The grand old sport of cottaging probably started on the same day some Victorian local authority opened the first public lavatory. A police raid doubtless followed soon after.
Over the years we’ve heard of elaborate stake-outs at some public lavs aimed at bringing in large numbers of arrests in a relatively short time. We’ve had policemen hidden in the roof, behind false walls and conducting surveillance from the car park. We’ve had the pretty police, sending in their most gorgeous officers to entrap the unwary who, for a few blissful moments, thought all their birthdays had come at once.
The history of cottaging is strewn with ruined lives and humiliation out of all proportion to the seriousness of the ‘crime’. It was bad enough if you popped into the local cottage for a quickie only to find you were having your collar felt rather than anything else. But then agony was piled onto the embarrassment when the local paper made you sound like the worst kind of perv after reporting your fine for ‘gross indecency’ or ‘importuning for immoral purposes’.
A lot of gay men caught up in these raids found the ordeal too much, and Gay Times has, over the years, reported more than its fair share of suicides among caught cottagers. It has, therefore, always been an ambition of gay activists to change the law so that getting caught in the local loo with your hand in someone else’s trousers didn’t end up running your entire life.
The Government has finally got round to trying to put things right, and has published a new Sexual Offences Bill.
But, oh dear, for all its good intentions how ridiculous it all looks. The Sexual Offences Bill seems like something that could have been dreamed up by some ghastly Christian prude (hello, Tony!) who was determined to save the sinners by trying to control every little thing that goes on in the downstairs regions. It’s as though the sixties never happened. Permissive society? Prurient society more like, if this is anything to go by.
Or, as Minette Marrin put it in The Sunday Times: “The new Sexual Offences Bill is a perfect example of what is wrong with New Labour. It intrudes, obsessively and minutely, into every aspect of our lives where it does not belong and yet does not interfere to protect us where it should… Blair’s government is truly absurd, morally intrusive and morally inane, licentious and repressive, priggish and prurient.”
Most of the papers battened on to the fact that the minister in charge of this Bill, Hilary Benn, had said at the news conference to launch it, that having sex in public lavatories would still be illegal if members of the public could see it, but if it was in a cubicle with the door closed, it probably wouldn’t be.
A few minutes earlier he had said that sex in a public place (heterosexual and homosexual) would be punishable by up to six months in prison. A public place, it seems, is anywhere outside the house. So, while you could hump away quite happily in the bedroom with the curtains open and the lights on, you could well be arrested for doing the same thing in your garden, if it was visible from the street.
Commentators revelled in the ridiculous contradictions in it all. It’s OK for gays to have sex in a public lav with the door closed, but six months choky for straight canoodlers to have a shag in the traditional Lover’s Lane-type location? Can’t be right surely?
Richard Littlejohn in The Sun couldn’t resist this one. He asserted that: “Much of this new legislation has been designed to appease militant feminists and the TOSSPOT lobby.” The Labour Party’s central aim, he said “was to eliminate the distinction between hetero and homosexual behaviour. That’s why it had to legalise anal sex for 16-year old girls in order to make it legal for boys, which was the real purpose.”
But there is no heterosexual equivalent to cottaging, a fact that exercised the cynical mind of Minette Marrin in The Sunday Times. “Why should same-sexers be able to satisfy their lusts in public lavatories, but not heterosexuals? Why should some people be able to ramble our parks and high streets secure in the knowledge that they can relieve themselves in any way they fancy, free of charge, in any lavatory if the mood suddenly takes them, while others – heterosexuals – are forced to find other outlets at expense and inconvenience.”
It’s an equal rights issue, Ms Marrin declared. “I am about to start fundraising for a campaign for unisex public conveniences. That should sort the problem out. If only we could go unisex, we would all be able to copulate with anyone in any public lavatory. Otherwise this will have to be a matter for Brussels. There is more than one court to which we can appeal for the universal human right to have carnal knowledge in public conveniences with the cubicle door shut. What is convenient for one (or two or three) should be convenient for all.”
Carol Sarler, writing in The Observer, revealed that on a plane at Christmas, her daughter had awoken during the night to go to the toilet. “As she rounded the curtain, she came across two of the cabin crew – how shall we put this? – sexually engaged. Blushes all round, and she came back with a huge grin; heck it’s Christmas innit?”
Ms Sarler says the trolley dollies were lucky to have made it before the new Sexual Offences Bill becomes law, because not only is sex in a public place to be made criminal but so is voyeurism (prison for that, too!). Not only could the cabin crew have found themselves behind bars, but so could her daughter for looking at them.
“The Bill does sound like a charter for people who like to lock up other people; among the supporters is Home Secretary David Blunkett.”
Apropos of the proposal to legalise sex in cottage stalls, Ms Sarler sends a memo to George Michael to watch out for an amendment regarding sound effects.
Indeed, this is something Mr Benn had not thought about when he created for the giggling journos this vivid image of humping homos in the cubicles of public lavatories up and down the land.
But comedian Victor Lewis-Smith was quickly on the case in The Daily Mirror: “Although the Bill will end the illegality of cottaging, it still insists on a modicum of decency and discretion. And quite right, because who wants to enter a public karzy and hear what sounds like two asthmatics enjoying wine-tasting in an adjacent cubicle?”
