The legal status of "cottaging" in the UK

What is cottaging?

The term ‘cottaging’ is a slang term which refers to the act of having sex in public toilets. It is derived from the use of the word which goes back to Victorian times; referring to small houses/public houses.

The offence of cottaging applies to both heterosexuals and homosexuals, but some high profile cases involving celebrities has made it more associated with homosexual sex. ‘Cottage queen’ is a slang term for a gay man who frequents public conveniences for the sole purpose of engaging in sexual activity. The phrase ‘tea-room’ is given to a venue for public gay sex in the US.

Is cottaging illegal?

Yes, under s 73 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (SOA 2003) ‘engaging in sexual activity in a public lavatory’ is outlawed. This applies to heterosexual and homosexual sex acts. If an offending couple are caught committing/having committed a sexual act in a toilet to which the public or a section of the public has or is permitted to have access (whether on payment or otherwise), they may be prosecuted. You risk being arrested for cottaging regardless of whether you are being discreet or not. For example, having sex in a cubicle behind closed doors is still against the law.

Penalties for cottaging

Possible penalties for being caught having sex in a public convenience include:

  • A prison sentence on summary conviction of up to six months and/or a fine.
  • A caution. If you accept a caution as an alternative to prosecution, this forms part of your criminal record and can be used as evidence of bad character if you’re prosecuted for another crime. Unless a conviction is a certainty, therefore, don’t accept a caution.
  • A ban from specified premises. If you’re found cottaging in, for example, a shopping centre by security staff, they could ban you from the premises in future.
  • Your name could be added to the Sex Offenders Register in some circumstances if you’re cautioned or convicted under the SOA 2003.

Cruising

This word has been used in the gay community for some time as slang for a journey to ‘pick up’ or ‘pull’ a sexual partner at random. It generally refers to the act of walking or driving around an area to seek sexual activity, but can also be applied to the use of technology to seek sexual activity with someone else.

Cruising is not illegal; however, any act that may follow successful cruising may be outlawed depending on where it takes place – having sex in a public lavatory, for example.

Voyeurism

Closely linked to cottaging is the act of voyeurism. This is a criminal offence under SOA 2003. It means to deliberately observe a private act such as sex (this may involve in the case of cottaging, for example, the use of a hole in a toilet cubicle wall) for one’s own sexual gratification without the consent of the participating parties.

It is also an offence for the voyeur to record the private act, operate equipment with the intention of enabling another person to observe it, or to install equipment, or construct or adapt a structure or part of a structure, with the intention of enabling himself or another person to watch it. This offence is punishable with up to two years in prison and/or a fine.

Legal rights

If you’re arrested and taken to a police station, you are entitled to free legal advice. You also have the right to inform someone of your arrest and look at the police codes of practice.

All that you required, by law, to provide is your name and address when arrested for cottaging. The police may ask for proof of these details.

What you do not have to do:

  • provide information relating to your occupation or where you work;
  • reveal your HIV status (unless you require medical assistance, only then could a police medic ask you this).

But make sure you:

  • read fully any document you are required to sign;
  • do not admit to an offence you have not committed;
  • do not accept a caution without legal advice.