Six men tell BuzzFeed News what leads them to seek sex in public toilets and how the police have cracked down on “cottaging”.
It started with a phone call in early July. A distressed man in his mid-forties, his voice tight with anxiety, telephoned BuzzFeed News to say the police had just apprehended him for cottaging.
Speaking quickly, he said they had stopped him in London’s Liverpool Street station toilets, paraded him through the station, taken his name and address, questioned him, and warned him that if he was found there again he would be arrested and could have to sign the sex offender register. We will call him Tim.
Clandestine sexual encounters between men in public conveniences sound like a black-and-white scene from the 1950s, not a practice still prevalent 50 years after decriminalisation. But Tim is far from alone and, it transpires, his experiences with the police are far from uncommon.
What the phone call led to was unexpected: the uncovering of multiple issues that in 2017 many presume are no longer relevant – let alone unresolved – and multiple questions that have never been answered.
Why, in an age of Grindr and internet dating and supposed liberation, are men still meeting for sex in toilets? How can this be policed without damaging the relationship with the LGBT community? Are the laws in this area still fit for purpose – and how can they be applied to serve the public as a whole?
The questions also expose the difficulties of allocating police resources (in the case of Liverpool Street, those of the British Transport police) when the 21st-century horrors of terrorism demand so much. And whether police can observe members of the public going to the toilet without invading the privacy of the innocent.
Over the next few weeks, BuzzFeed News began interviewing individuals who go cottaging, including one public figure. (In the USA, toilets where men meet for sex are sometimes called “tearooms” rather than cottages – and in Australia, they are called “beats”.)
What emerged was a parallel world much deeper, more secretive and more complex than first appears – one of both the liberated and the closeted; of politicians and celebrities mixing with the most private of people; where self-discovery and escapism intermingle with addiction, abuse, and sexual violence.
Some started going to toilets for sex when they were still children.
As such, the picture formed by the cottagers has several faces: For some, it is a shadow of what lies outside. For others, a burst of oxygen in otherwise airless lives. And for the rest, a joyous, even defiant paroxysm of lust, unencumbered by the prim restraints of heterosexual life.
What began, then, as an investigation into the confines of sex in public toilets, came to expose wide and unexpected areas: how little the inner lives of many gay and bisexual men have changed, how a homophobic culture fuels child sexual abuse, and how much the response to cottaging affects everyone.
Judgment and shame, meanwhile, encircle the practice, and from parts of all communities. Why, it is asked, do they have to do that? It’s disgusting. It’s dirty.
As each man’s story begins to unfold, the responses to these jabs swirl together, sometimes echoing each other, often in the most surprising and devastating ways imaginable.
None of this is simple.
Tim had walked down the steps to the toilet at the Liverpool Street station when, he says, he saw about eight men standing at the urinal masturbating, looking straight ahead at the wall. Only he and one other turned to face each other. They did not touch. And they did not see the police entering.
“Just as I was coming the cops appeared,” he says. There were three officers.
Tim is muscular and tattooed, with deep laughter lines and an unusually expressive way of speaking, as if trying to conjure the feeling of each word with his tone. We speak twice.
“They said, ‘Can you follow me?’ They took us upstairs and said, ‘Do you know that what you were doing is illegal? They then walked us through the station.”
While doing this, says Tim, one of the policemen stopped to speak to a fourth officer. “He whispered in his ear and I remember the guy saying, ‘Oh, well done.’”
The officers sat Tim and the other man down near the station’s taxi rank. “They read us the riot act. It all became about kids: ‘What if a kid had walked in? Are you aware you could go on the sex offenders list for doing what you’ve done?’ He was trying to scare us.”
One of the policemen took their names and addresses and asked about previous convictions before leaving them with another officer to check their details. On his return, the policeman, says Tim, “told us they were going to let us off with a warning and they would take a photograph of us so that there’s a record in case we ever did it again.”
Tim was left confused by this: unsure why they took his photo, wondering if it was simply a scare tactic. He also says they were not told where their details would be stored, what the record was, or for how long the details would be kept. Then they were free to go.
The experience shook him up. “It was embarrassing, shaming,” he says, and without any public statements by police in recent times about their response to cottaging he has no idea whether it was a one-off incident in response to a complaint from a member of the public or whether it was part of a wider operation. Given the more pressing concerns of counterterrorism, he says, prioritising cottaging would be wrong.
A few months before Tim was caught, another man found himself in the grasps of the British Transport police. We’ll call him Andrew.
He says he had been standing at the urinals next to another man. Both had their penises in their own hands. Andrew looked over at the other man’s, at which point he heard a voice call out.
“The police were where the sinks are. They said, ‘You! I see you! You two come with us, if you try to run we’ll arrest you.’ They were looking down the urinals.”
He says two uniformed officers led them upstairs and asked him why he thought they had brought him up there. It was then that Andrew noticed they were wearing cameras: small devices attached to the uniforms, which the British Transport police call “body-worn video” (aka BWV) cameras.
Afterwards, when they were let go after an almost identical process to the one Tim had described, Andrew was left anxiously wondering if the cameras were turned on, and whether they had filmed him in the toilets. The police had not mentioned them to him, he said.
He says the police told him they would not press charges if he admitted what he had been doing. “He said I was lucky he wasn’t charging me because otherwise I would be on the sex offenders register.” The officer, he says, also asked, “What if a kid had seen that?”
All the men BuzzFeed News spoke to, in response to this question, said that cottagers stop the moment a child enters and were horrified at the idea of anyone underage witnessing such activity.
