I’ve spent the past couple of days asking several hundred Grindr users in Edinburgh whether they believe Scotland should be an independent country. Replies were of variable quality. Here is a representative sample:
There is a story, told to me by an academic, about a Northern miner caught importuning in a public toilet. It was the late 70s/80s, a time when homophobia was rife. The miner was arrested, taken to court and given a fine. As was common then, his case – and name - was reported in the local newspaper. He was not married, but not openly gay either. He was outed in perhaps the most publicly humiliating way possible. No one had been hurt by his actions, but his life was on the brink of ruin. The result could be predicted. Ostracism. Abuse. Maybe worse.
Yet the predictable is not what happened. When he returned to work, his work friends rallied round, even applauded him. Expecting to be stigmatised, as so many others had been, instead this man received support.
It is a small story, a sliver of human history, which is heartwarming, unusual and telling.
Cottaging, which is what he had done, has always divided opinion. In many ways less popular than it was, it has provided us with a barometer of social and moral attitudes to homosexuality. That barometer still exists, but now lies within the gay community.
To understand cottaging we have to understand that its origins were in different, perhaps now unimaginable, times. Public sex – straight and gay – has been a phenomenon since the 17th century. Sodomy and the other offence of attempted buggery carried the death penalty until 1861. Homosexuality was seen as a perversion, a moral threat to an ordered, heterosexual society. The concept of a homosexual – as opposed to homosexuality – was nascent at best, especially outside the upper or middle classes. New ‘public’ toilets, which arose in the mid to late 19th century, not only offered men the opportunity to meet other men for sex, but they also offered the chance of social transgression. For working class men the idea of private space was unknown. For middle or upper class men public sex and cruising was an opportunity to have sex with those outside their class. Designed to look like quintessential English country homes, public toilets became for some ‘cottages’; ‘cottaging’ a term for looking for sex in a public convenience.
Although a growing activity, it carried the risk of arrest, court and conviction. Prurient newspapers and ‘penny dreadfuls’ reported these arrests with salacious details. This had the perhaps unintended effect of advertising not only that these things happened, but where and how they happened. Soon certain toilets and areas became known for different types of men: Covent Garden for tradesmen, Danvers Place for theatrical types. Post World War II cottages around Brixton became known for black and Afro-Caribbean ‘trade’.
Arrest figures for importuning and soliciting in public toilets are uneven, with peaks and troughs across the decades, matching changing public concerns around moral issues and homosexuality. Perhaps the most prominent peak occurred in the early 1950s – with a Cold War panic at a supposed link between communism and homosexuality. The then Home Secretary, David Maxwell Fyfe, spoke of homosexuals as ‘a plague over England’.
Perhaps the biggest ‘scandal’ was the 1952 arrest of the actor John Gielgud in a cottage in West London. Then near the height of his fame Gielgud appeared before the magistrate at Bow Street, where, despite giving a false name and profession, he was identified by a court reporter and found himself exposed by the press. It almost ended his career, but public reaction was mixed; the theatre at which he was rehearsing was scrawled with graffiti calling him a call ‘dirty queer’, but he also received standing ovations from some audiences. Gielgud was merely a visible victim of an offence which caught tens of thousands of men; yet there is little doubt that his case led indirectly to the formation of the Wolfenden Committee, which recommended the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults in private.
Wolfenden was not a watershed in changed attitudes to homosexuality, nor did the ensuing 1967 decriminalisation receive universal welcome from the ‘gay’ community. Peter Wildeblood, a journalist and campaigner who had given evidence to the committee, wanted his lifestyle choice as a homosexual to be governed by the same rules as a heterosexual. But the playwright Joe Orton, himself someone who cottaged zealously, gives the 1967 legislation a dismissive and cursory mention in his journal. Wolfenden laid bare a divide.
In the decade after decriminalisation there was a doubling of arrests for indecency. Wolfenden had not solved the ‘problem’. Cottaging may once have been an act of necessity, a symptom of heterosexual persecution, but sex in public toilets became a choice for some – not just for the married, the marginalised, the repressed. Men who cottaged did not always fit the public stereotype. Many also frequented gay bars and clubs. A lot were open, semi-open or happy about their sexuality. Some had partners. Graffiti, glory-holes, cottaging ‘rituals’, such as the tapping of a foot to show interest, all added to the ‘excitement’ of cottaging. Unspoken, unwritten rules prevailed. These dark, smelly public sex venues were a meeting place of necessity and choice. Perhaps, as we have done with language, toilets were ‘reclaimed’.
