In the age of Grindr and Scruff, there may be people in the gay community who have not yet heard the terms cottaging or cruising, especially young members who haven’t encountered the necessity of meeting strangers for sex in public bathrooms or parks. As LGBT people, still fighting for our basic rights and safety around the world, it is important to know our history, especially when this history includes things that are still happening.
What is cottaging?
Cottaging is a term that refers to anonymous sex between men who meet in a public lavatory. The term has its roots in the UK, and more specifically in lavatories that look like small cottages, like the one in Pond Square, Camden, London. Other names for cottages are “tearooms” in the US and “beats” in Australia.
As for “cruising”, it’s a term referring to looking for sexual partners on the streets, in parks, or in other public places.
Both habits claim an important role in the history of gay life and relationships. Today we may think of them as fetishes, but several decades ago they were the only outlet closeted gay men had to meet other people like them. They have a long history, dating back to at least the 17th century when cottagers were hunted by groups fighting “profanity and immorality”. Several well-known places in the UK served as cruising spots during the 18th century, such as Covent Garden, St. James’s Park, and the ‘Sodomites’ Walk’ in Moorfields.
The 50s brought with them a witch-hunt for cottagers in the UK, with policemen going underground to arrest thousands of cottagers and cruisers every year that often ended up in prison. Cottaging and cruising were deemed as dirty and gross and were persecuted as such, but in reality they were the only way in which gay people could be themselves in a period during which their existence was criminalized. When homosexuality was so demonized in society, gay people needed a way to communicate, to survive, and to express themselves, especially back when gay bars were still not a thing.
George Michael was caught by the police in a toilet in Los Angeles in 1998, and wrote the song “Outside” to describe the absurdity of the situation. As this recent Buzzfeed article reports, it was the period when the issue of cottaging had become political.
In the same article, men who’ve been cottaging during their lives, report occasions where the police invaded in public bathrooms with mirrors they peaked with over the cubicles, invading people’s privacy. For many people cottaging served as a form of escapism from everyday reality and their heteronormative lives. For some, public toilets was a place of assault and trauma, and for others it was a place where they found a community and formed real relationships.
What is the situation today?
Men today are still being arrested for cottaging and run the risk of being registered as sex offenders, which may gravely affect their social and professional life. A lot of gay men keep meeting for sex in public toilets, even though we live in the era of online dating apps. The world of cottaging remains a complex world that brings together thrill, escapism, risk, sexual violence, relationships and intimacy between gay men, both those who are still in the closet and those who are out. There are specific codes of communication between people who go cottaging, signs, such as graffiti on the walls and behavior etiquette in the toilets.
Some of the participants in the Buzzfeed article report being uncertain and uninformed about some of the police’s tactics, including their photos and details being taken, or having cameras worn on their uniforms and recording the incident. It is often stated that people are arrested in order to protect the children that may accidentally witness them being involved in sexual acts, but all men admitted being terrified of a child being involved in any way. The experience of getting caught or arrested can be embarrassing, humiliating and violent, even traumatic, especially when some of the details are not fully disclosed or necessarily legal. For people who have learnt to fear homophobia and violence, and for people of older generations who lived when homosexuality was still criminalized by the law and for whom meeting in secret was the only way, cottaging and cruising have many different connotations. Some people remember women getting into cubicles with men, and not getting prosecuted.
It is rather interesting, as stated in the article, that places notorious for heterosexual people meeting for sex such as car parks are not mentioned in the law, whereas sex in public toilets – a landmark of gay culture – is illegal, according to Section 71 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. The disproportionate hunting of gay people having sex can also be a result of homophobia, as many of the persecutions happen after public complaints.
How can people stay safe while cottaging and cruising?
Galop’s guide for cottaging, cruising, and the law explains that cruising in general is not illegal, unless people can see you having sex. Cottaging is illegal in every way, no matter if people are having sex hidden in a closed cubicle. Police guidelines dictate that there should be no proactive searching for cottagers, and the police should interfere only if prompted by public complaints. The police is of course not allowed to display homophobic behavior or violence, and it is in the rights of a person to deny being searched if the police has simply found them on a cruising spot but not caught them committing a crime.
Some cruising spots are not very safe, so if you are into cruising it is better to do some research beforehand. There are sites with warnings for unsafe cruising spots. It is better to go cruising sober and with full control, in places you are acquainted with and know how to leave if necessary, without taking valuables with you. It is also vital to demand respect for your consent.
What about technology?
Contrary to popular belief, cruising and cottaging are not completely separated from modern technologies facilitating gay hookups and relationships. There exist apps and websites such as “Uni_cock” that have the function of facilitating sex in public and semi-public places. “Cybercottaging” and “digital cruising” are actually things that have been represented in the TV, in public discourse, and now also in academic discourse.
What’s the conclusion?
It’s hard to come to a single conclusion for an issue that’s so diverse in its reasons, motives, people, behaviors and history. What we can say though, is that cottaging reveals some historical continuity in the lives of gay people. Homophobia, stigma, isolation, shame, fear and hiding have rendered secrecy an intrinsic part of gay culture. There are people who have faced abuse and harassment during cottaging, even as children, but they usually had no other outlets to meet people and communicate in a homophobic society.
It is evident that if young people grew up in environments where they’d feel accepted, validated, and free to express their sexuality, they wouldn’t have to meet up in ways that would risk them being arrested or harassed. We need to cultivate societies of acceptance and oppose hiding and shame, in order to ensure safety for everyone.