“Another hundred people just got off of the train,” sings one of the characters in Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company. This lyrical refrain captures not only the daily mass of people who flood into New York City, but the sheer amount of romantic possibility offered by this numbers game. The song, titled “Another Hundred People,” gestures toward the dating lives of the play’s central characters, and to the possibilities of finding intimacy in a “city of strangers.” But for clued-in listeners, the song’s focus on the anonymous crowd also contains a hidden message. The song’s mention of city dwellers who “find each other” in the “crowded streets and the guarded parks,” by the “rusty fountains” and the “dusty trees with the battered barks,” may not seem unusual at first blush—but these lyrics, written by a gay New Yorker for a musical nominally about heterosexual characters, are also clearly about cruising, the practice of searching for sexual connection among strangers in public places, notably streets, parks, and public bathrooms.
Cruising is often, though not exclusively, urban and gay. The term has existed since at least the early 1900s, when “cruiser” was used concurrently with “streetwalker” to describe the men selling sex on New York’s Bowery. The term’s nautical resonance aptly describes cruising’s particular temporality. Just as one is said to take a cruise in, rather than to, a location, the cruiser’s search for sex is less a predetermined journey from A to B than it is an act of floating within an experience.
This essay is featured in The Politics of Pleasure.
Cruising, as an impromptu way of connecting with strangers, exemplifies what is best about both cities and queer life. In Sex in Public (1998), queer scholars Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner talk about this in terms of queer culture’s “mobile sites,” transient “counter-intimacies” composed of “lyric moments that interrupt the hostile cultural narrative.” As a form of spontaneous human connection, cruising borrows from and extends the potential of the city as a democratizing space, one that brings us into everyday contact with people we do not know, with people who seem unlike us until we realize our shared desires.
The recent monkeypox outbreak, and the related public health messaging about safe sexual practices among queer people, is just the latest example of the way cruising culture is contingent upon changing social and environmental conditions.
Cruising, like the cities in which it most often occurs, has changed over time; it makes little sense to speak about it in ahistorical terms. And any historical approach to cruising must begin with the fact that its early conflation with streetwalking acknowledged their shared criminality: as the remit of homosexual men, cruising was illegal for much of its history whether money changed hands or not. But as George Chauncey shows in his landmark 1994 history Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890–1940, cruising, though heavily criminalized, flourished in the city in the early twentieth century. Often lacking private quarters where they could act upon their desires, men of different social classes would frequent an array of public spots where they knew they could meet other men for sex. As a network of signals mostly illegible to straight people, ranging from a simple look to increasingly sophisticated codes—most famously the hanky code—cruising was both an expediency and a lifeline, a way for gay men to find each other. As Frank O’Hara wrote in the poem “Homosexuality” (written in 1954, though unpublished until 1970), “It’s wonderful to admire oneself with / complete candor / tallying up the merits of the latrines.”
If cruising offered a mode of solidarity and survival in the decades before Stonewall and gay liberation, it then became, in turn, a visible expression of sexual liberation in the 1970s. But its valence soon changed again in the 1980s, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic politicized gay men’s negotiation of risk and anonymity when it came to choosing sexual partners. Cruising (and its criminalization, for that matter) hardly disappeared in the era of safe sex, though: the infamous public outing of singer George Michael in the late 1990s followed his arrest for engaging in “lewd acts” with an undercover cop in a park bathroom in Beverly Hills.
Alongside the implications of HIV/AIDS, the advent of online dating technologies would also alter the reliance upon cruising as a mode of connection. From the popular chat rooms of the early 2000s to the launch of the GPS-driven hookup app Grindr in 2009, the technologization of cruising in more recent years has complicated our narratives of its democratic potential. But the idea that cruising might offer an equitable and meaningful mode of togetherness has a long history in American letters, and it is worth revisiting these to reflect on what is at risk of being lost if cruising were to finally disappear as a practice.
Celebrations of the democratic power of cruising can be traced back at least as far as Walt Whitman, an early prophet of urban queer culture. For Whitman, Manhattan, a “city of orgies,” provided both an enactment of, and analogy for, a new democratic vision of the United States. This vision of a utopian country centered “adhesiveness” and “comradeship,” the “beautiful and sane affection of man for man,” powered by the looks between passing strangers and the new kinds of belonging they might presage. The look of cruising, something Whitman in “Song of the Open Road” calls the “talk of those turning eyeballs,” brings to light a dream of the good life that is equal parts nostalgic and future-oriented—the sense, as he puts it in “To a Stranger,” that “I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,” and will yet again. In this way, Whitman suggests that cruising can be central to the nation-building work of constructing “imagined community” of the kind described by Benedict Anderson, that mental formation of others one may never properly meet but who nevertheless constitute a people, albeit a subterranean one in this case.
