Digital Dark Spaces

Even if the internet helps men find sex with men outside the gay identity, they're still not safe from the heterosexual regime

I have a confession to make. For years, I have been cruising a war zone a thousand miles from my London bedroom for strange men and strange practices.

It began perhaps five years ago. "Don’t ask, don’t tell" (DADT), the U.S. military’s prohibition on openly homosexual people serving, was still well-entrenched as a desperately ineffectual ideological blindfold. Craigslist was open in my browser. I was taken in by the selection of possible countries and cities the classifieds website had on offer, its pleasingly simple interface providing instant travel to Kenya, Chengdu, anywhere else. I clicked through: CRAIGSLIST > WORLDWIDE > MIDDLE EAST > IRAQ > CASUAL ENCOUNTERS > M4M. Instead of the smattering of hookups between local residents I was expecting, the page was alive with gay and queer soldiers cruising on their downtime between patrols for relief, NSA fun, sometimes more. On bases across war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, men who fuck men built their own codes for

I have tried to find a suitable lexicon to describe the subjects involved. Fundamentally I have to say that each subject can only really describe itself. That notwithstanding, I’ve chosen to use variations on the term “men who have sex with men,” as I believe it to be the closest, clearest description of the subject as defined by the shared practice. Still, I am aware that “men who have sex with men” emerged within a medical discourse that is, at least in part, racialized. When talking about the U.S. military, then, and writing on the issue of sexual and cruising practices between men in the Middle East, this carries certain risks.
digital cruising, despite the real threat of legal and social recriminations from the military authorities. There were dicks and ass but no faces. The requests were straight to the point, but no less evocative for that: dicks wanting to be drained, nuts busted, asses loaded. It was a tiny slice of a sexual world I had no hope of accessing IRL, but just glimpsing it fascinated me. It was scary, and it was hot.

In his article on cruising, Max Fox examines the changing political potential of a gay sexual identity as cruising in New York moves from the warehouses to Grindr,

 which relieves you of most of the affective labor of cruising, with its risks and inefficiencies — mastering the elaborate signals, locating potential recipients but not eyeing the wrong guy, walking a body vulnerable to attack or arrest on the street — [Grindr] makes sense only once the old world that labor produced no longer exists.

But there is perhaps too strict a delineation in Fox's descriptions of the online world (cyberspace) and IRL (meatspace), not least when it comes to risk. The two worlds operate in dialogue, and the dangers that all queers face while cruising also exist in cyberspace. The digital queer body intersects its meatspace avatar, and digital cruising offers new but commensurate risks. Grindr is, in the main, still populated with and marketed to men who inhabit a bourgeois gay subjectivity, where sexual behaviors form a key part of a social identity. But in the cracks of Grindr and elsewhere online, sexual subjectivities operate beyond those limits, creating digital dark spaces where homosex draws different boundaries between what is “open” and what isn’t.

Queer life is, and always has been, an often violent negotiation of public and private space — a matter of geography and policing. As Matt Houlbrook explores in Queer London, a book about queer life in the city between World War I and Wolfenden

The Wolfenden Report was produced in 1957 by a parliamentary committee, whose findings eventually led to the partial decriminalisation of same-sex activity in the U.K. a decade later. It  followed a number of high-profile scandals involving members of the British aristocracy.
, the queer body is a body lived in public. When law enforcement can intrude into the "private" sphere of the bourgeois home, nothing is private. The homosexual act is proscribed as so heinous and dangerous that it justifies the crossing of the commandment of the propertied classes, that “an Englishman’s home is his Castle.” “The law collapsed the conceptual distinctions between public and private that, notionally, went to its very heart,” he writes.

Public space was understood as the realm of the law’s full presence ... The private, by contrast, was “an alternative place where the law is absent.” The law’s “absence”, however, was contingent upon conforming to notions of normative sexual and social behavior. The “bad subject” — the sexual deviant — remained subject to state intervention, and was deemed sufficiently dangerous as to warrant intrusion into the sanctified private sphere.

All space was public for queers. This is still the case even in the major cosmopolitan metropolises where homosex is legalized in private, if social prohibitions prevent open identification with the sex act. Discovery can mean ruination or worse for most queer men, so all space becomes policed. Private moments of sex or intimacy must be snatched within that public space while avoiding the public gaze. The topography of queer space is produced, at least in part, by policing (both legal and social), and by the areas where policing can be evaded.

