Cruising and Consent: a Conversation with Luke George
Luke George is an artist, ropeworker and performer exploring intimate connections between artist and audience. He grew up in Tasmania at a time when the debate around homosexuality was intensely negative and undergoing great change. We caught up to talk about all things cruising, choreography and consent.
*trigger warning: this article has mentions of sexual assault.
Hugh: Your origin story, growing up in Tassie, is so relatable. Tasmanian was the final state to decriminalise sodomy, and so late in the game. For many people reading this, it was within our lifetime. Your human need for intimacy and connection with men was explored through discovering cruising at a time that was so terrifying for gay men. I’m in awe of you Luke that you‘ve created a beautiful career and art practice out of such a potentially horrible and traumatic experience.
Luke: This is the beauty of what queers do, right? Take trauma and make it into something beautiful and transformative. I've been practising as an artist for 20 years and I've only just started making these connections to my past. And I used to kind of deny these connections, I would keep them separate.
When did you start cruising?
I can't remember the exact date. The first time I had sex was through cruising. As a little boy I was really sexual, really kinky and quite dominant. I was very good at creating situations with my friends that were very sexual.
Do you have any examples? Were you tying them up to the playground?
Once, yeah (laughs). I remember a tunnel in the playground. I got all the boys to crowd into the tunnel and was like “Block the ends! You block that end, guard the tunnel! Okay! We're gonna play a game! We're all gonna be animals and we're gonna rub up against each other's fur.” At five years old. It was hot and they were all down with it. I would do this a lot, create situations with my friends, usually one-on-one. I would always have a little boyfriend going. I had a neighbour at the time and we would experiment. We were like pre-puberty fucking. It was intense and very charged. I was very sexually curious. I was super sensual and tactile. I had a fetish for soft fabrics like satin and I was constantly just getting off on touching these kinds of things.
"The first time I had the sexual experiences it was with two men and they were spit-roasting me, bareback."
It sounds like you didn’t even need to cruise...
I was already there, no big surprise. You know everyone talks about their first sexual experience. Mine was cruising in a park.
How did you find out about cruising?
I first heard about cruising through rumours when I was living on the outskirts of Launceston, in Northern Tasmania. There were rumours about some kind of sexual action happening in the park at nighttime. I was curious and wanted to suss it out. It’s 1995, there was no internet and I was about 15 or 16 years old. I managed to work a situation where I could be in that park at nighttime and I just observed. There were lots of single men walking around. Then I saw a number of guys hooking up and I was like, okay I get it. Cool. The first time I had the sexual experiences it was with two men and they were spit-roasting me, bareback.
(laughing) Talk about zero to one hundred!
I was like, let's go! They were in their 30s and 40s and I was this hungry teen.
I always laugh at that, because obviously, that's sexual assault because you're a minor. But I can remember as a teen, it was what I always wanted. I wanted to fuck, you know - my coach or my teacher or somebody that like. (laughs)
"There were politicians calling for the death sentence to be reintroduced for queer and trans people. It was horrible. And with a backdrop of HIV/AIDS as well. So all the messaging was your you're wrong and you're gonna die."
I felt pretty in control as a young person with my sexuality in those spaces. I felt like I could wield it quite strongly. Then I got hooked. For context, this is Tasmania. Mid 90s. In the height of a ten year battle for gay law reform. Imagine the marriage plebiscite, over 10 years. In very regional Tassie, pre internet. There were politicians calling for the death sentence to be reintroduced for queer and trans people. It was horrible. And with a backdrop of HIV/AIDS as well. So all the messaging was your you're wrong and you're gonna die. You just couldn't come out - it was dangerous. I was harassed on a daily basis, at school, at work. I was violently attacked a number of times too. It was horrible. So safety was everything if you were going to seek any kind of intimacy, and cruising in the park at night was a way you could do it. I feel really lucky for that experience because I got these interactions with so many different guys and in a small town.
You got spit-roasted in a park, damn lucky! Did you ever recognise any of the guys in town?
