Public Sex

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Little is known about public sex between men or between women in the colonial and antebellum periods, but as U.S. cities began to increase in population and complexity in the late nineteenth century, public and semipublic spaces became important to the sexual cultures of LGBT people. Dominant bourgeois culture, however, attempts to draw strict boundaries between the public and private spheres and, at an ideological level, often relegates sex to the private sphere. In this context, public sex has been considered transgressive and has been subject to policing. This has been particularly true for LGBT public sex. In periods of intense policing especially, men and women who engage in same-sex sexual encounters in public places and transgender people who have sex in public have been vulnerable not just to physical violence but also to social harm. The appropriation of public, semipublic, and commercial spaces for sexual purposes, however, has been one way for LGBT people to claim their right to sexual pleasure and to build community within a heterosexist and sexist society.

Men typically have been more involved in same-sex public sex than have women. First, men have had greater economic freedom than women to live and work independent of family or domestic life, and men's labor has taken them out more generally into the public sphere. Second, dominant sexual ideologies have tended to cast aspersions on middle-class women's presence on public streets, classifying them as prostitutes or at least as promiscuous; consequently, men have been able to use urban public space more easily than have women. Third, women often have been more vulnerable than men to sexual violence in public. Finally, gay male cultures typically have placed a higher premium on frequent, casual sex with many partners than have lesbian cultures. Some scholars attribute these differences to underlying biological distinctions between men and women, while others believe that culture and socialization are primarily responsible. Still others caution against exaggerating these differences, suggesting that future scholarship may uncover forms and examples of lesbian public sex that have not yet been documented.

Urbanization, Public Space, and Gay Community Formation

During the period of intense urbanization and industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, men and women migrated from rural areas to American cities in increasing numbers. Within the context of migrant communities that were largely same-sex or homosocial, LGBT subcultures emerged, offering their members some scope to pursue sexual pleasure. Private space for sexual intimacy was not always available to those living in cramped quarters, however. George Chauncey, for example, argues that working-class men in New York in this period, many of whom did not have private space in their apartments or tenements, were drawn to public sex.

Historians have uncovered gay men pursuing sex with men in a wide variety of urban public places in virtually every period of U.S. history for which sources are available. Men have pursued public sex in parks, under bridges, behind trees or bushes, in alleys, on beaches, and in the restrooms of public facilities, known as "tearooms" (originally "t-rooms" or "toilet rooms"). Beyond simply providing sexual release, note historians, public sex has been central to gay community formation in places ranging from large cities, such as Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., to small cities and rural areas, such as Flint, Michigan, and Mississippi. A subculture of trans-sexual sex workers, sometimes soliciting or engaging in sex in public, has also developed alongside urban gay male subcultures.

In the twentieth century, some men involved in public same-sex sexual activity have identified themselves as gay, bisexual, or transgender; others have not. For some men living a "double life" in the twentieth century, furtive sex in public places offered a relatively safe way to obtain sexual pleasure with other men. For example, fully one-fourth of the men arrested for homosexual activity in New York in 1920–1921, most of whom were caught in public places, were married, and many had children. Other men who engaged in same-sex sex in public, however, identified strongly with the gay subculture and did not pursue heterosexual marriage.

Geographies and Cultures of Public Sex

By the early twentieth century, gay men had developed a complex sexual culture revolving around encounters in urban public places. Public restrooms, segregated by sex, played a central role. Many well-known tearooms were located in department stores, public libraries, or bus or train stations. Closed off from streets and businesses and reserved for bodily functions ordinarily not discussed in public, restrooms allowed men a certain scope for creating "privacy in public," as sociologist Laud Humphreys put it in his 1975 study Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places. Following the massive highway construction of the post–World War II era, rest stops on major highways and automobiles parked in secluded places also became important sites for sexual encounters between men.

Restrooms, parks, and porn theaters offered some security from the attention of family members at home and from violent attacks by hostile bystanders; bath-houses and sex clubs provided additional safety. Men pursuing sex in all of these places often signaled their intentions to each other by hovering, loitering, and looking each other in the eye—nonverbal strategies that kept their intentions invisible to nonfriendly bystanders and passersby. In some restrooms, one man served as a guard near the entrance, so that he could alert men in compromising positions if a stranger or police officer approached. Still, these tactics did not make sex in tearooms and other public places entirely secure. Men caught having sex in public frequently were arrested and sometimes were sentenced to time in prisons or workhouses for "morals" offenses. They also were subject to violent attacks by those offended by public sex, gay sex, the sexual attentions of men, or their own sexual desires. Transsexual and trans-gender people, who faced the additional stigma of their gender variations becoming known or visible, have been especially subject to brutal violence in public places.

Virtually no historical scholarship has examined public sex between women specifically, though it undoubtedly occurred. One of the few exceptions is a memoir of working-class lesbian bar life in the 1950s and 1960s by Joan Nestle, who describes public flirtation and sexual activity on lesbian beaches in Brooklyn, New York, and on Fire Island. Although historians have uncovered little evidence of public sex between women before the 1970s, this may be because, in a male-dominated society, sex between women has not always registered as threatening or visible in the same ways that sex between men has.