It’s hardly coincidental, then, that in London, the traditional spaces for queer desire were not just dark and discreet. They were also spaces defined by their unusual relationship to public and private spheres, such as the commons or public conveniences. The public lavatory, as well as discreet cubicles and urinals open around the clock, offered the excuse to hang around with other men with your cock out. Commons, on the other hand, offer the privacy of open space; some of London’s commons are so vast as to be all but unpoliceable. Hampstead Heath is over 144 hectares (350 acres), and, along with Clapham Common, remains a popular cruising ground today, despite the increasing crackdown on deviant behaviors of all forms under new “antisocial behavior” legislation. Private moments could be found in public because the sheer volume of common space made policing it impossible.

The trend in the past 30 years, however, has been towards the privatization of public sexual expression along with public space. Homosex has been legalized, but only as it conforms to a bourgeois code of private sexual ethics. At the same time, neoliberal property reform has locked away public space. Sex acts have been forced into private not just for queers, but also for the young and the working-class who used to be able to have sex in common areas. As a result, queer space is now almost universally commercial in London, and these gyms, clubs, and saunas bring with them private property's normal divisions of class and race. And in this privatization of public spaces of desire, our attitudes toward sex now rely on these restricted zones of expression. The privatization of public space has commodified our identities, too.

This isn’t to champion an “emancipatory” process of coming out about sexual identity, but rather to say that the heterosexual regime reinscribes the private bourgeois space as the acceptable arena of sexual identity. Indeed the right to move toward sexual “liberation” is now a key rhetorical justification not only of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also of attacks on minorities (notably Muslims) in the U.K. Homosex is incorporated within the heterosexual regime, but only ever within the bourgeois (married) private sphere, or the “emancipated” capitalist social sphere.

The development of an openly gay identity has been coterminous with the development of public space in London. The queer male, living illegally within a multitude of social forms, has been socially repressed in favor of a more homogenous, legalized identity that muffles the dissonance of social deviance in favor of the harmony of slow integration. While the LGBT movement originally articulated its demands in terms of liberation for deviant behavior, today, through successful campaigns for the repeal of DADT, for equal marriage, and for anti-bullying children’s campaigns, it rests on the concept of equal rights for nondeviant forms of same-sex desire.

There are still deviants, of course. The focus may have been removed by the investment in the conforming gay man, but outside of these tolerated few lie other worlds of desire. The disdain they elicit as soon as they slip into public view shows how vigilantly the bourgeois gay subject must patrol his property. As the French militant Guy Hocquenghem wrote, “desire is polymorphous” — homosexual desire inhabits innumerable different forms of life, expresses itself in a million different social formulations. In every province of every country across the globe, men are fucking each other daily, openly, secretly and semi-secretly, with what is euphemistically termed “discretion.” For those men who don’t or can’t inhabit the bourgeois gay male subject, the transition between cruising online and offline is far more fluid. While Grindr has created a parallel private platform for gay men to cruise away from straight society, for other men who work with men, it remains public because it is still open to social policing, with all the dangers that holds.

They may not be the most sympathetic subjects, but a clear example of this can be seen in the run-up to every U.S. election in the straight men who cruise Craigslist for homosex at the Republican National Convention, the enormous event at which the GOP choose their presidential nominee. Mocking these men has become a tradition; exposing the hypocrisy of those who subscribe to “family values” and argue against LGBT rights is almost too easy a trick. Yet what we see there is not essentially so different from the culture of cruising that bourgeois gay men created in public urinals and in the cloakroom at the House of Lords. Though the sex act is now legal, the men involved are still subjected to a form of social policing that forces them into an often risky, semipublic negotiation of their sexual encounters. Because sexual desire can’t be openly reconciled with the social world the men inhabit it is forced into the territory of the illicit.

The reason for the vilification of these men comes down to perceived hypocrisy: They simultaneously use their positions of political power to hinder the passage of gay rights while privately engaging in homosex in private. In reality, however, it clearly demonstrates the limits of the gay identity; here men come under attack for enacting their sexual desire outside an acceptable, sanctioned social framework of same-sex relationships. It’s clearly not the homosex that is being objected to so much as the men's perceived hypocrisy, the refusal of the GOPers to “come out of the closet” and join the gay community

 A similar, although not identical, phenomenon can be seen in the complex, racialized, and orientalizing attitude of the bourgeois gay male community towards those men “on the DL”
. But it is the very act of “coming out of the closet” that produces the closet in the first place, placing all other, polymorphous forms of desire “inside” the closet — or rather, “outside” the gay community.

