Cottaging is a gay slang term, originating from the United Kingdom, referring to anonymous sex between men in a public lavatory (a "cottage", "tea-room"), or cruising for sexual partners with the intention of having sex elsewhere. The term has its roots in self-contained English toilet blocks resembling small cottages in their appearance; in the English cant language of Polari this became a double entendre by gay men referring to sexual encounters. See also Gay beat in Australian English.
The word "Cottage", usually meaning a small, cosy, countryside home, is documented as having been in use during the Victorian era to refer to a public toilet and by the 1960s its use in this sense had become an exclusively homosexual slang term. This usage is predominantly British, though the term is occasionally used with the same meaning in other parts of the world. Among gay men in the United States, lavatories used for this purpose are called tea rooms.
Cottages were and are located in places heavily used by many people such as bus stations, railway stations, airports and university campuses. Often glory holes are drilled in the walls between cubicles in popular cottages. Foot signals are used to signify that one wishes to connect with the person in the next cubicle. In some heavily used cottages, an etiquette develops and one person may function as a lookout to warn if non-cottagers are coming.
Since the 1980s, more individuals in authority have become more aware of the existence of cottages in places under their jurisdiction and have reduced the height of or even removed doors from the cubicles of popular cottages, or extended the walls between the cubicles to the floor to prevent foot signalling.
Cottages as meeting places
Before the gay liberation movement, cottages were amongst the few places where men too young to get into gay bars could meet others who they knew for sure to be gay.
Many, if not most, gay and bisexual men at the time were closeted, and there were almost no public gay social groups for those under legal drinking age. The Internet is transforming cottaging from an activity engaged in by men with other men, often in silence, and who do not communicate beyond the markings of a cubicle wall.
Today, an online community is being established in which men exchange details of locations, discussing aspects such as when it receives the highest traffic, when it is safest and to facilitate sexual encounters by arranging meeting times. The term cybercottage is used by some gay and bisexual men who use the role-play and nostalgia of cottaging in a virtual space or as a notice board to arrange real life anonymous sexual encounters.
Sexual acts in public lavatories are outlawed by many jurisdictions. It is likely that the element of risk involved in cottaging makes it an attractive activity to some.
Historically in the United Kingdom, public gay sex often resulted in a charge and conviction of gross indecency, an offence only pertaining to sexual acts committed by males and particularly applied to homosexual activity. Anal penetration was a separate and much more serious crime that came under the definition of buggery. Buggery was a capital offence between 1533 and 1861 under UK law, although it rarely resulted in death penalty. Importuning was an offer of a sexual gratification between men, often for money. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 permitted homosexual sex between consenting adults over 21 years of age when conducted in private. The act specifically excluded public lavatories from being "private". The Sexual Offences Act 2003 eventually removed this contentious offence in favour of "indecent exposure".
In many of the cases where people are brought to court for cottaging, the issue of entrapment arises. Since the offences are public but often carried out behind closed doors, the police have found it easier to use undercover police officers who would frequent toilets posing as homosexuals in an effort to entice other men to approach them for sex. These men would then be arrested for indecent assault. Such practices were severely curtailed after a judge decided the police officer in the case had consented to the assault if he had desired and required the defendant to touch him with sexual intent in order to have evidence of a crime. Alternatively, they were arrested for importuning, with a much lower burden of proof and shorter maximum sentence.