Crackdowns and Scandals

Although gay bar culture and public sexual life were subject to policing in the early twentieth century, municipal policing became much more active in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Numerous historians have shown that arrests of and crackdowns on gay men having sex in public places were far more frequent in the mid-twentieth century than in earlier decades. In a society that was increasingly divided into people who classified themselves as homosexuals or heterosexuals, men arrested for public sex were liable to be seen not only as criminals and sinners but also as mentally ill. The risks for those arrested, then, changed just at the moment when public sex was becoming policed more intensely.

The mid-twentieth century also witnessed a major increase in the intensity of sex scandals, some of which revolved around same-sex public sex. Municipal police expanded their "vice squad" operations, with undercover officers propositioning men for sex in a technique known as entrapment. Many entrapped men subsequently were fired from their jobs, fined, or even jailed. John Howard documents a 1953 crackdown on a tearoom in the Atlanta Public Library, which resulted in the arrest of some twenty men; once their names were published as part of the Atlanta Constitution's extensive coverage of the case, almost all these men lost their jobs or moved away. The same year, the African American activist Bayard Rustin was arrested for having sex with two young men in a parked car in Pasadena, California, an incident that permanently damaged his career in the civil rights and peace movements.

Perhaps the most famous tearoom scandal of the twentieth century broke just three weeks before the U.S. presidential election of 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson's chief of staff, Walter Jenkins, was arrested for having sex in a public restroom in Washington, D.C. Even after Jenkins, a married man, resigned his post, the controversy continued when it was discovered that he had been arrested in the same restroom five years earlier. In line with Cold War–era associations between sexual perversion and political subversion, much of the controversy focused on Jenkins's access to classified information and the potential threat to national security that he might have posed.

Gay Liberation and the Politics of Sexual Space

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, LGBT people increasingly asserted their rights to socialize in public and commercial spaces. In this period, activists urged LGBT people to "come out" by affirming their sexual and gender identities in public. With an emphasis on making LGBT identities and behaviors acceptable in public life, the furtive quality of much sexual activity in public places came to be regarded by some as a sign of shame and oppression. The increasing size of urban sexual subcultures, if anything, probably increased the scale and visibility of public sex.

Many openly gay men and transgender people, as well as non-gay-identified men, continued to pursue casual sex in public places. According to Esther Newton, in the lesbian and gay resort on Fire Island, near New York City, increasing numbers of gay vacationers in the 1960s expanded the area of the "Meat Rack." On this stretch of beach between the island's two towns, gay men "cruised" and pursued public sex, in couples and groups, behind bushes and in the open. Since Fire Island was a relatively isolated resort area where LGBT people predominated, many gay men relished the opportunity to pursue public sex without the threat of being arrested or assaulted. Still, public sex between men on the Meat Rack created tension between gay men and lesbians; Newton shows, for example, that gay men sometimes harassed lesbians simply for walking past the Meat Rack. A widespread joke about a "Doughnut Rack" (analogous to the gay male "Meat Rack") referenced the apparent absence of a lesbian public sex culture.

The AIDS Crisis, the Politics of Respectability, and Sex Controversies

The AIDS crisis thrust LGBT life into the media spotlight because of its association with gay men in the early 1980s. For many middle-class straight Americans, reports on the sexual transmission of the HIV virus provided their first exposure to the world of bathhouses, bars, parks, and porn theaters where many gay men sought and found sexual pleasure. The fear and uncertainty surrounding the disease led many gay men to limit the number of their sexual partners, and in several major cities, gay bath-houses were closed by municipal order. These bathhouse closures were highly controversial, especially in such cities as San Francisco and New York, with large, politically influential LGBT communities.

Beginning in the early 1970s, some LGBT activists began to advocate public sex precisely because it subverted bourgeois norms of propriety and privacy. Over the course of the next several decades, lesbian sex radicals began to sponsor "play parties"—some exclusively lesbian, others welcoming gay male and transgender participants—to dispel stereotypes of lesbian monogamy and to draw attention to female pleasure. In the 1990s, lesbian pornographers began producing such films as Bathroom Sluts (1991), which explicitly eroticized public sex. Also in the 1990s, some LGBT commentators, including Patrick (formerly Pat) Califia, Samuel Delany, and Tristan Taormino, embraced public sex as a positive dimension of LGBT culture, denounced the closure and marginalization of sex-related businesses, and criticized the mainstream LGBT rights movement for its advocacy of marriage, monogamy, and other norms that they considered heterosexist and assimilationist.

Public sex has continued to be controversial in LGBT communities. For some gay men, public sex is a sign of shame and disgrace, and certain community leaders have argued that public sex and other marginal sexual practices foster the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. For others, the history and practice of public sex is a symbol of sexual liberation and pride. LGBT legal advocacy organizations in the late twentieth century frequently found themselves unsure about whether to protest policing practices against the "tearoom trade," especially when the men involved were not openly affiliated with LGBT communities.

Public sex holds a critical and controversial place in debates over the shifting legal status of same-sex sexual activity. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas, but the Court's decision upheld the right of LGBT people to pursue consensual sex only in couples and only in their private homes. Califia and other radical sex activists have argued that political action rooted in the assertion of privacy rights will only increase the dangers and risks facing people who engage in same-sex sexual or social behaviors in public and semipublic places.


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Timothy Stewart-Winter

see alsobathhouses; cruising; prostitution, hustling, and sex work; prostitution, hustling, and sex work law and policy; sex clubs; tearooms (bathrooms).

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