Although Whitman frequented establishments with homosocial reputations, such as Pfaff’s in Greenwich Village, and wrote about the power of an amorous look in a crowded tavern, there is something distinctive in his work about passing glances out in public, among the urban multitude, where you could share a moment of fantasy with any number of people. It is a kind of connection that is able to transgress many of the ordinarily social categories that keep us apart, and is therefore quite distinct even from the kind of cruising that happens within the economic choreography of bars.
An admiration of public cruising of the sort that Whitman’s work exhibits was so baked in to queer U.S. identity that even a century later, it remained much the same. In his series of images of Christopher Street in the 1970s, photographer Sunil Gupta pursued an artistic project that would have made Whitman proud, photographing the men who caught his eye on the street in the gay environs of Chelsea. In the sexual boom of the gay liberation years, there were, as Gupta would later remember, so many men and so little time. While a productive night could be had at the bar or the bathhouse, there were still many other people you could be yet to meet and hook up with. Gupta’s Christopher Street photographs figure this abundance by embracing the streets as a site of possibility. Together with Whitman’s poems of encounter, almost a century earlier, these images offer a way of thinking about cruising as not only, or even primarily, about hooking up, but about the communal power of eroticized looking, flashes of affinity that may not lead directly to sexual consummation, but are an important way of situating yourself within a shared community.
Cruising often created the community that it wished existed. On the western end of Christopher Street squatted the dilapidated Hudson River piers. Post-Stonewall but pre-AIDS, the long-abandoned buildings functioned as cruising sites where men could meet and have sex. Because they were de facto public spaces, they were more racially and economically diverse cruising spaces than gay establishments that cost money (for the cover, to buy drinks) and tended to be aimed at attracting a specific clientele. For example, gay bathhouses, in some ways the most efficient sexual spaces for those looking to hook up, were often deeply hierarchical, however much the shedding of clothes would seem to transgress the categories of value in the everyday outside. Bars, similarly, had an aesthetic focus. The piers, although sometimes dangerous, offered an alternative. In her book Cruising the Dead River (2019), about the waterfront and artist David Wojnarowicz, Fiona Anderson notes that many of those who cruised the piers were excluded from the West Village bars, and often “homeless, overweight, disabled, older, poor . . . African American or Latinx.”
Further uptown, where Disney mascots now vie for tourist photos and the new production of Company is playing, was the pre-Giuliani Times Square, a red-light district of cheap luncheonettes and pornographic movie theaters. The relative anonymity among the low lights of the cinema provided another space for interracial and interclass cruising, as famously eulogized by Samuel R. Delany in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999). Delany, who frequented the theaters and often met sexual partners there, recalls that the cinemas were places that New Yorkers socialized with people of truly different backgrounds. In the book’s conclusion, Delany describes this sort of “contact” across socioeconomic boundaries as the “lymphatic system of a democratic metropolis,” whether it’s cruising for sex or “any number of other forms” of social encounter, from “waiting for the public library to open” to “coming down to sit on the stoop on a warm day.”
While the Times Square establishments Delany describes had already been erased by gentrification by the time Times Square Red, Times Square Blue was published, this blueprint for a “cosmopolitan culture” based around everyday contact, the basis of an erotic commons, has held true. But while there are still numerous places in the city the heritage cruiser can visit, numerous bars or clubs for queer people to “find each other,” something of this public sexual culture, a culture of live and contingent encounters, has faded. Public encounters have largely been replaced by more mediated forms of hooking up online or through apps, a move from the street to the screen. In this substitution of the live and sensory experience of physical proximity for its virtualization, through profile photos and measurements of distance in feet via GPS, cruising’s relation to personhood has inevitably changed too.
Attempts to reckon meaningfully with the way cruising has been changed by hookup apps like Grindr often begin by conceding that, on the surface, “dating and hookup media are terrible in every way,” as Tom Roach writes in his book Screen Love: Queer Intimacies in the Grindr Era (2021). The “laundry list of horrors essentially writes itself,” he continues.
These media are steeped in a consumerist logic. They substitute algorithms for pheromones. They instrumentalize intimacy and mechanize the wily ways of desire. . . . They exacerbate the same barbarous impulses—hyper-individualism, cutthroat competition, solipsism, and self-aggrandizement—so integral to and rewarded in the marketplace.
While it may not be responsible for creating them in the first place, an app culture structured in this way at least energizes all manner of exclusionary attitudes and practices, including microaggressions and discriminations along axes of race, gender, and body type that are passed off as mere “preferences”. In contrast to this reification of public erotic contact, cruising’s original copy looks all the more appealing, a contingent, flesh-and-blood alternative to an interface in which encounters can often seem overdetermined before they have even been initiated with a cursory “Hey.”
