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.
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I went into the cubicle to take a piss; lingered a bit before leaving. As I washed my hands, I had that impression you get of being watched so turned my head slightly to see a man standing in the cubicle doorway, looking at me. He had his cock out. As he looked, he rubbed it. My first reaction was the thought that I had never seen one so big; my second was of slight discomfort at the intensity of his gaze. My third was an erection.
It seemed like an eternity but eventually I followed him into the cubicle. He closed the door.
A gentleman never tells: suffice to say when I left I wasn’t a virgin. I then walked to school to pick up my GCSE results.
The spring in my step as I walked home wasn’t because of academic success.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t know these things happened: I’d loitered looking at the graffiti and explicit scrawlings. This was my first experience of cottaging – in the States they call it the “tearoom trade” – the act of procuring or having sex in a public toilet.
From then on, I looked for sex in toilets whenever I could. In the mid-90s it was easy and cock available pretty much whenever.
Not all sex happened in the cottage itself. Toilet walls were messaging boards of interests, times and phone numbers. Sometimes you’d find a secluded spot elsewhere with a guy you’d met in a cottage. But for me nothing beat sex in the cottage itself. Risky – the local bus drivers patrolled the toilets – but I wasn’t exactly thinking with my head. Who wouldn’t take a few risks for an easy fuck? That was its appeal: the lack of emotional involvement, of ulterior motivation: its honesty. Sex for sex’s sake. Nothing else.
I soon became adept at spotting cottaging “rituals” – the sideways glance from the guy at the urinal as you walked in, how he felt his cock as you stood next to him, that he wasn’t even pissing. The tapping of a foot under the cubicle door was a known sign. I could devote a whole article to glory holes. Some people say they used to take a shopping bag for a second pair of feet to stand in to avoid detection by police looking under cubicle doors. I never saw that but I did pass messages written on toilet roll between cubicles. But mostly it was that look held for just a few seconds too long. Then you knew.
It gained me my best friend at university. His first words to me were, “I have a place.” That afternoon I rimmed him for hours in his room, only stopping when his girlfriend knocked on the door.
We became lovers, then cottaging friends. Sometimes we would go away for the weekend, pay for a night in a gay sauna and cottage by day. Every town had a cottage. You could spot it by the graffiti or just instinct. Bethnal Green, Hyde Park, Carnaby Street: I’ve sucked, rimmed, fucked, been fucked, or more in all of them. We judged success by whether we got our trade figures into double figures. (Wanking off someone at the cubicle didn’t count.) “Trade” was sex. As I said, nothing emotional. Just cock.
Gay men don’t have a tradition of handing down their history. No father shows his son the spot where actor John Gielgud was arrested, or says, “One day, my lad, you’ll grow up to be just like Joe Orton.” My mum’s take on George Michael’s arrest wasn’t exactly inspiring.
All three are cottagers, of course.
Gielgud was arrested in 1952, entrapped by a “pretty policeman”. It landed him in court and the Evening Standard. The surprising sympathy for him indirectly led to The Wolfenden Report, which recommended homosexuality’s decriminalisation. Orton was a playwright, murdered by his lover in 1967. His diaries chronicle his rampant libido and cottaging. They are probably the most honest account of gay sex at the time. For some, Orton’s death was a crude morality tale. For a lot of gay men he was inspirational.
George Michael needs no introduction.
It is difficult now to appreciate how different things were. Toilets were often the only place where men could meet other men. Older gay men have told me about orgies in the cottages near their local gay pubs. How they always carried a tub of Vaseline on them. How a dozen men could be arrested at any one time by overtly homophobic police.
Times have changed. But the gay rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, has estimated that between the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 and the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 gay or bisexual men were convicted for cottaging offences. That was probably why I started to make a documentary about cottaging. Someone needed to make a record.
I have a theory that most gay men have a defining cottaging story. That experience which explains why. Mine happened when I was studying for my first-year exams. On my way home from the library – a wreck, kept awake only by caffeine and nerves – I stopped off in a cottage to take a piss. Habit took me to the cubicle. As I left, the most stunning man – ripped, tattooed, chiselled jaw – passed me, grabbed my hand and dragged me back into the cubicle. Within seconds he had thrown my glasses off and my shirt as he stuck his tongue down my throat. He pushed me to the floor and shoved his cock down my throat to face-fuck me. The intensity was extreme. He fucked me there until he shot his load. He said nothing until, “You’re awesome.” He left and I never saw him again.
The toilet where I met James had been demolished and turned into a shopping centre; councils had installed “anti-cottaging measures” and CCTV, and some – the best ones – simply closed. As one old gay said to me, he felt like a survivor in a nuclear winter. Okay, it still happens: not all towns have a scene, some men are still too afraid to come out but cottaging is no longer acceptable. And it was. Sort of. Cottaging was as unobjectionable as having a Gaydar or Grindr account is now: not everyone has an account, you might not admit your profile name, but there’s nothing wrong with having one.
The internet has had some influence but isn’t the full story. At some point the gay community lost its confidence and romanticism. These days so many of my friends have two Gaydar accounts: one for looking for a relationship, the other for when they’re horny. Tuesday night they sit in with a bottle of poppers and wank off with some twink. On Wednesday, they go around to their boyfriend’s to cook linguine and pesto. Our aims have changed.
Maybe hypocrisy is an inevitable sign of maturity. The gay community grew up and became respectable. Or appeared to. What changed? The 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis gave rise to massive homophobia, a moral crisis and Clause 28, the law that banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools. The gay community was on the back foot. In response, the new gay movement placed an emphasis on easy issues of identity, such as equalising the age of consent, and we became willing subscribers. Radicalism, perhaps naive, eventually withered. Whereas once we gave a two-finger salute to straight society, now we wanted to be just like them. Being accepted meant compromising and becoming compromised. The victim was the cottage.
And fuck, man, do I miss it.