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Conversation at the erotic oasis.

The occurrence of male same-sex sexual activity in public places is not a modern phenomenon. Public venues have long served as rich havens for men in search of anonymous sex. What is a more modern phenomenon is our interest in this as a topic for social and behavioral research. Even today, however, research in this area may be personally and professionally risky (Tewksbury, 2004). Fraught with ethical pitfalls and rocky support in the academic community, the road to understanding such behavior has been long and arduous.

The question as to why we choose to study the occurrence of anonymous same-sex encounters is not easily answered. Do we view it as deviant behavior that needs to be controlled or eliminated? Do we see it as a threat to a safe society and harmful to the public at large? Do we feel that it contributes to the spread of infectious diseases? Or, are we merely curious? It has been noted that early research in this area focused on the activity as a phenomenon, while more recent research appears geared toward curtailing cruising as either violative of social norms or as a danger to public heath due to the risk of the transmission of sexually transmittable diseases (Reece & Dodge, 2004). Other studies have noted that rather than "problematizing" this behavior, we, as researchers, should strive to better understand this behavior and its contribution to men's studies (Tewksbury, 1995).

Whatever the reasons guiding our research, it is clear that as researchers our ethical obligations in this field are not to be taken lightly. As we seek to advance knowledge, we must take great care in considering the ramifications of our quest for knowledge. While we must not be dissuaded from seeking knowledge, we should be simultaneously mindful of the consequences for the subjects of our inquiry.

This paper provides a detailed look at data collected by law enforcement officers during a sting operation targeting male same-sex public sexual activity. By drawing on official documents and records of social control activities, this paper provides a unique perspective on cruising for same-sex sexual activities in public places. Data generated by undercover law enforcement activities have only rarely been employed in studies of public, anonymous sex (see Gray, 1988).

Literature Review

While long-term romantic same-sex relationships are now more accepted in American society, research does not support the same level of public acceptance of same-sex relationships that are perceived as merely deviant. The justice system finds itself in the position of policing same-sex conduct, in part, because of a lack of public acceptance and, in part, because of laws that prohibit sexual conduct in public locations. While cruisers may take steps to conceal their behavior from the public, cruising primarily occurs at locations that are legally deemed to be public in nature.

Cruising typically occurs in public locations such as parks, rest stops, adult book stores, etc. However, even private commercial establishments such as bathhouses have been considered so odious at to become the subject of intense justice system investigation (Kyle, 1992).

Cruising Locations

Cruising occurs at a variety of locations that afford the cruiser the opportunity to meet others seeking the same activities. These locations have been termed erotic oases, a phrase originally fashioned by Edward Delph (1978). Cruising sites are a matter of common knowledge in many urban gay communities (Tewksbury, 1996, citing Lee, 1979; Brodsky 1993). Beyond traditional word-of-mouth modes of communication, one can now also discover cruising locations by surfing the internet. Likewise, researchers in this area are using the internet as a source of information and a source for study participants (see Brown, 2003; Tewksbury, in press).

A cruiser will discover that a variety of locations are available for cruising for public sex. Tewksbury (in press) studied the types of locations that are most common places for erotic oases by reviewing internet sites. The most common location reported was designated as "Public Parks/Beaches," followed in frequency by "Gyms/Health Clubs" and "Adult Bookstores/Arcades."

Raids and sting operations have been used in both the reactive and the proactive sense in uncovering same-sex activities in many such public places (Gray, 1988; Humphreys, 1975). Officials have been aware of and responded to this activity for over a century (see Maynard, 1994). Laud Humphreys' landmark Tearoom Trade noted the frequent presence of law enforcement in the tearoom setting. Early research in this area indicated that cruising occurred primarily in silence with a silent code of communication serving to allow participants to signal each other. Researchers, including Humphreys, have postulated that the threat of intrusion by law enforcement is one of the reasons behind the silent code of cruising that has fueled much research in this area. Delph (1978, pp. 74-75) noted that it was the danger of detection and "the threat of imminent danger," which required cruisers to seek out each other in silence.

