A brief history of public sex
October 30th, 2023
In her new column, Sex and the Cities, writer Anna Fitzpatrick will be looking at the way our environment becomes a part of who we are, and vice versa.
Public sex is often assumed to be an act of exhibitionism, meaning the people involved in the act receive sexual gratification from being witnessed or the risk of being witnessed. While there are surely people to whom this applies, this is a reductionist view. Historically, and across multiple cultures, attitudes towards public expressions of sexuality have not always been what they are now. Whether that’s for better or worse is a matter of personal opinion.
Equally subjective is the “public” part of public sex. It can often refer to relations that happen in spaces better described as semi-private: movie theaters, parks late at night, or designated clubs in venues where witnessing sexual intimacy among strangers is to be expected. These spaces became outlets for those who found that the private sphere was not a safe space to be their full selves. For closeted gay men who lived with their families, finding these “third places” away from the first place of the home and the second place of the office, away from the prying eyes of cops, became crucial to expressing their sexuality in a relative safety.
This history of public sex is vast, and can (and does) fill volumes. This column will focus on gay men, in honor of Pride across North American cities like New York, and future columns will focus on other communities to give them the spaces they deserve.
A bathhouse is a building containing baths for communal use. Historically, they have been used to promote public hygiene, especially as access to clean water was hard to come by in the private home. The existence of public baths have been well documented in the Indus Valley in 2500 BC and later, in ancient Rome, and hammams, banyas, saunas, onsen, and their variations exist around the world.
Eventually, bathhouses became a popular meeting spot for gay men who were seeking sex outside the homes they shared with their families. There are reports of a raid on a gay bathhouse in fifteenth century Florence, but in the United States, gay bathhouse culture really started to proliferate in the late nineteenth century. “Because all sex acts between men were considered public and illegal, gay men were forced to become sexual outlaws,” wrote Allan Bérubé in his 2003 paper, “The History of Gay Bathhouses.". “They became experts at stealing moments of privacy and at finding the cracks in society where they could meet and not get caught.”
In February 1903, the Ariston Bathhouse in New York City was raided by undercover police officers. Twenty-six men were arrested, with seven of them facing prison time. It was the first known anti-gay police raid in New York City, though many more were to follow in North America throughout the rest of the century.
Cruising refers to the act of seeking casual, often anonymous sex in public or semi-public locations such as bars, parks, public washrooms, truck stops, clubs, and piers. Gay cruising in New York City experienced a boom in the period of the 1970s after Stonewall and before HIV and AIDS were named as sexually transmitted diseases. Some men, particularly those in the leather scene, would flag the specific sex acts they were looking for.
The pornographic movie theaters of Times Square became a popular discrete cruising location, which critic and essayist Samuel R. Delany chronicled in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. In 1995, New York City council voted to change the zoning laws to radically restrict sex businesses, eventually turning Times Square into the tourist-friendly destination we know it as today. This change had disastrous effects on gay businesses, particularly places where gay men met for sex.
“None of these businesses have been targets of local complaints,” wrote cultural critics Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner in Critical Inquiry. “Gay men have come to take for granted the availability of explicit sexual materials, theaters, and clubs. That is how they have learned to find each other; to map a commonly accessible world; to construct the architecture of queer space in a homophobic environment; and, for the last fifteen years, to cultivate a collective ethos of safer sex. All of that is about to change.” Once central cruising locations were pushed to the waterfront, far away from public transit and alongside men seeking heterosexual porn, as Berlant and Warner point out, increasing their risk of violence.
Delany depicted the porn theaters as accessible convening spots for people of different classes and races. Of their closure, he writes that he is arguing “toward conceiving, organizing, and setting into place new establishments—and even entirely new types of institutions—that would offer the services and fulfill the social functions provided by the porn houses that encouraged sex among the audience. Further, such new institutions should make those services available not only to gay men, but to all men and women, gay and straight, over an even wider social range than did the old ones.”
Pride and the future
As we celebrate Pride, it’s as important as ever to remember its radical origins. LGBTQ+ rights continue to face attacks in the United States and around the world. We’ve seen in the past how the criminalization of homosexuality served to push queer people into the margins where they become increasingly vulnerable to police raids and violence in the name of public decency. These attacks particularly target those for whom the home is not and has never been a safe space. Morality is a weapon that conservatives use to punish sexuality outside of the heterosexual nuclear family. In their eyes, certain forms of sex will always be viewed as indecent, whether it occurs in the bathroom of a nightclub or in the privacy of a bedroom.