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Public sex is at the center of a queer culture war

In the age of cybersex and police surveillance, public sex is complicated.

Jul 17, 2020, 7:01 pm*

IRL

Ana Valens 

Ana Valens

Public sex is a thrill because it can happen anywhere. House parties, gay bars, parked cars, single-use restrooms, leather parties, the Wendy’s near City Hall, the hotel bathroom at a gaming convention. Each of these locations is loaded with memories. Maybe the encounters there were spontaneous and completely unexpected, like running into a friend at a queer bookstore and fucking after drinks. Spontaneous public sex is a way of life for many queers across genders. It’s also risky as hell. One misstep—fucking in the wrong bathroom, going too fast for your partner, hooking up in a gay bar that’s more “LGB” than “LGBTQ”—can spell disaster.

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Then again, simply being in public can be a disaster when you’re queer. Having sex in a public place almost comes naturally when your body is hardly welcomed to begin with.

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Public sex has lost some of its popularity over the years thanks to the internet and modern cybersex, but its taboo nature—and, ironically, increased privacy away from home—still renders it popular. Still, there’s an ongoing culture war within the queer community between those who advocate for public sex and those who believe it’s abhorrent. As radical queers go toe-to-toe with burgeoning purity culture, issues of class, race, gentrification, sexual consent, and the long-term legacy of the AIDS crisis merge together to create one of the most complex issues the LGBTQ community deals with.

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So what’s the deal with having sex in public? In the age of cybersex and police surveillance, that answer is complicated.

LGBTQ Gay Public Sex Dyke March
Elvert Barnes/Flickr (CC-BY-SA)
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What is public sex, and why is it so popular?

Public sex is a form of sexual contact that involves two or more people engaging in sexual activity in a public place. This includes semi-private locations (such as a bathroom stall) and openly public ones (such as a park). Popular public sex locations include, but are not limited to, cars, rest stops, bathroom stalls, beaches, rooftops, balconies, alleyways, forests, parks, forests in parks, concerts, parties, bars, movie theaters, subway stations, sex clubs, parades, and marches (including Pride).

Generally speaking, most public sex happens in semi-private spaces, although this isn’t always the case. If you can envision fucking there, and it’s in a public place, then it’s a place where someone can have (or has had) public sex.

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Public sex exists in a weird limbo. On the one hand, having sex in public places is highly controversial across genders, sexualities, and age groups. At the same time, American culture treats straight public sex as either a normal (albeit slightly awkward) coming-of-age experience or spicy, kinky nightlife fun. Bruce Springsteen sings about having sex with working-class girls under the Asbury Park boardwalk in “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).” The Weeknd tells a girl at a party to “race your ass up all them stairs” and “just grab a room, I swear no one will (interfere)” in “The Party and the After Party” (and he even invites her to bring a friend). Even SpongeBob Squarepants has a joke about teenagers hooking up in cars at secluded cliffsides.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with having public sex for either of those reasons. And there are other reasons why straight people have public sex. For teens or young adults that live in strict, conservative households, public sex provides an opportunity for sexual exploration outside of family control. For women, having sex in public can feel empowering, doubly so if you’re in a space where public sex is expected, such as a music festival, sex party, or BDSM club. But there is a double standard around who gets to have public sex, and who doesn’t, which fuels backlash against queers who have sex in bathroom stalls and park forests.

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Public Sex New York City
ecodallaluna/Flickr (CC-BY-SA)
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Why does the LGBTQ community enjoy public sex?

During the 20th century, public sex was a cornerstone of LGBTQ sexual expression. By having sex in public, queer men, women, and nonbinary folks reclaimed public spaces from heteronormative society and turned them into hubs for queer eroticism and desire. Queer cruising for public sex is born out of necessity, author Alex Espinoza argues in his book Cruising.

“When your identity is forbidden, there is a need beyond physical desire, a human need to be who we truly are if only for a moment,” Espinoza writes. “For centuries, the only way to satisfy this need was through cruising, and the practice plays this crucial role today in the many places around the world where LGBT people are targeted.”

