There are nights when, crossing the dark parkland by my house, I see a man beneath a remote streetlamp. He is usually alone, and smokes as he circles the low walls of a squat little building. Most nights, after innumerable cigarettes and several laps of the place, he will slip from the light for good. Sometimes another figure will appear, warily loping in and out of the lamplight. A brief exchange follows before cigarettes are extinguished and both slink off into the building.
This, I have discovered, is cottaging — or at least the first stages of it. Those who know about cottaging might, quite understandably, have thought it a thing of the past. But as my man under the streetlight explained to me later, when we met, even in the internet era it still has appeal.
Cottaging, to clarify, is the act of anonymous sex in a public loo, taking its name from the traditional cottage-like huts that sprang up in almost every popular park in the 19th century. Like its alfresco counterpart, cruising, cottaging takes place uniquely between gay and bisexual men and in the past was a way in which men could meet for sex at a time when homosexuality was illegal. These strange brick shanties with their tiled interiors became safe havens.
Paradoxically, it was cottaging itself that largely brought about the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The outings of a string of prominent public figures caught with their pants down — most notably the Labour MP Tom Driberg and the actor John Gielgud in the 1940s and 1950s — by so-called ‘-pretty policemen’ highlighted the need for a change in the law, prompting the Sexual Offences Act 1967.
The Act did nothing to discourage cottaging. The number of convictions for indecent exposure doubled in the next decade and what was once a slang term used exclusively by a small community of gay men became reasonably common knowledge.
As cottaging entered the public consciousness, so our attitudes underwent a gradual shift. From being a nation that in the 1950s branded any form of homo-sexuality as a ‘plague’, we became one that merrily tittered over the sprouts at gags about George Michael and cottaging in the 2007 Extras Christmas special.
If decriminalising homosexuality didn’t do for cottaging, you might have thought that the advent of hookup apps like Grindr and Gaydar would. No need to step out into a wet night, uncertain of success. But there was that man under the streetlamp. I was curious. So one evening, while tripping home tipsy from the pub, I spotted his lighted cigarette across the park — and decided to join him for a smoke.
I told him that I saw him down here often. He replied that it was a nice spot, stamped out his cigarette and started to walk away. ‘Listen,’ I said. ‘I know it’s none of my business… but could you tell me a bit about it?’ And, to my surprise, he said yes.
He was married to a woman for 14 years he said. The first time he cottaged was when he was still with her. ‘It was the most thrilling experience of my life. I drank half a bottle of vodka beforehand and hung around the cottage for hours. I didn’t know what to do, and so blokes came and went and I didn’t know how to approach them. Then finally one guy came, who could see I was new to it. He showed me what to do.’
The marriage disintegrated and ever since he has lived as an openly gay man. So why then does he still choose to spend his evenings by a public lavatory? Why not sit at home and find men online? ‘Because it’s still just as much of a thrill as it was the first time I did it. It’s not that I have to — I can meet men in normal circumstances if I want. But it’s so much more exciting to meet men here.’ Cottaging’s survival into the post-liberation era is a sign of the curious mechanisms of the sexual psyche: the ‘thrill’, the eroticism of risk, the knowledge that at any moment someone might kick the door down. As Victor Maskell, the cottage-frequenting hero of John Banville’s novel The Untouchable, maintains: ‘The young hotheads, clamouring for the right to do it in the street, do not seem to appreciate the aphrodisiac properties of secrecy and fear.’
A Channel 4 documentary from the mid-1990s demonstrates some of the tactics used by cottagers to evade detection, such as standing one participant in a large shopping bag so that any would-be rumblers would see only one pair of feet and a bag when looking beneath a cubicle door. Sideways glances, foot-tapping under cubicles and eye contact maintained for just a moment too long all add to its cloak-and-dagger allure.
More than any of the hookup apps, cottaging represents sex purely for its own sake, in its most basic form. There’s no romance, let alone love, in the cottagers’ contract. Grindr and Gaydar demand an element of pretence, a bit of perfunctory bantering. ‘There’s no frills to it,’ says my night owl, ‘no fucking about, as it were.’
In an interview with the Guardian in 2013, George Michael said something similar. ‘The handful of times a year it’s bloody warm enough, I’ll do it. I’ll do it on a nice summer evening. It’s a much nicer place to get some quick and honest sex than standing in a bar, shouting at somebody and hoping they want the same thing as you do in bed.’
According to Graham Kirby, a journalist and former cottager, the habit lives on because it is too far embedded in gay culture and gay mythology to snuff it out overnight. A recent article in gay magazine Attitude even suggested that it might be enjoying a mini renaissance.
For my man beneath the lamp, nothing can ever quite match the thrill of a dusky Sunday evening spent waiting by a park toilet, smoking countless cigarettes to quell the rising tide of anxious excitement. ‘For me it’s like fishing,’ he says as we’re shaking hands and preparing to part ways. ‘The catch always justifies the wait.’
Tom Ball and cottaging expert Graham Kirby discuss this forbidden endeavour on The Spectator Podcast.