Cruising. It's nothing new a subculture of men who seek out sexual encounters with other men in public places. Many don't identify themselves as gay. Some are married, often with children.
It's a behavior that Jerrie Buie, director of Pride Counseling, describes as complex. Men who struggle with their sexual identities sometimes stumble upon cruising. They're attracted to the anonymity, he says, but also to the social connections, the "common sense of we're all sitting here for the same reason."
Through the Healthy Self-Expressions program, Buie counsels men arrested for cruising. It's a therapeutic response to cruising that grew out of a collaboration among the gay community, law enforcement, therapists and others who got together in 2000 to address the issue.
"There are so many layers to this issue," Buie says. "It really goes beyond a bunch of men looking for sex. People in this kind of culture really struggle with a sense of orientation."
Traditionally, men charged with public lewdness or disorderly conduct, a class B misdemeanor, would be prosecuted just like any other offender, says Salt Lake City prosecutor Sim Gill.
But that wasn't addressing the issue of why otherwise law-abiding men were participating in public sex. Healthy Self-Expressions has given men the option of having the charges dismissed if they participate in the program, Gill says.
"We've been transitioning people out of this behavior," Gill says. "It is a permanent change in their behavior, and that's the systematic win."
Buie says many of the program's participants identify themselves as straight. Many are also active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and roughly 40 percent are married, he says. The average length of those marriages is 23 years. Two of the men with whom he is currently working have been married for more than 40 years.
"They do a lot of compartmentalizing," he says. "They live one particular life and, for 45 minutes, they'll step outside of that."
Many men have a deep-rooted fear that if their secret is discovered, they'll be rejected by their families and their church. The fear runs so deep, Buie says, that men who are outed publicly sometimes require crisis counseling.
That's why, in addition to education about issues such as HIV/AIDS prevention and understanding the impact of public sex behaviors, the program also includes a discussion of sexual identity, he says. It's about overcoming their fears, so they can come to terms with themselves.
"Just because you have an attraction to men doesn't mean you have to be a slave to those attractions," he says. "As a therapist I try to encourage people to be honest with themselves."
Buie says the program made in-roads toward curbing public sex in its early years, but more recently the vice squad focus has shifted away from targeting cruising.
That means Buie has seen fewer men through Healthy Self-Expressions. At one point, he says, he'd work with two groups of 12 people each week. Now it's declined to smaller groups, every other month.
A recent television report said police have made 70 arrests so far this year but that cruising is much more endemic than those numbers suggest.
Capt. Kyle Jones of the Salt Lake Police Department is a member of the LGBTQ Liaison Committee, which continues to address the issue. Jones says the problem seems to be relatively consistent.
"There are a lot of men who are involved in this conduct," he says. "I don't think the problem is huge to the extent that you can't go to the public park bathroom."
In addition to participating in public sex, many of the men don't use condoms, making it a public health risk, as well.
Jones says there's not much that can be done by police to prevent public sex, short of education and being clear that those who have sex in public will be arrested. But he says Healthy Self-Expressions has seemed to curb repeat offenses.
During the years that he worked directly with the issue, Jones says, roughly 350 men entered the program, and fewer than 5 percent offended again."The people we're arresting in restrooms are not criminals, they're not pedophiles," he says. "They're generally the guy next door. They're decent people who are struggling with a problem that is very complex to deal with."