It's Back!

The Return of Public Sex

Five gay men sharing a Lower Manhattan duplex penthouse are throwing a party. Downstairs, guests mingle at an impromptu bar. James, a 23-year-old banker just out of school, came to make new friends. Kyle, 21, squeals "Girlfriend!" at every acquaintance. The DJ plays a mix that includes '80s new wave and hip-hop. A typical Friday-night get-together—except that everyone has paid $20 to strip down to his underwear, and the upstairs bedrooms have been converted into orgy rooms. The groove is casual and friendly, twentysomethings moving from group grope to gossip. Some people even pull business cards out of unlikely places and promise, "I'll call you on Monday," to seal a deal. Welcome to the real Sex and the City. In a dimly lit midtown hotel suite, 18 guys are humping and sucking; two men fuck in a bathroom,

the better to admire themselves in the mirror. On a funky tugboat moored near Chelsea Piers, a DJ spins in the hull while men cruise in and out of cabins and the old engine room. In a Chelsea high-rise turned sex oasis, the master bedroom is outfitted with a sling hanging from the ceiling. After years of AIDS anxiety and government repression, gay public sex is bigger and better than ever.

Not for everyone, of course. No one knows how many gay men are involved in the current scene. "I don't have any percentages," says Matthew Tye, managing director of program services at Gay Men's Health Crisis. "We have no data," says a spokesperson from the Mayor's Office of AIDS Policy. For that matter, no one knows for certain how many gay men live in New York City, since the census still doesn't count homosexuals as such. But numbers have never told the whole story when it comes to public sex. "Even if you didn't go to a bathhouse in the pre-AIDS era, it had an impact on your life," says sex radical Eric Rofes. "These are institutions that symbolize the way we organize our identity."

Gays have been getting off in public for at least as long as rest rooms have been tea rooms, parks and piers have been meat racks, and bathhouses have been . . . bathhouses. The AIDS crisis sounded a retreat from this rolling orgy, but you can't keep a good dick down. Forget the Ramble, though: Public sex has moved to private parties. The Internet, which was supposed to usher in an era of virtual sex, has instead made hooking up easier than ever—and it's also enabled any kink to find its own kind. The new party scene reflects this appetite for idiosyncratic sex. The getting-off pages of HX and Next list fetes for foot fetishists, business-suit sluts, water-sports enthusiasts drawn to "in-shape college guys," and military-minded men of color. All these fetishes can be fulfilled for a (usually $20) entrance fee.

Private parties are exempt from bias laws, which has allowed gay men to pursue ever more precise types. Paulomania Bronx FunHouse targets papis and the patos who chase them, most in their twenties. Nubian Muscle—an offshoot of the old Blatino parties in Bed-Stuy and Harlem's Aphrodiziac—lives up to its name with parties limited to young, in-shape black and Latino men. The reluctant poster boy for Chelsea attitude is a heavyset middle-aged black man named Carter. In order to become one of Carter's New York Prime, candidates nervously bare the full monte to a panel of three men who inspect the goods more rigorously than judges in an Olympic skating competition. (Some promoters interview prospective guests online.) Carter himself vehemently denies the charge that his group epitomizes the gay impulse to exclude the old, the ugly, or the too hairy: "There are groups for bears, or hairy men, or skinny men. This is for guys who want to meet their own kind."

Of course, not all orgiasts require uniformity. At his CUMshot parties, Augustin imposes few physical restrictions. "I can't stand when people call and ask, Are the guys hot?" he complains. "I'm not looking for escorts. If you have attitude, what's the point? I want guys to have fun, not show off."

Fun isn't something you associate with Rudolph Giuliani, but he deserves some backhanded credit for this horn of plenty. By closing down nightclubs, shuttering backroom spaces and porno theaters, and policing long-established cruising grounds, Rudy drove public sex underground. Now it's blossoming again. And as the parties proliferate, other pre-AIDS institutions are making a comeback. A West Side bar has opened a backroom on Friday nights. A Sunday-night party, complete with third-floor play area and hot tub, briefly flourished in West Chelsea.

The West Side Club is the newest addition to the handful of bathhouses that managed to survive Giuliani time. But many younger guys find these places icy, menacing, and full of overly aggressive older men. "If you say hi to someone, they immediately think it's for sex," says Cherry Boi, a 20-year-old who uses chat rooms to get the word out about the parties he throws. "Guys coming to my party want to be social. They're moving freely, going from talking to sex. Some are even networking."

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."

Lucas says gay men victimized by online predators are less likely than women to complain, especially if they are closeted. But police say it's important for gay men to come forward when they are assaulted or robbed. "That's the only way we can investigate," says Detective Walter Burnes. As for those who feel their privacy will be sacrificed if they come forward, Burnes says, "we're not going to run around and tell people what's going on in your personal life."

America Online spokesperson Nicholas Graham echoes these points. "It's very critical to report these incidents to law enforcement and to AOL in a timely fashion," he says. Members can request help by typing in keywords Notify AOL or I Need Help. Graham says the company strikes "a relevant and practical balance between privacy and security." AOL reports information of a possible crime to the police, but the details are "only shared between our servers and the specific law-enforcement person investigating the matter."

"This is a new phenomenon," Lucas says of Internet crimes against gays. "We're streamlining the way we track it." Meanwhile, experts say that gay men should take special precautions when meeting partners online, because of the anonymity this medium affords. Pictures can be faked and identities can be fabricated. So Lucas offers these tips for gay men cruising online: Meet in a public place, perhaps with a friend in tow; avoid going home with the person on the first date; give friends the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the people you're meeting; and type memos to yourself in your computer listing everything you know about the person, including copies of your online communication.

If sex surfing is your sport, do it safely. —Jermaine Travis

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