Signaling Fellow Cruisers

This process, termed signaling, serves not only as a protective measure for the participant, but also shields passers-by who are not interested and may not even be aware of the presence of sexual activity. The tearoom, rest stop, park, or wherever the clandestine same-sex sexual activity occurs, requires a sophisticated set of signals and unspoken rules, especially if a code of silence characterizes such a setting.
 Mutually understood signals must be conveyed, intentions expressed,
 and the action sustained by reciprocal encouragement. Under normal
 circumstances, such communication is ritualized in those patterns
 of word and movement we call courtship and love-making. Verbal
 agreements are reached and intentions conveyed. Even when deception
 is involved in such exchanges, as it often is, self-revelation and
 commitment are likely by-products of courtship rituals. In the
 search for impersonal, anonymous sex, however, these ordinary
 patterns of collective action must be avoided. (Humphreys, 1975,
 pp. 59-60)

As noted above, initial research in this area tended to support the thought that the cruising communication process was completely silent (see Delph, 1978). The majority of signaling and conversation occurs in silence through a code of movement and gestures (Tewksbury, 1996). One researcher notes that verbal signals are so rare that there is no set of language associated with cruising (Hollister, 1999, p. 61). However, our research indicates otherwise (see also Brown, 2003).

Once the location is decided upon, the cruiser merely need arrive and "even the naive, inexperienced cruiser can expect to engage a willing sexual partner" (Tewksbury, 1996, p. 5). While willing partners exist, norms and social regulations exist to facilitate cruising (Tewksbury). However, in order to successfully navigate the setting, individuals need to recognize and understand the structure, syntax and content of modes of communication for the setting. Specific signals and roles are developed within erotic oases to promote successful and safe preludes to sexual activity. Humphreys (1978) noted,
 Operating under pressures to maintain secrecy and to curtail the
 time involved, those who seek sex in the tearooms must be able to
 move quickly through mutually understood identities as they select
 appropriate strategies. Such social organization is essential for
 collective action, at least when that action is illegitimate. (p.

Signaling is integral to the process of cruising. In addition to serving the safety concerns and practical needs of the participants, these "rules of the game" provide a certain cohesion for the participants and their collective activities. "These standing rules, symbols, and expressions are generally followed, understood, and respected. They create a common understanding, giving coherence and clarity to the activities" (Tattelman, 1999, p. 73). Another purpose of silence in cruising and tearoom activities is its ability to conceal the participants' identities and "assure the impersonality of the sexual liaison" (Humphreys, 1975, p. 13).

However, not all research, nor our data here, confirms that the world of cruising exists in silence. Some research indicates that cruisers like to engage in conversation (Hollister, 2004 citing Troiden, 1974; Brown, 2003). Our research provides support for the belief that conversation is an active part of signally during cruising. Brown notes that the likelihood of conversation may be dependent upon the locale and that parks and bathhouses are more conducive to conversation between participants. Brown found talking to be a "common form of socializing" in the cruising context. In addition to providing a social opportunity, often, simple conversation may be employed to initiate interactions. This allows each of the parties to evaluate each other as a potential partner for sexual activity. As will be seen below, conversation and non-verbal signaling are not mutually exclusive in the world of cruising.

Cruising is not a static unchanging activity that is confined to one set of rules. Rules of the game may be modified and may vary from location to location. Furthermore, like all processes, as time passes, things change. Today, the internet, unavailable to Delph and Humphreys, provides a wealth of information for cruisers. Internet sites can warn fellow cruisers of the presence of law enforcement activities at a particular location as well as serving as a source of information for would-be cruisers (Tewksbury, in press).

