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Safety Perceptions at the Erotic Oases of London

Threats and dangers faced by cruising men are increasingly intertwined with each other due to technological advantages. In this way, cruising areas transform into self-controlling panopticons, in which men are no longer able to determine whether or not they are being observed.
Research // August 22nd, 2018 //

Cruising areas such as toilets and parks are still being used by men who enjoy having sex with anonymous strangers, despite the recent rise of location-based dating applications that facilitate sexual encounters between them. These cruising areas, also referred to as ‘erotic oases’ and ‘public sexual environments’, have been studied from different perspectives over the past decades. On a micro-level, scholars have examined the roles played by men who visit cruising areas. This led to the well-known distinction between ‘players’, ‘lookouts’, ‘straights’, ‘teenagers’ and ‘agents of social control’ (Humphreys 1970, Delph 1978, Frankis & Flowers 2005, 2009). On a meso-level, scholars have problematized the assumption that all sex in public space is ‘impersonal and anonymous’ (Brown 2003: 175-181, Polley & Tewksbury 2007). Research shows that cruising men talk, form friendships, and develops a sense of communal belonging. On a macro-level, scholars have explored the geographic distribution of erotic oases (Tewksbury 2008, 2010, Vega 2011). Locations turn out to be diverse, and range from parks and public toilets, to highway stops, adult bookstores, gay bathhouses, movie theatres and sex clubs.

Relatively little has, however, been written on the dangers involved in cruising behaviour (Tewksbury 2008: 6). Furthermore, articles addressing these dangers are often dated, focusing on one particular setting such as public toilets, or on one particular threat such as HIV (Humphreys 1970, Desroches 1990, Gray 1990, Frankis & Flowers 2006). This calls into question if all existing threats have been thoroughly examined, and whether new threats may have emerged in our current and highly digitalized societies. London, with its rich and diverse cruising scene, would form an excellent starting point for further exploration of these threats. Hereby, it would be helpful to make use of digital research methods, so different threats and cruising sites can be analyzed within a relatively short time period. By analyzing 438 cruising areas on the location-based web-forum Squirt, this study inductively explores the perceived threats that cruising men face in the erotic oases of London.

To be able to collect data about safety perceptions in London, an anonymous account was made on the popular location-based cruising platform Squirt. A targeted search was performed, in which all districts of London were included. This led to an alphabetically ordered list of 438 cruising areas which were all located in London. All of these cruising areas had an individual web-page, as well as an attached web-forum where users can post each other messages. Old messages are automatically deleted, so on average only 60 messages were found on these forums. This means that in total, 438 web pages and approximately 26.000 forum messages were analyzed for this article. Out of these web pages and forum messages, 306 user reports on threats were distilled, and copied to a new document. Then, grounded theory was used to inductively form new categories and hypotheses (Strauss & Corbin 1990). Hereby, a constructivist approach was followed, in which perceptions of dangers as constructed by cruising men themselves were of prime importance.

On a practical level, it can be questioned in how far all statements written by on Squirt web-forums are truthful. Stories about the presence of policemen at particular cruising areas, might for example be made up by local residents who try to scare away cruisers. Cruisers themselves, on the other hand, might exaggerate their experiences to make stories more interesting, or play experiences down to make sure that men continue to visit these sites. There are thus several motives for users to change, censure or make up the stories they share online. Whenever possible, this study therefore tried to confirm the truthfulness of individual messages that seemed implausible or outstanding. For example, when a user warned about the existence of a smearing social media campaign targeted against married men in a particular cruising site, further research and triangulation was conducted to confirm this. However, this approach was not used at more ‘conventional’ threats which were confirmed to exist by different users on several web pages. Therefore, future research could deductively test the formed hypotheses in this study, to reach more certainty and reliability with regards to the existence of these threats.

Out of the 438 web pages representing cruising areas in London, 186 pages contained statements on 306 different threats and dangers. This means that no safety warnings were found on some web pages dedicated to particular cruising areas, while other pages contained several threat descriptions. Out of the 306 dangers described on Squirt, ten categories could be inductively formed: ‘Families & Straights’, ‘Police & Security’, ‘Cleaners & Personnel’, ‘CCTV, ‘Homophobic Assaults’, ‘Alcohol & Drugs’, ‘Robbery’, ‘Targeted Filming’, ‘Unprotected Sex’ and ‘Insects’. 

