Jack Parlett seems to think so, given his piece in Boston Review on the topic. I do, too—or at least I tried to make the argument in the far fewer words I had in my 2021 piece for the Guardian. In this post, I want to do a few things:
- Summarize Parlett’s argument (and my erstwhile one)
- Point out its key limitations and shortcomings, bringing in some counterarguments
- Address those counterarguments and see about cruising’s role in a healthy democracy.
It’s gonna be a long one.
Cruising is shorthand for having sex in public with strangers. It happens most often in parks and restrooms. I should say men’s rooms, because most cruising (and most writing about it) is among men who have sex with men (MSM). Cruising among WSW must exist, but I know little of it. Cruising among heterosexuals is common as couples; they like to call it swinging, especially in clubs and parties organized around it, and the Brits call it dogging (a term I’ve always loved) when couples fuck in parks for an audience.
What does this have to do with a healthy democracy? If you don’t have time to go read Parlett’s piece, here’s a hasty summary. Cruising—among men in cities—has a long history of people extolling it, going back at least to Whitman. This history, Parlett writes, shows how cruising’s ‘not only, or even primarily, about hooking up, but about the communal power of eroticized looking, flashes of affinity that may not lead directly to sexual consummation, but are an important way of situating yourself within a shared community.’
So it’s about being out and being seen—not as an enemy, or even just another burden, but as a desirable object. That’s one key thing with cruising: the eroticization of being among others. Which leads to one key problem: not everyone on the streets gets looked at erotically. Flashes of affinity are not equally distributed.
Parlett does what anyone writing about sex in public (esp. in cities) is obligated to do: cite Samuel Delany’s watershed text Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, which covers his years cruising porn theaters in the 70s and 80s, and the kinds of encounters and engagements he had with the men who did the same. The central argument in TSRTSB is that infrastructure affects superstructure (i.e., our settings/environments dictate not just how we behave there but our overall values), and that gentrification hurts democracy by promoting networking over contact.
Here’s how I summed it up in the Guardian:
Business and politics as usual promote networking, which is exclusionary and consolidates power within groups, whereas sex and the places we have it – not just bedrooms and sofas, but porn theaters, public toilets, cruising areas – promote contact, which fosters encounters across classes and groups, the writer Samuel R Delany points out. ‘Given the mode of capitalism under which we live,’ Delaney writes, ‘life is at its most rewarding, productive, and pleasant when large numbers of people understand, appreciate, and seek out interclass contact and communication conducted in a mode of goodwill.’
And what better will than wanting to help somebody come?
They cut that last sentence. They also cut an illustrative bit about my body wanting lots of sex with Dean Cain, an anti-gay conservative who stumps often enough for the NRA that my brain finds him pretty loathsome. But when he shows up in another Hallmark Christmas movie, my body again wants what my mind thinks it shouldn’t have.
This is the heart of the Cruising = Healthy Democracy argument: if we can openly acknowledge our erotic desires for one another, we can create the kind of communal bonds that can counter the divisiveness that online, politicized interactions promote. Or, in Parlett’s words:
[I]mplicit in even the most cursory cruising encounter is, in my experience, the shared admission of a vulnerability, and of loneliness, perhaps, an unspoken basis of the desire to come together. To cruise is, in its most basic sense, to tap into a community whose only logic is desire itself, even if this improvised grouping is far from homogenous, and rarely even harmonious. Like Delany, I have met people cruising whom I’m unlikely to have met otherwise.
Like Parlett, I have done the same. And I have been struck by it long afterward, how I just spent some very intimate time with a person whose politics I’m certain I’d abhor. As an abstraction—a ‘red state’ voter—I felt repelled from them, but as a man physically near me whose desire reflected my own, we two came together.
It’s beautiful, really. But it may not be the cure-all we writers are making it out to be.
One question is whether coming together (in both senses, but mostly the sexual one) can form the basis for a shared politics, which is similar enough to my third topic in the list at the start of this post that I’ll address it in Section 3. The other major question is whether cruising really is equally available to all.
Much of my thinking about this question came from a Substack post by the queer writer Brandon Taylor, where he writes about some recent essays decrying the popularity of gay novels that tend toward the sad and tragic, that tell stories which seem to twin queerness to loneliness. Taylor’s argument—i.e., these essayists are jealous of their targets’ successes—is witless and not worth reading. And coming as it does from such a titan in the literary world (Taylor interviewed George Saunders at an event in Brooklyn on the latter’s recent book tour, e.g.), the post reads like a lot of punching down. (Taylor’s also friends with Garth Greenwell, another literary titan whose work is often a subject of the essays at hand, which provides some context for why he’s writing.)
