Cottaging: Wikis


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The appearance of public lavatories, like this one in Pond Square, London, is the origin of the term cottaging.

Cottaging is a British gay slang term referring to anonymous sex between men in a public lavatory (a cottage,[1] tea-room[2] or beat[3]), or cruising for sexual partners with the intention of having sex elsewhere.[4][5] The term has its roots in self-contained English toilet blocks resembling small cottages in their appearance; in the English cant language of Polari this became a double entendre by gay men referring to sexual encounters.[6]

Cottage is documented as having been in use during the Victorian era to refer to a public toilet and by the 1960s had become an exclusively homosexual slang term.[7][8] The word used in this sense is predominantly British (a cottage more commonly being a small, cosy, countryside home), though the term is occasionally used with the same meaning in other parts of the world.[9] Among gay men in America, lavatories used for this purpose are called tea rooms [10][11]

Although the term is often associated with gay men, it can apply to anybody. The term cottaging is rarely used outside gay communities and as attitudes towards LGBT people become more tolerant, fewer individuals find themselves limited to covert and illicit ways of meeting others.[12]


Locations of cottages

Cottages were and are located in places heavily used by many people such as bus stations, railway stations, airports and University campuses.[13] Often glory holes are drilled in the walls between bathroom stalls in popular cottages.[14] Foot signals are used to signify that one wishes to connect with the person in the next stall. In some heavily used cottages, an etiquette develops and one person may function as a lookout to warn if non-cottagers are coming.[11]

Since about 1980 more of those in authority have become more aware of the existence of cottages in places under their jurisdiction and have reduced the height of or even removed doors from the stalls of popular cottages, or extended the walls between the stalls to the floor to prevent foot signalling.[15][16]

Cottages as meeting places

Before the gay liberation movement, cottages were amongst the few places that men too young to get into gay bars could meet others that they knew for sure to be gay.[12]

Many, if not most gay and bisexual men at the time were closeted and there were almost no public gay social groups for those under legal drinking age.[17]

The Internet is transforming cottaging from an activity engaged in by men with other men, often in silence and who do not communicate beyond the markings of a cubicle wall.[18] Today an on-line community is being established in which men exchange details of locations, discussing aspects such as when it receives the highest traffic, when it is safest and to facilitate sexual encounters by arranging meeting times.[14][19] The term cybercottage is used by some gay and bisexual men who use the role-play and nostalgia of cottaging in a virtual space or as a notice board to arrange real life anonymous sexual encounters.[3]

Legal status

Sexual acts in public lavatories are outlawed by many jurisdictions. It is likely that the element of risk involved in cottaging makes it an attractive activity to some.[20][21]

Historically in the United Kingdom, public gay sex often resulted in a charge and conviction of gross indecency, an offence only pertaining to acts committed by males and particularly applied to homosexual activity.[22][23] Resulting in stiffer penalties than equivalent offences committed by women or heterosexuals, the law was felt to be unfair and much lobbying took place, especially by gay groups, to get these acts of indecency removed from the statute books. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 eventually removed this contentious offence in favour of "indecent exposure" and specifically "engaging in sexual activity in a public lavatory", an offence which for the first time specifically encapsulated and outlawed cottaging.[24]

In US law, there is no such equivalent and individuals tend to be convicted under "lewd behavior" laws.

In many of the cases where people are brought to court for cottaging, the issue of entrapment arises, since law-enforcement officers generally are not supposed to encourage people to engage in criminal activity.[21] Another reason for the decline in cottaging is the closure of public toilets or their replacement by units designed to accommodate only one person at a time.