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Public Sex Queer Cruising Sex in Public Pat Califia
Ana Valens

Bathrooms, parks, and alleyways also give queers the privacy they need to hook up with each other away from discriminatory parents, partners, and siblings. In his essay “Public Sex,” Pat Califia argues sexual encounters in tearooms during the 1980s provided an outlet for rural gay men who could not meet and hook up with other men in bars or discriminatory bathhouses. Homoeroticism is so attractive to men across sexualities that the police have to suppress it in order to uphold the heterosexual status quo, Califia writes.

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“Why is sex supposed to be invisible? Other pleasurable acts or acts of communication are routinely performed in public—eating, drinking, talking, watching movies, writing letters, studying or teaching, telling jokes and laughing, appreciating fine art. Is sex so deadly, hateful, and horrific that we can’t permit it to be seen?” he writes. “Are naked bodies so ugly or so shameful that we can’t survive the sight of bare tushes or genitals without withering away?”

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Queer public sex has since become more subdued both as LGBTQ rights have gone mainstream and as the internet has fostered cruising on services like Grindr, Lex, Tinder, Twitter, and Facebook. Meanwhile, marriage equality initiated a push for LGBTQ assimilation through legal reforms over radical cultural change. Sex workers, leather gays, and radical queers still push for destigmatizing public sex, if not engaging in it themselves, but public sex isn’t quite the widespread queer pastime it used to be. 

Instead, moral panic over gay public sex has grown. While cisgender heterosexual couples are much less likely to be seen as boundary violators for hooking up in a bathroom stall or the backseat of a car, queer sex is inherently transgressive, so queer public sex quickly becomes a target for homophobia from within and without the queer community. Last year, a queer user criticized “dumbasses who [have] public sex at pride” because the event is “family-friendly.” The user, who has acronyms for Black Lives Matter and the abolition slogan “All Cops Are Bad” in their profile, promised to “call the police” on these attendees and vowed to “bring a bat to pride and shut shit down.”

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Datalore66, a queer woman from New York City, bemoans the yearly summer discourse around “whether it’s indecent to be sexual in public at Pride” because of its homophobic undertones.

“I think straight people get less scrutiny about these things,” she told me. “No one makes a big deal about straight people being sexual or messy at music festivals or the St. Patrick’s Day parade, and these aren’t even events specifically about sexuality.”

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Queer attitudes changed around public sex for two reasons, writer Deb Schwartz argued in 2000. On the one hand, the AIDS crisis ravaged the queer community and shuttered bathhouses and gay sex clubs, leading to “a retreat into domesticity and a deep sense of fear about random encounters.” Public sex morphed into online hookups, letting queers “simultaneously be both an upright citizen and a sleazy troll,” all by keeping their hook-ups discreet in their own homes.

Meanwhile, Schwartz writes, the ‘90s brought about a bull market that led to real estate development across urban spaces that were once unused and were thus perfect for public sex encounters. As gentrification emerged and policing around new real estate developments increased, she continues, queers interested in public sex were scrutinized by law enforcement while middle-class gays who could profit off growing property values turned a blind eye.

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“Public sex is on the wane because urbanites, gay and straight, are so caught up in the economic-boom mindset that we’re willing to trade community and shared public life for any semblance of a guarantee (clean parks, open sidewalks) that our urban futures will be just as tidy and controlled as the recent upward march of the S&P 500,” Schwartz writes.

This isn’t a coincidence. In Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence, author Christina B. Hanhardt explores how predominantly white gayborhoods benefited from gentrification and encouraged policing in their neighborhoods. Today, anti-public sex values follow in these assimilationist footsteps. LGBTQ people who have the luxury to choose when and where to have sex will never understand why public sex is sometimes a necessary part of queer life. Because they rent an apartment with their own room, live in a family house big enough to sneak in a hookup, or own their own apartment, public sex is merely a choice.