At one point, Taylor claims that these critics are writing from some unspoken white privilege:
I sometimes wonder what to make of these critiques from both the so-called TenderQueer squishy gays and the…I don’t know what to call them, but you know, the ones who read Marx and tweet memes online and listen to podcasts. Those ones. I wonder what to make of their alternating charges of too much sex, too little sex, too much drugs, not enough, etc. Particularly because the platonic homosexual experience over which they are scrapping in the representational field is ultimately a white, cis, and abled homosexual experience, no? Like, the mean internet homosexual socialists and the tenderqueer Heartstopper Tumblr goblins are ostensibly arguing over how the cis white gay male should be represented in narrative.
This is not the argument these critics are making, and you can tell because Taylor doesn’t take the time to cite any of them making such an argument. And anyway to believe that writing about joyful sex, queer happiness, queer communality, and so on depicts a cis-white ableist experience belies an ignoring (if not an ignorance) of the work and lived experiences of Delany, José Esteban Muñoz, Alex Espinoza, Brontez Purnell, and other queer writers of color.
While Taylor’s argument is a poor one, I cite it at length because his concerns of representation attend in how we talk about (joyful, affirming, empowering) cruising. ‘Cruising is often, though not exclusively, urban and gay,’ Parlett writes, but cruising can’t just be great for urban gay men for cruising to be great. For it to pave the road to a democratic Eden, it has to be equally available and beneficial to everyone. And for those of us writing about its potential, we need to keep in mind that only 27 percent of Americans describe their neighborhood as urban, meaning the majority of the public lives in rural and suburban areas. How does cruising work there, or how can it, given the different relationships rural and suburban folks have to public spaces, public transit, cultural diversity, etc.?
That’s one question—the question of geography—I’d like to see cruising utopians address more directly.
The other question is Taylor’s question of biology, of bodies. While plenty of writers have shown cruising’s not just for white men, to what extent is it available to fat men, or disabled men, or skinny men who don’t go to the gym, or older men? The kinds of bodies you don’t see in underwear ads.
Let’s call that the Capitalist Body, the kind of body engineered to spark arousal (I want that) and fear (What if I can’t have that?), an uneasy mix that itself is made to get you to buy something as a way to quell the unease. Any writing on cruising that focuses on being open to looks and glances will only alienate those non-CB folks whose bodies the cruising public is not looking at, and even actively turning from.
So desire is not meted out equally. But there’s a complication here with the CB. While CBs are popularly desirable, not all desirable bodies are CBs. I’m talking about there being many fish in the sea. I’m talking about whatever floats your boat. If you don’t find yourself with a Capitalist Body, you may have to look harder for that desiring glance from a stranger, but—the theory goes—in time, you’ll find it.
How, though? Short answer = trust. To explore that in more detail, we need to look more closely at the dynamics of a cruising moment, which brings us to part 3.
The cruising moment has a setting in place and time. Place = the Ramble, Buena Vista Park, what we back in Lincoln called ‘the Fruit Loop’, a stretch of 15th Street south of the Capitol that had a median, where MSM would circle in their cars looking for other interested car-circlers. Every cruising place was made for something other than cruising, but contains certain traits that turn it into a place for cruising. Remoteness. Lack of parents with kids around. A noisy door around the bend of a little hallway that alerts everyone in the restroom that someone is coming in.
Apps and websites may have made cruising places proliferate (you can now just look up where the active ones are in your town), but most of the cruising sites were activated before the Internet, and it’s noteworthy how they’ve persisted. You can’t advertise a cruising site. You can’t market it, or promote it. In this way, cruising sites belong to the commons. We cruisers have formed them together.
Cruising time = now. It’s stating the obvious but it’s important to our discussion. When you are in the cruising site, you’re looking for sex right now. You’re not looking to meet someone for coffee beforehand, or set something up for Friday afternoon when you have a half-day at work. Even when you cruise someone on the sidewalk, the idea is usually to go find a place right now.
There’s, thus, an urgency to the time setting. The cops might show up. Parents might enter this part of the park with their kids, or straight people might come walking their dogs, and start a campaign that’ll land you on the sex offender registry. We need to do this now.
That urgency often comes with a side of serendipity. Cruisers are patient. If you’re hanging out in a Home Depot men’s room stall, surreptitiously tapping your foot every time someone enters the stall next to yours, it could be an hour or two before that toe-tap gets returned. How many semis does the lot lizard loop around before finding one that opens its passenger door? It’s time-consuming, and so when your cruising signal gets returned, it feels a little like winning the lottery. We need to do this now because if we don’t, who knows how long it’ll be before another person shows interest?