Occasionally I would. I worked at the cinema to support my cruising habit. I got the closing shift that would finish up at 11 o'clock at night. I’d just go straight to the park, suck some dick, you know. Occasionally, someone would come into the cinema and I’d clock him and be like, oh. But you wouldn't say anything to each other. I saw guys with their wives and their girlfriends. So insane. I'd be cruising two, three or four times a week.
And was it a toilet block?
No, it was a park. There were toilet blocks throughout the city I would go to as well, like during the lunch break from school. I was out of uniform by that time. I was hungry.I would spend hours, waste hours. But I had a lot of sex. And I learned a lot about sex, my body and about desire. Guys in a cruising space almost silently seek out sex with each other. I learned how the practice of consent was happening in a nonverbal way. And you had to be coded because of your own safety. To work out if they are interested, work out if they are going to hurt you.
You really get thrown in the deep end.
Cruising to me is a choreography. I’ve just started thinking about it in this way. What is choreography? Bodies negotiating space, moving through space with each other in a dynamic way that's interactive. Touching and not using words. Sometimes when I go into cruising space, if I'm not getting any or need a rest, I'll just enjoy witnessing how people are cruising and how it's working or not working.
It's been interesting with the last few years of COVID and lockdowns and no bars, saunas or sex spaces open. Public cruising space ramped right up. There was a huge uptick in beat activity, which I think is really beautiful - fucking in nature or in the outdoors is the best. Suddenly there were a lot of younger guys discovering cruising for the first time because they've been using Grindr or the sauna or the bar. There’s a new generation coming into cruising space, figuring it out. I've been asked a few times in cruising space like, ‘I'm new to this, how does it work?’
Just when you said it was a nonverbal space
I know. I enjoying a bit of a chat. I know guys don't like it, but it's a social space for me as well. It's a really important community space.
What's your advice to a newbie?
First of all, what do you want? What do you like? Because if we're listening to our bodies and our desires, and practising respect and consent, then anything can happen. But if you're in your head, you're second guessing yourself. Or projecting stuff onto other people and expecting something from the situation. It’s about opening ourselves up. And it's amazing to have the craziest sex in in cruising space, like mad, because we just got there together. We have to respect each other and respect it’s public space. When I'm cruising in Galatea Point, I'm super aware that that is, first and foremost a space for nature. A space for trees, plants and animals. And I'm not gonna leave fucking rubbish there. I hate seeing sex trash left around. I’m a visitor to that space. And I'm on Country as well and want to respect that. This is this isn't just our space to do whatever the fuck we want. Let's respect each other in the space.
For people who don't come from our culture you know, het-cis-experience of that. What do you say to someone who says, oh like, just fuck in your home's like the rest of us? Why are gay men or queer people entitled to public space in this era?
"Also like, fucking liberate yourself! I know with public space it's illegal. I've been pulled up by cops before. But why are we hiding away? Why are we hiding our sexuality?.Why can’t pleasure be in public space? And that’s the repression of society right there."
It's a very good question and there's a lot to unpack in that. I'm gonna do my best to do that.
I don't know if I can speak to all of it. There many voices that need to be in that conversation. First and foremost, it's not necessarily a cis-male gay space. Cruising space has evolved for centuries, before gay culture was a thing. Before queer people and gay people were more accepted into societies. Because people who want to have sex, people who identify as male, they want to have sex with other guys - they don’t necessarily identify as gay. They may not even identify as bi. But they're going there to explore these desires. For a lot of people this is the only safe space in which they can do that. They can't go to a sauna because they're afraid of getting recognized and clocked. In their community it's really unsafe for them to come out or, or to be to be identified. They may have families, or high profile jobs. I don’t know these things. It's no one's business. It's their business.
So first and foremost cruising space was there because of safety and necessity. I think that safety is still totally relevant. As a sex worker and a cruiser, I see and encounter a lot of people who aren’t out, who don't identify as gay. It's not over, it's actually still really unsafe for a lot of people. That will never stop.
