Cottaging is a gay slang term, originating from the United Kingdom, referring to anonymous sex between men in a public lavatory (a "cottage", "tea-room"), 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. See also gay beat in Australian English.
The word "cottage", usually meaning a small, cosy, countryside home, is documented as having been in use during the Victorian era to refer to a public toilet and by the 1960s its use in this sense had become an exclusively homosexual slang term. This usage is predominantly British, though the term is occasionally used with the same meaning in other parts of the world. Among gay men in the United States, lavatories used for this purpose are called tea rooms.
Cottages were and are located in places heavily used by many people such as bus stations, railway stations, airports and university campuses. Often glory holes are drilled in the walls between cubicles in popular cottages. Foot signals—tapping a foot, sliding a foot slightly under the divider between stalls, attracting the attention of the occupant of the next stall—are used to signify that one wishes to connect with the person in the next cubicle. In some heavily used cottages, an etiquette develops and one person may function as a lookout to warn if non-cottagers are coming.
Since the 1980s, more individuals 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 cubicles of popular cottages, or extended the walls between the cubicles to the floor to prevent foot signalling.
Cottages as meeting places
Before the gay liberation movement, 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. As such, cottages were among the few places where men too young to get into gay bars could meet others whom they knew to be gay.
The internet brought significant changes to cottaging, which was previously an activity engaged in by men with other men, often in silence with no communication beyond the markings of a cubicle wall. Today, an online 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.
Laud Humphrey's Tearoom Trade, published in 1970, was a sociological analysis and observance between the social space public "restrooms" (as toilets are euphemistically known in the US) offer for anonymous sex and the men—either closeted, gay, or straight—who sought to fulfill sexual desires that their wives, religion, or social lives couldn't. The study, which was met with praise on one side due to its innovation and criticism on the other due to having outed "straight" men and risked their privacy, brought to light the multidimensionality of public restrooms and the intricacy and complexity of homosexual sex amongst self-identifying straight men.
Historically in the United Kingdom, public gay sex often resulted in a charge and conviction of gross indecency, an offence only pertaining to sexual acts committed by males and particularly applied to homosexual activity. Anal penetration was a separate and much more serious crime that came under the definition of buggery. Buggery was a capital offence between 1533 and 1861 under UK law, although it rarely resulted in a death sentence. Importuning was an offer of sexual gratification between men, often for money. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 permitted sex between consenting men over 21 years of age when conducted in private, but the act specifically excluded public lavatories from being "private". The Sexual Offences Act 2003 replaced this aspect with the offence of "Sexual activity in a public lavatory" which includes solo masturbation.
The 1967 Act also made sex with, or between, females under the same circumstances the same offence, whereas neither was previously specifically illegal.
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 contact if he had desired and required the defendant to touch him with sexual intent in order to have evidence of a crime. Alternatively, they were arrested for importuning, with a much lower burden of proof and shorter maximum sentence.
Timeline of historic cases
|1943||Newspaper editor Clarence McNulty was arrested for wilfully and obscenely exposing his person in the Lang Park toilets near Wynyard railway station, Sydney in New South Wales, Australia. 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 was 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 Sir 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.|
|1954||American mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr. arrested in a public toilet in Santa Monica, California. He was stripped of his top-secret security clearance and fired from the think tank where he was a consultant.|
|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.|
|1962||In 1962, the Mansfield, Ohio Police Department conducted a sting operation in which they covertly filmed men having sex in the public restroom underneath Central Park. Thirty eight men were convicted and jailed for sodomy. After the arrest, the city closed the restrooms and backfilled the site. The police later made a training film of the footage. It was rereleased in 2007 as "Tearoom".|
|1964||In October, President Lyndon B. Johnson's aide Walter Jenkins was arrested in a YMCA in Washington, D.C., and the case was 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.|
|1976||Sixty-six-year-old retired U.S. Major General Edwin Walker made sexual advances to an undercover police officer in a restroom at a park in Dallas, Texas on June 23, 1976, and was arrested for public lewdness. The general pleaded no contest and was fined $1,000 and court costs.|
|1976||Former Judge G. Harrold Carswell was convicted of battery for advances he made to an undercover police officer in a Tallahassee men's room.|
|1981||Coronation Street actor Peter Dudley was observed exposing himself to another man in a public toilet in Didsbury, Manchester, and was charged with importuning. He pleaded guilty and was fined £200. Some months later, Dudley was charged again with gross indecency for an alleged similar offence, though this time he claimed he was not guilty and had been set up by the police. A Crown Court jury failed to reach a verdict, but while waiting for a retrial, Dudley suffered a series of strokes and heart attacks and died in October 1983.|
|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 satirised the events in his music video 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 engaging in homosexual activities in a known cottaging area.|
|2007||In June 2007, US Senator Larry Craig was arrested in the men's public toilet in the Lindbergh Terminal of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport for allegedly soliciting sex. Craig later pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and announced his intent to resign from his post as Republican senator from Idaho; ultimately,  he did not resign. He contested his guilty plea, paid a fine, and served out his term; he did not run for re-election in 2008.|
- After the murder of playwright Joe Orton by his boyfriend in 1967, Orton's 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 1992 play Porcelain by Singaporean-born playwright Chay Yew describes cottaging as a backdrop of violence between a gay Asian man and his white lover in a Bethnal Green lavatory. 