Yes, there is an eroticism to risk, an appeal to easy, consequence-free sex, but cottaging also offered a sense of adventure into the unknown.
When I began researching a documentary into the subject I had only a small understanding of the totality of its importance to gay history. We see history as the interplay of great men and big events, but this is not that kind of history. It is a history of sometimes unimportant, nameless men, some of whom suffered ignominy and tragedy, and some who didn’t. It is a democratic – and queer – history.
I received dozens of emails from gay and bisexual men who in earlier years had cottaged; some now felt marginalised by a narrow gay scene or sanitised online cruising, such as offered by Gaydar or Grindr.
It is for me the small details which stick in the mind. One older gay man said to me that he didn’t used to care if he only had fifty pence in his pocket so long as he could cottage; another, a former merchant seaman, had cottaged all over the world but said (with pride) that our public toilets were the best for sex. Perhaps they were being nostalgic. Perhaps they had been inculcated as repressed perverts by heterosexual orthodoxy. Perhaps they were just human.
As my colleagues and I interviewed academics, activists and journalists, I became increasingly fascinated by the strange decline of cottaging - and yes, it is only with hindsight that you can say it was inevitable. The internet, now a mainstay of gay cruising culture, played a part, but so did the gay rights movement. It is not that cottaging is not necessary – for some it still is – it is, that it is unacceptable.
In the 1980s gay and bisexual men faced the trauma of the AIDS/HIV crisis, and then the introduction of Section 28 in 1988. Progress towards tolerance could not be taken for granted. The establishment of the day enforced a policy of state-sanctioned homophobia. Groups like Outrage, who stood up against police homophobia and their tactics of entrapment against gay men cruising in public toilets, were sidelined by more mainstream groups like Stonewall. The result has been the equalisation of the age of consent, civil partnerships and equal marriage. Slowly our queer consciousness turned against cottaging.
It is the Wildeblood/Orton divide which makes the issue of cottaging so contentious; the difference between those who regretted the passing and those who now only look on it with distaste. Wildeblood and Orton stood for two divergent views of sexuality and identity. Wildeblood wanted to live his life like anyone else; Orton was a cottager and cruiser. Murdered in 1967 he never came out. Once an iconic figure to gay men as someone unafraid and unashamed of his sexuality, now he is the more historical figure. It is Wildebood who really won.
In times before most people knew anyone who was openly gay cottaging was one of the most visible aspects of homosexuality to heterosexual society. Now our views of cottaging say more about our own opinions of ourselves.
I wonder what our miner would have made of it.
Graham Kirby is currently filming a documentary, The Strange Decline of the English Cottage. You can follow him on Twitter @grakirby.
Visit englishcottage.tumblr.com for more information.
This is one of the first email we received when we started the documentary. ‘C’ is 64 and still lives in East London.
I moved into Tower Hamlets over thirty years ago and in those days the only good thing I could say about the borough was that it was great for cottaging, in particular the downstairs cottage at the junction of Mile End Road and Burdett Road, which was the jewel in the crown. In the last thirty years I have witnessed what historians may one day call the Dissolution of the Cottages. I am in my sixties and I have a friend who is still up for it at the age of 73! We meet up socially and sometimes cruise around but we are like survivors in a nuclear winter. The familiar faces are all gone. Nearly all the toilets have gone too. For ages I have been trying to work out how it happened.
In the eighties cottaging took a double whammy, there was a terrific increase in arrests for cottaging plus AIDS. There was a concerted effort to crack down on cottaging and cruising by local authorities. Toilets were closed and instructions went out from councils in consultation with the local police to parks and open spaces to impede cruising by denuding the used areas, by cutting back trees, bushes and undergrowth so that there was no or little seclusion. In fact about 1996 I recollect seeing a document issued to the Chief Superintendant in Camden to this effect when we were battling Camden Council to keep Russell Square open.
