Last month, in the midst of coronavirus quarantining, the New York City Health Department encouraged residents to be sexually creative to stay safe. It suggested, for instance, that New Yorkers try new sexual practices, including "physical barriers, like walls, that allow sexual contact while preventing close face to face contact.”
Queer outlets quickly decoded the recommendation for straights: The department was encouraging the use of glory holes.
The idea of a hole in a partition of a public men’s restroom — at waist level, to put a penis in or gesture for another person to do so — has been linked to queer men in the public imagination since before the notion of queer identity existed.
Police surveillance of homosocial meeting spaces first uncovered the existence of glory holes for scandalized cis heterosexuals back in 18th-century England, long before the Oscar Wilde trial turned sodomy into a scandal and homosexuality into an identity.
According to my highly scientific research, meaning I asked a straight colleague what came to mind when she heard the term “glory hole,” she explained that a certain generation of straight white women first heard the phrase during coverage of the 2007 arrest of Sen. Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican.
Technically, no glory hole was involved (“there is no smoking glory hole here,” explained a prominent gay blog at the time) but it’s true that Craig’s toe-tapping in a Minneapolis airport restroom did get him arrested, creating a panicked investigation in straight media about, as the Advocate put it, "What Are the Gays Up to in Bathrooms Anyway?"
There was an understandable fear at the time that queer sexual practices could lead to anti-gay stigmatization. In reaction, assimilationist gay organizations like GLAAD dismissed things such as cruising and glory holes as a tragic aspect of an earlier generation of queer culture. (Even though Craig did not identify as gay or queer.)
A quick Google search, though, reveals that glory hole porn, both amateur and professional, is a popular category among gay men on websites like Pornhub. It’s also a recurring trope in straight porn, from kink mistresses, who see it as a form of women’s sexual agency and mastery, to what looks more like aggressively straight gaze–y porn for straight men who want to imagine that ladies love their dicks as much as they do. (And some of us do!)
In any case, the New York City Health Department’s recommendation got BuzzFeed News’ culture desk wondering: Have glory holes gone mainstream? How are people using them? (By “culture desk,” I really mean my editor, who has never been more excited about anything I’ve ever pitched.)
So we did what most people do when they wonder about something: We sent an anonymous survey. In a matter of days, we received a thousand replies. A few responses came from scandalized pearl-clutchers, like a 40-year-old straight white man who felt the need to write: “I have never used a glory hole and I can’t believe that they are a real thing in any context.” (To which I say: OK boomer.)
But we heard from hundreds of gay men (thank you for trusting us!), including unsolicited emails from eager glory hole practitioners — advocating for glory hole awareness — who had set up private ones in their homes and were excited that their moment was finally here.
We also received a sizable number of replies from straight or self-described “heterodominant” men who stumbled onto glory holes through Craigslist ads, video arcades, and swingers clubs. And plenty of women wrote in too. The wide range of replies is very revealing about how glory holes fit into people’s erotic lives and why folks — both straight and queer — turn to them: It’s an experience that provides a kind of consensual nonreciprocity and an ability to focus on pleasure above all.
The majority of our responses came from gay men of all ages, and their stories provide a kind of evolutionary snapshot of queer male sexual cultures, including the ways queer sex has been stigmatized, even as it provided ways for gay men to find themselves.
Some older respondents, ranging from men in their fifties to their seventies, said they found out about glory holes via gossip at gay clubs, walking by a porn video store or a queer bookstore, or seeing them depicted in porn magazines.
One 56-year-old from Dover, Delaware, was 19 when he first tried one after passing by a “mostly gay” bookstore with provocative posters outside: “My first time inside, I saw guys buying tokens [and] then walking down a long dark hallway. So I did the same and found the video booths.”
“I grew to like using the glory holes because you never knew what would come poking through! It was always, well usually, an adventure.”
