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The Global Glory Hole

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 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 twenty-one and not in a position to have sex ‘in private’, two key, killjoy stipulations of the 1967 Act – I was 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 Genet’s Querelle of Brest I preferred to scrutinise the filthy, imploring messages and optimistic anatomical drawings on the walls. The business of standing around for hours like cheese at fourpence 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 nineties 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 Tesco’s, on the bus or while having dinner with your mum.


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 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). The always-available culture of anonymous sex, the gaping glory hole, isn’t just what stops gay men from having relationships, it’s also 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 only know the ‘other woman’ as ‘MassiveMeat69’.

“Darling, I promise you, he meant nothing to me!” is a line that most gay men don’t need to use – since they 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. 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.

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7 thoughts on “The Global Glory Hole”

  1. anonymous sex keeps a faggit fit gets you out of the house, and the fresh air does you good…it encourages an intrepid disposition which sends one venturing beyond his or her immediate locale,thereby learning the map of the world much better than if you’d been stuck indoors all the time watching masterchef with the life partner,who frankly likes a bit of space from your ass every now and then.

  2. This stuff has weighed on your mind lately, hasn’t it?

    The increased visibility of gay men demands that we explain ourselves to the world at large. Unsurprisingly, the world at large doesn’t have the vocab to talk about it, nor (how I hate these words) the conceptual framework. Quite a few gay men don’t, either. But hey, if gays and lesbians want to enjoy the benefits of openness—and there are many—we gotta deal.

    That doesn’t mean surrendering to a tired notion of romance, much less monogamy. It means putting such ideas under the microscope, and asking whom, exactly, they serve. Maybe they can serve gay men, maybe they can’t.

    Both straights and queers should welcome this scrutiny of social norms. To accept these bourgeois institutions without question has trapped many in misery. On the other hand, to exclude a significant chunk of humanity from the comforts the middle class takes for granted is unfair. It has even created hardship—my case for example.

    All this hot air about the “definition” of marriage has made one thing clear. Marriage isn’t defined by love, romance, relationships, or even sex.

    A marriage establishes a household. Think of all those legal and financial obligations. It’s supposed to make you secure—how often have we heard “settle down” in the same sentence as “get married”?

    Make no mistake. Marriage originally provided a means of financial and social stability. Having a family set two lovers up for life—in your link, Helen Croydon says so, and her voice isn’t the only one. (“Be thrifty with your sperm, lad! Those little swimmers are going to feed you someday.”) In the modern world, the ownership of property (especially real estate) and its subsequent creation of wealth has become the focus of many marriages.

    What does this mean? It means marriage matters most to the bourgeois.

    That goes for gay marriage, too. The United States vs Windsor, the case that brought down DOMA, involved estate tax of some $360,000. Not a small sum.

    Creating a home, grand or modest, needs a financial commitment and an emotional presence. That emotional presence needn’t include sexual fidelity to any other members of the household.

    The modern world has decoupled marriage from physical, and fiscal, survival. But somehow, in our collective head, we haven’t yet dropped the baggage that unmarried equals impoverished, unstable, even irresponsible. There’s no need for an unmarried person to be tidy, orderly or financially disciplined. In short, the bachelor life looks a bit lower class.

    Half a century has passed since the so-called sexual revolution. But we still haven’t shaken the Victorian notion that the lower orders breed willy-nilly, while the upper class possesses the strength of character to control its baser urges. Of course, modern historians have shown that the Victorian upper class slaked plenty a vulgar urge; they just didn’t get caught as often. Or if they did, they buttoned their lips.

    In the 21st century, one can make a stable, middle-class life without sacrificing sexual variety. If one has done so, one might resent this snobbery against the single. I certainly did.

    The first thing some gay men have done with their newfound social acceptance, is pursue social status. And one might ask, why shouldn’t they? But I have a few misgivings.

    As you say here, and at greater length in The End of Gays, the gay scene of yore had a good heart. Whatever position you held in the straight world, it counted for little in a gay bar—let alone a cottage, a back room or a sauna. The stigma of being a fag so outweighed any other status you’d achieved, it was pointless to put on airs.

    Remove the stigma, and alas, those airs might now have a point. Gay marriage—no, let me rephrase that—gay weddings have become step one on the social ladder. (Snooty straight couples start their social climb in the same way, do they not?)

    A wedding is a public event, and a marriage is a public institution. For a ceremony that celebrates a sexual union, I can think of very few occasions less sexy than a wedding. That’s one of the reasons my husband and I chose not to have one.

    It’s also the reason I particularly liked this sentence:

    “I spent many warm summer evenings there enjoying wordless trysts that were often as romantic as they were anonymous.”

    Indeed, what could be more romantic? Stripping away the social pretense, and facing each other purely as two people. Surrendering not just to the physical sensations, but to the emotions they arouse. Wordless? You bet. Artists speak of love aroused at first sight, and passions at first touch; not love aroused at first sight of his house, nor first reading of his entry in Who’s Who.

