While cruising attracts men of all ages, Santa Ana attorney Georgia Garrett Norris said her married clients tend to be older than 50, torn between homosexual yearnings they can barely acknowledge and straight family life that is the foundation of their personal identity.
"They have too much invested in being a parent, husband," said Norris, who has handled some 2,500 lewd conduct cases in Orange County and Long Beach in the last 16 years. "These aren't people who can join a gay group. Their alternatives are pretty narrow. They can't go into a dating mode.
"To me they are the saddest. I understand them not wanting to give up their lives. But on the other hand, they're not just going to be able to will away their sexual feelings."
Even for the unmarried, cruising defies a simplistic explanation. "It implies they're making this conscious decision and ignoring the law," said Beverly Hills psychologist Brian Gold. "These are people who are often bright, very successful, very well educated, but for a whole complex of reasons are struggling with ways to connect with people."
Although Los Angeles psychologist and veteran gay activist Donald Kilhefner believes a desire for quick anonymous encounters can be a healthy sexual expression, he said many of the men he has treated are involved in "compulsive, addictive sexual behavior" that is often tied to shame about their sexuality. "It really is something they can't stop."
At the same time, Kilhefner suggests there is a broader cultural dimension at work. To the extent society defines homosexuality by sex acts, that can become a self-fulfilling identity. Gays are "going to play out the roles that are ascribed to them," he observed.
Yet that explanation stumbles over the lack of a comparable lesbian cruising scene. "I think it has to do with male sexual expression rather than exclusively male homosexual expression," Gold said. "I think heterosexual men probably would [cruise] if women were responsive to it."
Even as some gay leaders and writers lament that gay male culture is too obsessed with sex for its own good, others suspect there will always be public sex in the gay world.
"A lot of gay guys are part of gay culture because they don't want to be locked into the bonding thing," said American University anthropology professor William Leap, who is editing a book on public sex. They don't want to adopt heterosexual conventions such as monogamy, and "one way of expressing that resistance is having a lot of sexual partners in different locations."
Historically, cruising was one of the chief ways gay men found each other. Lacking privacy or their own socially acceptable establishments, they turned to the streets to meet and tryst.
"If [men] didn't get married they lived with their families. . . . You didn't have privacy," John De Cecco, gay studies coordinator at San Francisco State University, said of earlier eras. "You had to have [sex] publicly or not at all unless you were very rich."
Records of men arrested for public sodomy date from 15th and 16th century Florence and Venice. There were waves of enforcement, depending on the politics of the time. "It was much less a moral issue than a practical issue of keeping things looking well," De Cecco said.
In this century, cruising became a familiar literary theme as well, related in gay novels and memoirs as voyages of self-discovery and conquest.
The young protagonist of Edmund White's "The Beautiful Room Is Empty" spends a good chunk of his college career in university bathrooms. One of the stops in Renaud Camus' 1981 fictional sexual diary, "Tricks," is a darkened Parisian square near Notre Dame.
And in John Rechy's earlier, similarly themed novel, "Numbers," the trails of Griffith Park become Johnny Rio's frenzied hunting ground for anonymous partners. The book was not that far from the reality of the park's cruising heyday, in the '60s and '70s. But it was more than the promise of the sexual prowl that clogged the prime cruising turf with cars.
"I've known people who said they couldn't survive without the possibility of the park," said Rechy, who still lives nearby. "It allowed contact, association and confirmation that there were a lot of us. And when we were together it was not all that b------- that we were sick." Nowadays, he added, the park scene "has never been more muted."
Though assimilation and the specter of AIDS have hardly eliminated cruising, its allure has dimmed somewhat. "It has changed a lot. As for nostalgia, our history moves on," Rechy said.