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The Global Glory Hole

Cottaging

Mark Simpson on the enduring allure of anonymous sex in an age of gay marriage and ‘anti-social networking

I was sixteen when saw my first glory hole. Or rather, saw my first filled glory hole. It was in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, a public-spirited, snobbish spa town well-served by shiny Victorian lavatories. The throbbing, fleshy wall-fitting in my tiled cubicle was quite a sight. Glorious, even. Truly an impressive, proud piece of polished plumbing.

Cottaging, or cruising for sex in public lavatories and parks, was once a mainstay of the gay demi monde. It’s easy to see why. When any and all sex between men was still illegal as it was in the UK before the (partial) decriminalisation of 1967, anonymous sex was often the only kind available. It was probably the only sensible kind too since the more your partner knew about you the more you left yourself open to blackmail. Thanks to British municipal pride, toilets were everywhere – and also nowhere: a kind of wordless no man’s land where anything might happen. Much like homosexuality.

The glory hole itself is the ultimate symbol of anonymous ‘no strings’ sex – an erect, disembodied cock sticking through a wall. Even bricks and mortar can’t hold it back. Nameless, shameless desire. As a horny teenager in the early 1980s, when sex with another male was still completely illegal for me – not being over 21 and not in a position to have sex ‘in private’, two key, killjoy stipulations of the 1967 Act – I was very, very interested in what went on in public toilets.

Orton toilet

Joe Orton’s favourite watering hole.

But I never really got the hang of it. Less Joe Orton more sad Captain in Querelle of Brest I preferred to scrutinise the filthy, imploring messages and somewhat optimistic anatomical drawings on the walls. The business of standing around for hours like cheese at four pence pretending to piss was beyond me – I was far too self-conscious already. Plus sex in cubicles seemed foolish: there’s no escape route, either from the rozzers or from the other party.

It was only later, after running away to London and joining the out-and-proud gay world of gay bars and clubs and volunteering for London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard that I discovered my true home – an overgrown corner of Hampstead Heath popular at night with gentlemen having trouble sleeping. The old skool twilight world of the homosexual is where I really belonged. I spent many warm summer evenings there enjoying wordless trysts that were often as romantic as they were anonymous. I also spent many long hours wandering around in ever-expanding circles in the freezing fog in February. Compulsive sex can be pretty compulsive.

As that global glory hole called the internet was to make even clearer. The arrival of online ‘dating’ sites like Gaydar in the late 90s depopulated gay cruising areas like Hampstead Heath – which had already suffered competition from the host of back rooms, sex clubs and gay saunas that opened in London that decade. But now everyone was sat at home logged on with a lob on looking to ‘accom’. Today of course it’s all about Grindr, the mobile gay ‘dating’ app that uses GPS technology to allow you to cruise for locally-sourced cock at Tescos, on the bus or while having dinner with your mum.

384-Grindr-Logo-gold-background-1024x1024

Which has created something that looks, through a vandalised toilet cubicle partition, like a paradox. Now that homosexuality has been completely decriminalised, legal equality and acceptance achieved, same sex marriage is on the way – and most public toilets have been shut or turned into tanning salons – it sometimes seems as if all gay men today are e-cottaging. Constantly.

Some argue that this is a shameful and shame-filled hangover from the period of illegality and hiding – that it’s a form of internalised homophobia preventing gay men from having proper (i.e. monogamous) relationships. This seems to be the thesis of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s award-winning 2008 play The Pride, currently running at Trafalgar Studios, London in a new production by Jamie Lloyd. In it a 1950s male couple are driven apart by guilt and repression, while a contemporary gay couple are riven by the ‘self-hating’ ‘addiction’ one of them has to anonymous sex.

Some have gone further and argued that because gay men can get civil partnered or soon, married, they now owe it to society to leave behind their irresponsible lifestyle from an oppressed past, stop letting the side down and ‘grow up’.

Into what, though?

