Horny Tourists Are Harming This Island’s Rare Sand Dunes, Study Says

Public sex in sunny, warm sands is a fantasy a lot of people share. “Cruising,” seeking out anonymous sex in semi-public spaces, is a long-held tradition for queer communities for both safety and fetish reasons: for some people, parks, woods, and beaches are the only places people can find sexual partners without outing themselves to their communities. 

In a paper in the January 2022 edition of the Journal of Environmental Management, and published online as an open access article, researchers from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Flinders University in South Australia explored the impact of sex in sand dunes on the Spanish island of Gran Canaria. 

What they found was damage to 10 plant species, including three species endemic to these dunes, as well as harm to the local wildlife. These dunes make up a rare ecosystem: transgressive (or “shifting”) dune fields like these are found nowhere else in the world, and the island’s government has been working to rehabilitate them after decades of degradation due to human impacts.

“Jellyfish-eating Gran Canary giant lizards (Gallotia stehlini) have died after eating condoms left behind by pleasure seekers,” one of the study’s authors, coastal dune geomorphology researcher Patrick Hesp, wrote in the Conversation

Sex tourism and cruising is already a much-studied phenomenon, the researchers write—so much so that there’s an established criteria in scientific literature for good cruising spots that fit the “four S’s”: sand, sun, sea and sex. But there haven’t been studies before this one that examine sex tourism’s impact on the environment, the researchers claim.

They identified 298 “sex spots” over 5,763 square miles of the Maspalomas dunefield, located south of the island of Gran Canaria in Spain’s Canary Islands. The surrounding area is popular for tourism, with resorts and golf courses all around the dunes, some specifically catering to gay communities. The researchers did their fieldwork durning and after the Maspalomas Gay Pride festival.

Some of what they documented about the cruising dunes is obvious: many of the spots were on stable sand with vegetation for privacy, or sticks and grasses pulled around the spot to make a sort of sex-nest. Moving and uprooting of the dune’s vegetation, combined with people leaving garbage behind, has a considerable effect on the landscape, the researchers write: “The almost constant presence of people means that the dominant processes are human-induced processes such as stepping on the plants, removing the plants and the sand, creating ‘nests’ using the native vegetation, or depositing waste.” 

The authors found 18 different kinds of trash in the dunes around these sex spots, including “cigarette butts, torn/cut vegetation, toilet paper and wipes, condoms, fruit peel, cans and feces.” 

In addition to in-depth analysis of the qualities and contents of the dune’s many bone zones, they also explore how the Maspalomas dunefield earned its reputation in the first place. Its position in the warm and sunny Canary archipelago, combined with resorts that have popped up all around it, have made it a hot spot for cruising, the authors note. The Canary Islands see 14 million tourists every year. 

People who cruise, and gay men especially, have been vilified in the past for enjoying public sex. But the researchers note several times throughout the paper that this isn’t an attempt at criticizing the communities that have sex in the dunes—rather, it’s to better understand how this cultural practice impacts nature. 

“We’re not calling for an end to public sex,” Hesp wrote in the Conversation, “but we do want people to be aware of the damage it can do.”

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