What are the laws about cruising for sex?
Cruising for sex is a time-honoured queer tradition and part of the cultural fabric for men who hook-up with other men.
Depending on where you are in the world, there’s likely to be some risks involved in these sexual escapades. For many guys, the risks can heighten the excitement – an illicit encounter can really take things to the next level.
In the UK, it used to be the case that if you were cruising for sex you were running the risk of physical assault, blackmail, entrapment, arrest, and imprisonment. If you were convicted, you stood to lose everything – your job, your reputation, your family. But still, undeterred, gay men went cruising for sex.
Incidents of homophobic violence at known cruising spots do still occur in the UK, but changes to the law mean that the police aren’t out to arrest you if you’re cruising for sex.
Let’s take a look at how the laws in the UK currently stand.
Is cottaging the same as cruising?
Cottaging is a term primarily used in the UK, and refers specifically to having sex in public toilets. In the US, this is generally referred to as ‘tea rooms’ or ‘tea room trade’.
Cottaging or tea room trade falls within the broader umbrella of sexual activity known as cruising. If you’re cottaging, then you’re cruising for sex in toilets. If you’re cruising for sex in the park, then that’s not cottaging.
Cruising is an integral part of queer history and identity. It generally refers to looking for or engaging in some kind of sexual activity in a relatively public or outdoor location – it could be in a park, a truck stop, the gym, a public toilet, or anywhere that men-seeking-men might encounter each other.
Do gay guys still go cruising for sex?
With the rise of location-based smartphones and hookup apps, you could be forgiven for thinking that cruising is something that belongs to queer history. While it’s true that dating apps such as Gaydar have changed the game when it comes to how men-seeking-men connect with each other, cruising for sex is still very much part of gay culture.
But how legal is it? Could you get into trouble for getting it on in the great outdoors?
Every country has different laws and rules that cover this kind of thing, so it’s important to understand what the deal is wherever you are.
There’s definitely a public element to cruising. You’re out, looking for sex, looking for an encounter, and you’re doing it in public. Saunas, bathhouses, bars, and clubs have elements of cruising, but they’re private, sex-on-premises kinds of places.
Cruising is different to prostitution or sex-work – no one is getting paid, this is just guys getting together to satisfy a sexual need.
The history of cruising
There’s historical references to cruising in law and literature dating back to at least the 17th century. Cruising isn’t a new thing.
While gay sex may have been illegal at the time, there were plenty of opportunities for random hookups. Theatres were particularly popular for this kind of thing.
There was a definite risk associated with cruising – if you were caught, you could be arrested and imprisoned. Police would often frequent known cruising spots, dressed in plain-clothes and pretending to be looking for sex, but really just there to entrap and arrest the men looking for some guy-on-guy action.
Photographer Marc Martin has been researching the way that men-seeking-men used the public urinals in Paris – vespasiennes or pissotières – as a point of connection. His best source of information has been the huge range of documents and photos that he found in the archives of the Parisian vice squad.
According to the history uncovered by Martin, these illicit encounters in the public urinals of Paris became particularly important during the German occupation of 1940-44.
“Under the Occupation, the streets were empty, but the pissotières were full…” reveals Martin. “French, German, and American soldiers would flock to the urinals to satisfy their needs. Quite apart from sexuality, they served as important meeting places for résistants to exchange information on enemy troop movements.”
In the UK, things began to change in 1967. The Sexual Offences Act meant that it was no longer illegal for men to have sex with each other in private. However, sex in public remained an offence.
The legal position today
If you fancy a bit of cruising action, you need to understand what the laws are in your location. Even across the UK, there’s some variations – in this article we’ll be focusing on the legal position in England and Wales.
The Sexual Offences Act of 2003 was intended to clarify some of the anomalies that existed within the law following the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and to update the existing legislation to include offences that were not previously covered.
Where this leaves us is a distinction between sex in toilets and sex in public.
Under the Sexual Offences Act, sex in public toilets – which we generally refer to as cottaging or tea rooms – is illegal.
If you are prosecuted and convicted for cottaging, the penalties could include:
- A prison sentence of up to six months.
- A caution. This forms part of your criminal record.
- A ban from specified premises. For example, if you’re found cottaging in a shopping centre, you could be banned from that shopping centre.
- Your name could be added to the Sex Offenders Register.
In practice, arresting people for cottaging isn’t high on the list of priorities for police. But if they’re getting complaints from the public, or a shopping centre, then they will have to investigate. If convicted, you could expect a relatively light sentence unless the circumstances are seen as particularly offensive.
In terms of having sex in public – or cruising – this is not illegal under the Sexual Offences Act. So, in theory, as long as you’re not having sex in a public toilet, you’ve got nothing to worry about.