Now, I certainly wouldn’t deny that casual sex can be a bad habit that’s difficult to break – and one that can make having a long-term relationship more difficult. But really only if monogamy is part of the deal. And in my experience most long term gay male relationships are open (though I realise you’re not supposed to say that in front of straight people). Arguably, the always-available culture of anonymous sex, the gaping glory hole, isn’t what stops gay men from having relationships, it’s perhaps what makes many long-term gay relationships possible where otherwise the commitment might be too smothering.

Precisely because sex is so freely and so anonymously available for gay men it is less likely to be the foundation of their relationship – and sex outside the relationship less likely to represent a threat. ‘Darling, I promise you, he meant nothing to me!’ is a line that most gay men don’t need to use – since they probably only know the ‘other woman’ as ‘MassiveMeat69’.

And if I wanted to be really cynical I could say that as far as the penis is concerned there is only one kind of sex and it’s anonymous.

While the general relevance of gay culture for gay people tends to recede as homophobia rapidly falls off and integration speeds up, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that the world of anonymous sex persists and in fact flourishes. Like camp it’s the slutty sensibility of a culture of (too much) choice – and an escape from (out-and-proud) identity. After all, Grindr’s logo is a mask. Anti-social networking.

The gay culture of anonymous, or at least ‘no strings’ sex is also something non gays seem very keen to appropriate. Ironically, now that gays have begun to convince much of the Western World they’re ‘just like straight people’ and thus worthy of marriage, straight people seem to be spending all their time dogging, checking their messages on Badoo and deconstructing monogamy.

But I would say that. When it comes to anonymous sex I’m a lifer. When I was in the grip of a pimply hormonal frenzy, gawping at glory holes, scanning the dirty graffiti, or cruising Hampstead Heath, I used to kid myself I was looking for love in all the wrong places. Then later I thought that I wanted love to save me from sex. Nowadays, like many other middle-aged men whose libido is in free-fall, I pray for sex to save me from love.

Mark Simpson’s Kindle Single ‘End of Gays?’ is available to download.

Promiscuity into Bureaucracy: Gaydar and Online ‘Dating’

The MP Chris Bryant has faced calls for his resignation for appearing in his pants in messages sent via a gay website – but others see Gaydar as the future of dating. So what is it really like? Mark Simpson speaks with the (exhausted) voice of experience

(Independent on Sunday, 7 December 2003)

Gay men are having sex! Lots of it! Every night! With a different man! And they don’t even have to leave the house!

There was more than a hint of sexual jealousy surrounding the ‘outrage’ in the British press last week’s over Gaydar, the cruising website where gay and bisexual men exchange instant messages, personal pictures, addresses and then sexual positions, often in less time than it takes to get served at a West End bar.

To condemn it however is to protest against the inevitable, since Gaydar’s methods will probably end up being adopted by everyone from 18-30 dating agencies to golden oldie matchmakers. And, judging by the passionate envy on display, its sexual mores will soon follow.

Oscar Wilde once famously defined a moralist as someone who likes to lecture on the evils of vices of which he has grown tired. In this accelerated age, a moralist is someone who likes to lecture on the evils of vices that they are about to try. However, as a (mostly) former internet cruiser, I’d like to report from the frontier of human degradation/innovation in the more traditional, Wildean form – as a sinner who has grown jaded.

If internet cruising is the future of dating, then there is certainly no future – or place – for romance. And probably no future for sex either.

At the height of the recent record-breaking summer heatwave, for old time’s sake, I visited the gay reservation of Hampstead Heath in the naive hope that the torrid weather might have made gays more more inclined to leave their pokey, humid bedrooms. But the Heath was deserted. There were one or two punters, but these were men of a certain age who had not yet figured out how to get online with the obsolete computer that a nephew off-loaded on them.

Now, call me old-fashioned, but what is the point of sex to a single homosexualist if it doesn’t get you out of the bloody house? On the hottest night of the year? Gays – all of them, every last one of them, especially those in relationships – are “logged on” with lob ons, looking for someone who will “travel” while they “accom”.