Timeline of historic cases

Date Event
1943 Newspaper editor Clarence McNulty[25] was arrested for wilfully and obscenely exposing his person in the Lang Park toilets in Sydney. He denied the charges and this early case highlighted the practice of the police using pretty policemen[26] (i.e. as "bait") to entrap the public. As only one police officer was present in the toilet, the magistrate determined that the police were unable to correctly corroborate the evidence and gave McNulty the benefit of the doubt.[27]
1946 Sir George Robert Mowbray, 5th Baronet Mowbray, was fined for importuning men at Piccadilly Circus Underground station.[28]
1940s Tom Driberg charged with indecent assault after two men shared his bed in the 1940s and used his position as a journalist several times to get off later charges when caught soliciting in public toilets by the police.[29][30]
1953 Actor John Gielgud was arrested and fined £10 for cottaging ("persistently importuning").[31][32][33]
1953 MP William J. Field was arrested for persistently importuning in a public toilet. Field appealed against the conviction twice but failed on both occasions.[34][35][36][37]
1956 Sir David Milne-Watson was fined for importuning at South Kensington railway station.[38]
1962 November 6 Wilfrid Brambell was arrested in a toilet in Shepherd's Bush for persistently importuning.[39]
1964 October President Lyndon B. Johnson's aide Walter Jenkins was arrested in a YMCA in Washington, D.C., and subsequently dismissed.[40][41]
1968 Michael Turnbull was arrested in Hull for cottaging in a public toilet, before he became Bishop of Durham.[42]
1975 September Actor Peter Wyngarde was arrested (under his real name, Cyril Louis Goldbert) in Gloucester bus station public toilets for gross indecency with Richard Jack Whalley. He was fined £75.[43]
1984 Actor Leonard Sachs was fined for importuning in a public toilet.[44]
1988 Australian radio personality Alan Jones was arrested in a public lavatory block in London's West End and charged with two counts of outraging public decency by behaving in an indecent manner under the Westminster by-laws. He was later cleared of all charges and awarded costs.[45]
1998 Pop star George Michael was arrested and found guilty of cottaging in the United States of America.[46] Michael later presented a fictionalized parody of the events in his music videos for "Outside" and was sued by one of the officers in the original arrest for portraying him as non-heterosexual and mocking him. The suit was ultimately dismissed.[47][48][49]
1998 October Labour Party MP Ron Davies was mugged at knife point on Clapham Common. He resigned after it became clear he was cruising at a notorious cottaging area.[50][29][51][52]
2007 Idaho Senator Larry Craig was arrested in the men's public toilet in the Lindbergh Terminal of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for allegedly soliciting sex. Craig later pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and announced his intent to resign from office,[53] which he later rescinded. He has since contested his guilty plea and has repeatedly tried to bring the matter to trial.[54][55]

Cultural response

After the murder of playwright Joe Orton by his boyfriend in 1967, his diaries were published and included explicit accounts of cottaging in London toilets. The diaries were the basis of the 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears and the play of the same name.[56]

The film Get Real was based on the 1992 play What's Wrong With Angry?, which features schoolboys cottaging as a key theme.[57]

The modern gay dance company, DV8, staged a piece called MSM which explicitly portrayed the theme of cottaging in 1993.[58]

The Chinese film East Palace, West Palace released in 1996, is centered on cottaging activity in Beijing.[59]

The play Plague Over England was based on the arrest and conviction of John Gielgud for cottaging and premièred in 2008.[60]


