Why do gay men cruise for sex?

As a gay man, I am fascinated by what makes many men seek out opportunities for anonymous sex with other men in public spaces – known as cruising.

It is clearly risky on several levels. From offending bystanders and getting into trouble with local law enforcers, not to mention the jeopardy of bumping into someone dangerous, either health-wise or who has gone there specifically to attack gay men; why then, in this age of instant hook-up apps, do men still feel the need to cruise for sex? And why is there nothing quite like it in the heterosexual world?

I came across some interesting research into the subject by Stefano Ramello of the University of Turin, who wrote about it in their paper Behind the Mask: A Typology of Men Cruising for Same-Sex Acts. I wondered if Ramello’s paper, based on research already ten years old and which pre-dated the surge of popular online apps such as Grindr and Scruff, (though Gaydar was around then), held the answers.

The study was carried out with a small group of men (57), aged 21 to 51, who cruised a park in Turin. Any notion of there being a stereotypical ‘type’ of guy who cruises was thrown out the window as Ramello classified the men into six different ‘types’. And, on labels of self-identity, a quarter of the cohort said they were ‘straight’ and a third specified they were married (to a woman) or had a different sex partner.

Ramello’s cruising types:

Homosexual: acknowledged feelings and attractions for men but did not necessarily tell others; sex and identity were viewed as private matters.

Gay: publicly acknowledged feelings and attractions to other men and were often involved in organisations or systems to promote change.

Queer: very publicly owned identity in opposition to normative straight culture.

Closeted: recognised their feelings towards other men and acknowledged those feelings and attractions to themselves but did not tell many, if anyone else. Often avoided social settings that might reveal their attractions.  

Normal’: identified as heterosexual and any homosexual activity did not have an impact or effect on their self-identity.

Parallel: identified and experienced life as straight when in those situations and contexts, and non-heterosexual when in homosexual settings. The cognitive and emotional differences, if experienced at all, were compartmentalised and the two worlds kept separate.

For the homosexuals, cruising was specifically about the sex. The draw for them was the easy availability of having sex with another man when they wanted, and once it was done, walking away enabled it to remain private. Sexual desire was definitely a part of who they were but not the entirety of them as human beings. It did not reflect on work, the way they lived or socialized. However, these men seemed to be on the periphery of both worlds, the homosexual and heterosexual, keeping these parts of themselves separate in order to remain safe, satiating desire and the need to ‘perform’ to straight norms to live an unhindered lifestyle.

For the gay men in the group, those ideas of playing safe were very different and challenged. For them, it was a matter of individual right to state one’s sexuality. They felt solidarity in socializing with other openly gay men; their very being was fixed in the acknowledgment of their sexual orientation. Interactions with other gay men cruising at the park was all part of their social network and community. Often relationships were formed, and cruise meetings arranged between them. Anonymity was not part of the attraction to cruise, but rather a sense of being involved in something specific to the homosexual community. This is our scene, and this is what we do.

The queers were more radical, calling for change even within gay culture. Cruising for them was often the only way of connecting with the gay community and satisfying sexual desire with those who otherwise felt alienated by the ferocity of their outness in the outside world. Identifying as queer was not just about their sexual desires and feelings, it was the antithesis of heterosexuality and everything that lay between that and them.

For queer, gay and homosexual men, coming out is a powerful social and political statement. It is more often liberating than not. For those in the group who were closeted, fear of rejection and abhorrence from others was so intense that complete isolation from the gay community was better and altogether safer. Often these men were married to women and lived life ‘on the fringes’, keeping everyone at a distance in order to preserve their identity. Self-confidence is an issue, and homosexuality plays into that lack of self-knowing. For these guys, total and assured anonymity was the driver for cruising for sex.

The men who labelled themselves ‘normal’ felt a total disconnect from the sex they had while cruising to the person they felt they were. They appreciated that what they were doing might be considered gay, but to them it was just sex. It was like going to the shops to buy groceries. There was no correlation to their personas or indeed how they related to other men. They felt like everybody else – normal – with a sense that sex of any kind was not something that was planned, but rather that it just came about naturally. Although, of course, cruising entails quite a lot of pre-forward-thinking arrangements and planning.

Some men led a parallel lifestyle, working and functioning within the heteronormative world by day, while by night, but not always, frequenting gay bars and cruising for sex. These were two distinct areas of their lives. The sex they had with men was not simply fulfilling an urge as seemed to be the case with those men who saw themselves as ‘normal’, but rather was something very much planned and acted upon to reach a goal that ended with the sex they desired. During ‘daylight hours’ that pursuit was not entered into or deemed necessary. They did not feel this was a ‘normal’ lifestyle but was a way of living they had fashioned to suit their needs in finding mates or indeed ‘a mate’ they could form a relationship with.

What this research rejects, is the age-old myth that men who cruise for sex with other men are, by default, promiscuous and socially inept. It is much more nuanced than that and there are many character diversities and triggers that push men towards the toilets, woods, beaches and sand dunes for the electrically charged meetings instant, anonymous sex with other men can bring.

For more on this subject, you might like my book Hot Little Gay Book No 3: Cruising, part of the Hot Little Gay Book series 1 – 5.

If you know of some other research that focuses on this topic, do let me know.

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