‘The Odd Hetero’
According to cruisers on Squirt, straight people, families and children form a considerable threat in at least 75 cruising sites in London. Messages about these threats are found on pages dedicated to public parks, but also on pages representing private gyms, saunas, toilets and restrooms in shopping centers. With regards to parks, cruisers warn about dog walkers, children, runners, gardeners, footballers and joggers who make use of these areas as well. Some cruisers therefore state that men should only visit these parks at night, when ‘conventional’ users are gone. Other cruisers point out that many parks have bushes, which enable cruisers to retreat. However, in toilets, restrooms, gyms and saunas, straight people form a more severe threat. Several users describe scenes in which straight guys react furiously, after being exposed to sexual behaviour. A cruiser describes a ‘very ugly scene’ in which a ‘straight man went ‘mental’ when a ‘bloke next to him in the showers started wanking’. Another user states that ‘the steam room is filthy with men’s cum’ and claims that straight users start to get enraged about the ‘sexualisation of their public facilities’.

These descriptions raise the hypothesis that straight people and ‘conventional’ users of public facilities form a more considerable threat to cruising men in places where the action is happening close by, such as toilets, gyms and restrooms, than in areas where cruisers can easily retreat, such as public parks and forests.

‘Lurking Policemen’
Policemen, park rangers and security personnel are perceived to be a threat in 67 cruising sites, varying from parks and forests, to cemeteries, saunas, gyms and public toilets. Some users claim that policemen are reluctant to intervene as long as cruisers respect some basic decency. Other cruisers describe heavily patrolled cruising areas and regular police interventions that directly target cruising men. In one sauna, several raids took place after guys were seen to have sex in public. The owner called the police, and shortly afterwards at least four people got kicked out of the venue. In parks, users describe a similar atmosphere. Policemen interview cruisers, try to intimidate them by walking close by, and by screaming that ‘anyone caught cruising will be taken to the station’. These testimonies are surprising given the fact that cruising is not officially forbidden in the UK, and calls for further research on the social relationship between cruising men and the policemen that surveil them (Galop 2018).

It should, however, be noted that some cruisers consider the presence of these policemen as an important part of the excitement. One cruiser states that ‘lurking police officers’ on duty make him ‘even hornier’ and claims that he ‘would love to have risky toilet sex with them while they are in uniform’. Another cruiser notes that the risk of being caught ‘is part of the fun’ and states that scared people should not visit these areas in the first place.

‘Silly Bitches’
Cleaners and personnel form a threat in 49 cruising areas in London. Most of these cruising areas are public toilets, and testimonies written on Squirt make clear that the personnel cleaning these toilets are not beloved by the cruising community. One cruiser states that a cleaner started to scream at him after she saw him wanking: ‘The lady is making me crazy. Her job is to clean, not to check who is jerking off’. Another cruiser claims that he ‘kept getting interrupted by silly bitches coming out of little holes in the corners. Wish they would fuck off and leave us too it’. Some cruisers state, however, that it is not the cleaners but the cruisers themselves that should ‘have some etiquette’. These cruisers note that excessive sexual behavior might lead to the closure of public toilets. One cruiser states, for example, that he saw ‘a MASSIVE group of guys at the bottom of the stairs (…) JESUS (…) guys like that will get it closed down!’. Another cruiser claims that a toilet has been closed, ‘probably because of the disastrous obvious behavior of most people, such as the sub guy who takes pics of him acting all slutty on the toilet steps’.

Descriptions on Squirt make clear that many toilets that were formerly cruised, are now either closed or heavily surveilled by attendants and personnel. For example, it is claimed that cleaners now position themselves behind reflective windows. Some cruisers therefore stopped using toilets for cruising activities: ‘The toilets scare me now. So claustrophobic and risky’. Other cruisers make use of ‘lookouts’: fellow cruisers who determine whether cruising can take place safely.

Another threat described by cruising men, is the use of security cameras (CCTV) and car plate recognition systems. Warnings on the use of these systems were found on the Squirt web pages of 32 cruising areas, which ranged from parks and forests to train stations and public restrooms. Several users note that these cameras provide detailed images, which are regularly observed by policemen and personnel. It is described, for example, that the coverage in a particular restroom is so detailed that it can even ‘catch people entering the cubicles’. Another user notes that a camera is placed ‘inside the steam room of his sauna’ to counter sexual activities from taking place.