Having gotten through the police crackdown and the impact of AIDS it still puzzles me why cottaging is in decline since there is another generation of young gay men but the few public toilets that are open seem no longer used by anyone for sex.
One reason could be that the ‘secret’ is out. Years ago only most people did not have a clue about cottaging, now it is common knowledge. After the police stopped bashing us you were more likely to be bashed by thugs not so much due to your sexuality but because you were an easy target who would not be likely to report a mugging and if you did, the police would not put much energy into following it up.
I would class people who cottage, including myself, as promiscuous and am sure that many would have died resulting from HIV infection. Many of the ‘old school' would have also got older and died from natural causes. Although I am computer literate I am not inclined to meet people via the internet because I value my privacy and the security of my home. I like – or liked - cottaging because it is the hunt, the unknown, the variety, the danger and complete lack of involvement apart from the sex itself. Of course there was also the social side of it meeting old friends for a chat, making new ones and getting up to date with the latest news, as in arrests, bashings, someone famous or tasty being spotted at a particular cottage, bragging about an encounter, etc.
Maybe it is just a sign of the times; let’s face it, churches, pubs and bingo halls are all in the firing line. Shades of E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops perhaps?
If I had one wish it would be to put cottaging at the heart of gay society… Back in the mid-eighties I was chatting to an old friend of mine, who was about fifty, and he made a remark that he didn’t care if he only had fifty pence in his pocket, as long as he had the health to go out and cottage to the day he died, he would be happy. The point is that it struck me that it didn’t matter how old or ugly you were the great thing about cottaging you could get sex even if you were in your seventies and it was usually free. I must confess I feel sorry for younger people who will never have this; I’m grateful I did. The world moves on but not always in the right direction. It is almost ironic that with all our new found freedoms gays have lost this one.
In my early 20’s I discovered cottaging…
I had always fantasised about it but never knew that cruising and cottaging actually happened until I heard a conversation between two men at a bar where they were clearly revolted by what they had witnessed at the common. After regularly cruising at the common after dark - I first went a few days after hearing the revelation at the bar - and, after having been gay bashed there once by 4 guys (more kids really), I needed something ‘safer’, somewhere different. I found a really good potential cottage in the city centre in between West Quay shopping centre and Burger King. I didn’t really have gay friends at that point so I didn’t know whether the toilets in town were used for sex but it did stand to reason that they might be a good location as they were so central so I went and checked them out. Sure enough, after a nervous start and a couple of aborted attempts, I stuck around long enough - I hadn’t yet learned the trick of staying at a urinal while not actually pissing - to realise it was rife.
The usual sideways glance, holding a gaze for longer than would be usual and then, after the longer than average gaze, the eyes head down to the all important dick area where more often than not a semi erect or fully erect cock was being wanked slowly. Different guys had different ‘methods.’ Some stood in the cubicles and looked over the doors, some lingered around the single tap (that always seemed too obvious to me), and some loitered outside waiting for something tasty to walk in. I favoured the ‘pretending to wait for a bus’ method. There was a bus stop directly opposite the toilet. I could sit there looking entirely inconspicuous and wait until something fit walked in. Often I would notice guys looking around them as they walked in and sometimes they would catch my gaze. Perhaps they could feel me looking intensely at the doorway.
On one occasion, a nice-looking lad around my age walked in and looked at me smiling as he stepped into the cottage. I had to go in. I was mindful how that looked whenever I did that, especially as the bus that I wasn’t waiting for would turn up and I didn’t get on it. But this guy was too nice to miss so I didn’t much care and went in. He wasn’t at the urinal so I looked around and noticed that he was looking over one of the cubicle doors, and from his motions he was clearly wanking. I waited till the old guy who was at the urinal one from me left and went into the cubicle. I don’t need to say what then occurred but afterwards he said, ‘You don’t recognise me do you?’ I had to admit that I didn’t and he proceeded to remind me that he had been at the same school as me and was a couple of years below me.
We swapped numbers and had a short but intense relationship.
I continued cottaging for a couple of years after this and, due to things like Grindr and being a bit risk averse as I’ve got older, eventually stopped going altogether. The toilets are closed now, have been for a few years, but I do fondly remember the days when I used to go to those toilets of a Sunday afternoon. I had a good number of horny experiences in them and loved the easiness, sleaziness and anonymity of it.
