The Secret World of Online Cruising

The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is enjoying a rather awkward moment in the sun, as reporters descend on the men's room where Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig was arrested for disorderly conduct owing to the foot taps heard round the world. But the Twin Cities flight hub was flashing red in a smaller precinct of opinion two months ago—when a well-trafficked Web site alerted readers that police had made a number of arrests at the very spot where Craig was collared. "I just got busted here," warned one poster on cruisingforsex.com, a site that lists tips, popular trysting outlets and gay personals. [Editor's note: This site and others mentioned in this article contain explicit images and language.] Information about what spots are hot—and which are not—were once traded by word of mouth by the subset of the local gay community interested in that sort of thing. But thanks to cruisingforsex.com (which boasts some 30,000 visitors daily, its operators say) and its competitors, such information is easily accessible around the country—and the world. And the information is precise; some listings direct readers to visit a location between, say 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker spoke to the site's founder, Keith Griffiths, about what happened to Craig and the way the online cruising world works. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What makes a hotspot? Why was this particular restroom known to be a good location?
Griffiths:
Well, I've never been there, so I can't really speak to this particular location. Usually it has something to do with design of the bathroom in terms of a practical consideration. But it could also just be that it turns out that people like to stop there and … I mean, there are a flurry of postings on Cruising for Sex about this very toilet. So it would seem to have been popular for some time. If Senator Craig had just bothered to visit our Web site, he might not have gotten himself into this—since we have been reporting a sting operation there since June.

So he's obviously not one of your readers.
He could be. I believe that they've arrested over 40 men in that toilet since June. [Airport police records confirm over 40 arrests.] So somebody's still stopping by in spite of the fact that we tell them that it might not be safe.

What do you mean when you talk about design—that a place might not be easily detected either visually or audibly?
Yes. For example, one of the key things to a public toilet that makes it useful is that it has doors that you have to open up to go inside. That's much preferable to a cruiser than just an open entryway. It could also be at a long row of stalls placed at the end of the restroom. It's hard to see or reach. Most of the men who are doing this have no interest in being seen by others. So they want to be as discreet as possible.

Now, bathrooms aren't the sexiest of locations ...
That's your take on it.

Fair enough. How many readers do you have?
We get about 30,000 people a day visiting our site.

Do you have much competition? I found one, Squirt.org, that appears fairly popular. But I couldn't really find anything that seemed to have the same depth of information.
No, surprisingly I don't. Squirt actually tried to buy me years ago, and when I wouldn't sell they created their own Web site. The difference between Squirt and my site is that we actually edit our listings and they just let anybody post anything. We have a staff that reads every single thing and has to approve it and makes sure it's grammatically correct and everything.

You've been doing this for 10 years? How did you get into running this site?
It was just a fluke, like many of the people who eventually came to do something on the Internet. It was just a hobby of mine, and I was shocked to find out that it had become popular. When I started this Web site there was no business plan and no investment money. It was just a little simple page.

And now you have advertising. It's a moneymaking venture now?
Absolutely, it's been profitable since 1997.

From ads?
Yes.

And do members pay fees?
No. Our information is free.

Has the cruising landscape changed much? Has craigslist.org put a dent in you guys at all? Do chatrooms pose a threat?
It certainly has changed the field. A lot of strictly younger people tend to turn first to hookups online. But my impression—based on what I am personally experiencing, not any research I've done—[is] that people may be tiring of the hookups online and wanting to get back into the real world. There's some benefits to both ways of meeting. Certainly craigslist, which by the way is often used to hook up in public locations, certainly has taken a lot of men who now meet online and go to each others' house.

With all the information on your site and on craigslist, do you feel that law enforcement is more aware now? Or are they less likely to crack down than they were 10 years ago?
I've seen no change. In all of my years of doing this, there has always been a constant crackdown and a constant drumbeat of harassment. What Senator Craig has experienced—and I am actually kind of sympathetic to him—is not unfamiliar to a lot of sexually active men out there.

But, whatever your orientation, is engaging in sexual activity in public okay?
Most cruisers don't want to engage in sex in public. They want to meet someone in a public space and then try to be discreet—maybe in a stall or a cubicle or maybe behind a bush. The most important thing to note about Senator Craig is that there was no sex involved. I keep waiting for the news media to grab on to the fact that this man has been arrested for tapping his foot. When did that become a crime? If this guy had the balls he should have had, he would have fought this thing. Any good lawyer would have told him he had a strong case.

So the media is missing the main point here?
They're certainly missing the point that this man didn't appear to commit a crime. That's pretty relevant. Everyone has their own reasons for wanting him out of office. Maybe. I don't like his politics. But I don't think he should be humiliated or run out of Washington, because he didn't break the law.

He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.
Any lawyer who represents men who get arrested will tell you that very often that's what they do. They plea bargain so they don't have to let the families know; they don't have to let [their office] know. I am sure he was thinking this would all go away if he just pled.

But wasn't he making moves that are understood in the cruising community to be overtures?
Absolutely. Please don't misunderstand. I'm not disputing what I think is pretty obvious. It's very, very clear what he was doing—assuming the police officer is telling the truth. He was cruising. Tapping the foot is one thing and it's a signal; no doubt about it. The fact that he went out of his way to run his hand under the partition, that's another signal. This man must have studied up on this. He's got experience. He's definitely cruising. But he didn't take it to the step where it would have been a crime.

Do you worry that all the media attention this week will bring increased scrutiny on, or even help shut down, your site?
I know our traffic has jumped dramatically. I welcome the scrutiny. I welcome an open and honest discussion about the real sex lives of millions of Americans. I personally don't think there's anything shameful about this.

Some people are certainly taking glee in the fact that in the past Craig has endorsed anti-gay policies.
He's a f---ing hypocrite, no doubt about it.

Do you have any idea what percentage of the men who use your site are openly gay, as opposed to being closeted or even married?
We did some research years ago and found that [something] like 60 percent of our men identify as gay and the others are either straight or bisexual. I have no idea whether they're out of the closet or not. Having said that, I don't buy the party line that you've probably already been told by gay leaders that these are all deeply closeted, usually married men. Some of them are, no doubt about it. But some of them are very proud out gay guys.

On your blog someone wrote that the media is obsessed with "The Great Mystery of Toilet Stall Foot-Tapping" as opposed to covering the real news of the day.
Yeah, it's kind of amusing. I've had to explain in detail toe tapping to adult men this week on more than one occasion. I find it funny in one way but kind of sad in another. I was living in New Orleans at the time of Katrina and I know what perspective is.