Cottaging & Cruising: Legal Penalties

by | May 5 2021 | Criminal Defence, News & Media, Our Favourite

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What should i do if i’m caught cottaging? | 5 minute read
“Zip me up before you go-go”

In Beverly Hills, 1998, an undercover police officer caught the legendary George Michael trying to solicit sexual favours in a public toilet.

The pop icon gained a £500 fine and 80 hours of community service, followed by years of ridicule from the tabloids.

8 years later, the press caught Michael a second time. However, this time he was in the act of “cottaging” with a 58-year-old stranger.

This case attracted global attention and shone a light on the act of “cottaging.” Many may be aware of what cottaging is and how easily accessible it can be. However, most may not be aware of the legal implications of the act and the punishments that come with it.

LGBT Lawyers picture of a mens toilet for cottaging

What is cottaging?

Put simply, cottaging is an informal term for having sex in a public toilet.

Cottaging can apply to both heterosexual and homosexual relations. However, the term is far more closely associated with gay men and trans men, often labelled as “cottage queens.”

The term “cottaging” itself goes back to the Victorian era. Male-only bath-houses or “cottages” were often used for casual sex between men.

What is the history of cottaging?

In the mid 20th Century, those who partook in cottaging didn’t do so out of fantasy or fetish.

Cottaging was the only way that gay men could meet other gay men, hidden away from the government. Furthermore, the concept of being “out” wasn’t normalised yet, and so a surreptitious culture of public sex began across the country.

The government would dispatch units of police officers to inspect public toilets and parks in a bid to “rid England of this plague”, with undercover police often arresting cottagers for indecent assault. Whatsmore, it’s estimated that during the 1950’s approximately 1,000 men were imprisoned every year for cottaging and “lewd” behaviour. 

Is cottaging still popular today?

Cottaging is becoming less popular as gay rights progress further.

The secret side of queer relationships we witnessed in the past now welcomes modern LGBT family models, marriages and parenting styles. Despite the dwindling numbers, cruising grounds and cottaging spaces can still be located in most cities, if you know where to look!

LGBT Lawyers two men in a park ready to go cottaging

Is cottaging illegal in the uk?

Yes, it is.

Under section 71 of the Sexual Offences Act, 2003, cottaging is illegal, as it comes under”engaging in sexual activity in a public lavatory.” Although not labelled as “cottaging”, the Sexual Offences Act clearly states that:

“A person commits an offence if –

  1. He is in a lavatory to which the public or a section of the public has or is permitted to have access, whether on payment or otherwise,
  2. He intentionally engages in an activity, and
  3. The activity is sexual.”

“Incidents of sexual behaviour in public places present a continuing challenge to the police. Areas of public space become subject to transient ownership with public parks, isolated car parks and public toilets being redesignated queer spaces by a subculture of public sexing that has led to the phenomena of cottaging, cruising and, more recently, dogging exploding across the headlines of local and national newspapers across the country.”

Chris Ashford, “Sexuality, Public Space and the Criminal Law: The Cottaging Phenomenon.”

what legal penalties could there be for cottaging?

If someone catches you cottaging, you could be liable for certain penalties. These might include:

  • A caution, which will form part of your criminal record and can be used as evidence if you commit another offence. 
  • A ban from specific locations, depending on they catch you. For example, if an employee catches you cottaging in a restaurant toilet, they have the right to refuse your re-entry (and to call the police). 
  • Your name registered on the Sex Offenders Register. However, this will only happen if you are convicted under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
  • Community service or “payback.” This could be if it’s the first time you’ve committed an offence or if you have a mental health condition that may affect your behaviour.
  • A prison sentence of up to 6 months and/or a fine.

voyeurism, cruising, cottaging: How do they all differ?

Cruising is a slang term for when someone publicly searches for a sexual partner. The act of cruising is not illegal in the UK. However, the acts that follow could be, depending on what the act is, who the act is with and where the act takes place.

Despite being legal, cruising can be reported as a public nuisance or form of harassment if the person approached deems it to be so.

Voyeurism, however, is most certainly illegal. Obtaining sexual pleasure from watching or recording an unsuspecting person comes with a 6 month to a 2-year prison sentence if convicted.

LGBT Lawyers men in a toilet about to go cottaging

what’s the likelihood of getting prosecuted for cottaging?

Despite the potential penalties that come with cottaging, the likelihood of having a full prosecution is quite slim. 

Generally, you will only receive the maximum penalty if:

  • You are simultaneously being prosecuted for another offence
  • This is a repeat offence
  • Your offence involved something other than just cottaging, i.e if it involved sexual assault

WHEN DO I Need a Criminal Defence Lawyer?

It’s important that you understand the severity of criminal matters and the punitive consequences attached to these issues. For criminal issues with potential consequences, we would always advise you to seek legal help. Whatsmore, taking the right actions early can ensure you minimise any stress on yourself and stop any further action.

The legal punishments for cottaging are relatively minor. The majority of those accused will come away with a caution and/or a fine. However, there may be times when punitive measures are more severe. For example, when the act involves something as well as cottaging, such as:

  • Soliciting a prostitute
  • Sexual assault/rape
  • Sex with a minor

You may also need a lawyer if you are falsely accused of cottaging and are facing penalties for it. Our network of criminal defence lawyers offer advice free of judgment and tailored to the LGBT community.

Facing Criminal Charges?

Get in touch today if you need legal representation or if you need advice on what your next steps should be.

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