The case for letting people have sex in public parks

What happens in the forest…
What happens in the forest…
Image: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji
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While hookup apps offer an obvious alternative, cruising—when men seek men for anonymous sex in public places—still happens. And so do police stings against them.

Recently, in Toronto, one major police sting targeting gay men in a lakeside park caught the attention of Jen Roberton, a young city planner. She found it disproportionate to the transgressions involved. During Project Marie, named for the park involved, plainclothes male officers hung out near known cruising spots and waited for men to solicit them for sex. The operation led to 89 charges against 72 men; just one charge was criminal.

In a co-written article for Spacing, a Canadian magazine about urban spaces, Roberton, who is especially interested in LGBTQ issues in urban planning, argued that public sex doesn’t represent a public safety issue and communities overreact to its presence. The police justify their actions as “taking back” the park for families and children, but much of the cruising takes place when families aren’t in public places like parks anyway.

Coming across a sexual act in a public place without warning and without giving consent is a violation, but, as Roberton explained in a CBC radio interview, more concerning is the violence directed toward gay men during a large undercover sting operation.

In a conversation with Quartz, Roberton described how she believes cities should approach sex in parks.

How do you think people should feel about sex in public parks?

I am not in the business of telling others how to feel about public sex. People should be able to form their own opinions on the matter. That being said, I would challenge people to consider the role homophobia and sexism plays in their opinions on cruising. What does the image of two men having sex in public evoke for you compared to two women, or a man and a woman? When you think about the types of people who have sex in public, what age do you imagine them to be? What race? How does all of that impact whether you feel repulsed, indifferent or turned on?

My personal opinion on public sex is that it provides little to no risk to public safety. It does not impact other uses of park space. In fact, more often than not, public sex is conducted in the most private areas of public spaces. My biggest concern with public sex is littering, which is also my biggest concern with most other park-related activities. Waste receptacles are a quick remedy.

Should we assume that cruising will always happen despite the availability of hookup apps?

Although I feel that public sex in the form of cruising is something that’s particular to the culture of men having sex in public places—and that has to do with historic homophobia, and being closeted, and desires, a whole bunch of factors—the thing to remember is that even people who aren’t men who have sex with men also have sex in public parks.

If you think of heterosexuals having sex in parks, there’s a very different imagery that goes with that. In the case of Project Marie, let’s say it had been teenagers who were having sex in the park. The whole feeling would have been different. I don’t think parents would have felt that the investigation had been justified, and that in itself is telling.

So people always have been having sex in parks and public places—some are queer, some are not. Public sex is something that has always happen and will continue to happen. That rings true to me.

In one radio interview you did, a journalist mentioned a hypothetical park that includes a separate section designated as a space for public sex. Does such a park exist?

That wasn’t something I suggested, though I think it’s an interesting idea. In Vondelpark, in Amsterdam, public sex is legal, but there are bylaws that say you can’t litter, and you have to limit the sex to evenings and nighttime and stay away from the playground. It’s not delegating a certain area of the park to sex; it’s much more informal than that. I don’t know of an example where there’s a designated public sex area.

Are the Vondelpark bylaws something you’d like to see in other countries, such as the US and Canada? Are you suggesting that public sex should be legal?

I’m not talking about legalizing public sex; what I’m talking about is more like decriminalization. I would advocate for something like the public safety approach taken in Amsterdam. A harm reduction program might mean providing trash cans for people who use the park that way, and handing out safe sex material in parks. It would be the opposite of going undercover, forcing people into sexual solicitation and then ticketing them.

It’s complicated because bylaws exist so we can have light but enforceable boundaries around the ways cities are used, and we want to make it nice for everyone. That includes parking rules or the way playgrounds are used. Public sex being part of the bylaws makes sense; but on the flip side, because we live in a homophobic society, the way that law is being enforced means that it will be targeting some people more than others. For example, in Toronto, flying a kite too close

Photo of Jen Roberton
Jen Roberton, a planner in Toronto, believes sex in public parks should be decriminalized.
Image: Courtesy Jen Roberton

to a utility pole is against a bylaw, and so is having cars on recreational trails, but when you look at the way those bylaws are enforced, we can see there’s a disproportionate emphasis to anything involving sexuality, especially as it relates to gay people.

In another Toronto park where people have been drinking publicly for years, police went around with pamphlets and talked to everyone to let them know that they weren’t allowed to drink in the park. That type of approach works. And I think the way harm reduction is institutionalized in places like Amsterdam shows that if you decriminalize something like marijuana, or public sex, the city doesn’t fall apart.

How did the bylaw change in Amsterdam come about? Why do you think the laws here are so different? 

In general, this issue is not something that comes up until there’s a significant enforcement action or a problem that arises around it. In the Amsterdam case, men who have sex with men were being targeted by queer bashers, so the regulations were changed [in 2008].

That was about protecting all members of the community, and in particular queer men who were being targeted. That looks quite different than community members complaining about queer men being in public space and demanding action against them. The way the stories play out—who appears to be the vulnerable party— it just plays out very differently.

How can urban planning help protect, say, men who have sex with men?

I don’t think there’s any kind of planning that can get rid of hate crime itself.  I think city builders—politicians, city planners, journalists—need to consider the way they treat cases where there is a controversial issue or a divisiveness in terms of who is seen as deserving of public space and who is to be protected.

What often happens is people who are outside the norms are left out of decisions about what public spaces look like. This relates to men who have public sex, but also to someone sitting in park and looking like a person who doesn’t have a lot of money, someone who appears homeless.

It comes down to people recognizing that everyone deserves to feel safe in a public space; that’s the message I’m hoping will get through.  What we need right now is a more community-based approach that treats men who have sex with men as part of the community, too.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.