- The Chinese film East Palace, West Palace, released in 1996, is centred on cottaging activity in Beijing.
- The modern dance company, DV8, staged a piece in 2003 called Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSM), which explicitly portrayed the theme of cottaging.
- Nicholas de Jongh's play Plague Over England was based on the arrest and conviction of John Gielgud for cottaging and premièred in 2008.
- (Dalzell & Victor 2007, p. 165) "cottage noun a public lavatory used for homosexual encounters (UK)."
- Andre(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'.
- 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 1367-8779. OCLC 438850398.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
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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.
- Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang by Paul Baker; Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004; ISBN 0-8264-7343-1, ISBN 978-0-8264-7343-1.
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Most homosexuals regard 'cottaging' as very sordid and look down upon those who resort to this method of finding partners.
- Maupin, A. (1984). Babycakes. p. 105. ISBN 0-06-092483-7.
'I was busted for cottaging... You know..doin' it in a cottage... A cottage', Wilfred repeated. 'A public loo.'CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Rodgers, Bruce Gay Talk (The Queen’s Vernacular): A Dictionary of Gay Slang New York:1972 Parragon Books, an imprint of G.P. Putnam’s Sons Page 195.
- 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).
- Johnny Caldwell (8 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.
- 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 dependent 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.
- 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.
- "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.
- 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% 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.
- Prejudice and Pride: Discrimination Against Gay People in Modern Britain by Bruce Galloway; Published by Routledge, 1983; ISBN 0-7100-9916-9, ISBN 978-0-7100-9916-7.
- 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.'
- Ashford, Chris (2006). "The only gay in the village: Sexuality and the net". Information & Communications Technology Law. Taylor & Francis. 15.3: 275–289. ISSN 1360-0834. 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.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Humphreys, Laud (2011). Tearoom Trade: a study of homosexual encounters in public places. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 978-0-202-36942-6.
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- Walter Bluhm (23 June 1965). "Police Observation". The Times (56355). 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.
- Helen Chappell (17 October 1984). "Far from gay / Prejudice against homosexuals". The Guardian (London).
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.
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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.
- Parris, Matthew; Maguire, Kevin (2004). Great parliamentary scandals: five centuries of calumny, smear and innuendo (revised ed.). Robson. p. 126. ISBN 978-1-86105-736-5.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Humphry Berkeley (May 16, 1978). "The private rights of a public man". The Times. Issue 60302; col A. 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.CS1 maint: location (link)
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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.CS1 maint: location (link)
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- Sylvia Nasar (March 25, 2002). "The sum of a man". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 July 2012.
Nash was arrested in a police trap in a public lavatory in Santa Monica in 1954, at the height of the McCarthy hysteria. The military think-tank where he was a consultant, stripped him of his top-secret security clearance and fired him ... The charge - indecent exposure - was dropped.
- "Baronet Fined". The Times. Jan 12, 1956. p. 4.
Sir David Ronald Milne-Watson,... was fined £15 on a charge of persistently importuning for an immoral purpose at South Kensington railway station.
- "News in Brief: Conditional discharge for television actor". The Times. December 13, 1962. p. 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
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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.
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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.
- "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.
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- 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.
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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.
- Nightingale, Benedict (1 March 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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