Salt Lake City police, frustrated that constant arrests did not noticeably deter men cruising public park restrooms for sex, collaborated with public health officials, gay community leaders, and government officials. The results, as told by Deseret News, are worth a read.
Reporter Derek Jensen notes that the men don’t fit simple stereotypes:
Many are married with children, some are leaders within their churches and some, like former state Rep. Brent Parker [arrested in a February prostitution sting and charged with soliciting a male undercover officer], are leaders in the community. Behind their clean-cut, family-man facades, however, lies a complex inner conflict that pushes these men to seek out anonymous sexual encounters with other men in public places…
About 40 percent are married, [therapist Jerry Buie] estimated. The average length of those marriages is 23 to 24 years. More than 75 percent identify themselves as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His oldest client was 89 years old, his youngest was 20. Less than 1 percent of the men Buie treats have had substance-abuse problems.
One trend has been observed, though:
Most of Buie’s clients are middle-age men. Cruising among men in their 20s and younger is much less common now, he said. Buie and others in the gay community say that may be indicative of society’s increased acceptance of homosexuality. John and other males his age grew up in an era when being openly gay wasn’t widely accepted.
John, one of the participants in the program, described his experience years earlier:
During his court appearance following his 1993 arrest, John recalled the judge taking particular delight in demeaning and humiliating him. The judge read the charges out loud in front of a crowded courtroom filled mostly with people who were appearing on traffic violations, John said. After the verbal berating, the judge fined John $500, placed him on six months probation and ordered him to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases.
“It was very embarrassing — extremely embarrassing,” John said. “It seemed like the whole focus of it all was to embarrass you and make a spectacle.”
His experience earlier this year was quite different:
The judge allowed John to waive a formal reading of the charges, sparing him the repeated humiliation of being labeled in front of a courtroom full of people. John said the court’s treatment of him after his latest arrest was “one of the better experiences for me.”
“There was a more civil way of treating me,” John said. “It’s a more human way of dealing with this. I think they’re learning that cruising is not just about the sex.”
Cruising is not just about sex? What happened to the narcissistic, thrill-seeking stereotypes of gay men?
Why some men, many of whom don’t openly identify themselves as gay, cruise is complex. To say that cruising is only about sex would a be gross generalization, say those familiar with the practice. There are varied levels of cruising — some of which are more about meeting other men who can relate to the inner turmoil over one’s sexuality. Sex isn’t always the inevitable conclusion. In fact, some men who go to well-known cruising spots simply sit in their cars without speaking or engaging in sex with other men. The need for an emotional bond drives many of them.
“Really, what cruising is all about, yeah, the sex is there, but it’s more to make a connection,” John said. “Especially here in Utah. You can’t go to [a] priesthood meeting and talk about your personal problems, where you can meet somebody at the park and just talk about the frustration you’re feeling. It’s not necessarily the sex, it’s being able to talk to someone else who knows where you’re at.”
The program doesn’t dictate its clients’ decisions, though, supporting men who choose a gay-affirming or ex-gay path:
Buie’s counseling sessions aim to desexualize the desired connections of men like John. Buie avoids dictating what kind of lifestyle his clients should lead. Whatever their choice, the point is to teach men that sexual rendezvous in public restrooms are physically and mentally unhealthy ways of dealing with their same-sex attractions.
“I try to put in perspective that, for whatever reason, homosexuality gets defined as purely a sexual thing,” Buie said. “Socially, that’s where the emphasis is. What I try to do is, if you will, desexualize what it means to be gay. What I ask people . . . is ‘What are your values? What is your sense of who you are?’ ”
For John, that has meant becoming an openly gay man. He hasn’t cruised since his arrest in March and now fills his days with work and numerous outside activities. When he does face the urge to cruise again, John goes through a mental checklist using the acronym HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, tired).
“All of those things were things that I’d misinterpret as I needed a fix,” John said. “I learned to do more introspective thinking. If I satisfied all those needs, then generally that drive to go to the park would subside. However, if the feeling for the need was still there, then the theory was it’s still OK to go to the park to cruise, but take it somewhere else, take it home.”
It seems to be effective:
During the program’s two-year existence, 144 men have completed the program. Only four have reoffended. Currently, 48 men are enrolled.
“You respect somebody, you get these kind of results,” [Salt Lake City prosecutor Sim] Gill said. “You humiliate someone, you end up getting the kind of results you did under the old model.”
Deseret News also profiles a more familiar alternative: Strict criminalization and public humiliation used by the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.
“I hate for it to get confused with social issues because we’re just investigating crimes,” [Sgt. Rick] Ko said. “I think that Salt Lake City’s counseling program is great, but for our team I’m not going to hide these arrests and try to minimize the exposure for these people. That’s not my job. My job is to stop the activity, and the court decides on what the punishment is.”
But is arresting men at their homes and informing the local media bringing arrest rates down? Unfortunately, the article doesn’t answer that question.
Salt Lake City’s experience dovetails with New Zealand’s and Amsterdam’s — bringing STD and public sex rates down necessitates awareness of ex-gays as well as gays, married and partnered as well as single, closeted as well as openly gay or ex-gay.