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Cruising Around the Bareback Tree. Cottaging in the Era of Grindr. 

Dating apps may have changed the way men arrange casual hookups, but cruising areas still serve an important function, by encouraging social contact and facilitating unbounded sex between strangers.
Research // August 15th, 2018 //


Introduction
One of the first systematic studies on the use of public space for sexual encounters was Tearoom Trade (1978) by Laud Humphreys. By drawing forth on an interactionist approach, stemming from sociologists such as Goffman and Garfinkel, Humphreys examined the behaviour of men having sex with men in public toilets. A storm of critique followed (a.o. Hoffman 1976, Krisberg 1972, Warwick 1973), but also instigated a new wave of sociological interest in cruising behaviour. However, research on cruising areas remained on the margins of sexuality research, and after 2010 most studies on this subject came to a halt. Some experts moved their focus to online dating platforms such as Grindr, Hornet and Scruff, others experienced resistance and (courtesy) stigma from both within and outside academia. The lack of current academic literature on contemporary cruising behaviour, and the increasing popularity of online dating applications facilitating sex among gay men, calls into question whether anonymous cruising activities in public space still take place. If this is indeed the case, it would be interesting to explore the changing function and dynamics of these cruising areas in our current and highly digitalized societies.

By using Hampstead Heath, a park in London, as an explorative case study, this study instigates a renewed interest in cruising areas within sexuality research. On a deductive level, this study tests if cruising areas are still used by men for anonymous sex. On an inductive level, and by moving back and forth between theory and data, this study attempts to generate new hypotheses with regards to the changing dynamics of cruising behaviour in the era of Grindr.


Concepts
Cruising can be defined as ‘the act of searching for, and having sex with, a stranger’ (Frankis & Flowers 2009). Persons engaging in cruising activities are called ‘cruisers’ or ‘cottagers’ and public areas where cruisers frequently meet are termed ‘cruising areas’, ‘erotic oases’ or ‘Public Sex Environments’ (PSEs). These areas share two distinctive features that promote safe sexual encounters between people. First, objects such as doors and bushes separate ‘illicit’ behaviour from their ‘conventional’ surroundings (Delph 1978). Secondly, cruising areas provide an ‘umbrella of legitimation’ so that men ‘can attend them for the functions they legitimately serve while, at the same time, transforming them into theatres of erotic activities’.

Although the term ‘public sex environments’ might suggest that visitors enjoy having sex in public, this does not necessarily have to be true. Many cruisers retreat to more private places, such as overgrown bushes, after they find a partner to have sex with (Frankis & Flowers 2005, 2009). Furthermore, it should be noted that although the literature on cruising areas overwhelmingly focusses on men who have sex with men (MSM), there are also cruising areas where other genders meet to have sex (Hammers 2009).


Methodology
A mixed-method research methodology was used for this research project. First, covert offline non-participant observation techniques were used to deductively test the hypothesis that cruising behaviour still takes place. For this, Hampstead Heath was selected because it met the ideal requirements of a most-likely case study design. If even in an ideal location (a park famous for cruising), under good weather conditions (relatively warm and dry evenings), and at times best known for cruising (afternoons and evenings after dark), no cruising behaviour was found, then the hypothesis that cruising still takes place in our contemporary societies could be questioned. After deductively testing this hypothesis, a combination of non-participant observation and digital ethnography techniques were used to inductively examine how the popularity of online location-based dating applications might have changed the dynamics of cruising behaviour over time.

Although many scholars stress the importance of participant observation techniques in sexuality research (Bolton 1992, 1995, Altork 1995, Goode 1999, Dubish 1995, Adiego 2017) no sexual acts were performed by me while conducting this study. First, because the dominant sexual practice (barebacking) would pose a considerable threat to me as a researcher. Second, because the prime aim of this study was to explore cruising behaviour on a meso-level, rather than to examine sexual acts between individuals on a micro-level. Instead of engaging in sexual acts myself, I played the role of a ‘potential participant’ looking for an opportunity to get into action, and the role of a ‘voyeur’ who enjoys watching others engage in sex (Humphreys 1970). This enabled me to ethically observe cruising behaviour while simultaneously maintaining ‘professional value’ (Tewksbury 2004).

Playing these roles, however, intrinsically involved a certain extent of participation. While observing I noticed that multiple people winked at me, shook their ass invitingly or masturbated in front of me. Others instigated sexual encounters by touching my butt or penis while passing by. I always tried to communicate in a polite and respectful manner that I was not interested in sexual contact with these particular people. However, occasionally firm hand gestures and explicit talkative requests were deemed necessary to protect myself from unwanted sexual encounters. This never led to any conflicts and was ultimately always respected by fellow cruisers.