    Those who diss the world of the beat or cottage don’t know how glorious and human you feel when you take part. In the sense that it is potentially an emotionally overwhelming moment, it is truly romantic.

  3. David Thame: so far as I know Mark Simpson has been living in rural Yorkshire for over a decade now. His perspective is, if anything, more provincial than urbane. Assuming he hasn’t been celibate, you’ll have to ask him how the respective hook-up cultures vary — that is if they vary at all.

    As an American I can tell you that the randiest places over here aren’t the effete, well-heeled gay ghettos of Hells Kitchen, WeHo, etc. If anything, urbane gays are increasingly taking a dim view of ‘outdoor sports’ now that they can ‘marry’. The real anonymous action is — and always has been — at the truck-stops that dot poor, rural, ‘Red State’ America. Randy rest-rooms for an anonymous suck or fuck if you don’t feel like paying for the hookers in the nearby trailers.

    And about Glory Holes: frequently, perhaps more often than not, that erection sticking through the hole belongs to a straight man looking for the kind of gratification for which is wife or girlfriend would demand at least an expensive dinner in return. Refusing to succumb to conjugal blackmail, they go to a peep-show with a roll of quarters, put on some pussy porn, stick Johnson in the hole and “the next thing you know ol’ Jed’s a millionaire!” Even in peep shows in gay neighborhoods, you’re far more likely to hear the treble screams of women in rapture.

    While Mark limits his comments to gay men, he does not say that they are intrinsically different from straights when it come to sex and promiscuity. When Armistead Maupin said that “when it comes to sex gay men are like straight men only more so” he was selling straight men short by a mile! If there were women in the cottage you can be bet that the straight guys would be queuing up around the block (though lining up a vulva with a glory hole could prove problematic)!

  4. Simon, you must be the life of the party . . . I’ll bet you ‘wrap it up’ for a wank.

    Why is it that a gay man can’t have a reverie about sex without having some finger-wagging ninny bring up HIV? It would seem that gays aren’t even allowed to think about sex unless there’s a condom involved.

    Mark, I know I’ve said this to you before but Warhol’s most astute observation might be “sex is nostalgia for sex”.

    When it comes to sex, gay or straight, men are men. Exhibit A: Anthony Weiner. Now there’s a guy who wishes he had a GRINDR mask!

  5. Strange that in a short essay about anonymous sex among gay men the words ‘AIDS’ or ‘HIV’ are not mentioned once. Anonymous sex can of course be safe sex but many times it isn’t. Wrap it up guys.

  6. The mask – grindr mask, the mask of the unknown face on Hampstead Heath – isn’t just about anonymity, it’s about pretence, either coded as fantasy or role playing or perhaps understood as something more complex. And I can’t help feeling that there’s a lot of pretending involved in gay men’s attitudes to sex: Mark’s little autobiographical essay makes the point. Two pretendings struck me:

    1. The gaymenandsex equation Mark discusses embodies a kind of bias, which is the assumption that all gay men share the same interest in sex, in the same way, old or young, rural or urban, and so on. You could almost say it’s an extension into the world of the erotic and affective of the familiar metropolitan prejudice about the ubiquity of London behaviours and lifestyles – lifestyles and behaviours which generally only flourish in the special pressure of a large, wealthy, internally well connected, cities – and a metropolitan prejudice which makes Londoners so achingly wrong on so many things. Fundamentally the culture Mark describes is localised (cf Grindr): socially localised, geograpically localised and, I suspect, economically localised.

    2. Without a lot more than anecdotal evidence from gay men, I just don’t buy the idea that gay men function, sexually, very differently from straight men. Mark’s peice is premised on the idea that gay men are all somehow erotic marvels, getting much more than anyone else (because unrestrained by bourgeouse or heterosexual assumptions), and whats more enjoying it thoroughly when they get it. I guess there’s a high degree of pretence lurking here – gay-man-as-sexually-satisfied-man is perhaps a marketing, almost a branding issue, rather than a genuine analysis of gay male sexual behaviour at large. That this cheerfully unchallenged claim about gay male sexual prowess comes from gay man makes it, well, a tiny bit suspect.

  7. the fact that the Grindr logo is a mask makes me consider this evolution of male-to-male desire as a return to the closet somehow.
    another experiment is to try to identify the different biotype associated to each app/website. it may change from a nation to another, but not that much and the reasons of success/unsuccess help to understand the nature of human emotions and desires flowing through the so called “homosexuality”.
    as an example, grindr – very GPS oriented- is about the neighbourood, very often the guys you wouldn’t want to see. growlr (being bearish and “niche”) is the new bearwww, an attempt the “normalization”. gayromeo is punky: asking about desires of submission and golden showers at the very first moment of registration is exactly the opposite of the romantic ideal its name may suggest, transforming people with a lower self-esteem into “rebels”…

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