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The Rise and Fall of Cruisingforsex.com, a Digital Atlas of Casual Encounters


"The Garden of Earthly Delights", by Hieronyous Bosch. (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)

Even in Disney World, an impenetrable fortress of G-rated delights, sex is happening.

Hop on a complimentary shuttle bus from the Magic Kingdom to the edge of Fort Wilderness Beach, take a right, and walk along the nature trail until you come upon a copse of trees. There, in the shadow of Cinderella's Castle, is an entirely different kind of wonderland. If that doesn't suit you, there are other options; the sauna of the Walt Disney Swan Resort on a Sunday afternoon, the men's bathroom in the basement of Disney’s Great Hall, the “totally private” fourth floor handicapped toilet near the monorail to Epcot. In every setting, there’s a sacred concealed world—a hidden network of men meeting other men for sex, masked in the mundane.

When I first discovered Cruisingforsex.com, I was stranded in rural Pennsylvania to attend the wedding of my best friend’s third cousin. Armed with nothing more than a wifi connection and a complimentary buffet, the only sane thing for my friend James and I to do was chug white wine and browse Tinder. As we speculated about a 19-year-old farmer with a rat-tail, James made a suggestion: Let's go on Cruisingforsex.  

After a few minutes of fumbling with my phone, I managed to enter my search query: Hershey, Pennsylvania. And there it was. A toilet in Hershey Park's outlet mall was only two miles away, a parking lot by James' high school was a quick 15-minute drive, and just down the road was a hotel with a back room. Just like that, this landscape—engulfed in neon, eerily suburban—was transformed before me into a series of negotiations, authored by gay men who usurped public space in whatever way they could.

In the age of Tinder and Grindr, perhaps it wasn’t so surprising that I could conjure up this world in moments. But Cruisingforsex.com isn’t just any website—it marked a turning point in the history of the internet, and in the history of gay life in the United States. This intersection was only possible thanks to the vision of a man whose life contained multitudes of contradictions—almost as many as the sexual mores of the community that he sought to empower.

For the uninitiated, cruising is the modern term for the practice of casual and anonymous public sex. Enshrined in Rome’s hedonistic baths, the ancient art of cruising went down in Athenian cemeteries, seedy 17th century theaters, and the ornate, public gardens of Victorian Paris. More recently, cruising spots include deserted parks, truck stops, gloryholes, bathhouses, and, of course, the dirty theater. Here, the most banal of gestures—the tap of a foot or the flash of a handkerchief—become a loaded sexual advance.


The website disclaimer. (Photo: Courtesy of the Wayback Machine.)

Until the advent of the internet, cruisers relied on sheer luck and local gossip to navigate a world that was punctuated by police raids. But word of mouth has given way to web-based message boards and forums, and, beginning in 1995, cruising entered the digital age. By all accounts, it was a good year to be single on the internet. America Online reigned supreme, personal ads wouldn’t grace Craigslist for another year, and chat rooms were the bread and butter of gay hook-ups. It was then that two websites, seemingly diametrically opposed, were founded—one was the ultra-conservative Match.com, the other was the consciously hedonistic Cruisingforsex.com.

By 1997, Match.com was everywhere. It bombarded basic cable with commercials, boasted a formidable 200,000 registrants, and was universally hailed as an instant marriage generator and the future of computer courtship. If Match was a corporate Goliath, then it seemed as though Cruisingforsex was a waifish David. Cruisingforsex.com was a bare bones operation, with nary a full-time staffer or office. Yet, in its way, it was just as big. Cruisingforsex was clocking over 130,000 hits per day, amassing over six million visitors per month, while boasting a spot in the top two percent of viewed websites at the time.

The website was founded “on a lark” by Keith Griffith, an enigmatic Southern gentleman with a soft spot for Blanton’s single barrel liquor. Griffith was born into a strict, Southern Baptist family in 1959 but his upbringing didn’t quite stick (an oft-quoted mantra was that his religion as an adult came from getting on his knees for a different sort of prayer.) As a young man, Griffith married his high school sweetheart in a quiet church ceremony, but divorced her in a dingy courtroom in Alberta, Georgia a year later. It was then that Griffith decamped to California, where he enrolled in San Francisco State University and met his true love: cruising.

It was 1978 and ostensibly, the city was a legalized orgy. Three years later, the AIDS crisis hit.


A table of contents page from a 1993 issue of Steam magazine. (Photo: History of Gay and Lesbian Life, Milwaukee, Wisconsin)

The disease descended swiftly on the city. By 1985, the first year that President Reagan publicly mentioned the disease, the global death toll stood at 12,529. It was in the those “darkest, desperate days” that Griffith met Scott O’Hara, a trust fund kid turned porn star who became Griffith’s all-in-one confidante, employer, and sometime lover. Together, Griffith and O’Hara founded Steam magazine in 1993, a print quarterly billing itself as a celebration of “all kinds of sex, but especially public, publicly-disapproved, exciting sex.” Like many early internet projects, Cruisingforsex can trace its lineage directly back to the printed page.

At a moment when the “gay plague” had subsumed the lives of thousands of gay men and women around the world, O’Hara and Griffith fought for a slice of sexual freedom. This ran counter to the prevailing medical advice, but Griffith would defend his stance on public sex by invoking the words of O’Hara, who once told him, “If you want safety, don't have sex because sex is risky.” Safety was not the point; fully living was the point. O’Hara believed that life, gay life, should be more than mere biological survival.