Besides non-participant observation techniques, digital ethnography was used to examine how digital technologies affect cruising behaviour at public sexual environments. A popular online platform (Squirt) which focusses on sex between men in cruising areas was explored, and three popular location-based gay dating apps (Grindr, Hornet, and Scruff) were installed. From a designated digital observation point, online presence within a 250-meter distance range was measured. No additional filters such as age, ethnicity and sexual interests were used, so that all cruisers were included in the results. To protect the privacy of the observed cruising population, no names and screenshots were collected. However, notes were made on the number of people present online, as well as on the general characteristics of these people. Furthermore, messages that were written on the public Squirt Hampstead Heath Web Forum were collected for my research, after removing the metadata and specific usernames.


Findings
When I entered Hampstead Heath from the hill along the N.End Way, it immediately became clear that cruising activities were still taking place. Searching men slowly walked up and down the main path, while looking around curiously and occasionally touching their crotch to show interest. At first sight, however, it seemed that only a handful of men were involved; a bit less than one might expect from an area internationally known for its vivid and unbound cruising behaviour. Furthermore, little actual action was taking place and most invitations by cruising men remained unanswered. However, after following a steady flow of cruising men to the north, it became clear that most sexual behaviour takes place deeper inside the forest, either in the ‘cruising area during daytime’ or around the ‘Bareback Tree(s)’.

The ‘cruising area during daytime’ is a relatively shielded place full of small, zigzagging paths taking cruisers through dense bushes, tiny lakes, fallen trees and overgrown thorns. Cruising activities in this area were mostly observed during the day and at dusk, probably because the paths are hard to navigate after sunset. Further to the north, the ‘Bareback Tree(s)’ had an oppositional dynamic. During the day, this site was used by dog-walkers, families and children. After sunset, however, men bent over an infamous tree that had a unique shape, which allowed multiple men to get fucked from behind simultaneously. Besides the main bareback tree, a garbage can serves the same purpose, as well as at least 12 other fallen trees spread around the terrain. During the night, most of these trees were occupied and countless bare-naked asses were observed, of men bending over the trees with their pants on their knees, waiting to get fucked from behind. Between the ‘cruising area during daytime’ and the ‘bareback tree(s)’, lies the main path. This path is used by many ‘conventional’ users of the park such as runners, and most explicit behaviour therefore takes place after sunset. To conclude, the forest north of the main parking spot is described by several websites as an area commonly used by car drivers for short hook-ups. This description, however, stems from 2008, and during the observation period, no cruising men were found here.


I
Although the amount of daylight largely depicts where cruising takes place, a firm and steady flow of cruisers was present at all times in Hampstead Heath. This indicates that, at least in this particular site, cruising behaviour is still alive and undeniably present. In addition, winter days are not best known for public sex, so even more cruising activities are expected to take place during the summer (Brown 2008). The popularity of cruising behaviour at this particular site contradicts the theoretical argument that cruising has made a one-directional ‘move online’, and counters the popular assumption that not physical space but cyberspace is ‘the erotic oasis of the 21st century’.

In Hampstead Heath, all of the observed sexual encounters took place between men (MSM). This does, however, not mean that there was no diversity in gender expressions. Some men replicated the binary and homonormative model of being a ‘dominant top’ versus a ‘submissive bottom’. Others joyfully played with their gender roles while having sex, or wore gender transgressive clothing such as a skirt.

Digital Interaction
Contrary to societal trends, only a handful of men were observed while using their phones at Hampstead Heath. Furthermore, even less men were seen online on one of the three location-based dating apps. Out of the few men that were found on these dating apps, most used multiple platforms simultaneously and for several hours after each other. This indicates that during a typical observation day, only two to four people were cruising online and repeatedly observed on different platforms. Left out of consideration is hereby the possibility that these men did not cruise, but live within the 250 meter digital observation zone, in which a few houses are situated. Would this be the case, then the amount of cruising men using location-based dating apps would be even less than two to four on each given day. It can, therefore, be argued that online location-based dating platforms play a minor and negligible role in facilitating sexual encounters between men at this particular site.

The online platform Squirt, specifically aimed at M2M cruising areas, remained overwhelmingly silent as well. In the forum dedicated to Hampstead Heath, only a few messages popped up, such as ‘Here Tonight’, ‘Will tonight be busy?’ and ‘Will be here after 5:30. Vers bubble butt’. No proof was found that these messages led to any actual action, and it seemed that this website mainly served as a guide to keep men up to date about particular cruising sites. On a page dedicated to Hampstead Heath, detailed safety warnings, directions, tips and tricks, personal experiences, erotic stories and updates about the amount of men currently present were shared. It thus seemed that Squirt served as a promotion and safeguarding channel, rather than a place where sexual encounters between individuals were negotiated. This observation, in combination with the observation that men were barely present on location-based dating apps, calls into question whether the popularity of digital technologies has changed the dynamics of cruising behaviour after all. It seems that although digital technologies are used to promote Hampstead Heath, the way men negotiate sex within these cruising areas still relies on age-old methods of informal gesturing.

