I was 15 the first time I found out that men have sex in public. On the way to Maine with my mom and stepfather, we pulled off the highway and into a rest area. At the urinal, there was a man next to me. He was tall and homely, and holding himself. He stared at me. I was electrified, but held to that spot; he shook himself at me and I couldn’t move. We would have stayed there forever, but another man came in and saw what was happening and scowled. Time started again and I ran out of the bathroom.
If you’ve ever pulled over to a rest area, you’ve been near men having sex. I’m one of those men, I’ve done it a hundred times; we go into the woods or a truck with tinted windows, in a stall under cold light. It never stops, not for season or time. In the winter, men trudge through snow to be with each other, in the summer, men leave the woods with ticks clinging to their legs. Have you ever stopped at a rest area and found it completely empty? There’s always one man there, in his car, waiting to meet someone new.
This has been going on for a long, long time. The new ways that men meet -- endlessly staring into phones, searching on hookup apps like Grindr or sites like Manhunt -- haven’t changed the fact that we’re still having sex at rest areas, because they offer something different. For the man who is unsure of his sexuality, or unsure of how to tell others about it, for the man who has a family but feels new desires (or old, hidden ones) unfolding inside of him, the website and the phone apps are just too certain of themselves. They’re for gay men who want to have gay sex. Sex at the rest area, instead, abolishes identity; there’s a sort of freedom there to not be anything – instead, men just meet other men there; men who want the same sort of freedom.
Is it any wonder why people who feel the weight of their identities have been caught having sex at rest areas? Sen. Larry Craig and pop star George Michael were both discovered having sex at them. There is an appeal not just to having sex, but to having anonymous sex -- not because you want to hide your identity from the other person; surely the other men recognized George Michael -- but to feeling your own identity left behind. And this freedom is open to everyone, even those comfortable with their sexuality.
When I was 21, on the day I got my first car, I drove to a little parking lot off the highway near where I lived: the gravity of memory – of that day when I was 15 -- drew me there. Later, on the long drives between college in Massachusetts and home in Pennsylvania, I’d pull over whenever I found a rest stop. When I got there, I would wait. I wasn’t nervous, I wasn’t thinking -- it seemed like where I should be.
Sometimes men go to rest areas because there’s nowhere else to go. My college town and my hometown were surrounded by thick lines of trees and post-industrial abandoned factories. There was no way to meet anyone, or if there was, it felt forced, somehow. Maybe I could go on dates with a few guys who were out like me, but I didn’t really want to go on dates, so it would’ve been dishonest. The straight students were going to parties and hooking up, making out on the green, having sex in dorms. The gay guys had to do what they could, wherever they could find it. Making out drunkenly with straight also-drunk frat boys, sex in the library with townies, trips to the nearest big city: either do those things or sit with your sexual feelings, like many of us had our entire lives. All that energy and nowhere to put it, no one to share it with.
Someone else would park next to me and look over. There were lots of old men, and younger ones too. There was no signal, just the way we looked at one another. We could tell. I would go into the little bathroom building, like the one in Maine. At the urinals, when the bathroom was mostly empty, we could stand side by side and reach over to each other. Or if not at the urinals, someone would be sitting in the stall next to me, tapping his foot, and I’d get on the cold dirty floor and slide my body halfway underneath the divider or sometimes there’d be a hole in the wall.
After awhile I began to develop a strange feeling at rest areas, like I was giving myself to someone. Not that I gave my full self, but that the part of myself I did give was complete. There was no pretense, no awkward conversation or dancing around whether or not I should be attracted to somebody. There was no wondering if someone was straight or gay; there was no sexual orientation at all. We were just there, together, as ourselves.
Often, there was fence that blocked off the woods, and a break in that fence cut by someone who had been there before. There was a path of mud through the grass, worn down by use. In the woods, we’d find a clearing, and there, many things would happen. So many people and bodies, all looking for the same thing. So many of us past the fence, in the woods, under the sky. It was easy, at times like that, to see that there are far more men in need of other men than anyone knows.
And just as people’s identities blurred up, so did the idea of place itself; that was part of the appeal. Once I saw a bag of condoms nailed to a tree with a sign that read, “Be Safe Guys.” It was a kind gesture, but it somehow felt like an intrusion. Because these places weren’t quite places, they weren’t destinations; not for most people. They were away from hookup websites, away from houses, bars, clubs, lives -- removed from the world. And when the world crept in, it made the experience less real, less itself.
Intrusions came in other forms, too. The police pulled into a rest area I was at in Rhode Island once. It was night. I calmly leaned my car seat back and pretended to be sleeping. They shined a light in and I rolled down the window.
“What are you doing out here,” one asked.
“Just resting,” I said.
They looked at each other. “All right. Well you know, a lot of guys come here for fun and games.”
“Fun and games?”
“What, like drugs?” I asked, playing stupid.
They couldn’t say it. They couldn’t say anything. They told me to take care and drove off.
The police are a constant threat to rest area sex -- they want so badly to blend the world into it.
That’s the opposite of why people go. Some of the men at rest areas are stepping out of their lives. They’re not simply escaping their marriages, or their parents or their circumstances; at rest areas, they’re allowing themselves to be honest.
Once, after hooking up with a man in a stall, we walked out into the calm day together. I saw him go to his car, a car I hadn’t noticed before. In it, his children were waiting for him. Who knows what his life was like outside that stall?
His children were young and excited, crawling over each other in the back seat. He opened their door and said something to them I couldn’t hear. They calmed down and buckled up. I leaned against my car, with nowhere to be, and he got in his and drove away and did not look back.
It’s not “fun and games.” It’s men yielding to something they might be trying to deny, but can’t. These places give wholly different lives to some people. I don’t know if these men are “gay” or “straight." Does it matter? At a spot that for most people is on the way to somewhere else, men can meet each other and meet themselves.
I live in San Francisco now, and there’s more acceptance here of sexuality and identity than anywhere I’ve ever been. There’s also very little anonymous sex. “Anonymous” sex here means meeting a man online or on Grindr or at the bar, learning his name, going back to his apartment or mine. It’s not a bad thing, of course, but I miss being a nobody at an in-between place, a no-place. Here, I have to be somebody, everything is so defined around the edges. At the rest area, I could just be a body, be there for some other body that I didn’t know, that was longing for the sort of comfort and love that only no one, nowhere could give.