The 180

Cities need to plan for sex in public parks

Picture your local park: adults playing soccer, a playground full of children, an elderly couple sitting on a bench, and a couple having sex off in the distance. Jen Roberton argues all those users have a right to be in the park, and that cities should plan for public sex in their parks.

Who gets to do what in a public park? 

That's the question being asked in the neighbourhood around Toronto's Marie Curtis Park, after a recent police sting operation that cracked down on people having sex in the park.
Jen Roberton is an urban planner in Toronto. ((provided))

Project Marie was a six-week operation by Toronto Police that used plainclothes officers to find people soliciting sex. Police filed 89 charges – only one of which was criminal in nature -- against 72 people, the vast majority of whom were men.

While some neighbours have balked at the fact that men are cruising for sex in the park, Jen Roberton thinks that if a city's public parks are to be truly for all members of the public, then cities have to design their parks for all users — including the men who have sex with men (MSM). 

The men having sex in the park, they're also Torontonians, they're also part of the community.- Jen Roberton, urban planner

Roberton points to Amsterdam's Vondelpark as an example.

Since 2008, public sex has been allowed in the park as long as patrons do not litter, do not engage in sexual activities near the playground, and limit public sex to evenings.

Aaron Webster in a family photo.

She says the municipal government acted to protect all members of the local community, including gay men who were being targeted by "queer-bashers."

Violence against MSM cruising has been seen in Canada. In 2001, Aaron Webster —a gay man who cruised for sex in Vancouver's Stanley Park — was beaten by four men with baseball bats and a pool cue. Webster was left to die from a torn artery in his neck. 

"When Aaron Webster died, the men who killed him said he was a 'peeping tom' and a 'fucking voyeur'," says Roberton, adding that while people often conflate pedophilia and homosexuality, it has no basis in evidence.

She adds if neighbours say they are concerned about public safety, then they should actually be more concerned about the safety of the MSM in the park — a population that has a history of being marginalized and persecuted. 

In Roberton's view, the police sting is not only a disproportional response to a bylaw infraction, but also an action that targets gay men. 

Heterosexual couples do have sex in parks as well, but more often than not, they're asked to move along. I would be very surprised if this amount of costly undercover policing was put into a sting operation against heterosexuals. This seems very much a targeting of gay men having sex.- Jen Roberton

This summer, Toronto Police apologized for the infamous bathhouse raids in 1981, but Roberton wonders how sincere that apology was given the resources dedicated to the Project Marie sting.