How did toilet cruising work?
February 17, 2015 3:19 PM   Subscribe

I was reading an gay travel guide from 1980, and it reminded me that I've never understood the mechanics of the toilet pick-up. One of the notable features of the guide is that among all the bars and bathhouses listed, many locations also suggest cruising toilets. This seems so inherently sketchy. How would you know when it was safe to signal to somebody? Don't you run the constant risk of an embarrassing and dangerous confrontation? Do you actually have sex in the bathroom, or is a rendezvous point? And given that these locations are so well established that they appear in a travel guide, wouldn't they be easy pickings for the police?

Any info or stories about etiquette and risk mitigation would be of interest.

Bonus points if you can explain how toilet cruising worked in an international context. After a strong warning about how dangerous cruising is in the Middle East, for example, the guide lists toilets in Syria and Kuwait. There are similar listings throughout the world. While cruising in the U.S. sounds risky, it seems like only those with a death wish would cruise toilets as a tourist in Middle East. But I'm assuming that there must be something I don't understand that makes it safer than Russian roulette.
posted by vathek to Human Relations (23 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
From A Slate Explainer column several years back:

Is tapping your foot really code for public sex?

Yes. The signal has been around for decades in the United States and Europe. Generally, one person initiates contact by tapping his foot in a way that's visible beneath the stall divider. If the second person responds with a similar tap, the initiator moves his foot closer to the other person's stall. If the other person makes a similar move, the first will inch closer yet again. The pair usually goes through the whole process a few times, just to confirm that the signals aren't an accident.

Next, one of the men will slide his hand under the divider. This usually means he's inviting the other person to present himself, as if to say, "Show me what you got." The partner can respond by kneeling on the floor and presenting his penis or rear end underneath the divider. Or he can swipe his own hand under the divider, as if to say, "You go first." Some married men make a point of displaying their wedding band (like Sen. Craig allegedly did) to make themselves more alluring.

Just how sexy can you get when there's a divider in the way?

It depends on the bathroom. If the participants were in the last stall in a long row, they might have enough privacy to get it on right there beneath the divider. Alternatively, one person can enter the other's stall by surreptitiously ducking out and back. Positions vary depending on the space, but one classic setup has one man sit on the toilet while the other straddles his legs and receives oral sex. (In the 1970s, some men frequenting the popular bathrooms at Bloomingdale's in New York would hide their legs by standing in a pair of shopping bags.)

posted by Triumphant Muzak at 3:26 PM on February 17, 2015 [16 favorites]

Usually, if you see a bunch of really cute guys just kind of hanging out/walking around by the public toilets in the park around 3am you generally have a pretty clear idea of what's going on. It's the time of day that's key.
posted by sexyrobot at 3:37 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

This reminds me of reading Joe Orton's Diaries. Public toilet sex was definitely his thing, and there are a number of graphic and hilarious descriptions of dangerous encounters. I think that all the things that make it sound crazy to me are what made it so alluring to Orton. And they absolutely had sex in there, all the different ways! But it was in the dangerous early sixties in England, and the consequences could be harsh, so that must have been the same kind of risk you might get in less gay-friendly places today. And didn't George Michael get busted in a public toilet, too?
posted by feste at 3:40 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Well it was, based on talking to older guys and reading stuff, totally sketchy and dangerous -- which is why most crushing spots like that where for straight guys to have sex with each other. Risky as hell but they weren't really guys who could risk being seen in a bar.
posted by The Whelk at 3:41 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh, and for clarification, I'm more interested in how cruising in busier public toilets worked than how it worked in sheltered or little used locations. For instance, the academic building I work in is listed. While it was slightly different in 1980, it has several departments, dozens of classrooms, professors' offices, and a large lobby where students hang out. The lobby is mentioned in the listing, so it was definitely there.

And sexyrobot, the helpfully detailed listings mention when a spot is only good at a particular time of day, and there's nothing listed here, suggesting that it wasn't just for late night action, though I figured that would be more secure.
posted by vathek at 3:41 PM on February 17, 2015

Well, some places just become notorious, like the Bloomingdale's bathroom or certain train cars during rush hour. For those spots, it's the thrill of danger that IS the appeal. It's like a form of exhibitionism, the idea that you might get caught.
posted by sexyrobot at 3:53 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Or Airport bathrooms.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:55 PM on February 17, 2015

I definitely have been the audience for some kind of toe-tapping like come on, in a men's room in a university building. This was news to me, that people were doing that there. But they were! Maybe it's risky in that there is a small police force with more or less nothing to do who might get annoyed and make arrests, but, I suppose, there are always people who are aroused by that risk.
posted by thelonius at 4:01 PM on February 17, 2015

Vice squads did (and still do) stake out noted cruising spots, including bathrooms. Historically. Recently.
posted by muddgirl at 4:07 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

I believe the film you want to watch on this subject is Al Pacino in 1980's Cruising.

I actually forgot this was a William Friedkin movie.

Um, How old are you? What generation are you from? What part of the country did you grow up in?

The gay community worked out all sorts of codes to communicate. Some places and industries it was OK to be "out," in other places either dangerous or illegal - usually both. I mean, I think 95% of the time it was not OK to be out, and yet, people managed to live and express their sexuality.

It's awesome that Joe Orton was mentioned. Oscar Wilde comes to mind. I read a book about gay culture in Los Angeles called Bohemian Los Angeles that illuminates HUGE influences and aspects of the gay experience in LA from 1900 onward that has been lost to time. Regular raids on bars and other gay meeting places, entertainers that were openly gay and enjoyed superstardom who have been practically written out of history books - really interesting stuff.