Infiltration of the Oasis by Law Enforcement

With such a complicated and ever changing set of rules and relationships characterizing erotic oases, it would appear difficult for an outsider to permeate the interaction rituals of erotic oases. The use of decoys may be law enforcement's field best tool in this area. "Obviously, playing an active rather than passive role in any police activity affords the arresting officer a better degree of control and a greater scope of knowledge concerning the more subtle aspects of a suspect's behavior" (Gray, 1988, p. 134).

This tactic requires training, observation and practice. Gray notes that officers in her research gained experience and became "socialized in the covert techniques" of the tearoom as their surveillance activities took place (p. 132).

In 1995, a sting operation was formed in the city that is the source of our data for the purpose of seeking out and sanctioning persons engaging in illegal sexual activity in public areas. The sting operation was initiated as the result of complaints from citizens and "common knowledge" that same-sex sexual activities were frequent in certain locales. The sting operation focused primarily on same-sex sexual activity, actively using male decoys to appeal to men in search of anonymous sexual partners. Of the 127 cases that constitute the data for the present study, only seven cases involved male-female sexual activity.

The cases in our study involved twenty-four officers who detected and apprehended suspects based upon the suspects' either pursuing or actually engaging in sexual conduct in a public places. The officers detected the activity by acting as decoys at five public locations. The majority (80%) of our cases come from incidents that occurred during 2003 and 2004.

Research Method

This study is based upon police and court data from 127 individual cases of sexual activity in public places in a major metropolitan area in California. Each case represents an individual suspect who was charged with committing a criminal sexual offense for alleged sexual conduct in a public place. The cases are based upon police charges filed between 1995 and 2005.

The sources utilized in each case are police investigative reports, suspect statements and court documents. No additional interviews or investigations were conducted. All information utilized is of public record. Nonetheless, the researchers have maintained the confidentiality of the subjects' identities. Where names are used in this paper, they are pseudonyms.

The following information was collected from each of the 127 cases and entered into a SPSS database: Incident date; Time of Day; Main Officer; Age of Suspect; Park where activity occurred; Specific Location inside park; suspect's race; whether conduct was heterosexual; whether suspect touched officer; suspect's primary charge; and, suspects' secondary charge.

The cases were analyzed to identify general characteristics of the cruisers and the environments in which they cruised. In addition to general characteristics, conversations between officers and cruisers (as recorded in official records) were analyzed to determine the purpose and method of the conversations in the cruising process.


Characteristics of Cases

All cases involved suspects who were charged with violating a specific section of the California Penal Code. The main section under which these suspects were charged (87.4% of suspects-III cases) was [section] 647 (a). [section] 647 (a) provides criminal misdemeanor sanctions for a person, "Who solicits anyone to engage in or who engages in lewd or dissolute conduct in any public place or in any place open to the public or exposed to public view." A prerequisite to proving guilt under this statute is proving that the perpetrator's motivation is sexual in nature (People v. Swearington, 1977, p. 944).

Other commonly cited offenses were California Penal Code [section] 647(d), which criminalizes loitering in a bathroom for the purpose of "engaging in or soliciting any lewd or lascivious or any unlawful act" (3.9%) and California Penal Code [section] 314.1 (3.9%), California's Indecent Exposure statute. A small number of cases (2.4%) resulted in the charge of Sexual Battery pursuant to California Penal Code [section] 243.4. Of the 127 cases, 35 cases resulted in a secondary charge, the majority (24) were charged for loitering in a bathroom pursuant to [section] 647(d). Other secondary offenses were noted as well including Indecent Exposure pursuant to [section] 314.1 (0.8%) and miscellaneous drug charges (0.8%).

In their roles as decoys, several of the officers not only observed, but also engaged in physical contact with the suspects. The suspects touched the officers in a sexual manner in 25 percent of the reported cases. In these cases, the arrest came shortly thereafter and the contact did not continue for an extended period of time.

Several officers appear to have been the primary decoys used in this sting operation. Three officers of the twenty-five which are named in the data served as the primary officer in fifty-one percent of the cases, with one officer serving as the lead officer in 22 percent of the cases. This supports the belief that decoy officers must learn and perfect the art of cruising in order to blend into the environment as a cruiser and not an easily identifiable social control agent.

