would even write in the comments section of listings, warning users to stay away from certain bathroom stalls or locker rooms unless they wanted to end up in the slammer.
The paradox of the site—that the publicness that made it so appealing also put its users at risk—was not lost on founder Keith "Cruisemaster" Griffith, who penned feature stories about how to avoid arrest. "Cruisers need to be more aware than the average citizen of legal rights and obligations because, frankly, the police don't play fair and the odds are not in your favor," he wrote in a piece called "Legalese."
But it wasn't just cops that users had to fear; by 1997, Cruising for Sex was scoring 130,000 hits a day, and journalists began trolling the site, hoping to exploit the general public's fears of gay men by catching dudes mid-blowjob. Nightly news programs installed secret cameras in bathrooms to prove that God-fearing citizens' worst fears were actually true: Gays were fucking in the bushes near their children's playgrounds.
"Sexual deviants are roaming our local stores and malls, places that you shop [sound of children laughing comes in], with your children," one teaser began. "Monday, Fox Five's undercover camera catches perverts in lewd acts in very public places. Could you or your child be an innocent victim of...CRUISING FOR SEX? On the Fox Five ten o'clock news, Monday."
Conflating those who "find each other outside the home," as Griffith described his site's users, with exhibitionists and deviants was easy for the networks; homophobia was already rampant. According to Michael Warner's "Zones of Privacy," published in the 2000 book What's Left of Theory?, most gay groups were also silent on the matter, afraid that if they were they to speak up, the public would think gays preferred Central Park or an airport loo to the "normal," pleasingly lit bedrooms where straight people claimed to get down and dirty. In response to the sleazy coverage, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association released a statement calling public sex "as foreign to the lives of most gay people as it is to most straight people."
The shadows of that life provided a place for a lot of freedom and self-exploration, where you didn't have to identify or explain yourself or be some kind of example.
But Griffith, naturally, didn't see his site's users as outside the norm. To him, exploring yourself outside the stultifying confines of an apartment or house was as natural as the trees that grow around a truck stop. He had a vision of a world where everyone could enjoy public, anonymous, and safe sex.
Griffith died from complications of cancer and AIDS in 2012, and the site has since been under the watchful eye of Bob Sienkiewicz. Despite the site's waning traffic, I was still able to find a few recently updated sex spots near my apartment in West Hollywood—including a urinal at my go-to grocery where I'd once noticed a dude lingering a bit too long. I talked to Sienkiewicz about the hottest spots for hooking up in 2016, why he's still leery of TV journalists, and what today's gays misunderstand about the generation who cruised the country in the 90s.
BROADLY: Are there any trends you can identify in terms of activity on the site—certain cities, states, or countries that are currently seeing a lot of public action?
Bob Sienkiewicz: Florida always seems to have lots of activity, from the beginning of the site continuing to today. I get lots of reviews of parks, beaches, adult bookstores, and sex clubs, mainly in Fort Lauderdale. When I visited Central Florida with my first ex a few times in the 1990s, in so many places—in Orlando, the Space Coast, Lakeland, and especially the I-4 rest areas—there always seemed to be someone cruising. You could just see that look. We didn't see that in the Orlando theme parks, probably because they were simply too busy or we were too busy.
These days I'm seeing more and more reviews from Las Vegas. These include not only gay cruising [spots] but also for straight couples who seek action with other men. I also see more frequent posts in Vegas and elsewhere looking for trans women, as well as [for] cisgender men who identify themselves as cross-dressers. It's rare that I see posts by or looking for trans men, although there are a few.
There have always been a lot of reviews for places in rural and small-town areas. Recently, I seem to see more from Pennsylvania and Michigan, especially. West Virginia, which Keith had written about years ago, is still quite active. I think that men in small towns, especially those in traditional marriages and families, go to small-town bookstores and public places, or else travel to bathhouses or porn theaters in larger cities—Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Memphis, Dallas—to find what they're looking for.
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Have any reviews popped up in places you wouldn't expect?
I've learned not to be surprised by anything. Military bases? Shopping center toilets in Guam or Manila? The man who wrote about taking his 15-inch dildo to an adult bookstore and how he wanted to return with his Great Dane? I don't know if people are writing about factual experiences or the "true experiences" they wish they had, but generally you can tell from a pattern of reviews—just as with Yelp or whatever—what the character of a place is like.
I have vague memories of TV reporters using bathroom busts to stoke anti-gay hysteria during television sweeps week. Were you an active user of Cruising for Sex at the time? If so, what was it like to live through that?
I had been using Cruising for Sex in the late 90s. I think we all understood that this type of publicity happened for ratings purposes, even before the site. How you behaved in a park or at a beach—I lived in San Diego County then—really involved having to have discretion and common sense anyhow, regardless of [whether it was] sweeps.
This still goes on, although I don't know if it's specifically tied into the old Nielsen ratings periods or if there's some other criteria. See the September 28, 2015 review, where TV reporters accompanied sheriff's deputies on a raid on a porn theater. This particular place has seen repeated raids and publicity, but it's unusual for reporters to be present at a raid.
Given that cruising is older than civilization, do you think the site will survive in some form in perpetuity?
I don't think we can forecast any site or particular media surviving in perpetuity, but I think this type information will still be created and disseminated and used.
I once had brief, very Jewish sex in the bathroom at the House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin where Hitler planned his Final Solution. Are there any listings that seem political, besides the Vatican?
There's an entry for the Second Amendment Foundation in Bellevue, Washington, that someone submitted on Valentine's Day 2014. It hasn't had any reviews since then. I'm surprised no one has, shall we say, embroidered on that one. I've also deliberately kept a few [now-]closed places online on the site as part of documenting gay history. One example is the Bijou Theater in Chicago.
Some men had shame, but many of us were often having the time of our lives, being transgressive, making our own rules, or simply breaking them all.
What do you think today's generation of gays misunderstand about the men who risked their lives to have sex in parks and toilet stalls?
I'm not sure what the general consensus of younger gay men is, if there is one, but I imagine there might be a sense that the older generations were sort of hiding in shame when we did this. (I'm 54, by the way.) I remember Laud Humphrey's writings about the "Tearoom Trade," which was the generation before me. The idea of having a difference between the "private self" and the "public self" seems old-fashioned these days, not just in sexuality but in so many parts of life. People broadcast themselves on social media now and have personal or intimate phone calls in public places, a genuine change from days past.
Some men had shame, but many of us were often having the time of our lives, being transgressive, making our own rules, or simply breaking them all, although not necessarily all of the time. The shadows of that life provided a place for a lot of freedom and self-exploration, a "room of one's own" where you didn't have to identify or explain yourself or be some kind of example. There were no cameras in every pocket and ceiling, and your acts could be as private as you wanted or on the edge of public display. I recall fucking someone at the edge of a park with a clear view across a canyon, and it was exciting, putting on a show where you were almost certain there was no audience. These days you might have more reason to wonder who or what was watching.