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Cruising (we’re not talking ships) refers to searching for a sexual partner for an anonymous encounter, often a one-off. Cruising areas or sites include streets, parks, road lay-bys, (nudist) beaches or sand dunes and other public areas. Some sites have been around for decades, Hampstead Heath and Brompton Cemetery being two of the most (in) famous in London.  Imagine a nightclub dark room but free and outdoors, but daytime can work just as well.

Of course, men finding other men for sex has been going for centuries though the term ‘cruise’ is believed to come from the Dutch ‘kruisen’. The term was also used as code by closeted gay communities when homosexuality was illegal, and is the title of a 1980 American crime thriller film with Al Pacino. The film was poorly received and did nothing to enhance the meaning though the term has since been absorbed into the mainstream heterosexual vocabulary. Whatever its origins, the term cruising has stood the test of time.

For some gay men, cruising is about the excitement and rush of hooking up with a stranger alfresco. 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 closeted or if they don’t define themselves as gay or homosexual. 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.

During the latter of the 20th century, undercover police would stake out and entrap men using cruising areas and 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, cruising and cottaging have never waned. In the early 1980s, the Gay London Police Monitoring Group (GALOP) was founded, and there have been slow, if faltering, improvements in the relationship between the LGBT+ community and the police. Cruising is still risky today, with fines and imprisonment if caught having sex.

The law

Unlike cottaging, cruising is not illegal. Sex in public places is not illegal unless it's witnessed and/ or there's a reasonable chance of being witnessed by others, eg: passers-by, dog walkers. For example:

  • Behaviour that is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to others
  • Outraging public decency contrary to common law
  • If a person exposes themselves to someone, intending that someone will see them and cause alarm or distress

You may be charged with offences under the Public Order Act 1986 and/ or the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

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

Cruising safer

  • Tell a friend where you are going.
  • Cruising grounds can be disorientating, so know your exits.
  • If you know someone else there, make contact: you can look out for each other.
  • Listening to music using headphones makes you less aware of danger or attack.
  • Try not to carry valuables.
  • If you’ve met someone for the first time, you may be tempted to take them home or go home with them. Beware of the risks. Get their phone number and suggest meeting another night.
  • Sexy though they may appear to be – stay clear of groups of straight men, particularly if they’re loud or drunk.
  • Be wary of accepting lifts from strangers. If you are with friends but do not know the driver, you should be cautious about being the last person to be dropped off. Hitch-hiking can be dangerous. Try not to hitch alone, although this may make getting lifts more difficult.
  • Some guys have a 2nd phone (left at home) to which they send themselves messages with a quick description of the plan before running off with a complete stranger. Doing this before a potential shag also lets them know you are connected. Over the top (OTT), but it depends on how you value your personal safety (especially if you are not out).
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