Cape Cod is no place for Puritans

New England resort within sight of Plymouth Rock sees sex offence prosecutions triple in four years

Call it Cape Cod-piece. The genteel holiday region, which sells itself as one of the last bastions of old-fashioned New England reserve, has launched a crackdown on the growing number of gay orgies taking place on its famed sand dunes.

Visitors to the rugged peninsula – about which Henry David Thoreau declared, "A man may stand there and put all America behind him" – tend to be more concerned with what they end up seeing in front of them. And in recent years, it hasn't always been pretty. More than 130 men were prosecuted for lewd behaviour on Cape Cod last summer after being arrested in the National Seashore, a 43,000-acre national park which contains some of the American east coast's most pristine beaches and uplands. The figure represents an increase of 100 per cent on 2006, and is more than three times the total just four years ago.

Reported misdeeds included "flashing" and public masturbation, but most worrying for local tourist chiefs were several cases of nude orgies involving up to 30 men.

Police records show that a string of family holidays were rudely interrupted by scenes of outdoor hanky-panky. A New Jersey family walking with children in the park's dunes in September apparently encountered "several couples and then a large group of men having group sex in the nude, including oral and anal sex". In a letter dated 17 August, the captain of a whale-watching boat leaving Provincetown harbour complained of seeing 20 to 30 nude men "playing around" near Wood End Lighthouse, on Cape Cod's northerly tip. His boat was carrying dozens of children, many armed with binoculars.

Other first-hand reports described visitors stumbling upon outdoor sex acts involving large groups of men.

This week, in an attempt to crack down on the problem, the region's police announced a "zero tolerance" policy to future displays of public lewdness. "It's not acceptable, decent, moral behaviour," said the area's new police chief, Jeff Jaran. "There are places to go and do those types of things."

No fewer than 13 national park rangers will now be employed to patrol the dunes in search of miscreants, who are generally fined $150 (£76) for "disorderly conduct", plus $20 costs, if a case reaches court. The initiative has highlighted growing tensions between Cape Cod's traditional role as an upmarket destination for America's social and political elite and its new standing as a popular weekend retreat for gay and lesbian travellers.

Situated on the outskirts of Boston, the 20-mile peninsula boasts a solidly puritanical heritage and offers views across Cape Cod Bay to the port of Plymouth, where the Pilgrim Fathers set foot in the New World in 1620. Regular visitors have included several generations of the Kennedy dynasty and Gordon Brown.

However, in recent years, Provincetown, towards the cape's northern tip, has become a colourful gay and lesbian resort, handily placed for day-trippers from Boston or weekenders from New York. Having at first been slow to adjust to the change, local authorities have now announced plans to educate people about the dangers and potential consequences of public lewdness.

Officials held a public meeting last week to discuss the illegal activity with representatives of Cape Cod's business community. Awareness leaflets are to be distributed to hoteliers and bar owners to distribute among their clients. "It's a growing issue, both from the number of complaints and the number of areas doing this activity," Seashore superintendent George Price told the Cape Cod Times. "We certainly want to start a conversation with the people in Provincetown to see how we can tackle this together."

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