What are the laws about cruising for sex in the UK?
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 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.
Fortunately, things have changed in the UK. Here’s where we 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 has generally been 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 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, 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.
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, so 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?
Most gyms will actively discourage guys from having sex in the locker-rooms. 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.
The Virgin Active gym at London’s Barbican Centre has long been a very popular gym for cruising and locker-room hookups, something which the gym’s management has been consistently trying to crack down upon. According to BuzzFeed, the gym recently sent an email to all members saying that undercover police would now be patrolling the locker-rooms and charging anyone caught having sex. However, the London City police denied that their offices were patrolling gym locker-rooms and requested that Virgin Active issue a correction to their members. What that means is that we have a gym lying to its members as a scare tactic to try and discourage locker-room hookups. It’s particularly disappointing because the lie evoked the very painful history of police entrapment of gay men who were cottaging or cruising. The lie damages the reputation of the police at a time when they are trying to build trust with the LGBTQ community.