The age of the cruisers varied, ranging from 20 to 78 years of age, with a median age of forty-three. The suspects were predominantly white (55.9%). African Americans made up 6.3 percent, 3.1 percent were Asian and 16.5 percent were Hispanic. The race of 22 (17.3%) subjects is unknown.

The most common location of incidents (43%) occurred at a park close to a river from which police state they received regular reports of same sex public sexual activity, 59 percent involved sexual activity in the outdoors, not in a vehicle or bathroom. The outdoor activity locations included walking trails, behind vegetation and trees and generally locations where the participants believed they would not be seen by the noncruising public. Twenty-seven percent occurred in bathrooms and 11 percent occurred in vehicles.

Although the purpose and subject of this study is same-sex sexual activity, a few cases reported to the researchers involve sexual activity which the researchers categorized as "non-cruising" cases. Of 127 reported cases, seven qualify as non-cruising cases in which some type of heterosexual activity or solely autoerotic activity is reported such as a man and woman found in a vehicle having sex or a man found alone in a restroom masturbating.

Verbal Signaling

While not emphasized in other research in this field as a major form of signaling, our data contained a wealth of conversations between the cruisers and the officer decoys. The cruisers engaged in substantive conversation that included meaningful signaling in contradiction of the prior research that depicts erotic oases as a realm of silence. Cruisers in our study utilized conversation to screen potential partners, provide information to fellow cruisers and convey proposals for sexual activity.

The following conversation took place between an undercover officer and a cruiser. The two men were both walking on a nature trail in a public park. The suspect, or cruiser, initiated the following conversation with the officer.


Suspect: You come down here much?

Officer: This is my first time. I just heard about it on the internet. [Conversation continues generally]

S: You're a good looking man.

O: Thanks. My wife thinks so too.

S: You wear boxers or briefs?

O: Briefs.

S: That's cool.

S: Hang on a minute. I have to take a leak [Suspect urinates in front of officer].

S: Go ahead and go.

O: No thanks. I don't have to go.

S: Come on, it's great. Right out here in the wild. I won't look unless you want me to.

O: No thanks. Are you a car salesman or something? You talk a pretty good game.

S: I'm an environmental engineer. What do you do?

O: I work at Costco.

S: I would buy something from you. [Conversation continues generally; Suspect points at a group of trees and mentions he once saw two men there engaged in sexual activity]

S: What do you like to do?

O: I don't know.

S: I bet you're well built down there.

O: Not really [Suspect then tells officer his opinion on penis size and circumcision].

O: I should get going.

S: You want to play around first?

O: I don't think so.

S: Come down here [suspect waves officer toward trees].

S: Come on. I won't hurt you. [Officer walked toward suspect, when three feet from suspect, suspect grabs officer's clothed groin area for approximately 2 seconds].

From this exchange, we see that the suspect is "feeling out" the decoy to determine if he is a cruiser, discuss his prior cruising activities and propose sexual contact. This process occurs with both non-verbal and verbal signals. The cruiser felt confident in this incident that the decoy was not an officer. The cruiser's actions signal his confidence in his partner choice and his desire to engage in cruising activity. The cruiser used conversation to attain this level of confidence and make his move. This scenario indicates the important role that conversation can play in the erotic oasis.

The following conversation again shows the use of conversation by cruisers to determine the intent of another person at the oasis. Following the cruiser's determination as to whether the person is a cruiser or an agent of social control, the conversation is then utilized to set the stage and outline the rules for the sexual activity that will take place.


Suspect 1: What are you up to?

Officer: Just out walking around. Enjoying the weather. What about you?

S 1: I'm cruising.

O: Do you guys know each other?

S 1: No we just met.

O: What are you guys talking about?

S 1: We were just saying how we think there's an undercover cop out here.

O: No shit. Are you talking about that guy with the beard?

S 1: Yes.

