The Virtual Life of Sex in Public
In this chapter, I examine various scenes of intimacy's failure, juxtaposing recent mass mediated sex scandals with ethnographic research I conducted in Austin, Texas, a city famous both for its high technology aspirations and for its cruising culture. I speculate on the ways various discourses on sex in public and virtually mediated eroticism try to capture and frame different iterations of “sex in public” as failures: the inability to achieve idealized forms of erotic belonging is variously expressed as expectancy, deferral, lack, and as an inability to arrive, achieve, or actualize normative forms of belonging.
Located in both specific places and larger circuits of public culture, the chapter tracks the ways the practices and discourses that congeal around sex in public position it as a form of virtual intimacy, that is, as a diminished or pathological form of contact whether it happens between two people or many. Whether practiced by communities of men in Austin, Texas, by putatively straight Republican senators, or by the American “Everyman” of Dateline's To Catch a Predator, the erotic or affective acts that jump into public consciousness as perversion, scandal, hypocrisy, and predation operate as both the limit of and the ground for normative models of relationality. That is, in these often-spectacular public failures, the architecture and trajectory of heteronormative aspirations—the chase after and promise of a life realized in the image of the monogamous couple—are arrested and interrupted by those aspirations' queer excesses. At the same time, these failures operate to police the possible forms intimacy might take; they are none-too-subtle reminders about what's inside and what's outside ideal relational forms (the couple, the family, the nation).
In much of what follows, the ways in which sex in public is so persistently diminished works in parallel with the profound sense of pleasure that is taken in witnessing the failure of other people's intimate lives, especially when these failures are tied to virtual or online spaces. Our fascination with these various scenes and scandals is thus also perhaps tied to the fascination we have for a failure that is more fundamentally constitutive of intimacy itself. Insofar as intimacy defers or delays concrete epistemological certainty (does he really love me? what about in ten years?), it fails to actualize the fantasy, aspiration, or dream that makes it vital. This is true even for those forms of intimacy, including concrete forms of sexual practice, that appear undeniably real. Sex, as any good slut will tell you, doesn't have to be connected.
Indeed, the only surety here is that failure and liveness are in some sort of relation, and the near certainty of failure is part of the vitality, too. But we also watch for the promise of the norm's transgression (as Bataille puts it, “In the transgression of the prohibition, a spell is cast”)1
and the promise that there's something beyond transgression itself—not just sexual or relational utopias, but things we haven't even thought of yet. Within the larger framework that looks askew at most forms of sex in public as deeply flawed, or at intimacy itself as something that reproduces the possible but never the certain, there is then still a seed of hopefulness that might rescue sex in public or intimacy from cynicism or anti-relationality. This leads to a kind of foundational, and paradoxical, claim, namely, that from the perspective of the mass public, the virtualization of sex is seen at once as evidence of intimacy's degeneration while also keeping alive the hope for sexual possibility and difference. Virtualization is, on the one hand, tied to online or digital culture; on the other, it has to do with forms of sex that are deemed nonnormative or failed, sex in public key among them. Yet the disavowals of these forms of sex are also evocations that open up the possibility of difference, of things other than the norm. Although they are stigmatized, and in the case of same-sex sex in public doubly stigmatized (queer and public), they are nonetheless offered as one among other possible avenues for erotic fulfillment. And, regardless, even as particular acts are imbued with positive or negative values, the force of intimacy's potential keeps us coming back for more.
DISAVOWING SEX IN PUBLIC
Felix and I sat down in the chilly Japanese restaurant and ordered sake while we waited for Frederick to arrive. I'd met Fred before, and was eager to talk to him about my research on public sex. Felix promised me that Fred had some great cruising stories. Felix, of course, had his own stories, though we rarely talked in detail about what happened those nights I dropped him off near the gay bars to find hustlers, something that was easier to do in San Antonio than in Austin. In San Antonio, the cluster of gay bars near Main Street and McCullough, along with many of the adjacent streets, saw a lively traffic in drugs, hustling, and casual hookups. Perhaps because of its size or because it was generally considered to be a more conservative city, San Antonio's gay culture seemed especially alive—edgier, rougher, and more diverse. And while, by the mid to late 1990s, San Antonio's adult businesses had, like Austin's, also moved to the periphery of the city, the gentrification of its downtown has remained partial and incomplete. And though it is not a city known for its public parks like Austin, as a large and sprawling metropolitan area, cruisers had long put San Antonio parks to uses they had not been intended for, something I first learned about on a gay message board in early 1998.