  1. ^ (Dalzell & Victor 2007, p. 165) "cottage noun a public lavatory used for homosexual encounters (UK)."
  2. ^ (Dalzell & Victor 2007, p. 642) "tearoom; t-room noun a public toilet. From an era when a great deal of homosexual contact was in public toilets; probably an abbreviation of 'toilet room'.
  3. ^ a b Mowlabocus, Sharif (2008), "Revisiting old haunts through new technologies", International Journal of Cultural Studies (Sage Publications) 11.4: 419-439, doi:10.1177/1367877908096004, ISSN 13678779, OCLC 438850398 
  4. ^ Sex Tips for Gay Guys by Dan Anderson; Published by Macmillan, 2002; ISBN 0312288735, 9780312288730
  5. ^ Henry Porter (21 June 1999). "Spies like us: His new thriller uses the latest DNA research and mobile phones as deadly weapons. So why look for inspiration in a Brompton cemetery? Henry Porter recalls a mix of luck, judgement and detective work". The Guardian. "I watched from the corner of my eye and began to notice something else: the men seemed to be pairing off and dipping from view. Finally the penny dropped - I had hit cottaging hour among the moss-covered memorials to Kensington's long-dead bourgeoisie." 
  6. ^ Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang by Paul Baker; Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004; ISBN 0826473431, 9780826473431.
  7. ^ James Redding Ware (1909), Passing English of the Victorian era, ISBN 0854099328 
  8. ^ Michael George Schofield, Gordon Westwood (1960), A minority: a report on the life of the male homosexual in Great Britain, p. 74, "Most homosexuals regard 'cottaging' as very sordid and look down upon those who resort to this method of finding partners." 
  9. ^ Maupin, A. (1984). Babycakes. p. 105. ISBN 0060924837. "'I was busted for cottaging... You know..doin' it in a cottage... A cottage', Wilfred repeated. 'A public loo.'" 
  10. ^ Rodgers, Bruce Gay Talk (The Queen’s Vernacular): A Dictionary of Gay Slang New York:1972 Paragon Books, an imprint of G.P. Putnam’s Sons Page 195.
  11. ^ a b In 1970, an American graduate student at Washington University, Laud Humphreys published a famous and controversial PhD dissertation, Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places, on the tearoom phenomenon, attempting to categorize the diverse social backgrounds and personal motives. See (Humphreys 1975).
  12. ^ a b Prejudice and Pride: Discrimination Against Gay People in Modern Britain by Bruce Galloway; Published by Routledge, 1983; ISBN 0710099169, 9780710099167.
  13. ^ Johnny Caldwell (08 Apr 2008). "'Cottaging' closes campus toilets". BBC News. "A university toilet block has been closed for more than two years over fears it was being used for sex." 
  14. ^ a b Chris Ashford (2007), Commons Publications: Memorandum by Chris Ashford, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Sunderland,, "This submission will focus on addressing the subject of "anti-social behaviour" in public toilets, specifically the subject of sex in public toilets, a practice referred to as "cottaging" ... Evidence of sexual activity in these spaces has traditionally taken the form of sexualised graffiti and/or the drilling of holes in lavatory holes. These holes are termed "glory holes" and dependant upon their size may be to pass a penis through in order for the men to engage in anonymous oral sex and on rare occasions intercourse. They more often serve as a peep hole through to the other toilet or out towards the urinals. On those occasions the person entering the cubicle would check that the adjacent cubicle is empty before unblocking the cubicle hole. These holes are often blocked up by tissue paper which will be removed so that one cubicle occupant can view through to the other. The addition of metal plating on cubicle walls is often an effective mechanism of preventing this. Alternatively the cubicle can be designed with a solid brick wall so as to make the cutting or drilling of a hole impossible." 
  15. ^ Tom Geoghegan (27 Sep 2005). "A public inconvenience". BBC News. "To many, the UK's public toilets are a source of national shame. But an international conference under way in Belfast could be the first step towards their rehabilitation." 
  16. ^ "Council vows to fight public sex". BBC News. 16 Aug 2006. "A council takes action to stop people using public toilets at a park in Derby for sex." 
  17. ^ David Northmore (11 April 1998). "Finding private passion in a public place; Why is it that some gay men go in search of sexual encounters in lavatories?". The Independent. "But Robert Cole, 40, despises the time he has spent hanging around public lavatories. "I started cottaging at 12 because I was too young to go to pubs, but wanted to find a boyfriend. But it then becomes compulsive and a mechanism for avoiding sorting your life out" ... This month sees the publication of a survey of men who cottage in north London by the Aids Education Unit of Barnet Healthcare NHS Trust. More than 200 men were asked to complete an anonymous questionnaire, and the results are eye-opening. Twenty per cent of those questioned started cottaging between the ages of 10 and 14, and 32 per cent started between the ages of 15 and 19. And the survey's finding that just over 75 per cent of those questioned also regularly visit gay social venues and groups somewhat destroys the myth that cottagers are sad, closeted individuals who are unable to come to terms with their sexuality." 
