“Cruising” the Charmed Circle Down the Hierarchy

The predominant dichotomy in the discourse surrounding sex concerns distinctions between so-called “good sex” and “bad sex,” even as social attitudes regarding sexuality and sexual practices evolve over time. Gayle Rubin, in her 1980 essay “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” highlighted this tendency of sorting sex into good and bad categories and further examined how certain sexual practices maintain a sense of legitimacy to the general public while others either teeter on the edge of respectability, or are otherwise disparaged. For Rubin, sexual activity, having been considered the very root of purity by Christianity-dominated cultures, has been subject to a heightened level of scrutiny that other areas of our lives are not — those who practice what is considered proper sexual practices exhibit moral uprightness. Our choices in food, in religious practices, and so on are not so nearly as regulated as our sexual practices. In reference to sex workers, Rubin writes that “such an extreme exclusion from the market process would hardly be socially acceptable in other areas of activity. Imagine, for example, that the exchange of money for medical care, pharmacological advice, or psychological counseling were illegal.” The law also strictly delineates the realms of “childhood ‘innocence’ and ‘adult’ sexuality,” ignoring some of the subtleties of intergenerational sexuality (her example: a 20 year old male being convicted of statutory rape of a 17 year old girlfriend) as well as the very fact of childhood sexuality (images of sexuality are prohibited to minors while images of violence proliferate).

The Charmed Circle

The regulations to which sex workers and minors are subjected ultimately are only a couple of examples encompassed within the dichotomy of so-called “good sex” and “bad sex,” which Rubin illustrates with two diagrams. One is the two circles, one encompassed within the other, the inner circle being called “the charmed circle” and the outer circle being called “the outer limits.” Sexuality which is accepted by the culture at large, and considered natural and healthy — “good sex” — falls into the charmed circle. “Vanilla” sex, heterosexuality, sex within marriage, monogamous sex, and so on all fall within this charmed circle. Outside the charmed circle lay what society considers abnormal or unnatural sexuality — “bad sex” — such as public sex, pornography, sex toys, S/M, homosexuality, promiscuous sex, and so on. While the “outer limits,” as Rubin calls it, are not necessarily consisting of illegal sex acts, many of these forms of sexuality are, and the ones that are not are often subject to scrutiny. The other diagram with which Rubin illustrates her examination of the good-bad hierarchy involves “the struggle over where to draw the line”: three walls from left to right, with “the line” being drawn after heterosexuality, married and monogamous sex, reproductive sex, in the confines of the home. Beyond this wall lay “major areas of contest,” which involve sex between the unmarried, masturbation, promiscuity, homosexuality, and so on. Beyond the major areas of contest lay what are considered the “worst” forms of sexuality: transvestism, transsexuals, fetishists, sadomasochists, sex work, and cross generational sex. This desire by society to “draw the line” on where acceptable sexuality ends and unacceptable sexuality begins highlights how certain minority groups, discriminated against through the law (sodomy laws, police harassment of sexual minorities) and by society at large, struggle to obtain respectability and the arbitrariness of exactly where “the line” is drawn. No matter how benign or inconsequential, sex which falls outside of the charmed circle, beyond the line, is prohibited to some extent or another.

The concerns of Gayle Rubin, among other themes, are on display in William Friedkin’s 1980 crime-thriller Cruising — with a title that plays on the word’s multiple sense, both to the act of gay men soliciting other interested parties for casual sex, and to the act of police patrolling neighborhoods. Unfortunately the film squanders the opportunity to more closely examine the dynamics of power in which queer individuals (gay men and women, S/M subculture, transvestites, and transsexuals) are subordinated and abused by the authorities vested with the legal means of doing so. The film also does not seem quite so interested or even aware of how the stigmatization and enforced hierarchies of sex create an environment in which a serial killer could operate with impunity long enough to butcher several men. Nor does it ever really develop any of the characters who are depicted as members of the S/M community, the myriad leather daddies and gimps who inhabit the underground bars and who are depicted as the height of degeneracy, the lowest of the low. Naive cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) goes undercover to these places and slowly builds an understanding of the ins and outs, the etiquette of where he does and does not belong and how to pick up other men. The most damning element may be the development of Burns as a character: at the film’s start, he follows his excursions into the cruising spots and gay bars with assertions of his own masculinity, whether it is sex with his girlfriend or working out in his apartment. As the film continues, however, Burns seems to fall more and more into the lifestyle of leather-clad sadomasochists, and therein lies the film’s problem: it frames this subculture and the individuals within it as those who seek out violence or become violent, even murderous, over time. The killer himself is dressed in an entire elaborate leather outfit that his victims lack, and the film’s end implies that Burns himself grows into the role of a serial murderer of men, a man who has fallen into depraved violence. When his girlfriend finds and tries on his leather getup — clothing that matches exactly the clothes worn by the killer — the impression is that one violent sociopath has been substituted for another, and the cycle continues because of the subculture in which the film is set. And because Burns as a character lacks meaningful development, is effectively rendered so ambiguously that it’s almost impossible to really see into his psychology, the film fails as a character piece as well as fails to prevent the perpetuation of negative images of queer subcultures. The line has been drawn firmly in the sand.

A telling moment in this film is when Burns, working undercover, hooks up with a suspect in the case and is taken to the suspect’s apartment. When the police, afraid for Burns’s safety, decided to raid the apartment and find Burns tied up as if willingly, we the audience see what seems to be a condemnation, or at least a look at the “symptoms” of so-called “bad sex”: a homosexual S/M hook-up wherein Burns is pulled further down into the mire of immorality. The ensuing police interrogation of the suspect, which includes beatings and violence, moves Burns to protest against the man’s treatment and against being used to prosecute homosexuals rings false to me, because regardless of intention the film ultimately portrays Burns’s sexuality as susceptible to “depravity.” These moments of degradation, in combination with the implications of the film’s ending, are the true moral failing at work in this movie.