Also like, fucking liberate yourself! I know with public space it's illegal. I've been pulled up by cops before. But why are we hiding away? Why are we hiding our sexuality? Why are we hiding away with our desires, and our pleasure? Why can’t pleasure be in public space? And that’s the repression of society right there. Everyone deserves pleasure. And if that means encountering each other exploring pleasure in public space, as long as it's not harming other people - people who cruise take great care to make sure that there are no children in the space. It's not in your face. The guys take care for their own safety, but also for the consent of the onlooker. There are exhibitionists for sure. But even exhibitionists show some respect around that. Not everyone is up for a show. I'm like, okay, we'll enjoy your sex with the lights off in your pyjamas!
What do you think about hetrosexual couples trying to participate in cruising space? Or two different genders in that space?
I'm aware that cruising space is typically populated by people who identify as cis-male. In saying that I have encountered trans people in cruising space, but not often. I don't know if I've encountered many non-binary folks but it's highly likely, a lot of the non-binary queers I know like to cruise. So who this space is for is a really interesting conversation. I have encountered straight couples in cruising spaces before.
Yeah, me too, not often but definitely have experienced that before.
I think it's really hot. I wouldn't want to see suddenly see a space that has been a safe space for cruisers, appropriated by het couples. Make your own cruising space! But not to say that we should be excluding anyone from this space. If you're not causing harm to others who might feel unsafe, why not? I was on a nude beach or cruising beach over summer and there was a straight couple on the beach who were very excited to give a show. To what is predominantly the gay section of the nude beach. And you know, it was hot. Every guy on that beach got totally turned on by it. I'd love to see a slippery space across all kink spaces, sex spaces, cruising spaces, around gender and sexuality.
Yeah definitely. Coming back to consent and cruising, for newcomers, people who haven't been in that space before and not asking, how does this work? Do you have any advice for ways people can connect appropriately or are there any conventions you can share? If someone is behaving in the wrong way, what should the community's response be to that?
It's hard because these are anonymous spaces and people come and go. There’s forums, there is Squirt, there are other online forums. I've noticed that people are starting beat threads on Twitter. I don't love the conversations happening in these spaces, but at least they’re happening. I'm not a big fan of comment-based forums because people don't really take responsibility for their comments. Firstly, particularly in the gay-cis-male community, we need to get more comfortable with the discomfort of being in conversations around respect, consent, etiquette and how we treat each other.
It can be very testosterone driven…
Like if you witness an interaction between two people where clearly someone's feeling unsafe, with tact, patience, compassion and respect, there's a way to ask ‘is everything okay?’ or offer the person who is feeling unsafe a way out. In terms of schooling people about etiquette or respect, I don’t know, that'd be hard.
It's like good manners, you need to learn it from an early age. Etiquette isn’t something that's taught. Maybe in an posh English finishing school or something, but etiquette is not taught by schools.
Be a part of a fucking community. Like that’s it - practice being in a community. Practice being a human in the interest of other humans. In what circumstance do you walk into any space with your desire and go ‘this is what I want and I'm going to get that any cost, I don't care about anyone else, I’m just gonna get what I want.’ That's not how the world works. Let's treat each other with respect. If you walk into a space, respecting everyone in that space as your baseline who knows you might get 20 dicks in you!
The rewards can be very lucrative.
Totally. I can't make any assumptions. I have pulled a few people up when people have behaved badly toward me or others quite directly if I’ve felt comfortable enough to say ‘I need you to slow down’ or ‘you know what, I don't think this is working’. Or ‘hey, buddy, I need you to respect the space’ perspective. In a kind and funny way quite often, before it's met with defensiveness.
I think there's probably a vulnerability they're experiencing at a time as well, which isn't very visible because it's coming through in a testosterone driven, strength/desire way. Therefore, when you challenge that I think that's the patriarchy, right. It's like, fuck you. The person responds badly.
I totally agree and I would add to that, that I've also experienced it from guys who I think they're actually dealing with a lot of insecurity. That if they don't come like a bull at a gate, and with a scattergun approach and just go for everything, and just take and take, that they’re gonna miss out. It comes from a place of fear and scarcity.
When you’re in the outdoor environment too, there's a heightened sense of urgency. You know there is this police, societal, children, families, outdoor, weather, you know, all these things are very temporary.
Go in. Go hard.