“It was quite the show,” he recalled, highlighting how much of the experience was about watching and not just participating. “I grew to like using the glory holes because you never knew what would come poking through! It was always, well usually, an adventure. At first, I was wary of putting my own dick through one. In the back of my mind I feared that some gay basher (gnasher, lol) might bite it off lol.”
One 53-year-old white man from Hauppauge, New York, who first tried one at 18, explained that using them helped him move away from shame and guilt produced by an anti-gay culture. “Raised in an Irish Catholic household, being gay wasn’t acceptable. It was my way of experimenting,” he wrote. “At first it was scary, [I was] afraid of being caught. But it satisfied my desires and needs. I would spend hours, several days a week. As a gay man in the closet it filled a void.”
Another 55-year-old gay Black man from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, said he first used one at 18 after having seen it in an adult magazine. “The experience was exhilarating,” he wrote. “The individual(s) on the opposite side of the wall performed oral sex on each other. The experience provided a sense of excitement at the prospect of possibly being discovered.”
The potential for discovery also had an ominous side; police entrapment has been common since the 1910s. There are even real-life surveillance videos from the ’50s taken in public bathrooms by police officers seeking to arrest queer men. One 59-year-old from Hermosa Beach, California, remembers how “the police put glory holes in public restrooms in some California cities (in the old days) to catch gay men.”
The virulently anti-gay ’90s was also the era of the 1998 George Michael arrest over “lewd” behavior after a cop cruised and entrapped him in a restroom in Beverly Hills. The media’s tut-tutting focused its salacious tone on the scandal for Michael — and whether he’d be able to hold onto his white middle-class fanbase — rather than on punitive police surveillance.
By the aughts, representation of queer men had already begun expanding beyond the defensive need for homonormative respectability with shows like Queer as Folk, which ran on Showtime from 2000 to 2005 and depicted gay sex at clubs. But events like Larry Craig’s 2007 arrest prompted GLAAD to create boundaries between respectable gay men and the dirtiness of glory holes or restrooms, insisting that “only a small minority of gay men engage in public sex and most gay people condemn the practice.”
The organization referenced comments from a gay Michigan State psychology professor emeritus who told ABC News at the time that cruising is practiced mainly by men who are not openly queer: "There is a lot of self-hatred and shame, and they can't allow themselves to come to terms with their sexuality." The fear that queer sexual practices would be weaponized against demands for LGBTQ rights led, in turn, to the stigmatization of supposedly “deviant” queer sex by some LGBTQ organizations.
“The whole experience felt like it deserved a Yelp review.”
Still, the age of the apps allowed for queer sexual practices to flourish in private. The rise of Craigslist personals, men-for-men chatrooms on AOL, and Squirt.org in the late ’90s and early aughts didn’t do away with cruising or glory holes but rather added more ways to schedule meetups and made finding them easier.
Queer men could set up private glory holes and advertise them on new hookup apps like Grindr and Scruff. A 27-year-old from Washington, DC, described being surprised by how “intimate and tranquil” a visit to one such glory hole was. “There was New Age music playing in the background and soft, colored lights spinning around the room like a disco ball,” he wrote. “I only received. It provided a real sense of...customer service. The whole experience felt like it deserved a yelp review.” (A 33-year-old from Raleigh, North Carolina, wrote about a “really sweet guy from Grindr” whose apartment setup included “music, lights, toys, a shower!”)
A 26-year-old bi white man from Milwaukee remembered being 22 and in college when he found a glory hole on campus. “Guys on Grindr would say where they were or ask to meet there,” he explained. “It was kind of thrilling. I didn't know what the guy giving me a blowjob looked like, and someone could come in at any moment and catch us. It took away the intimacy but replaced it with thrill and pleasure. Especially pleasure, because I was able to just worry about myself and my orgasm instead of pleasing the other person like I would in a standard face-to-face hookup.”
And just because it’s anonymous doesn’t mean that a glory hole isn't conducive to a meaningful connection. A 38-year-old Black respondent from Las Vegas learned about glory holes while watching Drag Race with friends. “They were doing the puppet challenge, where they had to reach into a hole to pick out their puppets,” he wrote. “As soon as RuPaul said the word ‘glory hole’ I was interested in what it was.”