If Joe Orton had his time again his diaries would have been just printouts of thousands of Gaydar profiles and alarming digicam photos. I, for my part, look back on my pre-internet days of compulsive cruising of the Heath in the driving sleet and rain as a golden age of warmth, romance and human contact.

Moralists who protest at gay e-promiscuity should actually be encouraging the Government to provide gays with grants for permanent broadband connections, since the internet not only keeps them off the streets and out of the parks, it turns all that messy sexual energy and appetite into … typing. Gays have become the unpaid secretaries of desire, filing and cataloguing human weakness. Promiscuity is now a form of bureaucracy. Tedious, eye-straining, number-crunching slave work.

Don’t bother feeling jealous, all you sexually frustrated, non-online non-gays: internet cruising is its own form of punishment, Dante’s e-ferno where thousands of disembodied souls in e-ternal torment constantly prod one another with inquisitorial malice: “stats?”, “into?”, and “how big’s your cock?”

The evil of internet cruising – and the reason why it will become irresistibly, devastatingly mainstream – is precisely its efficiency. IT plus a wired world means lust can be much more productive, much more accurate, much more all-consuming, and much more pointless. Internet cruising allows you to pursue endlessly and ever more obsessively your ultimate “type”. Like an especially well-organised, if unfriendly, Roman orgy, there are chat rooms for every (legal) fetish and taste. Gaydar members can search the database on height, age, hirsuteness, ethnicity, hair colour, pec-size and sex role (passive, active, or versatile). Strangely, there isn’t a box to check for “twinkly eyes” or “great sense of humour”.

But efficiency is precisely what sex is not about. Sex is a journey where, if you’re lucky, you get lost – like Hampstead Heath on a foggy night. Arriving is not really the point, it’s the confusions, the collisions, the diversions that are (sometimes) rewarding. With internet cruising there’s ultimately no escape from your own desire. Even when you actually meet someone off the net – one of you, reluctantly, agreeing to leave the house – they never really exist, and nor do you. You are both merely each other’s computer-generated horny hologram, one that dissipates with orgasm – “Cheers! ‘Ave a good one mate!” is the universal, embarrassed e-kiss off.

The most familiar cliché/complaint about internet dating is that when they turned up “they weren’t the person in the picture”. The real disappointment is that they were exactly the person on the profile. To the inch. It was a profile rather than a person you met and got groinal with. You were tricked, not by the flakiness of others, but by the emptiness of your own desire.

And no matter how “hot” the sex was for both of you, and no matter how much you both say you can’t wait to do it again and even make explicit arrangements to do so, it won’t happen. Come the appointed time, you’ll both be online again, looking for another profile that more exactly matches your requirements. What the internet giveth, the internet taketh away.

You see, the real efficiency of online dating, just as with internet anything, is not the way it delivers you lots of pointless sex without leaving the house, but the way that it ensures that you will be spending more time on the internet. The web is a jealous lover, and will countenance no infidelity that lasts longer than a hurried shag with some data it has selected and loaned you for an hour or so. Like a Las Vegas casino, the internet always wins. I’ve never met Mr and Mr Gaydar, and don’t know anything about them except that they must, having figured out a way to tax gay lust, be living in a penthouse apartment atop their own luxury skyscraper in Manhattan.

This kind of fierce fidelity can’t be supported indefinitely, however. Something has to give. Martin Luther may have described marriage as a curative for lust, but today that role has been usurped by the internet. Burn-out is the inevitable consequence of on-line dating. Or heart attack. If I didn’t find myself cured of lust I certainly found myself disenchanted.

By allowing me to focus on the boring “sex” to the exclusion of the arousing “journey” or “travelling” aspect of desire, internet cruising and the spinning bedroom turnstile it brought, utterly demystified sex. It was like working as a hustler but for free, and having to do all that hard work of choosing your clients instead of the other way around. Unforgivably, the internet has deprived me of my most cherished illusion: my faith in sex.

Which is really unfair. I mean, what am I supposed to do with the rest of my life? Not that I expect anyone to feel much sympathy. But let my jadedness be a warning to you all: internet dating will ruin your sex life.

By giving you one.

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