Social Attraction
The view that sexual encounters at cruising areas are still primarily negotiated through informal gestures is supported by several anecdotes written on Squirt (2018). One user characterizes Hampstead Heath as ‘a free for all (…) no holds barred fuck fest’ and describes finding sex here as ‘see a cock or ass you fancy, grab it – if they say no, walk away and grab another’. In descriptions of cruising behaviour, Squirt users make an explicit distinction between finding sex in the Heath on one hand, and finding sex on dating platforms such as Grindr on the other. Users hereby stress that visitors of the Heath should not be too picky when looking for sex. ‘If you are choosy, then there’s plenty of apps these days (…) if you are picky, go to a bar and pick up your fuck!’. Rather than being selective, several users claim to welcome everyone: ‘If you want to feel my arse when I’m fucking someone – feel free; and if you want to put your dick in my mouth when I’m being fucked – go ahead! That’s the spirit of Hampstead Heath!’.

This exact same attitude was observed while wandering around the bareback trees. The men that were bending over the trees and waiting to get fucked from behind, often did not look around when they were approached or penetrated, as being fucked by anonymous men seemed to be an important part of the enjoyment. Two users describe driving up to 250 miles ‘just for that – anonymous, raw, hard no holds barred sex’. These testimonies might explain why so few cruising men use location-based dating apps in Hampstead Heath. Group sex and anonymous sex are important reasons to visit the forest, and while it is hard to arrange these sexual experiences via dating apps, simply wandering around the Heath provides cruising men with countless opportunities.

Another possible reason why cruisers choose informal gestures rather than online platforms to negotiate sex at Hampstead Heath, could be that cruising men enjoy the element of surprise specific to wandering around the forest in person. One user, for example, notes that his most rewarding experience at the Heath was with an older man in his 80s. Although this man did not fit his pursued beauty standards, he ultimately obliged. He then ‘discovered he had a beautiful cock, came like a bull elephant and was vociferously grateful as he said no-one had been near him for months. (…) I got a real buzz from having made someone’s day, which left me with a feel-good afterglow, which I took with me for my next sexual encounter later that evening’. The user describes that ‘giving as well as taking’ is an important part of the cruising experience, and states that someone does not necessarily have to fancy someone in order to have fun.

This personal anecdote leads to a last hypothesis: men do not use online platforms to find sex at public sexual environments, because offline social interaction is one of the reasons why they visit these areas in the first place. Most cruising men were present for several hours, and countless conversations between cruisers were overheard while strolling around the forest. Conversations ranged from small-talk about the weather, to heated discussions about Brexit, Theresa May and anti-Semitism within the Labour party. Contrary to what one might expect, conversations took place after sex as well as during sex. For example, while a man got sucked and two men masturbated, two bystanders discussed the disciplinary function of their morning ritual in detail. Several personal anecdotes on Squirt suggest that these social interactions are of great importance to cruisers. One user, for example, states that a conversation with a ‘daddy’ with whom he had previously fucked, ultimately led to a long-lasting friendship. ‘We watched the new Star Wars movie before Christmas. (…) We are now even talking about a holiday in Gran Canaria!’. These observations call the theoretic assumption that cruising men form a ‘silent community’ (Delph 1978) primarily looking for ‘short hook-ups’ into question.


Conclusion
Out of the observations conducted for this study, it can be concluded that Hampstead Heath still serves as a vivid cruising area in which many men gather to have stranger sex.  Furthermore, it is found that online location-based dating platforms play a minor role in facilitating sexual encounters, with most men still relying on age-old methods of informal gestures to find sex. Two possible explanations for this were found in this study. First, cruising men desire unbound sexual activities that may be hard to arrange online. Second, the social interactions and unforeseen surprises that accompany ‘offline’ cruising, are for many men a crucial part of the cruising experience. It can thus be argued, that although fast hook-ups may have made a one-directional ‘move online’, cruising areas still serve an important function by encouraging social contact and facilitating unbounded sex between men interested in having sex with other men (MSM). These findings, however, can hardly be generalized across time and space. Future research should therefore deductively test these hypotheses under different conditions. Furthermore, it should be explored whether cruising areas are still alive in other parts of the world. Scholars should hereby not only focus on famous cruising sites in big metropolis, but also examine less-known public sexual environments in rural areas and small cities. Cardiff would, for example, form an excellent starting point for future studies. Are the toilets in Bute Library still being used for anonymous sex?