"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, 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 bathroom stalls in popular cottages. 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 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 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 where men too young to get into gay bars could meet others who they knew for sure to be gay.
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. 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.
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 if 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
Newspaper editor Clarence McNulty was arrested for wilfully and obscenely exposing his person in the Lang Park toilets near Wynyard train station in Sydney, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
^Michael George Schofield, Gordon Westwood (1960), A minority: a report on the life of the male homosexual in Great Britain, p. 74, "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. ISBN0-06-092483-7. "'I was busted for cottaging... You know..doin' it in a cottage... A cottage', Wilfred repeated. 'A public loo.'"
^Rodgers, Bruce Gay Talk (The Queen’s Vernacular): A Dictionary of Gay Slang New York:1972 Paragon Books, an imprint of G.P. Putnam’s Sons Page 195.
^ abIn 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 (08 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."
^ abChris 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 dependant 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."
^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 per cent 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."
^Ashford, Chris (2006). "The only gay in the village: Sexuality and the net". Information & Communications Technology Law (Taylor & Francis) 15.3: 275–289. ISSN1360-0834. OCLC441920510. "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."
^Walter Bluhm (23 June 1965). "Police Observation" (56355). The Times. 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."
^"Police leniency call on park sex". BBC News. 17 Oct 2008. "People caught having sex in public should only be arrested as a last resort, according to draft police guidelines."
^"Baronet Fined". The Times. Aug 28, 1946. p. 2. "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."
^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."
^Rhoda Koenig (28 February 2008). "When England hounded a hero; John Gielgud's arrest for cottaging in 1953 sparked public outrage and, for the actor, private agony. A new play tells the story of the scandal.". Independent Extra.
^"Fine For "Persistently Importuning"". The Times. 22 October 1953. p. 5.
^"Charge Against A Bio-Chemist". The Times (Issue 52514; col D). Jan 08, 1953. p. 3. "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."
^"Queen's Bench Division; Conviction Of Importuning: Appeal Fails, Field v. Chapman". The Times (Issue 52748; col E). Oct 09, 1953. p. 11.
^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"|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Joyce Murdoch, Deb Price, Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. the Supreme Court (2002) p. 187.
^"Sachs fined". The Times. Jan 17, 1984. p. 3. "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."
^Rosie Mckay (7 December 1988). "Former coach Jones denies charge of indecency". The Advertiser.
^"Courting danger on the Common". Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland). 28 October 1998.
^Staff and agencies (15 July 2002). "Fallen former Welsh secretary to re-marry". The Guardian. "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."
^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."