But cruising can be seen as a criminal offence if it breaches the provisions of the Public Order Act of 1986. If you’re having sex somewhere, and this is visible by other people, or is somehow causing offence to other people, then you could be prosecuted for breaching the Public Order Act.
Again, the police will generally only take an interest in cruising if they’re receiving complaints and are therefore required to investigate.
If you’re convicted of an offence under the Public Order Act, you’ll most likely receive a fine as a penalty.
Can I have sex at the gym?
Gyms around the world are generally a hot-bed of cruising action – especially in the sauna or the showers. Some gyms will turn a blind eye to whatever is going on, whereas others are actively trying to discourage any guy-on-guy action on the premises.
Gyms will generally have something in their terms and conditions making it clear that they don’t want guys having sex in the locker-room. Because it’s effectively a private premises, they get to make the rules about that kind of stuff. If they catch you, they could cancel your membership and ban you from the premises. If they really wanted to make an example of you, they could call the police and make a formal complaint that your behaviour is offensive and a breach of the Public Order Act.
Why are guys into having sex in public toilets?
For many guys, there’s an undeniable sexual edge associated with public toilets. This is a guy-only space, where trousers are being undone and bodies exposed.
For many years, public toilets were one of the best ways to meet other guys who were up for an encounter of some description – even if it was just an anonymous glory-hole, or some under-the-cubicle-wall or under-stall action.
For some guys, getting it on in a public toilet is still the thing that rocks their boat - a bit of public sex adds an element of excitement, danger, the thrill of getting caught, and the exhibitionism of having an audience.
We conducted a quick survey of our readers. 55% of respondents confirmed that they found public bathrooms sexually arousing. A further 32% said that it could be, depending on the circumstances. It seems as if most of us are entering public bathrooms open to possibilities.
The sexual possibilities of public bathrooms frequently move beyond the possibilities of our fantasies, into hands-on encounters. 71% of respondents to our survey confirmed that they had experienced a sexual encounter in a public bathroom.
But what is it that excites us about public bathrooms? We asked our survey respondents to spell it out for us – here’s some of the most common responses:
- “Seeing other guys’ cocks.”
- “Just being around other guys and seeing each other’s dicks.”
- “The adrenaline. The danger of getting caught. The excitement of not knowing what will and will not happen. The expectation of the unknown.”
- “The feeling that you may get caught.”
- “Men showing their dicks.”
- “Seeing hot guys unzipping.”
- “Being watched.”
- “The randomness. The in-your-face, let’s-get-off attitude. No small talk!”
- “Guys standing around with their cocks out. The mystery of the unknown. You never know what type of guy you’ll see, or what their cock might be like.”
- “The fact that the penis is already out, instigates or implies that sex can happen.”
- “The randomness, the anonymity, the no-strings-attached.”
- “The possibility of getting caught.”
- “The smell, the danger of being caught, the thought of sex with a stranger.”
- “The atmosphere can be near animalistic.”
- “Just seeing men with their penis in their hand.”
One of the most sexually charged urinals that I’ve ever encountered is at Munich’s Oktoberfest beer festival. On the first Sunday of the festival, one of the enormous beer tents gets taken over by the gays. That’s 8,000 gay guys, wearing lederhosen, and drinking a lot of beer. Predictably, everyone needs to urinate a lot. There are two toilets in the tent – both relatively small and cramped spaces given the number of people involved. As the day progresses, everything gets pretty uninhibited – as the lederhosen come down, there’s plenty of eager hands and mouths to lend a hand.
Public toilets, Private affairs
The sexual dynamics of public bathrooms and urinals are fascinating. If there weren’t laws against, it I could spend hours just hanging out in men’s toilets, watching what’s going on.
Someone who shares my fascination is photographer Marc Martin.
Through his work, Martin has been researching, chronicling, and celebrating the sexual allure of public toilets.
For his series Public Toilets, Private Affairs, Martin created compelling images that were staged with models and featured disused train station toilets as locations. The results are beautifully observed, and celebrate the anticipation, the sexual tension, and the fraternity that can be experienced by men in public toilets around the world.
I spoke with Marc Martin for a behind-the-scenes look at the series.
What was your inspiration for your Public Toilets, Private Affairs series?
Urinals have always had a bad reputation. Bringing colour and life to these long-gone meeting places in the shadow, that was my challenge. I wanted to restore their sensuality.
For generations of men who were looking for adventures with other men, public toilets were privileged places for meeting and recognition. In every city or village, the public urinals served as a lighthouse or magnet.
I wanted to shed an optimistic light on the importance these places had for the community. These public toilets, whose history is intertwined with the lives and adventures of many gays men, are also unlikely bastions of freedom. That’s what I’m showing with this series.
In public toilets, the unexpected and the unknown were major ingredients to sexual arousal. But the sex stories that took place in the urinals are not at the heart of my project. It’s the human dimension, the freedom offered by these urban public places that matters to me.