When Facebook began to roll out its "Facebook Graph Search,” an algorithm that searches for semantic terms (rather than links) within Facebook’s "Big Data," the dangers of public exposure for social deviance was highlighted by the Tumblr “Actual Facebook Graph Searches,” which catalogued a small number of potential searches on the beta version that could expose or humiliate Facebook users. As Tom Scott, the site administrator, writes, "The people showing up here aren’t stupid: they just don’t have the knowledge required to be safe ... Most of the danger online comes not from strangers making half-assed joke searches: it comes from people who know you. A lot of the public data fails what I call the ‘bitter ex test’: Can someone who hates you ruin your life with that information?"

Blackmail, always the primary form of policing illicit homosex, remains a key danger in digital cruising, just as it did in the parks and urinals of pre-war England. Scott highlights this risk with a screenshot of a graph search looking for “Islamic men who are interested in men living in Tehran, Iran,” which offers the further option of searching for the workplaces of those users whose results are returned. The danger may seem obvious here, but it’s worth examining further how digital cruising happens in the streets of Tehran. It seems more likely that the complex algorithm used by the Facebook Graph Search loses something in translation; there’s nothing to suggest that men who are “interested in men” are interested specifically in sexual liaisons. Given the repression of open expressions of homosexuality (though not homosociality) under religious codes in Iran, it’s unlikely that even the most naive Facebook user would openly admit to sexual deviance. Instead, other forms of digital technology are used for cruising in Tehran, forms which highlight the increasingly fluid relationship between cyber- and IRL flirtation.

Writing on his experiences visiting the Middle East, Irish writer Mark O’Halloran talks about a real digital sixth sense helping men cruise through ones and zeros. Through using Bluetooth, public spaces in the real world are overlaid with a queer digital topography allowing men to surreptitiously cruise in close quarters without the risk of exposure found on gay websites:

On the gay scene in the Middle East, [Bluetooth] has become an invaluable means of communication and here's why. For a scene that can at best be described as clandestine, the need for discretion is paramount. There have been instances in the past where gay websites have been used to entrap or blackmail gay men. For a picture message to be sent via Bluetooth, the users must be within a 20-meter radius of each other, and a picture received in this manner cannot be traced back to its sender. Thus instant and safe flirting can happen. So just turn on your Bluetooth, give yourself a handle (I use "Irish Gay," which I think is nice and succinct) and then sit in one of the many cafés around Martyr Square in Damascus, say, or Daneshju Park in Tehran and suddenly your phone will start buzzing with incoming pics (I received comedy pictures of Saddam Hussein, love birds, flowers and other more intimate portraits). After receiving a picture, you know that the sender is most probably at a table nearby, and through a process of deduction and a few nods and winks, you find each other and introductions are made.

If anything demonstrates the fluidity and lack of delineation between online and offline cruising, and the equally fluid danger that haunts online spaces as much as public toilets and gay bars, it’s this careful use of digital technology in the risky queer life of Iranian men. Both spaces are public for the queer man, and nowhere is outside the social law of the heterosexual regime. Meatspace has just been augmented by cyberspace; the topography of online space meshes and intersects with offline practices.

Whether in cyberspace, meatspace,

In general I think the idea of the online being analogous with physical space is a metaphor that has served its time and obscures more than it illuminates. In this instance, however, I think analyzing hook-ups and cruising online through the prism of physical space, particularly cruising space, is instructive.
or their constant intersections, the practice of cruising shouldn’t be over-romanticized. Queer men lived, and continue to live, lives of constant surveillance, legal, social, self or otherwise. One can pass years of one’s life without a hint of personal or sexual privacy. The codes of affect and psychosexual exchange — of cruising — are rich and exciting, but they have been built on a heterosexual reign of terror. Codes are reactions to direct threats of making-public. Which of us openly gay queers would voluntarily return to a life where every encounter risked public degradation, humiliation, poverty, and suicide? Yet millions of us still live this life, and a discourse of private rights is both irrelevant and inapplicable to our everyday existence. The homosexual male, the man who fucks men, and the queer are still brutally afflicted worldwide by the heterosexual regime. We can’t even make out the silhouette of self-determination from our digital dark spaces.