  18. ^ David Smith (26 October 2008). "The web of desire or just deceit?: The internet has made it easier than ever to find a partner for casual sex, but having it all on a plate could mean that we end up losing our appetites.". The Observer. "Cottaging in toilets or bushes, in places such as Hampstead Heath, has reportedly declined or even vanished because sex is so readily available via broadband. The author and Gaydar user Mark Simpson once observed: 'If Joe Orton had his time again his diaries would have been just printouts of thousands of Gaydar profiles and alarming digicam photos.'" 
  19. ^ Ashford, Chris (2006), "The only gay in the village: Sexuality and the net", Information & Communications Technology Law (Taylor & Francis) 15.3: 275-289, ISSN 13600834, OCLC 441920510, "Just as the creation of the information society has allowed for the expansion in e-commerce and online communication, so too has it allowed for the expansion of online sites and communities that support minority sexual practices and activities. One such activity is the cottaging phenomenon, which involves men seeking sexual satisfaction in public lavatories with other men. Like many other groups, participants in this online community have embraced the emerging technology, utilising message boards and online discussion to offer advice, spread awareness of locations, arrange sexual meetings in the physical world and share cautions and warnings." 
  20. ^ Public Sex/gay Space by William Leap; Published by Columbia University Press, 1999; ISBN 0231106912, 9780231106917.
  21. ^ a b Kirchick, James (01 November 2009). "Cruise Control". The Advocate. Retrieved 22 October 2009. 
  22. ^ Walter Bluhm (23 June 1965). "Police Observation". The Times. p. 13. "The officers described the toilet in question as a notorious meeting ground and referred to 26 convictions as a result of their observations." 
  23. ^ Helen Chappell (17 October 1984). "Far from gay / Prejudice against homosexuals". "There's all the extra police interest - raids on gay bookshops, the changes in the Police Bill, the belief of the 'pretty police' in their holy quest to stamp out cottaging." 
  24. ^ "Police leniency call on park sex". BBC News. 17 Oct 2008. "People caught having sex in public should only be arrested as a last resort, according to draft police guidelines." 
  25. ^ "McNulty, Clarence Sydney (1903 - 1964) Biographical Entry". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved 10 March 2009. 
  26. ^ Higgins, Patrick (1996), Heterosexual dictatorship: male homosexuality in postwar Britain, Fourth Estate, p. 45, ISBN 9781857023558, 
  27. ^ (French 1993, pp. 95–97)
  28. ^ "Baronet Fined". The Times: p. 2. Aug 28, 1946. "Sir George Robert Mowbray, 47,... president of Reading University Council, was at Bow Street yesterday fined £20 and ordered to pay £5 5s. costs for importuning men for an immoral purpose at Piccadilly Circus Underground station." 
  29. ^ a b Parris, Matthew; Maguire, Kevin (2004), Great parliamentary scandals: five centuries of calumny, smear and innuendo (revised ed.), Robson, p. 126, ISBN 9781861057365, 
  30. ^ Humphry Berkeley (May 16, 1978). "The private rights of a public man". The Times: p. 14. "The extreme homosexual promiscuity of the late Tom Driberg, as revealed in his posthumous autobiography, must have surprised all but his closest friends." 
  31. ^ Rhoda Koenig (28 February 2008). "When England hounded a hero; John Gielgud's arrest for cottaging in 1953 sparked public outrage and, for the actor, private agony. A new play tells the story of the scandal.". Independent Extra. 
  32. ^ "Fine For "Persistently Importuning"". The Times. 22 October 1953. p. 5. 
  33. ^ Munn, Michael (2007), Lord Larry: the secret life of Laurence Olivier : a personal and intimate portrait, Anova Books, p. 165, ISBN 9781861059772, 
  34. ^ Robinson, Shirleene (2008), Homophobia: An Australian History, Federation Press, p. 118, ISBN 9781862877030, 
  35. ^ Parris, Matthew; Prosser, David; Pierce, Andrew (1995), Great parliamentary scandals: four centuries of calumny, smear and innuendo, Robson Books, p. 107, ISBN 9780860519577, 
  36. ^ "Charge Against A Bio-Chemist". The Times: p. 3. Jan 08, 1953. "William James Field... [charged] yesterday with persistently importuning men for an immoral purpose in Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square on Tuesday night. He at first pleaded Guilty, and was thereupon remanded in custody for a week." 
  37. ^ "Queen's Bench Division; Conviction Of Importuning: Appeal Fails, Field v. Chapman". The Times: p. 11. Oct 09, 1953. 
  38. ^ "Baronet Fined". The Times: p. 4. Jan 12, 1956. "Sir David Ronald Milne-Watson,... was fined £15 on a charge of persistently importuning for an immoral purpose at South Kensington railway station." 
  39. ^ "News in Brief: Conditional discharge for television actor". The Times. December 13, 1962. pp. 17. "Wilfred Brambell ... was conditionally discharged for a year and ordered to pay 25 guineas costs at West London Magistrates' Court yesterday for persistently importuning for an immoral purpose at Shepherds Bush Green on November 6" 