S2: Yes.

O: Why do you think he's a cop?

S 1: Because he wouldn't do anything. He just stood there.

O: The cops come out here?

S 1: Yeah, they do.

O: Oh, I'm not looking for any trouble.

S 1: Yeah, I'm just looking to have some fun. Are you into having fun?

O: I like fun.

S 1: What are you into?

O: Anything. How about you?

S 1: I'm into anything.

[S2 rubs his genital area from outside his shorts]

S 1: I want to suck some dick. I want to suck both of your dicks.

[S 1 and O agree]

S 1: Would that be ok with you? I want you to cum in my mouth too.

O: You gonna use a rubber or what?

S 1: Nope. Just cum right here [pointing to his mustache). Well, let's go. Let's see them.

S 2: You go first [indicating for officer to go first].

O: You go first. I'll watch.

S 1: Both of you pull them out. I'll do both of you at the same time.

[S2 and S1 engaged in oral sex]

Following this conversation, the undercover officer identified himself and cited both suspects for Lewd Conduct in a Public Place. Again, we see the conversation playing an important role in the cruising process and not merely functioning as meaningless background chit-chat. The conversation here served to screen a fellow cruiser, describe a cruiser's desires, and outline the process for engaging in the desired behavior.

"If They're a Cop ... They Have to Tell You ... It's the Law"

Cruisers often ask fellow cruisers if they are law enforcement officers. However, cruisers are mistaken in believing that a negative answer is sufficient proof to exclude these partners as agents of law enforcement. This misperception foiled several subjects in our study. The subjects, in their attempt to screen potential partners, mistakenly believed that if one asks an officer if he is an officer he must respond truthfully. The subjects tended to come straight out and ask the under-cover officers if they were, in fact, "cops."

The following conversation occurred when a cruiser approached an undercover officer who was sitting on a log engaged in a phone conversation with another officer. The cruiser immediately, upon approaching the officer engaged him in the following conversation.


Suspect: What's up?

Officer: Nothing

S: You a cop?

O: No. Are you?

S: Nah. What do you like?

O: This and that.

S: You want to suck me?

O: You want me to give you head?

S: Yeah.

O: Right here?

S: Yeah.

O: You got a condom?

S: No. I'm clean though.

After the conversation ceased, this cruiser, relying upon the decoy's assertion that he was not in fact an officer, fondled himself and pulled his pants down to his knees in the presence of the officer.

Another suspect went further as to state to the undercover officer that he believed that officers had to tell you they were officers. In the following scenario, an undercover officer was approached by a cruiser and invited to take a walk by the river. After engaging in brief conversation about the weather, the following conversation took place.


Officer: What are you up to?

Suspect: Just out and about. Checking things out. What about you?

O: I'm just out for a walk, enjoying the weather.... [Miscellaneous conversation]

S: Do you know that other guy down there?

O: No. We pulled into the lot at the same time and we said hi to each other but that's it.

S: Oh. I thought maybe you were a cop since it looked like you guys came together.

O: No. I'm not a cop. Do cops come down here?

S: I've heard they do. You got to be careful. That's why I came down here to talk to you. Just to feel you out and make sure you were cool. I didn't want you to think I was being rude but I don't want to get in any trouble.

O: Yeah. I'm kind of nervous now.

S: Well, I think if you ask if they're a cop, they have to tell you.

O: Oh well, are you a cop'?

S: No. I'm not a cop. Are you a cop?

O: No.

S: Well, I'm glad we got that out of the way.

This officer clearly stated to the suspect that he was not a law enforcement officer and the suspect believed him and continued with his cruising activities, which ultimately led to his offering oral sex to the undercover officer and being cited for loitering in a public toilet for a lewd act.

The fact that cruisers are aware that officers may be present in the cruising locale does not appear to deter cruising activity. One cruiser in our study admitted to having been cited for sexual conduct in a public place three times at the same location. While cruisers are aware of the potential of meeting law enforcement officers while cruising, either because they suspect the presence of officers as in the two cases listed above, or because they have actually been apprehended by officers in the past, recognition of such possibilities appear to have little deterrent effect.

