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The appearance of public lavatories, like this one in Pond Square, Camden, London, is the origin of the term cottaging.
Cottaging is a UK gay slang term referring to anonymous sex between men in a public lavatory (a "cottage",[1] "tea-room"[2] or "beat"),[3] or cruising for sexual partners with the intention of having sex elsewhere.[4][5] 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.[6]

"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.[7][8] 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.[9] Among gay men in America, lavatories used for this purpose are called tea rooms.[10][11]


  • Locations 1
  • Cottages as meeting places 2
  • Legal status 3
    • Timeline of historic cases 3.1
  • Cultural response 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7


Cottages were and are located in places heavily used by many people such as bus stations, railway stations, airports and university campuses.[12] Often glory holes are drilled in the walls between cubicles in popular cottages.[13] Foot signals 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.[11]

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.[14][15]

Cottages as meeting places

Sign for cottaging at the Praça do Comércio, Lisbon, Portugal

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.[16]

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.[17]

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 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.[13][19] 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.[3]

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.[20][21]

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.[22][23] 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".[24]

In many of the cases where people are brought to court for cottaging, the issue of entrapment arises.[21] 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. Alternatively, they were arrested for importuning, with a much lower burden of proof, shorter maximum sentence.

Timeline of historic cases

Date Event
1943 Newspaper editor Clarence McNulty[25] 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[26] (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.[27]
1946 Sir George Robert Mowbray, 5th Baronet Mowbray, was fined for importuning men at Piccadilly Circus Underground station.[28]
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.[29][30]
1953 Actor Sir John Gielgud was arrested and fined £10 for cottaging ("persistently importuning").[31][32][33]
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.[34][35][36][37]
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.[38]
1956 Sir David Milne-Watson was fined for importuning at South Kensington railway station.[39]
1962 On 6 November 1962, actor Wilfrid Brambell was arrested in a toilet in Shepherd's Bush for persistently importuning.[40]
1962 In 1962, the Mansfield 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 filled them in with dirt. The police later made a training film of the footage. It was rereleased in 2007 as "Tearoom".[41]
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.[42][43]
1968 Michael Turnbull was arrested in Hull for cottaging in a public toilet, before he became Bishop of Durham.[44]
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.[45]
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.[46]
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.[47]
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.[48]
1984 Actor Leonard Sachs was fined for importuning in a public toilet.[49]
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.[50]
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.[51][52][53][54][55][56]
1998 In April 1998, pop star 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.[59][60][61]
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.[29][62][63][64]
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 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, 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[65] which he later rescinded. He contested his guilty plea and decided to serve out his term, but did not run for re-election in 2008.[66][67]

Cultural response

See also


  1. ^ (Dalzell & Victor 2007, p. 165) "cottage noun a public lavatory used for homosexual encounters (UK)."
  2. ^ (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'.
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ Sex Tips for Gay Guys by Dan Anderson; Published by Macmillan, 2002; ISBN 0-312-28873-5, ISBN 978-0-312-28873-0
  5. ^
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ a b 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).
  12. ^
  13. ^ a b
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ Public Sex/gay Space by William Leap; Published by Columbia University Press, 1999; ISBN 0-231-10691-2, ISBN 978-0-231-10691-7.
  21. ^ a b
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^ It also made sex with, or between, females under the same circumstances the same offence, whereas neither was previously specifically illegal, though females above a certain age (maybe 10 or 12?) were (are?) not permitted in mens' toilets and males above the same age not permitted in ladies'. (Maybe only when accompanied by their parent or guardian or a responsible adult or possibly just any adult or a sibling or friend of similar or different age?)
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ (French 1993, pp. 95–97)
  28. ^
  29. ^ a b
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^
  38. ^
  39. ^
  40. ^
  41. ^
  42. ^
  43. ^
  44. ^
  45. ^
  46. ^
  47. ^ Joyce Murdoch, Deb Price, Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. the Supreme Court (2002) p. 187.
  48. ^
  49. ^
  50. ^
  51. ^
  52. ^ "Sex Disgrace of 5 Star Stedman". The Sun (London). 9 October 1990 (Page 5).
  53. ^ "We Are Family" (Documentary interview with 5 Star). BBC Television. (7 January 2003)
  54. ^ Virgin Media - "80s Stars: Where Are They Now" article on Five Star
  55. ^ Larkin, Colin (1998). The Virgin Encyclopedia of R&B and Soul, (p.121). Virgin Books/Muze Inc. London, England. ISBN 0-7535-0241-0
  56. ^ Rees, Daffyd & Crampton, Luke (1991). Rock Movers and Shakers, p.172-173 (1991 Rev. Edition). ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, U.S. ISBN 0-87436-661-5.
  57. ^ BBC News - Court fines George Michael for 'lewd' act (15 May 1998)
  58. ^
  59. ^
  60. ^ "George Bust 'Bad Karma' Says U.S. Cop", Sunday Star, 5 March 2006
  61. ^
  62. ^
  63. ^
  64. ^
  65. ^ Craig's Lust. Slate, August 28, 2007
  66. ^
  67. ^
  68. ^
  69. ^
  70. ^
  71. ^
  72. ^
  73. ^
  74. ^


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