I'm sure folks can pop in with resources specific to your area if you update the thread.
posted by jbenben at 4:32 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

IIRC Gay New York by Chauncey (which is a phenomenal book) has specific mentions of how men would have sex in YMCAs. That may be a resource to check out.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 4:44 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's odd that you put this question in the past tense; tearoom sex still exists, at least in the US. Gay liberation and Grindr and increased patrolling have cut down on the total volume. But men who don't think of themselves as "gay" still want to have sex with other men and public parks and restrooms have always been a popular spot for finding partners without messy social definitions. (Also this post could use the tag "cottaging".)

The basic answer to "how could this work?" is that cruising grounds are generally quiet, have long approaches with plenty of warning, or are otherwise somewhere where men looking for sex are unlikely to mix with people just looking for a place to pee. (With some notorious and awkward exceptions like the basement of the Boston Public Library.)

The definitive book on this subject, at least at the time it was written, is Tearoom Trade. It's a very odd book but describes in academic detail how men's room sex worked in the 60s. It's fascinating reading, I recommend it.

This 1962 police video from Mansfield, OH is also fascinating, showing film of men cruising inside a restroom (taken to arrest and humiliate them).

There's an arty porn short called Bankers (NSFW) if you want to enjoy a fantasy on tearoom sex.
posted by Nelson at 4:51 PM on February 17, 2015 [12 favorites]

You might enjoy The Cruising Diaries, a filthy illustrated comic written by Brontez Purnell, singer of the Oakland queercore band The Younger Lovers
posted by Juliet Banana at 5:20 PM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

This is not a thing of the past. Here's a 2013 campus newspaper article regarding the men's rooms outside the university office I worked at for most of the aughts. Basically, people don't know about it because the guys are generally pretty discreet, but then someone would become brazen or there'd be complaints and there'd be a shock piece in the paper and the cops would crack down and things would die down for a couple months and then return.

So regarding safety, campus police mostly had better things to do than sit in a stall for hours hoping to catch cruisers who are pretty much invisible to non-cruisers unless you're looking for evidence of such things. It's not like craigslist or bars or whatever don't have an element of danger to them, too.
posted by substars at 5:28 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for their great answers so far.

Nelson, I wrestled with the question of whether or not to use the past tense, since I know that it still goes on for functional and fetishistic reasons. I settled on the past tense because I'm much more interested in how it worked when it was more prevalent than how it works now. I assumed that there would be significant differences. Maybe there are less than I expected, though, to judge by the answers so far. It's obviously not a subject I know very much about. My knowledge of what it was like to be gay in America during the sixties and seventies is colored as much by tawdry paperbacks from the era as by more legitimate history, so I suspect that I have an exaggerated idea of how much cruising was taking place outside of safe spaces like bars, sex shops, bathhouses, and theaters. Am I totally off base to think that this sort of cruising had a real "golden age" in the seventies and early eighties in the sense that there was a lot more of it going on, in more locations, and with more people involved?

jbenben, I'm not sure how my area is relevant. I'm not trying to figure out how I can cruise safely but just to understand how people do/did it. Maybe I'm misunderstanding you?

substars, Anderson Hall is listed in the travel guide - a venerable spot.
posted by vathek at 5:48 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

vathek; totally veering off to opinion here, and I was born in 1972 so my knowledge of sex in the 70s and 80s is secondhand. But I share the sense that time was a golden age for casual gay sex. Both because it was before AIDS and also because it was a time when "gay" wasn't such a strict social definition and more "straight" men were willing to have sex with other men without thinking through some complicated set of identity politics.

Sorry I don't have more info for you on the international scene. The Damron guides from the 80s are indeed intriguing, such specific information about an underground activity.

One more book to give you the flavor of the 70s; Tricks by Renaud Camus. I don't recall that there's any tearoom encounters there, more one night stands and brief flings. But it's masterfully written and a more literary description of the casual gay sex scene of the 70s than the usual smut. Also in that category is Samuel Delaney's The Motion of Light in Water, which talks in great detail about his time cruising the trucks in New York.
posted by Nelson at 6:45 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

David Leavitt wrote a story called Ayor, which is the acronym for At Your Own Risk posted in the Damron guides about cruising spots.
posted by brujita at 7:08 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

You may be interested in Samuel R. Delany's Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:19 PM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

Someone I know wrote a piece about being cruised in a stall through an empty seat cover holder in a Times Square hotel.
posted by brujita at 8:00 PM on February 17, 2015

The book you want to read is Tearoom Trade: Impersonal sex in public places by Laud Humphreys and Lee Rainwater. It was published in 1975, the "golden age" you mention. I remember reading it in a sociology class in college and being AMAZED that such an exhaustive study of such a specific practice existed.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:16 AM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you're up for it, search XTube for 'understall' and get all the education you'll ever need.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:57 AM on February 18, 2015

Just came on to mention Tearoom Trade, but a fiendish thingy beat me to it. It's exactly what you're looking for.
posted by jasper411 at 12:22 PM on February 18, 2015

I have a friend who worked in the Clerk's Office in a federal courthouse ten years, so it's not current but not the 80's. One or two days of the month were the US Park Police docket days when they had hearings for all the arrests and citations on federal parkland in Northern Virginia, this included all the enforcement activity at the cruise-y spots. These locations are in your travel guide (Iwo Jima Memorial, and parking areas along the GW Parkway), and it was easy picking for the police.

The police ran a sting operation where the young hot officer in plain clothes would approach other men who were lingering and strike up a flirtatious conversation. The goal was to either get the person to agree to pay for sex and arrest them on solicitation, or most often get them to show off their junk in anticipation of that leading to something more then arrest them for indecent exposure. This happened in the public bathrooms, the parking lots, and anywhere in the parks.

So if saying hi and flirting with men who were lingering in a known spot worked for the police, I assume it is close enough to what people looking for sex expect to happen normally.
posted by peeedro at 1:52 AM on March 6, 2015

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