In a moment, it could change very quickly. I'm not saying it's acceptable behaviour. The other thing is this idea of time - people often occupy these spaces in very temporary ways. It's a quick lunch break, it's a five minute cigarette break in a toilet or whatever. Particularly in the CBD toilet block arenas, maybe Galatea Point is a bit more picnic, all-day buffet kind of vibe (laughs). I've never experienced that of a het-male but a man who identifies as heterosexual, occupying those spaces. I imagine it probably feels pretty nervous because of the potential shame, or risk or all the things that come with them occupying that space.
Regardless of how people identify, it's just super interesting to me. To tell you about everything we've talked art, dance, choreography, cruising, dance, sex. It's really fascinating to me, to witness in that moment when someone feels fearful or threatened or something about what they're after feels threatened. When I feel fearful or threatened I retreat into myself. And I'll freeze or I'll disappear. Other people's response is to be more aggressive and to push.
I think that's the responses to trauma, like flight, fight, freeze, flop and friend. Yeah, there's five I think.
I think I've been quite critical of it in this conversation. But I love it. I love cruising and I'll always cruise. I think it's actually where I feel most comfortable in sex. More than my bedroom. I feel super comfortable because it's where I learned how to have sex.
It’s like going home.
I’m in my power and I'm free, there’s less expectation on myself. I have more liberation. If I invite someone over to my apartment, I feel a lot of expectation, I feel trapped sometimes. The spaces where I've gone through with sex that I didn't really want to do is actually my own space. With cruising, it's a lot of free space around you.
And there's other options.
We go, what about this person, what about someone else?
Yeah, I feel a safety that comes down to consent and we're talking about consent being an ongoing contract, that you sign at the start, but then you need to initial every page of that contract as you flick through. If that changes at any point, my experience of cruising spaces particularly saunas, is that it’s very fine. It's almost expected they have sex for a bit and if great keep going but if not it's totally fine to let that go without any disappointment.
"It's not like it's real life - in cruising space we’re temporarily suspending regular social responsibility, roles, responsibilities, dynamics, hierarchies. We’re bodies in space with desires. That's beautiful. And in a sauna, you're in a towel that's it (laughs)."
I remember a couple times I've invited someone to my place. We've gotten into it and I've needed to pause or slow down. They've even said, ‘oh, well what a waste of my time’.
Yeah, ‘I came all this way and you said you were gonna put out’. There’s been times when I’ve lost interest but kept going until they finish. Because of potential conflict. I would much prefer to just wait until they blow and then get out of there!
In a way I feel like people who've been using cruising spaces, almost have a headstart. A more dynamic and more fluid understanding kind of practice of consent. And I celebrate that yeah, I really do. I think it's amazing.
It's interesting as consent has come up in the media - parliament and sex, sexual assault and all these horrible things, and these particularly brave women doing amazing things and calling it out. It's very rare that as a gay man - it wasn't something discussed. I guess from the outset; 'top/btm?' kink/vanilla? into? these are all forms of negotiating consent. I mean, there’s the situation we were just talking about, but you kind of hope it finishes soon. I haven't actually found that yet through having those community spaces. We, as gay men, are much more understanding and respectful - through eye contact, through slight touch, tone as you discuss. I think there's a lot that everyone can learn from those spaces. It's such a privilege that we get them as queer people.
Yeah, and then we get to grow into and experience spaces. It's not like it's real life - in cruising space we’re temporarily suspending regular social responsibility, roles, responsibilities, dynamics, hierarchies. We’re bodies in space with desires. That's beautiful. And in a sauna, you're in a towel that's it (laughs). The other night I wasn't. I relate that to kink as well, a great deal of suspension of societal life.
Luke also recently created an incredible artwork with fellow artist Daniel Kwok at the National Gallery of Victoria as part of RISING. They created Still Lives: Melbourne – tying five Australian Rules footballers in rope bondage and suspending them from the soaring ceiling of the Great Hall. The work depicted AFL footballer Andrew Krakouer’s Mark of the Year from 2011, and featured the rope work as well as video portraits of Luke and Daniel discussing issues such as homophobia, sexism, transphobia, environmental activism and indigenous representation in the AFL. Krakouer, a Mineng and Inggarda man, was the guest of honour at the performance.
To find out more about Luke and his work here.