Hara died in 1998; Griffith died in 2012. Both men approached sex as if it were their last meal.

In December 6th of 1995—just as Griffith’s site was exploding across the still-young internet—the FDA approved the drug Invirase, the first protease inhibitor. Protease inhibitors diminish viral loads in order to stunt HIV before it transforms into AIDS. Protease inhibitors ushered in a new, unfamiliar era of safety. For the very first time a positive test result wasn’t a death sentence.

Acts that seemed unthinkable at the height of the AIDS epidemic—color-coded handkerchiefs, condomless bacchanalias—began to return as talismans of the pre-plague era. Cruising was one of them. “There was a sense that [gay men] were mining a long-buried, pre-AIDS memory,” says Michael Scarce, author and former columnist for Cruisingforsex.


The Castro district in San Francisco, one of first gay neighborhoods in the U.S. (Photo: Jennifer Woodard Maderazo/WikiCommons CC BY 2.0)

But cruising is a risky activity, beyond sexual health concerns: It’s a crime in many areas. When Scare took a brief trip to Columbus, Ohio, he remembers the police “hiding in foxholes, staking us out with night vision goggles. They had helicopters.” In Fort Lauderdale, the mayor attempted to spend $250,000 on self-cleaning robotic bathrooms. In Palm Beach, a massive five-year undercover operation commenced in 2012 with upwards of 600 arrests. In 1997, one cruiser from New York wrote: “I'm hearing from a friend of mine about the wrath of the Giuliani administration. He went there one night, was chased out by cops on horses. The police were scaring the boys away by shooting rubber bullets. No riot. No crime.”

Cruisingforsex’s Confession Board is riddled with such horror stories. There’s the road tripper who quit his job rather than wait to be fired during the next company-wide criminal check, the student who was giving oral sex to his boyfriend in the back of his Buick before he was unceremoniously strip searched by the police, and the cruiser who returned to the scene of the crime to plaster the park with posters that read “Voyeuristic Gay Cops Meet Here Nightly—Bring your own knee pads and night vision goggles.” 

Those who got caught cruising could expect a public airing of their activities. It wasn’t uncommon for police to schedule raids around TV "sweeps" rating periods. Griffith warned, “Sex, especially gay sex, is always one of the topics of choice during May sweeps. My advice to you is to be extra vigilant.” In 1998, over 20 news programs deployed a fleet of undercover cameras to stake out local dens of inequity. Their reports all began with a nearly identical incantation: “Do you know what's going on in the very parks your kids could be playing in?"

Once a hush-hush fortress, everything changed when law enforcement caught on to Griffith’s digital encyclopedia. In 2000, Griffith began to seriously consider shuttering the website. An article from the Wired archives describes how one police officer logged into the website to dispute the complaint of a cruiser over a trespassing charge. Griffith admitted, "Those who doubted this site could be useful to our enemies were very naive." In 1997, Cruisingforsex published 146 entrapment alerts. By 2005, that number had swelled to 1,210. It was no longer a place to find locations for sex, but a place to find out where not to hook up. One cruiser informed, “I have a buddy that is a deputy sheriff that has told me to stay away from certain locations posted on CFS. He says that the ‘department’ monitors this site.”


"In the Roman Baths", by Russian painter Fyodor Bronnikov. (Photo: Public Domain/WikiArt)

The site’s next redesign, then, wasn’t a matter of aesthetic improvements. Enlisting the help of a Boston law firm, Donahue & Grolman, Cruisingforsex's redesign included a makeover of the homepage, the debut of a legal column, and robust entrapment alerts.

Emerging mobile technology turned out to be a bigger threat to the practice, though, than law enforcement. Even in his lifetime, Griffith mourned the decline of traditional cruising, while deriding apps such as Grindr as a passing “trend.” The cyclical ebb and flow of queer spaces is largely invisible, yet it’s inevitable. As we mourn the loss of once-vibrant gay bars and bookstores, it’s all too easy to chalk their disappearance up to assimilationist hoo-hah of queer culture. And yes, that’s one answer. The other is that queer landscapes have always been cunning spaces, impossible to control or maintain, and somewhat appropriately, they have transcended the brick and mortar world completely, instead favoring a digital one.

Cruisingforsex is not a website with an optimistic future today. The days when it attracted millions of monthly visitors have long since passed, and with the exception of a few diehard truckers and online curmudgeons, its message boards lie dormant.

Yet, Cruisingforsex stands as an artifact of a bold queer contingent, one that blithely ignored what their local LGBTQ community center thought of them. Griffith, who often censored political conversations in the message boards, created a post-AIDS utopic space where gay men no longer had to be “good.” Cruising has always had a secret history—brothels where men anonymously partook in illicit sexual acts once stood on the site that would become Buckingham Palace, for instance. Just steps from the Louvre, the Jardin des Tuileries has been an active cruising site for over 275 years, but it’s unlikely that you’ll find a commemorative plaque. The cyclical ebb and flow of these queer spaces is largely invisible. Instead, they become a repository of collective memory with an expiration date. Therein lies the beauty of Cruisingforsex: At long last, cruising became part of the permanent record.

It may not have been Griffith’s goal, but his website stands as a powerful document, the intersection of an emerging internet and a gay community regrouping after crisis. Crass, dirty, in questionable taste and legality, Cruisingforsex.com is also unquestionably liberating. 

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