When Frederick arrived, I was impressed, as usual, with how put together he looked. Mahogany skin, crisp dress shirt, shaved head, hip glasses. You'd never know he was sick. Even after his health really started to fail, he always seemed energetic, upbeat. And he was smart, too, finishing his PhD in psychology and already doing clinical work.
Frederick was in many ways a perfect object choice—an attractive, intelligent, professional black man. Yet he was also off limits. His “sickness”—the creeping power of the HIV virus—had already incapacitated him a few times. Thus, his current appearance belied something else, an incipient form of bodily breakdown against which my own desires crashed and went no farther. We never talked about it directly, about how this possible, probable failure of his body constrained his ability to actualize the vision of intimacy he'd articulated. The virus compounded the failure of intimacy; he failed to attract me. Eventually, too, he failed to live.
We ordered more sake and food, and we talked. I'd hoped Frederick would tell me stories about the public sex scene in San Antonio, to complement or complicate the more focused research I was conducting in Austin. At the same time, I was beginning to wonder whether stories about sex in public, along with the various attempts to manage and police it, didn't share qualities across different geographic spaces. In San Antonio, like Austin and most other large or even modestly sized cities, public sex was part of ordinary life and held an important place in many men's sexual histories, as did the efforts to police it. Public sex materialized in particular ways in specific locales; it was also an epiphenomenon critical to the formation of and ongoing coherence of same-sex erotic networks.
Frederick didn't disappoint:
One day I'd gone running in Eisenhower Park in this cute little running outfit. I'd run along these trails and see who was out and about, get the lay of the land, you know. And once I'd gotten the better part of my run done, I'd slow down and loop back by the guys I thought were hot. A lot of these guys would be there on their lunch hours or on breaks. And since this was before they closed [some of] the military bases, there were a lot of soldiers and what not, too, though they weren't in uniform, you could still tell by their hair and how they held themselves. Sort of stiff, you know?
This was a good day—I sucked off one guy in the bathroom and another in the bushes, and I was, you know, going to make another loop when I heard this noise, and I look up and there's this helicopter. Somehow, I get it in my head that it's there for me, so I start running. And I swear it follows me! I'm convinced they're coming for me, so I keep running until I thought I was going to die. I'd never been worried about it before, but after that I couldn't help but be paranoid.
Not long after, Fred learned he'd sero-converted, and after that it was a “public service to take myself out of commission.” Narrating the excitement of the chase and the fear and grief that accompanied the knowledge that he'd become HIV positive, Fred's stories illustrated the differing meanings of “public” or publicness that emerges in the narratives of cruisers and others. There was the public of intimate strangers seeking contact in city parks; the public sometimes referred to, colloquially, as “the Man” that sought to police its own boundaries; and the public of friends and lovers that made up his larger queer social world that was at least in part a virtual public comprised of people he hadn't met or loved or fucked yet.
When I asked him, excepting pursuit helicopters, if he missed the sorts of intimacies public parks afforded him for so many years, he answered confidently, “not at all.” In fact, to my surprise, he repudiated it. He said that while he didn't know whether he'd sero-converted because of public sex, he saw public sex as part of larger pattern of risk, irresponsibility, and above all else, a deeply troubled conception of and approach to intimacy. “It was fun,” he admitted. “But it was wrong, too.”
Though decidedly less ambivalent than some, Fred's repudiation of sex in public echoes other narratives, including those of Austinites I interviewed, and the conservative figures and the TCAP episode I discuss below. Indeed, very few people seemed eager to defend the intimacies that fall under the rubric of public sex. It sometimes seemed as if the refusal and rejection of sex in public had as much to do with a sense of hopelessness and impossibility, a sense that sex in public could never be “the real thing,” as with anxieties about being outed or exposed to diseases. It was as if some force or congeries of them (the virus, capitalism, human nature, homophobia) had slammed shut the door to other possibilities and spaces of social and sexual belonging. At first glance, Fred's repudiation seemed tied to these beliefs, which while recognizing public sex as a common, indeed ordinary, part of life and the sexual histories of many, nonetheless framed it as an a priori failure of intimacy that deserved surveillance and punishment.
