Ever had an encounter with another guy while you’re out for a walk in the park, or using a public bathroom? Cruising is an integral part of queer history and identity. But how legal is it? Could you get into any 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. Even across the UK, there’s some variations, so in this article we’ll be focusing on the legal position in England and Wales, as they’re covered by the same legislation.
What is cruising?
There’s a definite public element to cruising. You’re out, looking for sex, looking for an encounter, but you’re doing it in public. Saunas, bathhouses, bars, and clubs have elements of cruising, but they’re private premises.
Cruising is different to prostitution – no one is getting paid, this is just guys getting together to satisfy a sexual need.
The history of cruising
There’s historical references in law and literature dating back to at least the 17th century.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 hook-ups. Theatres were particularly popular for this kind of thing.
Cottaging referred to looking for sex in public bathrooms.
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 and entrap men.
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
The Sexual Offences Act of 2003 was intended to clarify some of the anomalies that existed within the law, 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 – often described as cottaging – 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 are 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.