From screens to streets: Drew Zeiba outlines the resurgence of anonymous sex in the city

In the 1970s, Manhattan’s dilapidated West Side Piers hosted nude and nearly nude men sunbathing, sucking, and fucking in the open air. The area was popular with a large cross section of the city’s residents, and functioned as something of a refuge for many unhoused queer youths. However, in the 1980s, as the city cleaned up in the name of capital, the piers were torn down and homosexual activity became the focus of regulation prompted by the scare scrounged up by AIDS. Now, the island’s coast is better known for gleaming sculptures that mimic the lost structures and fake islands shadowed by glassy towers.

Yet, decades and a pandemic later, there’s a veritable homo-revitalization. Rather than shuttering after lockdowns, the multilevel leather bar The Eagle expanded. New gay clubs two stories and taller have opened up in Hell’s Kitchen, blocks from Times Square. Central Park’s Ramble and Penn Station’s bathrooms—historic hotspots for gay hookups—are anecdotally busier than in their pre-pandemic peaks. Likewise, East Village “video stores” and gayborhood streets are populated by leerers and loiterers. Happyfun Hideaway, among other Brooklyn spaces, has also found new footing, hosting a regular shirtless party, a retrograde gay bar classic unironically plopped into a chill, all-gender Bushwick venue. “I don’t think it’s very cruisey,” G—, 32, says of the event. “I mean, I did get my dick sucked and I ate some ass.” Apps allow one to organize an open-door orgy or find a gloryhole with internet-lubricated ease. Boys who can afford Equinox recommend the saunas. While data suggests that nationwide people are having less sex than ever, for New York gays, maybe cruising’s back.

Or that’s the easy headline, one that begs the question of where it went in the first place. The term “cruising” was used as early as the 1920s as a gay code word to describe the search for sex, often clandestine or anonymous in character. While anon, no-strings-attached sex invariably perseveres, for decades sexual partisans have sounded the alarm over the activity’s disappearance, blaming various culprits: HIV/AIDS, real estate development, criminalization, decriminalization, the internet, millennials, and, most recently, COVID. Gay men have a habit of giving their sexual proclivities too much political credit, but cruising’s trajectory tracks cultural shifts with wider effect. Especially in the post-Web 2.0 age, many are concerned about the isolation and individuation taking place across culture. Yet, even to access the metaverse, we still need our sexual, flesh-and-blood bodies. Maybe cruising never left: It just got augmented.

Tom Burr, Unearthing the public restrooms, 1994. Courtesy the artist and Bortolami Gallery.

“Around the late ’90s, my cruising started to become much less about maps and physical terrains, and much more about the computer,” says Bruce Benderson, who chronicled New York’s pre-Giuliani underbelly in his novel User and was an early essayist of online erotics. He points out that, rather than being an effect of the new technology itself, the move to web-based sexuality coincided with the closure of physical spaces such as the lurid Midtown hustler bars he frequented. “The last vestiges of old Times Square were being wiped out, that whole scene was changing,” he recalls. Importantly, “As cruising moved from outside and bars to the virtual, it eliminated a great deal of class variety.” Those who could afford computers could hop online and try to get laid or jerk off over webcam, while the spaces that once hosted mixtures of people of different classes, races, and ages disappeared, and those who couldn’t afford gentrifying real estate were pushed further to the urban periphery.

After the progeny of the petit bourgeois that had taken part in “white flight” began to return to New York as yuppies, during the time of neoliberalization under Reagan and his ilk, they chased pricey, monocultural clubs, so-called public safety, and “family values” whose valorization has reached its representational apotheosis in Disneyfied Times Square. “There’s no place for adults; now, wherever you go, families have to be saved,” laments Benderson. In his 1999 text on cruising and contact in Midtown movie theaters, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, which is dedicated to Benderson, Samuel R. Delany tracks a similar movement, noting that “in the name of ‘safety,’ society dismantles the various institutions that promote interclass communication,” including sex. However, Delany writes, it’s unclear what “danger” means to such public safety militants other than “failure to conform to the ideal bourgeois marriage.” Of course, there have long been homonormative gays who want to be “safe” too; today you might see it in the turn towards marriage equality as the most visible expression of mainstream LGBT causes or the perennial “protect the children” Twitter discourse around kink at Pride.

