The Legal status of “cottaging” in the UK

What is cottaging?

The term “cottaging” refers to gay sex in public toilets; the term is now widely considered as slang and is derived from the use of the word which goes back to Victorian times; referring to small houses/public houses.  ‘Cottage queen’ is a slang term for a gay man who often frequents public conveniences for the sole purpose of engaging in sexual activity. The phrase ‘Tea-room’ is given to gay sex in public toilets in the US.

In recent history there have been some high profile cases of this act that has provoked concentrated media attention.

Cruising

This word has been used in the gay community for some time as slang for the sole purpose of a journey being to ‘pick up’ or ‘pull’ a sexual partner at random. This term is often confused with cottaging by heterosexuals, and in fact more specifically refers to the act of walking or driving to seek sexual activity in a locality. It can also be applied to the use of technology to seek sexual activity with a partner, such as social networking websites as it is the intent in the activity that makes it categorically ‘cruising’.

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

Voyeurism

Also closely linked to cottaging would be the illegal act of voyeurism, which is to deliberately observe a private act (which could be anything including and between undressing and full sex; in the instance of observing cottaging this may involve the use of a hole in a toilet cubicle wall) for one’s own sexual gratification. An act could include the broadcast/recording of such an observation and this would affect how seriously it is seen in sentencing as it is punishable with up to two years in prison and/or a fine.

Is cottaging illegal?

Yes, under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 “engaging in sexual activity in a public lavatory” is outlawed. So this applies to heterosexual and homosexual activity, if an offending couple are caught committing/ having committed a sexual act, they may be prosecuted. Although there is statute law in place, public opinion of the legality of sex in a public toilet is somewhat unclear.

The Sexual Offences Act

The law according to this statute doesn’t specify sex in a public place as illegal, which means many have been confused as to the legality of cottaging previous to the recent additions to the legislation. It is for this reason, that there is a feeling among many in the gay community that the addition of “engaging in sexual activity in a public lavatory” is a discriminatory, homophobic reaction as this act has been more commonly associated with single homosexual men rather than heterosexual couples/singles.

Public order offences are outlined in order to uphold and protect public decency, which would also protect the rights of a couple in isolated surrounding engaging in an act where they could expect a suitable degree of privacy, again adding to the confusion surrounding the legality of cottaging.

The legal penalty for cottaging

Sex in a public convenience is punishable by a prison sentence of up to 6 months and/or a fine.

Legal rights

When arrested, you are entitled to free legal advice.

All that the detainee is required, by law, to provide is their 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 plead guilty to an offence you have not committed.