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Dreadful Damsel
Dreadful Damsel
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This isn’t the case for many queer people of color, especially those who are Black, working-class, and/or living with their families. Black lesbian sex worker Dreadful Damsel told the Daily Dot that privacy is not an option for many queer people of color, and the risk of being kicked out or abused is so high that it’s not worth being found out. Since queers of color might not have the privacy or supportive family necessary to have queer sex at home, public sex becomes their only option.

“Unfortunately, it’s a sad reality that a lot of [families of color] don’t give the proper support necessary to facilitate happy queer children, and to run the risk of getting kicked out when you’re found that you’re queer is not worth expressing yourself in a lot of cases,” Dreadful said. “If you get caught being gay in your old-fashioned parent’s house you run the risk of just straight up getting kicked out or getting bitched out so badly that you hurt or kill yourself. You can get around that by hooking up with your partner in their car somewhere no one will catch you, or in a private bathroom at a restaurant! Or at the gay bar where people are straight up dry humping in the corridors.”

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If views on public sex are symptoms of socioeconomic differences, then by definition, debates on public sex are just as much about purity culture as they are gentrification, real estate development, and marginalized peoples’ right to exist in non-normative ways in public spaces.

Public Sex Pat Califia NYC
Ana Valens
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What about public sex and consent?

Public sex poses issues for its advocates, too. Are there ethical and unethical forms of public sex? Do you need strangers’ consent to hook up in public? If a bystander stumbles across public sex in a bathroom stall, should they simply look away?

Califia argues that most public sex is “quasi-public sex,” or has some level of privacy. Car doors, bathroom stalls, and bushes provide a “barrier [that] screens out the uninitiated,” separating “participants in public sex and the outside world.” This grants just enough privacy so that anyone who wants to see public sex would have to peer inside in the first place. That said, Califia questions whether sex needs to be “quasi-public” at all.

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“I no longer find nudity frightening or repulsive […] Instead I have become more accepting of my own unadorned, vulnerable, imperfect flesh,” he writes. “Seeing other people having sex is reassuring and enlightening. It calmed the panic I’ve been carrying around ever since I first heard my parents fucking and thought they must be murdering each other.”

Many queer people follow in Califia’s footsteps. Datalore66 is a millennial born and raised in New York City, where she started having public sex during her teen years. Growing up, “almost no one [had] a car” in New York, and queer community was hard to find, leaving few alternatives available. While she’s since stopped having as much public sex, Datalore66 still enjoys it to this day and only discourages public sex when it’s particularly distracting, inconsiderately messy (such as sex with vomiting), or involves sex near a place where children could be present.

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“I would have sex in stairwells, out-of-the-way streets, the botanical garden, wherever I could get half-privacy,” she said. “Now I have my own space, but I still think it’s exciting. As long as no children can see and you’re not being too obnoxious, I think it’s fine.”

Dreadful takes a slightly different approach: She always factors in onlookers and tries to prevent exposing sexual activity to unwanted adult third-parties, as well as families and children. She has certain specific locations she prefers to hook up that strike a balance between public sexual expression and privacy to others. Heavy metal concerts, for example, have music so loud “that no one can hear you fucking in the [bathroom] stall.”

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“Personally I feel like if you are going to be performing explicit acts in public you should take into consideration that the public doesn’t always want to be involved. Consent is important, and that being said, there are plenty of places to [fuck in] public where people want to watch!” she said. “I love public sex but I’m not trying to expose myself to a parent and their children just out trying to enjoy their day.”

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Datalore66 and Dreadful generally reflect two common beliefs held by the various other queer sources I spoke to for this piece: Most generally advocated for public sex with limits. But this belief isn’t universal. Jordan, a queer nonbinary millennial who practices a mixture of public sex and outdoors sex, said he doesn’t think “anything is off-limits” for public sex. He has a lengthy relationship with the practice that dates back to his teen years hooking up with men in “mall bathrooms, dance studios, mall staircases, summer camp bathrooms, parks, and very often cars,” he told the Daily Dot. (“During that period of my life, having sex in an actual bed was pretty rare.”) These days, Jordan mostly has sex in his apartment, but he still engages in public sex, calling it “an act of rebellion to exist sexually where we’re told not to.”

