Tom Ball

Cottage industry

The aphrodisiac properties of secrecy and fear are just as powerful as they were in less liberated times

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.

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