I feel like Belle de Jour.
A couple of weeks ago, I was asked by Time Out to write an article about the reality of cruising in London in 2010 for their Sex Issue. I was excited at the prospect, and took to burying myself in the British Library, lost in social histories of gay London and dense queer theory debates.
Fascinating as the research was, it all felt slightly too academic. Here I was in my ivory tower writing an article about strangers fucking in public, without having any experience of what it was actually like to be that stranger or that one being fucked. I had to take it to the streets.
The following article was the fruit of my labours - an edited version of which appears in this week's Time Out:
As my eyes adjust to the dimness, I begin to make out the figures who line the path. I give each one the up-and-down – there are teenagers and septuagenarians, men who dress like shop workers next to city slickers. This is not Gaydar, where you scroll through pages of guys before settling on one – this is personal.
It was with trepidation and buzzing excitement that I’d clambered on to Hampstead Heath on this balmy spring evening. Sweaty-palmed, I’d navigated the muddy slope leading down to the West Heath from Jack Straw’s Castle, all the time thinking: Why am I doing this? As soon as I reached the main path, it was clear that something queer was going on. And now, with solitary men sizing each other up, and sizing me up, there’s no going back: I’m cruising, for the first time in my life. I quickly figure out the ground rules: talking is the ultimate no-no. Instead, communication is made thorough looks, raised eyebrows, and the subtlest of gestures. A stoke of the eyebrow means you’re interested, a jerk of the head indicates ‘follow me’, a couple of pats on the forearm ‘no, thank you’.
I’d always been put-off by the idea of cruising. Not that I had anything against it, you understand – it just seemed dangerous, messy, and cold. London has gay bars and clubs catering to every niche – Heaven in Charing Cross for twinks (slim young-looking boys), XXL in London Bridge for bears (heavy-set and hirsute guys), The George & Dragon in Shoreditch for hipsters – so why would I settle for having sex with just anyone on Hampstead Heath?
Cruising is nothing new. In the eighteenth century, gentlemen would gather in private rooms known as ‘molly houses’ to cross-dress and meet sexual partners, away from the judgemental eyes of society and the law. But, as charming as this was, it was chiefly the preserve of the wealthy, offering no relief for the everyday guy. So what was a closeted Georgian to do? Well, they took their illegal desires outside, and have done ever since. London’s parks became prime spots for men of low standing to get their rocks off, offering – unlike the street or urinals – a relative safety from observation. From St. James’s Park in the 1700s to Hyde Park in the 1920s, and to Russell Square in the latter half of the twentieth century, there is practically no open space in London that has not been appropriated by gay men for cruising at one point or another. Hampstead Heath really took off as a cruising hotspot after the World War II. Initially the ponds were where men went to see and be seen, but inevitably looking wasn’t enough. Men took their desires into the bushes, and in recent decades it’s the West Heath that’s become the hub of cruising activity.
Whereas cruising was a necessity in days gone by, these days it’s easier for a gay man to have sex than to buy a pint of milk. You can cruise guys on Gaydar at home, or with Grindr in your local Starbucks. Why trek through the mud on Hampstead Heath looking for sex when you can have it in the comfort and privacy of your own bedroom?
‘So why am I here?’ I ask myself, stumbling through the murky Heath’s overgrowth. Suddenly ‘UpforitE2’ on Gaydar, who lives a few doors down from me, seems increasingly appealing. Beginning to feel emboldened, I give the guys characters: there’s a Sci-Fi Nerd (a cute chubby teenager with floppy dark hair), Shell Suit (you couldn’t not hear him coming) and Sal (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the torturously closeted Mad Men character of the same name) among many others.
It’s time to take the plunge. I attempt to cruise a tight T-shirt clad guy who wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of Men’s Health. While I’m desperately trying to make eye-contact, he gives me an incredulous look and pointedly turns his head away. Although this is about as anonymous as sex gets, that doesn’t mean that it’s entirely without emotion – and getting snubbed hurts.
The cruising ground has an unspoken sense of camaraderie, though. As I squelch through the dirt I hear a voice: ‘Get out the mud!’ I turn to see a guy in his thirties laughing, smiling at me – he’s a seasoned cruiser, I’m a newbie, and we’re both in on the joke. ‘Thanks’, I mutter, gratefully returning the smile and moving on to the dry path. We all know what we’re doing is taboo, and we’re all in this together. Cruisers are willing to help a brother out, and, surprisingly, it feels safe.
So, is there anything sexy about looking over your shoulder the whole time for police, getting scratched to death by thorns, and having the life buggered out of you by a man you wouldn’t look twice at in a bar? Frankly, there is.
Cruising liberates you from the idea of what a hook-up should look like. I would be lying if I said that the Heath is a place where appearance and age are irrelevant, but it is true that in the gloom these things matter a lot less. The fleeting encounters you have when cruising lead to an understanding of the have nots in gay culture – the flabby, the closeted, the small-dicked.
Technology has permanently changed the face of cruising, taking away the risk, the mess – and a lot of the excitement. Cruising on the web is a double-edged sword – simultaneously creating virtual intimacy, yet often failing to deliver actual human contact. It would be callous to dismiss the internet as only creating isolation, though. Websites dedicated to old-school cruising are vital in spreading knowledge of established cruising spots to the uninitiated, and offering tips on safety and etiquette – I don’t know what I’d have done without squirt.org.
My night on the Heath was the hottest I’ve had all year. I got on the tube not only sexually gratified, but with a feeling that I’d been a part of something special – and nothing about it felt sleazy. Will I do it again? Try and stop me!