“One time when I was maybe 18/19 I had sex in a church with this guy my age who worked in the church and had the keys. It was good sex, but more importantly, it was kind of an act of revenge for how I felt I—and countless other queer individuals before me—have been devalued and demonized by the church,” he told me. “I maybe didn’t fully understand my motivations at the time but I know I LOVED it!”

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Public Sex Police Surveillance Amazon Alexa
Ana Valens
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Who gets to decide what is (and isn’t) public gay sex?

If you own a smart device, it’s probably peering into your life. Voice assistants are always listening for their wake word, and when they hear it, they start recording. Simple things can set off the recording, too. One Washington Post columnist describes how Alexa grabbed “sensitive conversations that somehow triggered Alexa’s ‘wake word’ to start recording, including my family discussing medication and a friend conducting a business deal.”

Both Amazon and Google hire human contractors to record transcripts of your conversations with Alexa and Google Assistant, respectively. And deleting your information doesn’t necessarily protect you from eavesdropping. Amazon saves some transcripts of your audio commands to Alexa, even if you delete the recordings themselves. 

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Which begs the question: How many times has Alexa heard you masturbate? How many times has she recorded you having sex? Has someone at Amazon heard it? Do they have it on file? Nearly a decade after Edward Snowden revealed the existence of PRISM, an NSA initiative storing personal information from major tech companies, most Americans know they’re being watched. But it’s one thing to realize your privacy is a battleground, and another to think about its logical conclusion. How many times were your private sexual encounters actually “public sex” without your permission?

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NYPD Public Sex
Elvert Barnes/Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

This goes back to a larger issue at play with public space, queer desire, and sexual norms: Who gets to decide what a public space is and what it’s for? In a world controlled by heteronormative demands, that usually ends up being cis and straight people.

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In “Public Sex,” Califia argues the police try to expand control of public spaces as much as possible until they are snooping on “quasi-public sexual encounters,” such as bathroom stalls and hookups hidden behind underbushes. Years before Google and Amazon emerged, he described how “electronic snooping” is “so sophisticated that intimate information can be gathered anywhere, including your bedroom.” Califia asked readers to think twice about who’s really violating whose boundaries. Purity politics, he suggested, is just an excuse to expand police power and suppress queer sexual expression.

“I definitely think there’s a discussion to be had about how most places in America are made for and cater to straight/cis people. With such few queer spaces available for us to exist freely, we make our own,” Jordan said. “And public sex is part of that because queer people are often othered for how our sex differs from the mainstream—so public sex is a way to use that which for which we’ve been othered to create and exist intimately in our own spaces, even if for a moment.”

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In a world where our phones are tracking our every moves, our voice assistants are listening in on our conversations, our unencrypted sexts can be seen by service providers, and our webcams can spy on our BDSM sessions, we are all having public sex now. Defending public sex is partly about defending the right for consenting adults to decide when they have sex, where, and who they do (and don’t) allow to gaze in. And in that case, it’s the most marginalized that are gawked at and policed the most.

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As Dreadful puts it, “white privilege and systemic racism play a role in where and when and how I get to do literally anything.” She stresses that “being able to express your desires openly has a lot to do with not letting people who aren’t involved with your desires get in your way.”

“Usually at places I like to have public sex, in like stalls at heavy metal concerts or at sex parties, I’m usually among the only Black or dark-skin person at the function,” she said. “For me though, I grew up learning how to fit in as typically the only visible minority at a certain function. Being able to pursue my desires became a lot easier when I stop caring about what white cishets think when I’m just out enjoying my life and being myself.”

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove a tweet written by a minor.

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*First Published: Jul 17, 2020, 8:00 am