There are many possible reasons behind 2022’s seeming refocus on IRL interaction. Lockdowns may be re-skewing people towards valuing touch and physicality. Technologies like PrEP, a prophylactic daily pill for HIV prevention, as well as new treatments for the virus that render it untransmittable, might be supporting a more free-love mentality. Maybe it has to do with broader burnout over digitized culture. Or maybe the framing’s misguided: “IRL” action hasn’t returned, per se, so much as digital ubiquity has merged irrevocably with flesh-and-blood space. Any resurgence of offline interaction might be precisely the result of how online we are.

Cruising’s principal tension centers on visibility. One negotiates looks and glances, just enough to catch the right eyes and not be caught by the wrong ones. “I think light is really what does it,” says architect Charles Renfro, whose firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro has big West Side projects like the Shed and the High Line, and who exhibited in the Storefront for Art and Architecture’s 1994 Queer Space show. “The darker the better.” Good music helps too, he adds, when it comes to bars and backrooms. Darkness often drives the sexual use of public space, as well. Parks are busier at night, away from street lamps where the swinging beam of a cop’s flashlight can be easily seen.

“The movement of sex or violence from screen to streets demonstrates the fact that IRL and virtual life are not separate spaces but a messy continuum of mediations.”

Visibility—digital and physical—can be dangerous: In 2014, researchers demonstrated that one could triangulate user locations on the popular hookup app Grindr, and Egyptian authorities allegedly did so to arrest gay men. And, while legal acceptance of homosexuality in the US has promoted the folding of normative gay relationships into the social order, even in New York it’s not all hunky-dory: I’ve sucked dick on the Rash dance floor, but I can’t anymore, since somebody set it on fire in April. After finding the culprit, the DA’s announcement read, “All LGBTQ+ New Yorkers should be able to enjoy their nights out… without fear,” as it was mostly queers that frequented the Brooklyn club that’d been open less than a year.

Renfro notes of physical space that, “In the public realm, when gays have figured out how to cruise, typically it’s happened two ways: either in a place full of people, where behavior is anonymized and the multitude of people provides cover; or, you find these places of intense intimacy and privacy within the public realm.” He adds, “That alone is thrilling.” Virtually mediated intimacy, conversely—whether Grindr hookups or Facebook friends—privileges unrelenting visibility, which, unlike the visibility of a fluorescent-lit toilet stall, privileges legible identity over anonymity. While on platforms like Grindr or Scruff, you might put any profile photo you want, or none at all, it seems that such an array of selectable, identifiable individuals could have a cognitive effect similar to any other online environment. And the common back-and-forth of face pics and nudes leaves a saveable record. Compared to the public of shared physical space, the digital “public” of a clearnet app doesn’t provide much cover.

In 2013, Grindr began requiring email addresses, controversial for its further diminishing of users’ anonymity. Like other social media, most hookup products are also ad-supported; and, as is oft repeated, when an app is free, the product is you: your data sold to corporations so they can better push products and enrich themselves. This May, the Wall Street Journal revealed that at least since 2017, Grindr had sold location data that was “detailed enough to infer things like romantic encounters between specific users based on their devices’s proximity to one another, as well as identify clues to people’s identities such as their workplaces and home addresses based on their patterns, habits, and routines.” Even a hookup becomes yet another salable datapoint for a tech giant. (Grindr’s previous owner, a Chinese video game corporation, recently sold the app to a California-based holding company for over $600 million.)

While these digital platforms erase the privacy one signs away with terms of use, app-based lifestyles privilege a different kind of privatization that furthers the sanitization or erasure of public space. With austerity, we enter further atomized realities where we go over to one another’s homes to hook up, if we go at all.

 “While data suggests that nationwide people are having less sex than ever, for New York gays, maybe cruising’s back.”

The movement of sex or violence from screen to streets demonstrates the fact that IRL and virtual life are not separate spaces but a messy continuum of mediations. As media scholar Sharif Mowlabocus, who has authored and edited several books on the intersection of queer sexuality and new technologies, says, “In truth, the digital and the physical have never been wholly separate: their relationship is elastic but connected.” Hookup apps, he notes, “layer queer data streams over the heteronormative spaces of everyday life.”

