It's Back!

The Return of Public Sex

Cherry parties are held in a Chelsea loft that has been converted to a sexual oasis. Guests check their clothes at the door. Poppers are for sale alongside cherry-print underwear and Gatorade. Men in the changing area greet each other with air kisses, while in the play area, peals of laughter have replaced grunts and groans. The mood is happy-hour casual, giving new meaning to the term cocktail.

"Sex is now easier than ever to get," says Ben Rogers, the 24-year-old editor in chief of Instinct magazine. Along with the availability has come a new attitude, relatively free of the hang-ups about homosex that an older generation had to struggle with. "Young people are coming into the gay world fully armed, like Athena from the head of Zeus," says Candida Scott Piel, the community liaison at the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) and a passionate observer of the scene. This sense of ease and entitlement extends to kink and even hustling.

Sean is 22, cute, blond, a college student, and an escort. He's having the time of his life, getting fucked and making more money doing it in one night than he made in a week waiting tables. Most of his clients are older and married, but that doesn't bother him. "I'm more predatory than they are," he laughs. He doesn't just stand there like the "straight acting" hustlers of yore; he makes the moves: "I'm the aggressive little bottom."

But this new in-your-jock attitude is not without its drawbacks. If there's any issue that has polarized gay men even more than unsafe sex, it's the triumph of the Chelsea Boy. He has pervaded the aesthetics of sex to such an extent that even gay men who reject that icon define themselves by their rejection. It's something every new arrival on the scene immediately recognizes. Sean knows guys who "feel intimidated by the big Chelsea muscle queens. It makes them feel less valuable."

Piel cites the perfect-body images so prevalent in porn as raising the bar impossibly high for most people. "There was a time when everyone attempted to validate the notion of versatility," she says. "Besides, it was a lot easier to don a mustache, flannel shirt, and jeans than to spend hours in a gym and stick a needle in your ass." Even Tim Ranney, whose Tom of Finland and Manhunt dance parties celebrated a Village People array of masculine imagery, says he tries to avoid going to Chelsea: "It's just so parasitic. It's all about the body; my pecs are bigger than your pecs. Any little hint of intimacy scares them off."

Insecurity has fueled the use of crystal meth and GHB. Both of these drugs, especially in combination, impart what Piel calls "that sense of erotic urges beyond your own control." Marathon sex sessions become uninhibited, athletic, passionate, transcendent—"better than any porno," says one 21-year-old tweaker. The rampant use of steroids, which are more readily available to gay men than ever before thanks to their potential to stave off AIDS wasting, adds to the feelings of power, sexual energy, and invulnerability. And as anyone who's seen a G fallout knows, drugs certainly inhibit the ability to negotiate safer sex.

Everyone knows that there's a lot of barebacking going on, but no one really knows what to do about it. For Rogers, there's a major difference between the generation lost to AIDS and the one that knows only the rules of safer sex. "The condom code was instituted for an emergency, like a flood or fire," says Piel. "It isn't viable. Acknowledging that is crucial." The popularity of barebacking led Brandon to start his PozParties, limited to HIV-positive men, an idea now imported by other cities. "These are venues for guys who are positive without having to risk spreading the disease," Brandon says. "It's about taking control of a situation that's out of control."

Whatever its dangers and disappointments, public sex is here to stay—at least until the next health crisis or tabloid-inspired crackdown. The reason why this resurgence is likely to last is that it mirrors a larger social shift. Eric Rofes, author of Reviving the Tribe, calls this "a post-Madonna moment"—a time when fetishistic behavior once saddled with shame has become the stuff of entertainment and even politics.

The impeachment scandal made blowjobs in the Oval Office raw material for Meet the Press, and as America learned to say fellatio, a whole range of sexual options became normalized. Clinton-Lewinsky "shifted everyone's sense of what's possible and their entitlement," says Rofes. "The sexual right has lost this battle. People are doing what they want to do."

Not everyone, perhaps. But in the garden of gay delights, an old seed has newly sprouted. Public sex is back!


The Return of Public SexSafe Surfing

Basil Lucas, a bias-crime counselor for the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, documented 648 pickup crimes involving gay men in New York from 1995 to 2001. Only 19 of them were Internet related. But Lucas thinks that figure may be "just the tip of the iceberg," since a number of these victims don't inform the police. "The more folks get computers in their homes," Lucas says, "the more we see incidents of crime."

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