From the excellent LSE Hall Carpenter Archive.
In that chair sat ‘J,’ playing piano, well, pleasantly. I stood, amazed; his fingers producing grand chords, and we talked as my hands stroked his back. His face grinning at mine. This warmth I feel like a father’s but from someone much more equal, we are equals in this room, at this time, today.
He, at home, is a cycling boy, age 34, in his pianoless council flat, going from green field sex filled man site to green field sex filled man site to home again. A cruising man filling his empty hours with what? Fun, sex and men? I do not know. Love and willies do not always go together for him, but hats he wears. He smiles and frowns, and smiles and frowns, and when frowning becomes too much, then off on the bike to those green field sites with woodland hidey – holes where men look like spies, thieves, illicit drug dealers, trading bodies. Is it theirs or yours or mine they trade? Sneaking men of Hampstead, Balham and Holland Park, spies in the houses of love, caught in the act of trading black market goods at prices far higher than they originally imagined. The curse of imprisonment, degradation and shame, though terrible and humiliating, hardly ever comes, though still they dread it, those sneaking men of Balham, Hampstead and Holland Park.
I admire them, I pity them, I loathe and envy them. Hate and incomprehension and longing mix in my heart for them and my heart goes out to ‘J,’ a man amongst men amongst them, in Hampstead and Balham and Holland Park.
In 2008 Jeff Akers, a retired accountant, went into a public toilet in the small town of Walton in Surrey where he was stabbed to death in a homophobic attack. Akers was openly gay. He had a partner of some two decades. And although we’ll never know for sure what he was doing that day, the assumption has been that he was cottaging.
We live in an age of the ‘dating’ app and equal marriage. Homosexuality is no longer something to be hidden away. Attitudes have changed. Meanwhile cruising has moved to the online world. Go into any gay bar, log into your Grindr account and you’ll find plenty of guys cruising virtually just metres away. There has been a cultural shift against the cottage in mainstream gay society as representing something from the ‘bad old days’ but also an activity which goes against our somewhat bourgeois, adopted values.
It is undeniable that cottaging has declined but the importance of the cottage endures.
When my friend and filmmaker, Adam, approached me with the idea of making a film about cottaging, I immediately said ‘yes’. As a young man I used to cottage and had told him plenty of stories. We’d interview a few academics, maybe Peter Tatchell; we’d get someone to stand in a carrier bag in a toilet cubicle as they used to. It would be irreverent, cheeky and bold. Yet as I explored the subject I thought that there was something more to this than just the death of a relic from a less tolerant age.
Cottaging has been around since the erection of toilet blocks. In fact the term ‘cottaging’ comes from the nature of those 19th Century public toilets, which were small buildings tucked away in parks and lined with hedges and small gardens in a time when to admit the need to defecate was unseemly. Without a gay scene and when homosexual sex (even between consenting adults) was illegal, toilets were one of the few places where men could meet men for sex.
In 1952 the actor John Gielgud was arrested for cottaging. He was near the peak of his fame but fell victim to a sting operation which led to his arrest. He was recognised by a reporter when he appeared in front of the magistrate and, despite giving a false name, found himself exposed in The Evening Standard. Gielgud’s arrest was “the biggest gay scandal since Oscar Wilde” (imprisoned in 1895), but the condemnation was not universal. Although large portions of the population were shocked and revolted, there was a measure of sympathy for him as well. His arrest began the process which lead to 1957 The Wolfenden Report, and the eventual decriminalisation of homosexuality ten years later.
Gielgud was not the only cottager who has had an impact on our consciousness. Joe Meek, the music producer, committed suicide when blackmailed over his cottaging; the Labour MP Tom Driberg was so famous for his cottaging that the police used to collect him from public toilets for important votes in the House of Commons; perhaps most famously Joe Orton catalogued his cottaging and cruising in his iconic diaries. They are all part of something called ‘gay history’.
When researching the documentary I was struck by the number of gay and bisexual men who wrote to say that they used to cottage and missed cottaging. They secretly yearned for the days when they cruised public lavatories on the way home from work or after an evening out. Cottaging was not only an act of necessity. It became a venue of choice for some. I was also struck by how we recreate the cottage in porn and in sex clubs. The toilet is a place where men are exposed. Like the sports locker room or shower it is an undeniably masculine environment. The eroticism of risk plays a part, but so does the raw sexuality which cottaging represents: this is not sex for any purpose except to have sex.