He and his friends decided to create their own glory hole experience. “We meditated over this for weeks and all decided to randomly pick who would get paired with who,” he wrote. “We each drew numbers to represent us and then drew numbers of who we would stimulate. It was better that way because we couldn’t make fun of each other. Honestly, it was healing. You really get to know a person through a glory hole and the element of surprise was even better. To this day, we still don’t know who was paired with who (although I have a good feeling it was my really good friend) and I like it that way. We all still joke about it and wonder who we got!”
But it’s not just self-identified gay men who wrote in about using glory holes. The mixing of genders and sexualities in online spaces have made it easier for straight and bisexual men to access once-taboo pleasures. One 30-year-old straight man from New York discovered the practice of in-home, private glory holes while surfing Craigslist while in college. “My sex drive was intense and I had girlfriends on and off but was never faithful because I always needed more,” he wrote. “There [were] 20x more guys on there and [it] was so much easier to find a guy to get me off.
“A lot of the time I would set it up with him then smoke some weed and head over there. I would park and already be stiff. I would walk up and open the front door and there would be a sheet and you can’t see into the house and you’re enclosed and the sheet has a waist high hole in it. … He would make me cum in 5 min or less and never made any noise or anything and swallowed it all. I went back multiple times over the few years especially after a break up. Always felt amazing.”
Other straight men stumbled onto glory holes in a very old-school way: by visiting porn video stores. A 44-year-old man from Colorado remembers being 19 and “masturbating to an adult video in an arcade booth when the person in the stall next to me asked if I needed help,” he recalled. “A man and a woman were in there, I penetrated the woman vaginally unprotected through the hole and ejaculated within two minutes inside of her. They then took turns getting me aroused again orally before having me penetrating her vaginally again for another 4 or 5 minutes of unprotected intercourse until I again ejaculated inside of her. I then watched him ‘clean her up’ through the glory hole.”
Other men sought glory holes at swingers parties. One 25-year-old from Maryland recalled liking it because “not seeing makes the whole experience more intense as you’re focused only on her actions.”
“My partner got off on watching and the excitement factor was really huge. It’s far less threatening than sex without a wall between you.”
Swingers parties have also become a safe space for women to access glory holes and get anonymity and sexual encounters on their terms. The majority of women who wrote in described themselves as pansexual or bisexual and often found out about them from swingers clubs or during visits to porn video stores with partners.
A 27-year-old bisexual Hispanic woman from Connecticut gave head at an arcade sex shop with her husband watching. “A man went into the neighboring room and exposed himself to us through the glory hole. It was exciting and different to be watched but also joined by a complete stranger. I would absolutely do it again. Great experience.”
One 30-year-old Black Native Oglala woman was 28 when she visited a porn video store with an open-minded partner. “I wanted to see the glory holes because I had never seen them available and was curious.” They ran into an acquaintance she had been sexting, and her partner encouraged her to go for it. “I was nervous at first, I’d never had such casual sex before. I didn’t know anything about him really, so there’s that. I gave a blowjob and received vaginal penetration. It was a really good quickie. My partner got off on watching and the excitement factor was really huge. It’s far less threatening than sex without a wall between you. If anything would have gone strange I could have safely called for an attendant.”
The question of safety came up in many of the women’s responses. A 30-year-old white and Asian American woman in Washington, DC, described herself as “slutty, kinky lady” and pointed out that “most adult theaters will not let single women in without an escort because, and I quote, ‘they cannot guarantee your safety.’”
So she, like many others, went on FetLife, a self-described “Social Network for the BDSM, Fetish & Kinky Community.” She found a swingers club that had a built-in glory hole wall. “When I first got behind the glory hole wall, I was definitely anxious and nervous. The first cock I sucked there, I ended up sharing with another girl and her warm, flirtatious personality (not to mention how gorgeous she was) really put me at ease and allowed me to let loose. I think the thing I enjoyed so much was the distance and how much control I had.”
