The first time Kyle* went cruising for sex, he’d just finished his shift as a supermarket delivery driver. “I’d dropped off some shopping at a house near Hampstead, so I decided to try and find the Hampstead Heath cruising area,” he recalls. Kyle wasn’t entirely sure where to go when he got to the wooded West Heath, home to London’s most famous cruising ground, but his homing instincts soon kicked in. “Even though it was still light outside, there were more guys there than I’d been expecting,” he says. “I was still in my [redacted] supermarket uniform when I ended up swapping blowjobs in the bushes.”
Kyle, who asked to remain anonymous in case his boss reads this, was drawn to cruising for practical reasons. “There’s so much less faffing around than if you go on Grindr, where everyone wants to know what you’re into [sexually] before they agree to a hook-up,” says 34-year-old Kyle, who has since cruised on East London’s Hackney Marshes and beaches in Mykonos and Sitges. “When you go to a cruising spot, everyone’s there for the same reason. You get the lay of the land, see who else is around; you look at them, they look at you, and usually something [sexual] will happen.”
In a way, Kyle’s post-work hook-up in clothes belonging to a household shop brand epitomises why Alexis Gregory, author of LGBTQ+ history play Riot Act, calls cruising “a traditional radical act of queer defiance”. For Gregory, cruising can be viewed “politically as well as sexually” because it involves rejecting “heterosexual norms of how and where we’re supposed to have sex”. There’s also “a kind of theatrical assertiveness” to the time-honoured ritual, he says. “When you picture a gay guy in the bushes with his eyes darting left to right, that’s camp, isn’t it? There’s something funny about it.”
Gay cruising spots aren’t hard to find. Many have been around for decades, and hook-up website Squirt.org has listings for hundreds in parks, woods and motorway service stations all over the UK. Though some cruising aficionados may get off on the “risk” of getting caught, this risk is easy to minimise. “Sex in public places is not illegal as long as other people, who might be offended, cannot see you and are unaware you are having sex,” explains Ian Howley of health and wellbeing charity LGBT Hero.
“The police should only respond to complaints from the public and shouldn’t go to an area to proactively try to catch people cruising. Our advice is to be as discreet as possible to avoid attracting attention. Use secluded areas, and not anywhere you might be seen from a public road, path or houses, particularly during daylight hours.”
Queer people, of course, don’t have a monopoly on having sex in public places. The tabloids love running stories about “dogging”, a predominantly straight phenomenon where couples drive to their local woods, then have sex in the back of their car watched by an audience of voyeurs. But cruising for sex in parks and public toilets is inextricably linked with the LGBTQ+ community, especially men who have sex with men (MSM). Cruising in public toilets – or “cottaging”, as it’s commonly known – still carries a heightened risk because it’s illegal in the UK. You can be arrested regardless of whether you’re being discreet or not, and even if you’re hooking up behind a locked cubicle door.
When George Michael was arrested for “engaging in a lewd act” in a Beverly Hills public bathroom in 1998, he became a kind of poster boy for cruising. Later that year, he proudly and playfully took ownership of the incident with his disco banger Outside, on which he sang with a wink: “I think I’m done with the kitchen table, baby – let’s go outside in the sunshine.” A few years later, when he was interrupted by a paparazzo while cruising on Hampstead Heath, Michael told the photographer: “Are you gay? No? Then fuck off! This is my culture!”
Activist, writer and performer Dan Glass now commemorates Michael’s refusal to be shamed with an annual queer party and protest called This Is My Culture. In his 2020 book United Queerdom, Glass writes that it’s “fairly impossible” to pinpoint the origins of cruising. For as long as people have been having sex, they’ve been doing it outdoors. Queer women have always cruised, too; we just know a lot less about it because their sexuality has historically been erased.
In Glass’s book, activist Nell Andrew says: “In the late noughties there was a women’s cruising toilet block in Portsmouth, but it was closed down because it was believed to be an “opportuning” [cruising] site. And the only other place our research found for women’s cruising is Hampstead Heath ponds, although I’m told women go there to swim and sunbathe, too!”
Glass also notes that the term “cottaging” was popularised in the 1800s to describe the act of cruising for sex in public toilets. And from the 1940s onwards, this form of cruising had become an exclusively queer phenomenon. Back then, cruising offered solace and sexual release to a largely closeted queer male population. Until the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, sex between two men was illegal in England and Wales. Similar legislation decriminalising male homosexuality in Scotland and Northern Ireland wouldn’t be passed until the early 1980s. In an era when there was no such thing as a safe space for gay men, secluded cruising spots in parks and woods must have felt like the least risky option.
Glass argues that cruising still serves a similar purpose today, albeit to a smaller subsection of MSM. “If you’re married, living at home [with your parents], worried about revealing your sexuality or have a judgemental housemate, it’s safer to have fun in the bushes than bring someone back to your bed,” he says. While delivery driver Kyle points out that cruising is “more accessible” than going to one of the UK’s gay saunas, which also offer anon hook-ups, but charge up to £20 for admission. On a busy night, he says Hampstead Heath feels “just like a dark room in a gay club, except it’s free and outdoors”.
This doesn’t mean that cruising is universally celebrated within the queer male community. “It’s almost a bit taboo [to some],” explains Alexis Gregory. “I have friends who cruise who would never talk about it. And I think for some guys, there’s an element of shame to cruising that could be part of its appeal. Like, are you having anonymous sex in a park because part of you wants your sexuality to be hidden?” Despite cruising’s rich history, LGBT Hero’s Howley says it definitely “carries a certain stigma” in the queer male community.
Ian Howley's advice to the cruising-curious:
1). Keep safety in mind at all times.
2). If you don’t already know the cruising area well, walk around and check it out when you get there – especially if it’s likely to be dark by the time you leave.
3). Find out where the exits are and where any paths lead to.
4). It’s a good idea to stay fairly close to where most guys are concentrated.
5). There may be occasions when you need to refuse unwanted advances or find yourself in a difficult situation.
He attributes this to “a false sense of privilege [and thinking] that everyone has the same queer life experience and opportunities you have”. He says there are many reasons, aside from being closeted, why MSM choose to cruise in 2022. “Some guys may not feel welcome or comfortable in queer spaces, and others in rural areas simply don’t have access to them,” he says. “And some do it just because it’s fun and they like it.”
Still, cruising is never going to be for everyone. To paraphrase George Michael, some people won’t ever be done with the kitchen table, baby. But it’s definitely time we stopped framing it as something even slightly shameful, and started celebrating its practical benefits and place in queer history. The campaign to anoint Hampstead Heath with a blue plaque saying “this is my culture” begins here.
*Names have been changed