For some people it is still a reality. Sexuality is difficult. The recent gay marriage debate may have exposed the feeble arguments of opponents and left religious organisations fumbling for relevance but it is not the complete picture: outside of the UK’s big metropolises homophobia still exists. It also exists inside them as well. ‘Gay’ is still slang for ‘lame’ or ‘crap’. In a world where heterosexuality is the presumed norm we not only have to deal with obstinate prejudices and expectations, but also our own of what our lives will be like. For people still in the closet cottaging is a way to have sex. Of course, they could perhaps more easily find sex using Gaydar or Grindr but people are not always rational beings, are they?
What I find surprising is that the reluctance to address the positive aspects of cottaging. Cottaging has become rather like that disreputable aunt who no longer gets an invitation for Christmas. People are prepared to talk about police entrapment and homophobia but not that this was just gay men doing what gay men should do: have sex. To adapt Aristotle, gay men are sexual animals. It is (pun alert) an inconvenient truth. The gay community bought into the slightly homophobic hysteria which said that cottaging was irresponsible. Straight people cruise – think dogging – but do not have to tolerate the argument that other people or kids might see. So let me just say that in all the years I cottaged, no member of the public ever saw me have sex. No kids. No animals. Not even my disreputable aunt. There is an implicit purchase of the heterosexual orthodoxy of the “good homosexual” and the “bad homosexual”: to be treated equally we have to behave.
I am not advocating a right to cottage, or saying that cottaging should exist as part of gay culture. I am saying that it did exist as part of gay culture and it does exist on the fringes today. What I am saying is that to ignore it isn’t healthy.
Cruising didn’t die with cottaging. At any one time there are tens of thousands of guys on Gaydar or Grindr, most of whom are probably looking for a quick fuck. Yet there is an important distinction: cottaging often relies on immediacy and spontaneity, online cruising is more deliberate. When you log into your Gaydar or Grindr account, you immediately begin to image manage: you tick boxes about the sort of person you are, what you like, what you dislike, you literally chose the image you present to the world. In effect, you bring all the baggage of your everyday life with you to make sex self-conscious. There is something slightly sanitised and restricting about it.
We do not know what Jeff Akers was doing when he was murdered. But perhaps he felt the lure of cottaging, like so many others past and present. In my case that lure was a quest for that one defining, near-perfect sexual experience. I don’t see anything wrong with that. In a way it is rather quixotic.
So this is not an argument in favour of sex in public toilets. This is an argument in favour of sexuality. That is why cottaging still matters.
A handsome man.
A handsome man
With a winsome smile.
A handsome man with a winsome smile.
A handsome man with a winsome smile
And a big cock.
A handsome man with a winsome smile and a big cock
who may be friendly.
A handsome man with a winsome smile and a big cock who may be friendly
But probably not your friend.
A handsome man with a winsome smile and a big cock who may be friendly but probably not your friend
And certainly not your lover.
A handsome man with a winsome smile and a big cock who may be friendly but probably not your friend and certainly not your lover
But who can be admired.
A handsome man with a winsome smile and a big cock who may be friendly but probably not your friend and certainly not your lover but who can be admired
Whose eyes may accidentally meet your eyes.
A handsome man with a winsome smile and a big cock who may be friendly but probably not your friend and certainly not your lover but who can be admired whose eyes may accidentally meet your eyes
For a maximum of a quarter of a second once every 10 minutes.
A handsome man with a winsome smile and a big cock who may be friendly but probably not your friend and certainly not your lover but who can be admired whose eyes may accidentally meet your eyes, for a maximum of a quarter of a second once every 10 minutes -
Makes the occasional late night train journey so worthwhile.
Remember when toilet rolls weren’t just used for wiping your arse? We do!
Over the next few weeks we’ll be posting a few ‘guest’ blogs from writers, who are either involved with the documentary, or whose works/interests are related: they’ll include some real life experiences, poetry, fiction and other fun stuff.
If you are interested in sharing a story, have an experience you’d like to tell or maybe some cottaging fiction, please do get in touch with Graham.