She echoed many of the responses from gay men in describing the rush of being freed from a partner’s expectations. “I don't have to make sexy eye contact and don't have to keep going if I'm not feeling it; I can go at my own pace, however deep I feel like, and just really enjoy myself! I started with a goal of sucking 10 cocks, but ended up sucking 20 and LOVED IT!!”
A 29-year-old white pansexual woman from Vancouver also found a swingers party through FetLife. “I was already doing a lot of experimenting with free, positive sexual experiences and was really in a period of celebrating and owning my own pleasure,” she wrote. She went to a club and used a glory hole to receive oral sex. “It was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed how completely unselfconscious I felt like I could be. The things that were unique to the experience were the complete anonymity which felt risqué and helped with feeling unselfconscious. Also, I was able to focus completely on myself and did not feel pressure to please or accommodate another person.”
The next time she went, she gave blowjobs. “It was so cool to be able to directly compare the different feelings and sensations from different penises,” she wrote. And when she was done, “I was able to just experience it or walk away or do whatever without the shame and self consciousness of having to look like I was constantly feeling pleasure.”
“It’s also slutty and shameless in a way that I don’t allow myself to be in the real world.”
For a lot of women and queer men, it’s not even about the privacy afforded by anonymity, per se, but that ability to not be judged for their sexual agency — whether it’s having to put on a show of liking something they don’t, or having to reject men, which often leads to some degree of anger. Instead, they can forget about a partner’s expectations in a consensual way.
One 28-year-old gay man from Dallas explained that he got head at a glory hole in a gay bathhouse, but he liked it “only because I knew who was giving me the blow job. I don’t find pleasure in mystery so when I go to a GH I need to know who is blowing me. I go to GHs not for privacy but the fact I literally get to stand there and have someone pleasure me without me having to reciprocate.”
One reply, rare for its vulnerability, was from a 33-year-old man from Alexandria, Virginia. “I constantly compared my dick size to other guys and felt a little emasculated by what I perceived was a below-average/average-sized penis,” he wrote. “I was intrigued by the anonymity of the glory hole experience. That my dick couldn't be attached to my face or my identity; the only shame being the one tied to my self-acceptance/-admittance.”
From the responses that came in, it’s clear that glory holes provide a controlled environment, one which helps sidestep some of the shame and awkwardness that often defines sexual negotiation. “It provides simplicity/straightforwardness (getting “denied” or “denying” feels less personal, to me),” wrote a 33-year-old gay man from North Carolina. “It’s also slutty and shameless in a way that I don’t allow myself to be in the real world.”
The real world, of course, has been caught up in a global pandemic and protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality. Almost every respondent, across boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality said glory holes were now out of the question. But many say they won’t hesitate to find them again once it’s safe.
The need or desire for anonymity, the simplicity of sex without social interaction, the focus on pleasure, and the possibility for safe, consensual nonreciprocity were the most common responses about why glory holes endure as a kind of rare slice, or partition, of sexual utopia.
US culture constantly emphasizes sex as an important part of self-discovery. But so often for queer people and women it’s harder to talk about how or why that’s the case. Queer male sexuality, especially, has long been an object of panic and surveillance and envy.
Queer writers can now openly talk about the poetics of cruising and how cruising is a kind of poetry, but this wasn’t true for an earlier generation of queer men. The burst of enthusiastic responses we received might speak to the excitement about finally getting a space to talk about an array of sexual experiences. Maybe that’s also why so many of the responses were like queer poetry.
One especially memorable response was also one of the most succinct, almost Hemingway-esque in its minimalism but without any of the buttoned-up straight anxiety. In explaining why he was drawn to glory holes, the 56-year-old gay man from Dover, Delaware, wrote: “I couldn’t care less about face, abs, muscles etc. I can remember guys by their dick pics.”
In short: “I liked it a lot because I like dick.” ●