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Cottaging is slang for having sex in public toilets, and locations include bus stations, railway stations, motorway stations and airports. Cottaging are usually one-off, anonymous encounters.

For some gay men, cottaging is about the excitement and rush of hooking up with a stranger. Way before Grindr and Gaydar, searching for speedy sex with a stranger was a creative and skilled pursuit and remains so today. For other men, it’s a way to express themselves sexually if they are closeted or don’t define themselves as gay or homosexual. Some men remain in the closet, an issue complicated for those married, from ethnic minority communities, of some faiths and religions, and those from countries where being gay remains taboo. Cruising is not for everyone and carries stigma and shame for some.

The term "cottaging" originates from self-contained toilet blocks resembling small cottages in Victorian times. It was embraced by gay men speaking Polari in the 1960s, a secret language before homosexuality was partially decriminalised in 1967. It allowed them to speak openly and identify themselves as gay. Unless you were in the know, you would only partially understand what was being said and hear nothing incriminating.

During the latter of the 20th century, undercover police would stake out and entrap men using public toilets. Gay men can still remember the police response as disproportionate and vindictive. Despite the arrest and imprisonment of thousands of gay men, with some high-profile court cases, the cottaging didn’t stop as it was the only way for many men to meet other men. However, by the early 1980s, Gay London Police Monitoring Group (GALOP) was founded, and there have been slow but steady improvements between the LGBT+ community and the police. Even so, cottaging is still risky today, with fines and imprisonment if caught.

The law

Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, looking for and having sex in public toilets (gay or straight) is illegal in the UK, including sex behind closed/ locked doors and solo masturbation.

Get professional legal advice at the earliest opportunity. Know your rights when questioned and/ or arrested. Anything you say may be used as evidence against you, and others.

Good to know

  • Penalties
    Penalties include a prison sentence, a fine, or both.
  • Cautions
    If you accept a caution as an alternative to prosecution, this forms part of your criminal record and can be used as evidence of bad character if you’re prosecuted for another crime. Unless a conviction is a certainty, therefore, don’t accept a caution.
  • Sex Offenders Register
    Your name could be added to the Sex Offenders Register in some circumstances if you’re cautioned or convicted under the Act.
  • Banned from premises
    If you’re found cottaging in a shopping centre or airport by security staff, for example, they could ban you from the premises.
  • DRB Check
    This is a check of your criminal record carried out by the Disclosure and Barring Service. It used to be called a 'CRB check'. There are more detailed checks for certain roles; eg: healthcare, teaching and or childcare.
  • Other offences (voyeurism)
    A charge of voyeurism may tie into other offences including blackmail, revenge porn and possession of indecent images.
  • Jurisdiction
    The above applies to England and Wales although there are some similar provisions in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Sexual Offences Act 2003; 71. Sexual activity in a public lavatory | GOV UK
Section 5(3) Criminal Law Act 1977 | GOV UK
Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019 | GOV UK
DBS checks | MIND
Police warnings, cautions and fines | MENRUS.CO.UK

Cottaging | Wikipedia
Cruising | Wikipedia
Voyeurism | Wikipedia

1982. Gay London Police Monitoring Group (GALOP) | Gay in the 80s
GALOP Annual Report 1984 | PDF | GALOP

Homophobic man obsessed with extreme violence guilty of cemetery hammer murder | Metro | 23 Mar 2023
Back to nature: a potted history of queer cruising | The Face | 21 Jul 2022
Three found guilty of murdering Cardiff doctor in homophobic attack | The Guardian | 3 Feb 2022
Five men charged with public sex acts relating to M&S bathroom gay cruising spot | 22 Jul 2021
The Origins of Cruising | Medium | US | 19 Jun 2020
Three teens arrested after Brighton homophobic assault | The Argus | 30 Nov 2021
Why do so many gay men still go cruising and cottaging? | Attitude | 17 Aug 2017
Gay man's killing 'tip of the iceberg' | BBC News | 2005

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