I have certainly found myself pining for cruising’s more retro iterations, aware that my research interests in urban sexual cultures are informed by my own desire to feel closer to an erotic life that doesn’t center upon the same device I use to check email and call my mom. But discontent with the present can falsify the past, particularly for those, like myself, who weren’t firsthand witnesses to the supposed halcyon days. In his book Pier Groups: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront (2019), an art history of the piers, Jonathan Weinberg notes how “we love to complain that the virtual world of the internet, computers and cell phones has destroys our humanity,” meaning that “accounts of sex and romantic relationships today are built around a longing for a past when people supposedly had more authentic connections with one another.” But the anonymous sexual cultures of the past, Weinberg suggests, even in the more socially open spaces of the piers, were not some warm or democratic or edifying paradise lost; less an alternative to the “supposed alienation of the early twenty-first century” than an antecedent. For theorists such as Roach, it is precisely digital cruising’s estranging qualities that also light upon its potential for rethinking society and selfhood. Because contemporary cruising media are “so thoroughly saturated in neoliberal market relational norms, they offer an opportunity to reconceive liberal-humanist notions of the social altogether.” As anthropologist Shaka McGlotten puts it, there is little sense in distinguishing too readily between the virtual and the real, insofar as “intimacy is already virtual in the ways it is made manifest through affective experience.” There is no pure cruising space, outside space and time and untouched by metaphors of media or marketplace.
As Roach goes on to show in Screen Love, the “laundry list of horrors” may go too far in writing off hookup apps like Grindr and Scruff as irremediably awful. They have, after all, also enabled new social and sexual possibilities for users, particularly in locations outside of urban centers, where cruising has historically been extremely limited and not infrequently dangerous. Even within cities, we mustn’t romanticize away the fact that cruising could be extremely dangerous: encounters often went awry and turned into robberies, beatings, and even murders. The anonymity of an app interface’s grid, that glut of floating torso pictures and blank profiles, may contribute to a feeling of glassy virtuality, but it also offers users safety and discretion. In Queer Silence: On Disability and Rhetorical Absence (2022), gender studies scholar J. Logan Smilges recuperates that bane of apps, the blank profile, which Smilges notes are more common among users for whom it may be less safe to be out. Smilges argues that these blank profiles can be a way for users to reject the pressure to perform a particular kind of identity within the erotic economy of an app—a kind of placeholder visibility for those for whom visibility remains complex.
And while apps like Grindr may have been created for hooking up, they have come to be used for other purposes. As Eli Martin, chief marketing officer for the hookup site Sniffies, puts it: “Grindr’s really become like a Facebook. It’s like you can go on there and you can find anything. You can find a boyfriend; you can maybe sell a car. Who knows, find your best friend.” Within this ecology of hookup apps, Sniffies seeks to fulfill a “superspecific” function of facilitating more-or-less instantaneous hookups. It aims to do this by displaying results on a map of your neighborhood—as opposed to a list—an interface that in effect returns to cruising’s old-fashioned topography by showing where users are in real time. A little open-door icon even glosses if a person is capable of hosting sex right where they are, which may be only steps from you.
To observe that “another hundred people” just logged on to the app may not have the same romantic ring as urban narratives of the past have primed us to want. But to dismiss the efficacies of the digital cruising world would be, as Roach notes, to remain ignorant of the fact that “screen-mediated discourse is an integral component of contemporary communication”; we “cannot return to some fictional unmediated past.” Perhaps the most crystalline description of the realities of cruising today can be found in a line from poet Danez Smith: “everyone on the app says they hate the app but no one stops.” This poem, titled “a note on the phone app that tells me how far I am from other men’s mouths,” and published in Smith’s 2016 collection Don’t Call Us Dead, reflects on the absurdities and racial politics of this landscape of “headless horsehung horsemen.” It in turn captures a collective feeling, the sense that apps are divisive and ambivalent but central to queer sexual culture, a sentiment about cruising that is hardly unique to the contemporary era.
If the goal of cruising is, ultimately, for people to “find each other,” for anything from a momentary frisson to a full-blown sexual encounter, the ends of digital versus IRL cruising are altogether similar, even if the means make them feel wildly different. And while cruising can be associated with cold expediency, a way of getting your kicks without the rigmarole of conventional dating, it has often felt to me like a kind of anonymous support network, whether I’ve accessed it on an app or during a foray to the storied pastures of certain parts of North London. Perhaps this says more about my approach than it does the act itself, but this particular kind of solidarity is an important aspect of cruising’s communal potential.
There is certainly no guarantee you’ll feel sated or validated or otherwise better after hooking up, but implicit in even the most cursory cruising encounter is, in my experience, the shared admission of a vulnerability, and of loneliness, perhaps, an unspoken basis of the desire to come together. To cruise is, in its most basic sense, to tap into a community whose only logic is desire itself, even if this improvised grouping is far from homogenous, and rarely even harmonious. Like Delany, I have met people cruising whom I’m unlikely to have met otherwise. That these encounters have seldom developed into lasting relationships or friendships, even after improbably revealing moments of pillow talk within the same hour of learning each other’s names, is precisely the point. You never know who or what you’ll find in a city of strangers. That’s part of democracy’s promise, too.