Let’s say you have a half-hour to kill in midtown Manhattan around 7 p.m. Surely somebody needs their dick played with.
I don’t know why my horned-up Neanderthal brain always thinks it’s worthwhile to seek out somebody decently attractive to hook up with on a moment’s notice. Maybe it’s a smartphone millennial thing. Maybe it’s the pseudo-nostalgia I have for the fast-paced cruising encounters depicted in gay films, literature and anecdotes from friends. Men in the right mood find each other at the right time and the right place, and sparks fly.
Or at least so I’m told. Because this perfect synergy has happened to me maybe only once or twice in my decade of a gay sex life, and I wouldn’t describe them as especially good sexual experiences either.
But for some reason, this magical possibility seems like enough of a basis to still pursue it all the time. And so, I find myself wandering between Seventh and Eighth Avenues peering into a sterile chain cafe too overwhelmed by tourists for me to sit in peace. It’s cold, too, so my hands are going numb from idly refreshing a gay cruising app that I’ll identify by name when they start paying me to.
I have about 30 minutes before I’m supposed to meet a client; the train happened to be efficient on this one occasion, of course. Despite being a fresh face in an extremely dense neighborhood, I cannot seem to get a response on my app from any hot guys in the immediate vicinity. This is fine, my well-adjusted inner voice tells me, and not at all a reasonable metric of how desirable you are.
Then my phone buzzes away the blank, insecure space in my brain, sparkles of dopamine pouring in. I get a message that I’d probably ignore were it not for my particular circumstance: “near [redacted hotel]? jerking off in lower level bathroom.”
Compelling dick pics accompany the request, but I’m generally distrustful of someone who doesn’t volunteer a photo of their face early in the conversation. Then again, why should I care what somebody’s face looks like just to jerk off in a public bathroom with them? Nonetheless, I ask for a face pic anyway. It turns out he’s hot. I can’t help but make my way to the hotel.
Admittedly, I don’t have that much experience with sex in public places. That said, I fantasize about it a lot and consider it an important part of my queer lineage. Stories of bareback sex in city parks and hooking up in bathhouses are our fables — stories of a time when cruising functioned as a vital, singular means for gay men to not just get off, but to discover each other and prove to each other that we weren’t alone in our perversions. For many people living in more repressive worlds than mine, it still functions this way.
Public gay cruising, in my view, takes the typical ways men command power over public space, and rather than leverage such power to victimize women and girls, re-codifies it into an offer of liminal refuge from heterosexual life.
However, I’ve never really been brave enough to do it anywhere that’s not a gay club. I guess I’ve always been too intimidated by the potential outrage of scandalized straight men and too terrified of getting caught by an authority.
I have a dim but entrenched memory of news headlines in my early adolescence about Larry Craig, the homophobic Republican Senator from Idaho who in 2007 was caught “cottaging” — anonymous gay sex in a public bathroom — in the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport. Stationed undercover to arrest more ordinary homosexuals, the police officer who caught Craig reported that he “tapped his right foot,” a detail that imprinted indelibly in my mind. Via the silent, intuitive osmosis by which children receive the news, I knew that I was implicated.
Pundits and parental figures ridiculed the conservative politician for his “doth protest too much” anti-gay policymaking. But the ridicule extended beyond this, slipping seamlessly into a mockery of the practices that queers pathetically rely on to get laid, the kinds the undercover cop had likely arrested plenty more low-profile perverts for enacting. I was 14 when Craig was caught tapping, and I was already avoiding urinals.
This traumatizing scandal and my inexperience with cruising hits me while I walk through the hotel’s revolving door. My heart begins pounding, but luckily, at least a few pulses are headed toward my crotch, too. Fortunately, I’ve been a sex worker long enough to know how to move purposefully through a hotel lobby. This particular one is expansive and busy, and it’s clear that it’s good cruising ground for precisely that reason.
To my right, I see a set of stairs leading down to a conference hall. Some kind of business summit is going on — the kind that’s always taking place at any given hotel to promote “leadership,” “empowerment” or hiring an escort later that night. Hoping the bathroom might be as obviously located as bathrooms ought to be, I descend the stairs only to see several bored faces in business attire behind a registration table. I quickly turn the opposite direction, where there isn’t much left of the floor and no bathrooms. A hotel employee walks by with a concerned expression aimed at me. It doesn’t help that I’m in a fringed leather jacket and a cap that says “SPIT ON IT” — or, of course, that I’m brown. I retreat back up the stairs.
I grow more anxious but determined to defy the suits’ dominance with some classic buggery. Surely there must be another entrance to the lower level. I charge onward through the lobby, peering into the hotel bar and back out, even checking the ground-floor restroom just in case. But there’s way too much traffic for a urinal jerk off. I fall into paranoia, wondering whether I look more like a lost teen or novice tweaker. Finally, I scram.
Defeated, I message the masturbator that I couldn’t find him. He’d been offline for the last 20 minutes — another opportunity to fill in the gaps of a queer education I never fully got pissed away.
But the reality is, I’ve never had to rely on this kind of encounter to access gay sex the way previous generations did. Whether they worked in silos or obliterated those silos, queer men throughout history have carved out corners to fuck in by the necessity of criminalized desire. This is the history I’ve had to seek out from a sparse remainder of slutty queer elders.
There are elementary tactics of cruising that I might have been taught more fully by gay mentors older than me but who were genocidally wiped out by the Reagan administration’s neglect of the HIV/AIDS crisis. I want to cum with their ghosts, but maybe they’re already gone.
In any case, I’d killed enough time to start heading to my client. I never did get any follow-up from the guy who’d been waiting for me in that elusive restroom. Maybe he got caught and thrown out. Maybe he’s down there now, unbuckling the slacks of a conference-goer from Ohio or a concierge on his smoke break.
Either way, I’m sure I’ll find that urinal someday, in the right place at the right time.