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Cottaging is a British gay slang term referring to anonymous sex between men in a public lavatory (a "cottage", "tea-room" or "beat"), or cruising for sexual partners with the intention of having sex elsewhere. 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.

"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. 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. Among gay men in America, tlavatories used for this purpose are called tea rooms

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.


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.

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

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.

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.

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. 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

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.

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. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 permitted homosexual sex between consenting adults over 21 years of age when conducted in private. The act specifically excluded public lavatories from being "private". The Sexual Offences Act 2003 eventually removed this contentious offence in favour of "indecent exposure".

In many of the cases where people are brought to court for cottaging, the issue of entrapment arises. Since the offences are public but often carried out behind closed doors, the police have found it easier to use undercover police officers who would frequent toilets posing as homosexuals in an effort to entice other men to approach them for sex. These men would then be arrested for Indecent Assault. Such practices were severely curtailed after a judge decided the police officer in the case had consented to the assault since he had desired and required the defendant to touch him with sexual intent in order to have evidence of a crime.

Timeline of historic cases

Simple Timeline
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 (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
1946 Sir George Robert Mowbray, 5th Baronet Mowbray, was fined for importuning men at Piccadilly Circus Underground station.
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.
1953 Actor John Gielgud was arrested and fined £10 for cottaging ("persistently importuning").
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
1956 Sir David Milne-Watson was fined for importuning at South Kensington railway station
1962 On 6 November 1962, actor Wilfrid Brambell was arrested in a toilet in Shepherd's Bush for persistently importuning
1964 In October, President Lyndon B. Johnson's aide Walter Jenkins was arrested in a YMCA in Washington, D.C., and subsequently dismissed
1968 Michael Turnbull was arrested in Hull for cottaging in a public toilet, before he became Bishop of Durham.
1975 In September 1975, 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 (a truck driver). He was fined £75
1983 In the early 1980s, Coronation Street actor Peter Dudley (who played Bert Tilsley) was arrested for importuning in a public toilet. He pleaded guilty to the charge in court but was let off with a fine. Granada Television stood by him throughout his ordeal and allowed him to continue working on the series. However, Dudley was later arrested again for a similar offence. This time he protested his innocence and a court trial was held, though the jury failed to agree a verdict which prompted a mistrial. Shortly afterwards, Dudley suffered a stroke losing the use of his left arm. He was written out of Coronation Street in 1983 (at his own request) to concentrate on preparing his defence for his retrial, but died in October 1983 from a heart attack before it could take place.
1984 Actor Leonard Sachs was fined for importuning in a public toilet
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.
1990 British pop star Stedman Pearson (of the group Five Star) appeared at Kingston Magistrates Court in October 1990 and pleaded guilty to a charge of public indecency after being arrested in a public toilet in New Malden in London
1998 In April 1998, pop star George Michael was arrested for "engaging in a lewd act" in a public toilet in Los Angeles after a sting operation by local police. Although he considered the arrest to be police entrapment, he pleaded "no contest" to the charge in court and was fined $810 and ordered to do 80 hours of community service. Later that year, Michael parodied the events in his music videos for the song "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.
1998 In October 1998, UK Labour Party MP Ron Davies was mugged at knife point on Clapham Common. He resigned after it became clear he was cruising at a known cottaging area
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,[60] which he later rescinded. He has since contested his guilty plea and has repeatedly tried to bring the matter to trial

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.
  • The film Get Real was based on the 1992 play What's Wrong With Angry?, which features schoolboys cottaging as a key theme.
  • The modern gay dance company, DV8, staged a piece called MSM which explicitly portrayed the theme of cottaging in 1993.
  • The Chinese film East Palace, West Palace released in 1996, is centered on cottaging activity in Beijing.
  • The play Plague Over England was based on the arrest and conviction of John Gielgud for cottaging and premièred in 2008


See also

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) slang
Bareback · Banjee · Batty boy · Bear · Beard · Beat · Breeder · Bugchasing · Bulldagger · Butch and femme · Boi · Bottom
Castro clone · Chicken · Chickenhawk · Chub · Cottaging · Cruising · Daddy · Down-low · Drag · Dyke · Dyke tyke · En femme
Fag (Faggot) · Fag hag · Fag stag · Faux queen · Flagging (hanky code) · Friend of Dorothy · Fruit · Gay-for-pay · Gaydar
Gaymer · Glory hole · Lesbian until graduation · Lipstick lesbian · Party and play · Queen · Shemale · Soft butch · Swish
Tea-room · Top · Trade · Transfan · Troll · Twink · U-Haul lesbian · Versatile
Polari · Lavender linguistics · LGBT Terms · Terminology of homosexuality · Roles and Functions

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