Where I’m going with all this is that cruising place + cruising time affect desirability in ways very different from the commercial moment. What’s ‘a commercial moment’? Well, contrast public cruising with the bathhouse or hookup apps. These are (real, virtual) spaces that have been created (by the market) specifically for strangers to fuck each other, and so what you find in those spaces is the ongoing practice of consumerist choice. Which wear and wash of jean is right for your ideal image of yourself? In bathhouses and on the apps, the CB has a great time, and non-CBs have something else.
Indeed, bathhouses and apps re-engineer what its denizens value. When everyone is willing, willingness is no longer sexy. Shared feeling isn’t sexy. Whereas in public cruising, ‘hot’ is less about the visual package of the body in front of you and more about its willingness, its receptiveness to what you’re putting out there. In this way, the pleasure in cruising is often less sexual than … performative? If sex is about engaging with another body (or two or more), playing at being both subject and object during the encounter, then cruising is about engaging with the practice of cruising.
In other words, it’s not so much about I get to be with this person as it is I get to be doing this public-sex thing.
But if that’s the case, how on earth can that be the basis for a shared political understanding?
I didn’t expect to have a part 4, and I feel my argument is running away from me a little. So let me recap:
- When cruising is framed as charged glances between (city) people, it’s hard to call it democratic.
- When cruising is situated in non-urban spaces—i.e., truckstops, parks/trails, Kohl’s mensrooms—the practice becomes if not disinterested in CBs, then at least much more accommodating to other kinds of bodies and people.
- Cruising’s settings retool desire in a way that makes the practice often impersonal, which is a difficult practice to form as the basis for political solidarity.
Public cruising values eagerness, readiness, willingness. It values the shared desire and luck of finding each other over the way each other looks. In this way, good (maybe we can even call it democratic) cruising practice calls on us to broadcast our availability. Cruising does the opposite of what this T-shirt does:
Cruising is a style or mode of moving through the world and engaging with it. It’s distinct from flirting, or being flirtatious, which carry more active notions of seduction and impressing oneself on others. Cruising puts one in a constant passive mode of open receptivity (it’s so queer/feminist!). In this formulation, you can cruise for anything, not just sex. You can cruise for conversation. You can cruise for help moving that armoire upstairs. Hitchhikers cruise for a ride.
Those forms of cruising involve looking to see what strangers can do for you. Cruising for sex is no different, except you’re also doing something for a stranger. Here’s Delany again, this time from his memoir The Motion of Light on Water, on what struck him the first time we beheld an orgy at the baths:
Whether male, female, working or middle class, the first direct sense of political power comes from the apprehension of massed bodies. That I’d felt it and was frightened by it means that others had felt it too. The myth said we, as isolated perverts, were only beings of desire…. But what this experience said was that there was a population … not of hundreds, not of thousands, but rather of millions of gay men, and that history had, actively and already, created for us whole galleries of institutions, good and bad, to accommodate our sex.
There are more of us than we individually thought. The theory goes that this recognition is the beginning of shared politics. And more so: This thing I find essential in me, I also share with that stranger.
Now: heterosexuals move through the world assuming both of those statements are true. Heterosexuals know they outnumber everyone else. And they presume, barring overt signs to the contrary, that any member of ‘the opposite sex’ is likewise interested in hetero sex.
The only way I can see cruising being of use, then, to heteros is in countering the proud identitarian ways we try to form our desire around our politics: i.e., I’d never fuck a man who voted for D. Trump and so on. This of course is a lie. There are plenty of such voters out there that, without knowing their voting history, you’d want to have sex with.
It was the writer Conner Habib who first calibrated my thinking on this dichotomy, in a tweet years ago I can’t find. To paraphrase: Forming your sexual desires based on your partisan politics is a dead end; instead, form your politics from your desire and you’ll live a happier and more authentic life.
There are some problems with this formulation it’ll take another post to get into. (In brief: What happens when you’re aroused by authoritarian/domination imagery? What if your kink is race play? Desire and politics don’t sit on such a one-way street.) But it does intersect with the argument for the democratic potential for cruising.
Your sexual desire impels you toward people your mind might prefer to keep you away from. The sex-positive way to see this is to listen to and honor what the body wants. You don’t always have to obey the body, but I want to give my body equal if not more attention than I give my mind. The mind is a factor of so many influences and variables—shame is a big one. Is the body free from such influences?
Likely that’s another another post. But if we want a democracy from the bottom-up, We the people, then engaging with one another on terms—sexual or otherwise—we’ve come to on our own seems like the right first step on making that happen.