Homophobic Assaults
In 12 cruising areas, users warn for assaults that specifically target cruising men. Some of these assaults are non-violent in nature. Cruisers claim, for example, that groups of men deliberately spoil ‘the fun’ by approaching them while having sex. Other assaults are more serious and contain violence and physical threats. A cruiser claims that posters in his cruising area warn men that their ‘heads will be smashed’ if they are caught in the act. Another cruiser describes that groups of men dress up in fake police uniforms to intimidate cruisers. In three cruising areas cruisers warn for local residents who organize themselves to ‘police the area’ and keep it ‘family friendly’. Cruisers claim to be photographed by these groups, and state that their license plates have been stolen.

‘Aggressive druggies’
In 9 cruising areas listed on Squirt, cruisers warn for drug users and alcoholics. These people are perceived to be a threat because they often act aggressively, and occupy cubicles in which cruising men want to have sex. One cruiser describes, for example, that a suspicious man smokes weed 24/7 in a park that he regularly visits. ‘He looks dangerous. Yesterday he became quite aggressive towards me for no reason. I passed’. Another user claims that an ‘aggressive druggy’ started to shout at him while having sex.

‘Masked Muggers’
Robbery is another type of physical threat that cruising men warn for, and forms a threat in at least 7 cruising areas listed on Squirt. Users are therefore advised to leave valuables in the car at all times and to visit cruising areas with ‘extreme caution’. The robberies described by users are often conducted in groups: ‘gangs of lads’ approach single guys by foot or on motorbikes, after which they use knifes to intimidate cruisers. Some of the described robberies are not conducted by groups, but rather by individuals. Cruisers describe that these individuals initiate sexual encounters strategically, in order to steal valuables while having sex. Several users note that their phone was stolen during a sexual encounter. Following the thief was hard for them, because they were still undressed when the robbery took place.

Targeted Filming
In two cruising areas listed on Squirt, users warn for targeted filming. In one occasion, these videos were uploaded on porn sites for sexual pleasure. Filming took place in an underground toilet, and cruisers warn for this on Squirt: ‘GUYS PLEASE BE AWARE THERE IS A GUY FILMING YOU ALL AND THEN UPLOADING ON PORN SITES BE WARNED!’. In another occasion, users describe a Facebook and Youtube campaign which aims to publicly expose cruising men. Cruisers are followed in their cars, and personal details are then shared with the public. This video campaign is still online, and contains several videos of which some have been watched more than 11,000 times. In these videos, cruising men of whom some are described to be married, are publicly exposed. The person behind this campaign states that cruisers should ‘stop wanking in public’, and claims that the videos will not be deleted as long as people continue to have sex in public.

Unprotected Sex & Insects
Two warnings did not fit one of the previously described threat categories. One user warns for unsafe sex, and states that cruising men use their condoms multiple times. ‘One dude rammed into my hole hard, wearing a condom he just used to fuck another guy which pissed me off’. Another user warns for insects at a particular cruising site: ‘delicious cocks, but remember to take some mozzie spray, you will regret it if you don’t’.

Out of the 306 dangers found in 436 cruising areas listed on Squirt, this study concludes with 10 inductively formed threat categories. Some of these threats, such as ‘Police & Security’, ‘Unprotected Sex’ and ‘Homophobic Violence’, correspond to dangers that have been previously described by other scholars (a.o. Humphreys 1970, Frankis & Flowers 2006, Tewksbury 2010). Other threats are, however, connected to recent technological advantages and have not yet been addressed. It is found that cameras on smartphones are used to expose and extort men while they are cruising in public, and that these videos are directly uploaded to porn websites and social media networks without their consent. Furthermore, it is found that muggers strategically initiate sexual encounters, in order to steal smartphones and valuables.

This study also raises the hypothesis that threats and dangers faced by cruising men are increasingly connected and intertwined with each other due to technological advantages. Toilet attendants are in close contact with the police, sit behind reflective windows and make use of advanced CCTV systems to locate cruising activities. In this way, cruising areas are transformed into self-controlling panopticons, in which men are unable to determine whether or not they are being observed. Future research should therefore not only address which threats cruisers face, but also examine how different threats form an overarching system of surveillance, and how this system of surveillance affects different groups of cruisers. Based on this study it can be hypothesized that some cruisers might benefit from such a system, as they see risk as an important part of the excitement, while other cruisers such as closeted men and married men, become even more vulnerable to the already existent threat of exposure and extortion.