I pressed Fred. Well, if those forms of sexual intimacy that people experienced surreptitiously in public spaces were somehow insufficient or inadequate, what were the better alternatives? His response challenged me. Beginning from a feeling
both affective and epistemological, he narrated both a deeply individual response and an ethical philosophy orientated to a larger social world.2
“Almost definitely monogamous. Closeness
. And I can be patient now.” Fred made clear his model of intimacy was monogamous, but was this the same sort of monogamy demanded by heteronormativity? Was heteronormativity even an appropriate term for what Fred had so earnestly articulated? And to what degree was my reluctance to call it heteronormative affected by his illness and death, by my desire to do justice to his memory? At first glance, his apparently simple philosophy adhered to a normative script of intimacy, especially in the ways it articulated a vision of life, sex, and relating that begins from a place of wholeness rather than an often unconscious sense of inadequacy or lack. Yet, Fred hadn't simply appropriated wholesale tacit or mass-mediated conceptions of togetherness. Indeed, he rejected the notion that the couple form alone could be sufficient in satisfying his intimate needs. In this and other conversations held over the following year, he elaborated a web of relations, fragile, tenuous, and shot through with conflict as well as love. Explicitly drawing on black traditions of family, he imagined a partnership, extended kin networks, friendships, and gay social worlds as constituting something more vital. Intimacy wasn't something to be captured, but something to be experienced as the pressure, ephemerality, and multiplicity of desire.
Reflecting back on this conversation after many years, I realized that this is what Fred needed from relationality to live with himself and others, and more, to thrive. I am still challenged by this vision of belonging, a notion that itself deserves further, if brief, elaboration. In the context of an intimate partnership, belonging might have to do with the feeling or experience of mutual possession and recognition that gives one's identity and the relationship itself meaning. But in a larger social field, belonging is made of the affective or material ties and obligations that link the individual to others. While this second sense of relationships also encompasses a kind of ownership (for example, in the ways one belongs to a family, a community, or nation), I am most interested in the ways it produces or enforces feelings of closeness and distance. So what's challenging about this form of intimacy as belonging is that it involves pushing against the conception that one is self-sufficient. Instead, one answers to others and the explicitly and tacitly agreed upon conditions of the group. Feeling at home, one also has to keep house.
Fred hadn't simply accepted the notion that intimacy would succeed only in the monogamous couple form, or that his queerness needed to adhere to Andrew Sullivan's assimilationist and neoconservative articulation of the “virtually normal,” in which the virtual refers to a kind of passing, an assimilationist “almost so.”3
I admired and respected Fred, yet at the time I longed for the very sorts of encounters he described and disavowed. His response resonated in me as something constructed and true, honest and sentimental, traditional and revolutionary. After our first conversation, I studied some of the local gay message boards and listservs for clues about the park he had mentioned. Eventually, I spent the better part of a day trying to find Eisenhower Park, wandering through its dusty and largely empty trails without stumbling across a single person, not knowing what I might have done if I had. As in the collective queer memory that valorizes gay sex in the ’60s and ’70s, in the trucks and on the piers of New York, or in the ground floor bathrooms in the University of Texas Tower, I wanted to recuperate public sex as a grand, if largely disappeared, communal experiment. Someone I couldn't simply label and dismiss as conservative or an assimilationist contested my nostalgic and celebratory reconstruction of these intimate publics.
Even here, recounting this narrative, I am wary of the ways it seems to capture intimacy as something achievable given the right tool kit (self awareness, therapy, Oprah). What I am wary of, then, is the way this story seems to establish a concrete and positive content to the possibilities represented by “virtual intimacy,” thereby offering a disappointing closure to what otherwise remains a more open and contested field of articulations and propositions. It's important, then, to point out that while Fred articulated an “answer” to the problem of virtual intimacy, that is, to the problem sex in public posed for him, this answer itself was in fact a deferral, a promise to himself and not an effect or a result. That is, on the most basic level, when his family and friends gathered to honor him and the webs of belonging he'd elaborated between them when he became very ill, there was no dutiful partner at his bedside. The success of his dream did not rest in the realization of the ideal couple form but in some other, tactible and ineffable form of relationality.
Closeness, sharing. Fred said this to Felix and me with the intensity of a revelation.