The Price of Getting Caught

Male cruising for same-sex sexual activity is not confined to the gay community. Many men who identify as heterosexual also participate in same-sex cruising and public sex (see Lynch, 2002; Reece & Dodge, 2004; Tewksbury, 1995, 1996) For these men, the price of detection and the prejudices associated with cruising may carry additional costs (Parks, 2004). Additional costs may exist in the loss of one's heterosexual identity, the loss of professional image and the loss of familial relationships. Although not specifically asked about their private family relationships, one man in our study spontaneously offered that he was only engaging in cruising behavior because he was having problems with his wife. For this man the price of getting caught may involve more than fines and incarceration. One cruiser pleaded with police, "I've never done this before. I thought you were a faggot, and I don't like faggots.... I'm just crazy right now." The man went on to tell the officer that he was, "ruining my family." Another man in a similar situation stated to the officer, "I'm guilty as charged, but you are destroying my family." The price for these men includes not only the sanctions imposed by the system, but also the exposure to their families and peers.

Discussion and Recommendations

Our research supports the belief that conversation can be and is, in fact, a part of the cruising experience. Although our data does not allow an assessment as to whether conversation leads to ongoing social relationships, as suggested by Brown (2003), we do see that cruising is not a silent encounter. However, we must note that the activities of undercover officers could have increased the level of conversation. While the actions of such officers may have altered the typical flow of cruising activities, it is instructive that at least for the individuals apprehended in the present sting operation, conversation was not perceived as sufficiently deviant to curtail the cruising process.

The ability of the law enforcement officers to go beyond merely engaging in conversation with the cruisers and to participate physically, if only briefly, in sexual contact with the subjects, provided a greater likelihood of success in prosecution in these cases. Instead of merely having evidence of intent and signals, the officers received physical contact as evidence of a suspect's intent and actions in conformance of his intent.

However, despite the strength lent to the prosecution's case by the use of decoys in these cases, our repeat offender incident noted above causes us to question the efficacy of this type of law enforcement activity. If the goal is specific and immediate incapacitation of individual suspects, it appears rather successful. If the goal is long-term eradication of cruising, the effort is unsuccessful. The long history of cruising combined with our knowledge from individual cases that cruisers are aware of cops cruising erotic oases shows us that law enforcement tactics do not deter cruising.

This study confirms existing research that cruising is alive and well in public forums. Furthermore, this study provides another look at clandestine efforts by law enforcement personnel in the erotic oasis. This study is unique in that it shows that the world of cruising is not completely silent and devoid of verbal communication. Our data shows that conversation plays an integral role in cruising activities. As noted above, it can be argued that the presence of officers in this data increased the level of conversation between the cruisers. However, again, we note that were conversation a violation of cruising activity, the undercover officers would have been unable to achieve the level of infiltration that was accomplished in this sting operation.

Future research should replicate this investigation in other locales where undercover operations have occurred. Finding locations at which this occurs should not be difficult. The difficulty may lie in obtaining access to the data. Further research continues to be necessary for fully understanding the nature, role and content of conversation as a verbal signaling endeavor. We should seek to determine whether the police presence increased conversation as a signaling method or is the prior literature incorrect in the assertion that cruising is primarily a silent activity. Finally, as Brown (2003) asserts, we may need to look closer at the relationships between men who cruise. Is this just sexual activity, or more?


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California Penal Code, Disorderly conduct; Restrictions on probation, S647 (2006).

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University of Louisville

Richard Tewksbury, Justice Administration, University of Louisville; Neva-Marie Polley, Justice Administration, University of Louisville.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Richard Tewksbury, Justice Administration, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY 40292. Electronic mail:
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Author:Tewksbury, Richard; Polley, Neva-Marie
Publication:The Journal of Men's Studies
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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