“I was very scared,” says Andrew about the experience overall. “I disagreed with what they were doing so I would have liked to have argued, but I [felt] I was going to get arrested if I did.”
The history and context to such police interventions sits uneasily with many officers today and many members of the LGBT community, making straightforward decisions about how to manage such activity in 2017 a fiendishly difficult balance.
The fear expressed by Tim and Andrew, and the wider anxiety among many, especially older gay and bisexual men, is informed by extraordinary behaviour by some officers throughout decades of targeted crackdowns and entrapment of men in public lavatories, drawing accusations of brutality and homophobia. Not least during times when all gay sex was illegal and almost all men had to remain in the closet, many trapped in sham marriages, from which sex in toilets offered the only outlet.
When George Michael, therefore, was caught in a Los Angeles toilet in 1998, the fury he later expressed through his satirical song and video “Outside”, mocking the officer who he says had entrapped him, was not merely personal. The policing of cottaging had become, like stop-and-search policies, incendiary, politicised. For some, this remains the case.
Michael, a smiley, salt-and-pepper-haired businessman, has for nearly 40 years gone cottaging and cruising across the country. Now in his fifties, he begins to talk about what happened to him in the 1980s and 1990s.
On one occasion at Liverpool Street station, he says, “The police came along with a mirror on the end of a long pole. This officer was going along with this mirror, along the tops of the cubicles, and banging on doors. But that of course included looking at people on their own having a poo. I was outraged.” Michael says he also witnessed this technique at Manchester Victoria railway station.
He made an appointment with the British Transport police. “I said, ‘This is just wrong. What you need is the support of a community in order to police a community. You want those same people you’re pissing off to ring you up and say we saw a suspicious car outside.’ I said, ‘Your response [to cottaging] is kneejerk, and what happens is you send out officers and it becomes a vessel for their homophobia.’”
Michael says he has experienced this himself, that in a cottage in Hackney, east London, he was the victim of a police sting. Although such things are now seemingly not practised, for decades the police sent young, attractive plainclothes officers (dubbed “pretty policemen”) into toilets, to pose as fellow cottagers.
That is what the LA police did with George Michael and what the Metropolitan police did with the celebrated actor Sir John Gielgud in the 1950s, leading in both cases to their arrest and public shaming. (Future prime minister Edward Heath, by contrast, was also given a warning by police for cottaging in the 1950s, but this was concealed until after his death.) That day in Hackney, Michael unknowingly approached an officer.
“This guy stood next to me and started getting his dick out and getting it hard and wanking and waving it.” This might sound extreme, not least because by doing so the officer himself committed an offence, but such practices were not uncommon for undercover officers.
As soon as Michael responded, he says the officer “roughed me up a bit – pushed me around. They wanted some ID and I got my wallet out and I remember them taking my credit cards and throwing them on the ground. They just wanted to humiliate me.” They did not arrest him. (When approached by BuzzFeed News, the Metropolitan police declined to respond to historical allegations and instead a spokesperson said that “current policies and procedures have been formed working with key LGBT partners” and that they “do not proactively patrol” public toilets.)
Michael remembers something else about the policing of toilets. “In Liverpool Street I used to see endless girls pissed out their brains and disappearing into cubicles with men. In the gents. And nothing was done about them. They don’t get prosecuted.”
On several occasions over the years, Michael says he has spoken to officers policing cottages and asks them to imagine a scenario that tends to shift their attitudes. “I will say, ‘Think for a moment. You’re driving home from work and you could stop at any one of six places and you could go in and get a quick blow job off a woman, no one would ever know about it. Do you think you wouldn’t be tempted?’”
For Michael, the policing of cottages today cannot replicate the past. Making apprehending men in toilets any kind of priority “creates a witch hunt”, he says. “It creates an anti-LGBT feeling when actually these things are a matter of taste.”
The only problem is, these things are in fact a matter of law. According to Section 71 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, sex in a public toilet is illegal. But this is the only place specifically mentioned in law where sex is forbidden – a place notoriously and historically known for where gay and bisexual men have sex.
Places such as so-called lovers’ lanes, laybys or car parks where heterosexuals meet for sex – “dogging” – are not mentioned in law.
By contrast, Section 71 of the Sexual Offences Act, which beefed up previous laws to prohibit any form of sexual activity in toilets, was a deliberate attempt to quash cottaging.
And although other general laws relate to sex in public, there has been no particular attempt by lawmakers to stop it in spaces favoured by heterosexuals.
The application of these laws, therefore, has to be proportionate and equal in order to avoid appearing or being discriminatory. A further complication arises from the fact that police intervention in public sex is often in response to complaints from the public. With a significant minority of the British public still disapproving of homosexuality, this therefore poses the question: Are complaints more likely if it is two men having sex rather than a man and a woman?
Superintendent Jenny Gilmer of the British Transport police insists to BuzzFeed News that it is the crime rather than who is committing it that concerns the public, and rejects any suggestion that gay or bisexual men are being targeted by the force.
According to British Transport police figures, however, 92% of people “formally dealt with as suspects” by their officers for sex in public toilets between 2012 and 2017 were men (making up 91 individuals). They were unable to provide figures of the total number of people who were stopped by officers and given “informal words of guidance”.
Gilmer was concerned by some of the experiences with police of the men who spoke to BuzzFeed News. In particular, the lack of information given regarding the record on which details of those apprehended would be kept.