  40. ^ "The Jenkins Report". Time, 1964-10-30.,9171,876303,00.html. Retrieved 9 March 2009. 
  41. ^ Johansson, Warren; Percy, William A. (1994), Outing: shattering the conspiracy of silence, Routledge, p. 105, ISBN 9781560244196, 
  42. ^ Lucas, Ian (1998), OutRage!: an oral history, Cassell, p. 188, ISBN 9780304333585, 
  43. ^ Richards, Stephen (2003), Crime through time, Mirage Publishing, p. 294, ISBN 9781902578170, 
  44. ^ "Sachs fined". The Times: p. 3. Jan 17, 1984. "Leonard Sachs, aged 74, compere of the BBC's Good Old Days television show, was fined £75... for importuning men for an immoral purpose in Notting Hill Gate Station public lavatories." 
  45. ^ Rosie Mckay (7 December 1988). "Former coach Jones denies charge of indecency". The Advertiser. 
  46. ^ Hall, Allan (15 May 1998). "George sentenced to sex therapy". Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland). 
  47. ^ A. Wallace Tashima (3 December 2002) (.PDF). Marcelo Rodriguez v Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou. United States Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit.$file/0056923.pdf?openelement. Retrieved 15 February 2008. 
  48. ^ "George Bust 'Bad Karma' Says U.S. Cop", Sunday Star, 5 March 2006
  49. ^ Cole, Mike (2000), Mike Cole, ed., Education, equality and human rights: issues of gender, 'race', sexuality, special needs and social class, Routledge, p. 83, ISBN 9780750708760, 
  50. ^ "Courting danger on the Common". Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland). 28 October 1998. 
  51. ^ Staff and agencies (15 July 2002). "Fallen former Welsh secretary to re-marry". The Guardian. "The former minister alleged he was robbed by a man he had befriended late at night on Clapham Common - a well known cottaging location for gay men. Mr Davies said the next day he had accepted the stranger's offer of a curry, but was robbed as he gave the man a lift to his flat." 
  52. ^ "Monitor: The resignation of Ron Davies - A walk on the wild side". The Independent. 31 October 1998. "IT IS impossible - as indeed it would be unwise - to separate totally a politician's private conduct from his public life. Whether homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual, what can damn those entrusted with high office is when they indulge in reckless, corrupting and promiscuous behaviour. People recognise this when they see it and they have every right to be told about it. In that respect, a homosexual minister who goes cottaging is as deserving of censure as a heterosexual magistrate who goes kerb-crawling." 
  53. ^ Craig's Lust. Slate, August 28, 2007
  54. ^ Quatro, Scott A.; Sims, Ronald R. (2008), Executive Ethics: Ethical Dilemmas and Challenges for the C-Suite, IAP, p. 100, ISBN 9781593117832, 
  55. ^ Harris, Paul (2 September 2007). "Sorry I quit, says anti-gay senator arrested in airport toilet". The Observer. 
  56. ^ Gilbey, Ryan (29 March 2007). "Prick Up Your Ears again: Revisiting Stephen Frears' Joe Orton biopic brought back memories of 1987, when it was a good time for gay cinema, but a bad time to be gay". The Guardian. "The impressively matter-of-fact scenes of Orton cottaging - picking up sexual partners in public lavatories - won't ruffle any feathers now that George Michael's extracurricular exploits have made that practice a topic fit for discussion in the People's Friend. If the story was set in today's Britain, Orton could simply have done his cruising on Gaydar, though you'd have to agree the film would be the poorer for it." 
  57. ^ Grew, Tony (July 17, 2008). "INTERVIEW: What's wrong with angry? Gay play revived for Edinburgh". Pink News. Retrieved 21 October 2009. 
  58. ^ Arditti, Michael (06 November 1993). "DANCE At the theatre of blood and bruises: DV8 tread a fine line between athleticism and masochism. Their new work MSM goes one step further.". The Independent. "Unlike his previous work, which was created from company improvisations, MSM is based on detailed research. The piece sprang from a project at the National Theatre Studio in which Newson and six hand-picked actors conducted formal interviews with men who 'cottaged'. They were given two days' technical training by a consultant and worked to a very specific brief, with guideline questions including personal background, age, job, how they defined themselves sexually and first 'cottaging' experience." 
  59. ^ Spencer, Charles (20 February 2009). "An erotic relationship of convenience". The Telegraph. 
  60. ^ Nightingale, Benedict (March 1, 2008). "Plague Over England at Finborough Theatre, London SW10". The Times. "The protagonist is Jasper Britton’s recently knighted John Gielgud and the central event his conviction for some Chelsea cottaging that amounted to barely more than a smile. But this was 1953, a time when the Montagu scandal would soon be inflaming the pharisees and Pecksniffs. The actor contemplated suicide and faced ruin, only to find that his public was more supportive than even the gay impresario Binkie Beaumont, who had to be gently blackmailed into retaining Gielgud as the star of a pre-London tour. Days after being fined and pilloried in the press, he walked on to the stage in Liverpool to a standing ovation." 


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