Sex in London's Public Toilets Made Me the Man I Am Today

Fuck, I miss cottaging.

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21 July 2014, 9:35am

I went into the cubicle to take a piss; lingered a bit before leaving. As I washed my hands, I had that impression you get of being watched so turned my head slightly to see a man standing in the cubicle doorway, looking at me. He had his cock out. As he looked, he rubbed it. My first reaction was the thought that I had never seen one so big; my second was of slight discomfort at the intensity of his gaze. My third was an erection.

It seemed like an eternity but eventually I followed him into the cubicle. He closed the door.

A gentleman never tells: suffice to say when I left I wasn't a virgin. I then walked to school to pick up my GCSE results.

The spring in my step as I walked home wasn't because of academic success.

I would be lying if I said I didn't know these things happened: I'd loitered looking at the graffiti and explicit scrawlings. This was my first experience of cottaging – in the States they call it the "tearoom trade" – the act of procuring or having sex in a public toilet.

From then on, I looked for sex in toilets whenever I could. In the mid-90s it was easy and cock available pretty much whenever.

Not all sex happened in the cottage itself. Toilet walls were messaging boards of interests, times and phone numbers. Sometimes you'd find a secluded spot elsewhere with a guy you'd met in a cottage. But for me nothing beat sex in the cottage itself. Risky – the local bus drivers patrolled the toilets – but I wasn't exactly thinking with my head. Who wouldn't take a few risks for an easy fuck? That was its appeal: the lack of emotional involvement, of ulterior motivation: its honesty. Sex for sex's sake. Nothing else.

I soon became adept at spotting cottaging "rituals" – the sideways glance from the guy at the urinal as you walked in, how he felt his cock as you stood next to him, that he wasn't even pissing. The tapping of a foot under the cubicle door was a known sign. I could devote a whole article to glory holes. Some people say they used to take a shopping bag for a second pair of feet to stand in to avoid detection by police looking under cubicle doors. I never saw that but I did pass messages written on toilet roll between cubicles. But mostly it was that look held for just a few seconds too long. Then you knew.

It gained me my best friend at university. His first words to me were, "I have a place." That afternoon I rimmed him for hours in his room, only stopping when his girlfriend knocked on the door.

Pointing Percy, a 1994 documentary about cottaging in London

We became lovers, then cottaging friends. Sometimes we would go away for the weekend, pay for a night in a gay sauna and cottage by day. Every town had a cottage. You could spot it by the graffiti or just instinct. Bethnal Green, Hyde Park, Carnaby Street: I've sucked, rimmed, fucked, been fucked, or more in all of them. We judged success by whether we got our trade figures into double figures. (Wanking off someone at the cubicle didn't count.) "Trade" was sex. As I said, nothing emotional. Just cock.

Gay men don't have a tradition of handing down their history. No father shows his son the spot where actor John Gielgud was arrested, or says, "One day, my lad, you'll grow up to be just like Joe Orton." My mum's take on George Michael's arrest wasn't exactly inspiring.

All three are cottagers, of course.

Gielgud was arrested in 1952, entrapped by a "pretty policeman". It landed him in court and the Evening Standard. The surprising sympathy for him indirectly led to The Wolfenden Report, which recommended homosexuality's decriminalisation. Orton was a playwright, murdered by his lover in 1967. His diaries chronicle his rampant libido and cottaging. They are probably the most honest account of gay sex at the time. For some, Orton's death was a crude morality tale. For a lot of gay men he was inspirational.

George Michael needs no introduction.

It is difficult now to appreciate how different things were. Toilets were often the only place where men could meet other men. Older gay men have told me about orgies in the cottages near their local gay pubs. How they always carried a tub of Vaseline on them. How a dozen men could be arrested at any one time by overtly homophobic police.

The author as a young man

Times have changed. But the gay rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, has estimated that between the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 and the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 gay or bisexual men were convicted for cottaging offences. That was probably why I started to make a documentary about cottaging. Someone needed to make a record.

I have a theory that most gay men have a defining cottaging story. That experience which explains why. Mine happened when I was studying for my first-year exams. On my way home from the library – a wreck, kept awake only by caffeine and nerves – I stopped off in a cottage to take a piss. Habit took me to the cubicle. As I left, the most stunning man – ripped, tattooed, chiselled jaw – passed me, grabbed my hand and dragged me back into the cubicle. Within seconds he had thrown my glasses off and my shirt as he stuck his tongue down my throat. He pushed me to the floor and shoved his cock down my throat to face-fuck me. The intensity was extreme. He fucked me there until he shot his load. He said nothing until, "You're awesome." He left and I never saw him again.

The toilet where I met James had been demolished and turned into a shopping centre; councils had installed "anti-cottaging measures" and CCTV, and some – the best ones – simply closed. As one old gay said to me, he felt like a survivor in a nuclear winter. Okay, it still happens: not all towns have a scene, some men are still too afraid to come out but cottaging is no longer acceptable. And it was. Sort of. Cottaging was as unobjectionable as having a Gaydar or Grindr account is now: not everyone has an account, you might not admit your profile name, but there's nothing wrong with having one.

The internet has had some influence but isn't the full story. At some point the gay community lost its confidence and romanticism. These days so many of my friends have two Gaydar accounts: one for looking for a relationship, the other for when they're horny. Tuesday night they sit in with a bottle of poppers and wank off with some twink. On Wednesday, they go around to their boyfriend's to cook linguine and pesto. Our aims have changed.

Maybe hypocrisy is an inevitable sign of maturity. The gay community grew up and became respectable. Or appeared to. What changed? The 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis gave rise to massive homophobia, a moral crisis and Clause 28, the law that banned the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools. The gay community was on the back foot. In response, the new gay movement placed an emphasis on easy issues of identity, such as equalising the age of consent, and we became willing subscribers. Radicalism, perhaps naive, eventually withered. Whereas once we gave a two-finger salute to straight society, now we wanted to be just like them. Being accepted meant compromising and becoming compromised. The victim was the cottage.

And fuck, man, do I miss it.

Graham Kirby is currently filming a documentary, The Strange Decline of the English Cottage. You can follow him on Twitter @grakirby.

(Top photo via Wiki Commons)

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