Though semantic debates over whether we can call computerized cruising cruising at all remain. A—, 28, balks when I ask if he considers online cruising a thing: Absolutely not, he says. It’s all about the circumstance and gaze—and not caring if they’re hot or not, just that they’re there. H—, 21, tells me that, “I’ve never really done anything you could call cruising. If I want to have sex I go on Grindr, or I DM someone from my class.” G— says, “I really can name on one hand how many times I’ve been cruised by randos. Not a friend of a friend or someone I know from Twitter”—a prime example of the non-differentiation between digital and physical social space. As I mentioned to various gays that I was writing this piece, they all asked something along the lines of, “Oh, you mean, like, Sniffies?” Sniffies is the next-gen Grindr, but what makes it so novel is it actually feels old-school. You don’t need to make an account if you don’t want to. There are no notifications. You don’t need to put much of yourself out there, or leave much of a record. “I’m not into public stuff,” N—, 26, tells me, “but [Sniffies] is a lot kinkier and more anon. Like, [people on the app] talk so much about gloryholes,” and, he adds, “no one has a face pic.” Whereas other apps advertise their technology’s potential for finding longer-term, conventional partnerships, and require relatively SFW profile pictures, most Sniffies users post their genitals or anus on their geolocated pin that serves as their profile, indicating what they’re after. Exchanges are minimal. Ad collaterals are faceless, semi-explicit sex acts—mostly of men with protoypically “masculine” physiques and jock-ish accoutrements. Certain features are for subscribers only.

For Renfro, the recent expansion of gay bars serves as a “reaffirmation that New York welcomes those who aren’t in the mainstream, who aren’t wealthy”—a contravention against the class exclusion Benderson and Delany note. But rent’s up 33 percent and The Eagle charges a cover. The ubiquity and relative affordability of smartphones have also likely resuscitated some of the mixing of class, race, gender identity, and age that once defined pre-web cruising. However, geolocation still brings to bear obvious, real estate-defined limits. And app-enabled contact takes place primarily onscreen or in one-on-one encounters organized on them, contained by a culture where interaction on the street is minimized, whether in search of sex or otherwise.

Yet, in a twisted way, it may be digital technology driving the IRL action making Penn Station’s bathrooms dirtier than ever. R—, 29, tells me he enters cruising areas without looking at any apps, but cross-references them when he’s there. “If you’ve seen [someone] on an app, you’re much more likely to approach in person,” he says. Sniffies’s map also has small logos featuring trees or barbells indicating common cruising areas, with their own message feeds and “check-ins.” Personally, I’m more liable to take a 10 p.m. wander by the basketball courts of my local park after seeing on the app that others have been nearby, even if they’ve only acknowledged so anonymously.

I ask R— if, besides Sniffies, he thinks there might be another cause for the resurgent popularity of sex in more public settings. “Mass-casualty events obviously made people horny and the thrill of premeditated sex wore out,” he wryly replies, referring to COVID’s impact and the ennui of sex easily scheduled via DM. The dopamine hit of infinitely scrolling and tapping images of men you may never meet wasn’t doing it anymore. Now, he says, “People are desperate for a reason to leave their apartment, and sucking a hairy ass in Blue Door Video counts as running an errand as equally psychologically gratifying as buying groceries.” Though if grocery store displays demonstrate anything, it’s that desire is sometimes less disappointing behind glass.

Beyond the Gorilla Glass, the sexual space resurgence has less to do with the withdrawal of digital culture than its insistent, irrevocable presence. “IRL” is a myth: In sex, as in the other aspects of daily life, reality is augmented. We may not yet be wearing headsets to place sci-fi style information projected before our eyes as we slide into an unlocked bathroom stall, but the universality of online life erases any notion of a distinct offline experience. In fact, there is no offline. The information, affects, and interactions we participate in on our phones and computers not only let us negotiate physical space, but shape it and our relations to one another. Every touch—against glass, aluminum, silicon, latex, or skin—is mediated.