I had the most unlikely, unexpected encounters in public toilets. These so-called squalid, gloomy, and stinking places were incredible places of social mixing. Homos and straights of all social strata, men of all ages, cultural and religious backgrounds – they all came together there.
You’ve written that the public lavatory in the main square of your home town was where you had some of your earliest man-on-man encounters?
I knew I was attracted to boys very early on. My problem at the time was to find other boys like me. I was living in a working-class city in the north of France. It wasn’t easy for me to meet other gay guys.
Public urinals, which seemed ‘neutral’ in appearance, were the meeting point. These places, where men were constantly coming and going, were instrumental in my sexuality, they aroused my desires, and quenched my curiosity.
Public toilets as cruising places were no heaven, granted. But they were no hell either.
What was the process you followed to create the shots that form the Public Toilets, Private Affairs series?
The come-on at urinals included a long series of preliminaries coded between the insiders to detect if one’s neighbour in the adjacent stall, his dick in his hand, was there only to piss or if he was going to be more demonstrative.
In my work, even on the most explicit photos, I leave a hint of mystery and doubt. I wanted to recreate this tension, so I organised photo shoots and cast men who didn’t know each other. They met for the first time on set, and improvised everything from there on. Most of them were gay guys, but not all of them. I was interested in a game of stealthy looks.
My big breakthrough was when Berlin’s public subway system gave me access to their toilets to carry out my photo sessions. These were public toilets built at the beginning of the last century, at the same time as the subway stations themselves. They’d been closed to the public for more than 25 years but hadn’t been destroyed.
Recreating old-fashioned cruising scenes in authentic toilets from that era was a godsend for my work. The graffiti on the century-old tiling or on the cubicle doors still bears witness to people’s lives, the traces of our past.
I was very moved to discover doors filled with sexual graffiti dating back from the 80s and 90s. Some people might see only an obscene, animalistic expression of homosexuality or simple vandalism of a public space, but what I saw were impulses of desire, and calls to fellow men.
This series was first exhibited at the Schwules Museum in Berlin – what sort of response have you had to the work?
What has been unexpected is that it’s been well-received beyond the gay community. All the mainstream media in Berlin talked about it – how it highlighted how much things have changed over such a short period of time, including a broad acceptance of homosexuality, the ‘sanitisation’ of cities, and the role of spaces for intra-community connections.
I’ve also received a lot of testimonies. People have been sharing stories that they’d never previously spoken about.
On the opening weekend, an elderly man in the exhibition hall was crying discreetly, the catalogue open against his heart. The book was open on a page with photos of Berlin ‘cottages’ which have since been demolished. I took him for a coffee and he told me his story. Sixty years ago, this man had met a stranger at the toilets shown in the photo – the stranger he met became his partner, now dead. A beautiful story, but what deeply upset me was that he had never before dared to confess to anyone the truth about how he had met the love of his life, because it had taken place in a urinal. He asked me to write a dedication on the catalogue photo of the toilets where they had met: “Please, write – For Heinz and Jürgen.”
Some of the negative comments and feedback that I’ve seen seem to come from gay men who feel that it’s wrong to showcase or celebrate this kind of sexual encounter, that it somehow gives gay men a bad reputation. Do you think that this is a valid criticism?
This subculture has long been synonymous with shame, even within the homosexual community. It’s still taboo, but many relationships were formed in these places.
Public toilets have often been associated with murky perverts prowling around. Against that stereotype, I chose to show in my photos smiling faces, and horny guys in an exciting setting.
My decision to pay tribute to all those men who met in secretive public places, was to build a bridge between my artistic vision and to also provide a real historical representation. I wanted to break with the gloomy and unhealthy aspect that’s attributed to this homosexual subculture.
The fact that an LGBTQ museum welcomed my project is all the more symbolic. We mustn’t forget that homosexuality has long been banned in the eyes of the law. Oppression played a fundamental role in the encounters in the cottages and tearooms, especially among the elder generation. We often view these men who had sex in public toilets as being cowardly, but they had the courage to acknowledge their impulses.
What happens in a darkroom?
In North America these are generally referred to as backrooms, but in Europe it’s darkrooms.
This is a small room or space in the back of a gay bar or club where you could get a bit of an anonymous action.
The precise history of darkrooms isn’t particularly clear. Gay men have always found ways to connect with other guys and find spaces where everyone knows that sex happens, but the concept of darkrooms seems to have crystallised in the 70s.
This is the post Stonewall period – we had the twin forces of Gay Liberation and Sexual Liberation. Gay bars could promote themselves as gay bars, and within gay bars you could designate a space where sex happened.
Darkrooms were perfect for guys who knew what they wanted but may have had to conceal their sexuality in their day-to-day life.
You can still find darkrooms today, but the golden era of darkrooms ended in the early 1980s as HIV took hold.