The Daily Mail, in its report, told its flabbergasted readers that group sex for homosexuals would also be decriminalised. It wheeled in its current favourite rentagob, Colin Hart of the Christian Institute to say: “Cottaging is a major public nuisance. I don’t know how many lavatories have been closed because of it. Many parents are very worried about it.”
Is this true, or is it another one of Mr Hart’s silly exaggerations?
Mr A. Hathaway of East Grinstead was more realistic when he wrote to The Daily Express: “I have never seen anyone having sex in public, and do not know anyone who has, yet here we have yet another example of how to fill the prisons at the very time when we are told burglars cannot be jailed because the prisons are too full.”
The new Bill also outlaws outdoor sex for everyone, gay and straight alike. But given such restrictive measures are doomed to be disregarded from the start, why introduce them in the first place?
A bit of al fresco hanky-panky is traditional for the whole population. Who hasn’t done it in a grassy meadow on a sunny day, or on an isolated beach on holiday? Who hasn’t, in their time, caused a parked car to rock gently? It’s harmless, for god’s sake, and for some people who have no privacy at home, it might be the only chance they have to get their end away.
As Richard Littlejohn so prosaically put it: “None of us want to stumble over a couple going at it like rabbits while we’re out for a Sunday afternoon stroll. But do we really want to fill the prisons with people making love in the bushes? A bucket of water would do the trick.”
He naturally points out the sexual hyperactivity on Hampstead Heath where, he informs us, cruisers have “pet names for their favourite trysting spots, such as Gobblers’ Gulch and the Yum-Yum Tree.” He says the local health authority has sent staff to hang condoms from the trees. “Will they be prosecuted for incitement? Will there be heavy-handed raids on the heath carting members of the TOSSPOT community off to jail once this Bill becomes law? Of course not. And on balance nor should there be.”
Littlejohn says that Blunkett has come up with a bugger’s muddle. Certainly our blundering Home Secretary seems to have put the existing Sexual Offences Act through the grinder and come up with its mirror image at the other end.
Where once gays had just cause to complain about persecution because of the police targeting of discreet sexual encounters in public places, it now seems that it’s more OK for us to entertain ourselves out of doors than it is for heterosexuals.
The Daily Telegraph was unequivocal in its opposition to the proposals. Its editorial said it was unnecessary and dangerous. This prompted Mr Benn to write in to the editor in an effort to justify it: “The Bill will not ‘permit people to have sex in public lavatories’,” he wrote. “The offence of outraging public decency will continue to protect the public from activity that causes or is likely to cause alarm, distress or harassment, including obtrusive sexual behaviour in public lavatories.”
So let me get this right. We have a law already that allows anyone who accidentally comes upon nooky to make a complaint to the police about it if they find it offensive. In that case, why do we need another law that would give the police – in what might, in future, be more repressive times – the right to patrol car parks, woodlands and other traditional smooching spots looking for people doing what comes naturally?
It seems totally redundant and simply ends up criminalizing something that almost everyone does at some time in their lives.
Mr Blunkett insists his Bill “reflects current social values.” But does it? Are people (other than Colin Hart) so horrified at the thought of their fellow citizens having sex in the sunshine that they want to see them imprisoned for six months?
Andrew Gimson of The Daily Telegraph went down to the Old Bull and Bush pub near Hampstead Heath to find out what the punters there thought about it. Most of them weren’t interested in other people’s sexual shenanigans, and were prepared to turn a blind eye if they should, perchance, come across it in some alley or doorway.
Johnnie Bull, a 24-year old, volunteered: “A pal of mine, after going to the pub, he and his girlfriend used to go to a kind of ruin and do it under the floodlights. Not a sacred ruin, but they made it sacred.”
Sarah Taylor said it was “bizarre” for the Government to be concerning itself with this. “There are surely more important things for people to worry about,” she said.
However, “tolerance of sexual activity in public places did not generally extend towards sex in public lavatories.” Most peoples’ objections, though, seemed to be on aesthetic grounds rather than moral ones. The prevailing opinion was that there are “nicer” places to do it than some smelly old bog. Only one person objected to the nightly cavorting by gay men on nearby Hampstead Heath.
The Daily Telegraph editorialised that Mr Blunkett’s Sexual Offences Bill is “idiotic” and “unjust”. “Human beings have been confused about sex since Adam accepted the apple from Eve – and none more so than Mr Benn and his fellow ministers. They should tear up this unnecessary and uncalled-for Bill before it does serious harm.”
I wouldn’t go that far. But there is still time for a fundamental rethink. The Bill has some good ideas, in relation to rape and the protection of children, and it puts right some of the many inequalities that gay men have had to endure. But the criminalisation (with prison sentence) of outdoor sex is step too far.
Is it just an urban myth or is it the uncovering of some disturbing new phenomenon in gay life? I’m talking about “bug-chasing”, the deliberate seeking of infection with HIV.
The New York magazine Rolling Stone got the right-wing all of a tremble last month when it carried a feature on this supposed new craze in the gay world where non-HIV positive men advertise on the Internet for positive men who are prepared to “give them the gift” of their infection.
The article, by Gregory A. Freeman, suggested that as many as 25% of new HIV infections among gays in the USA are as a result of bug-chasing. He apparently interviewed several gay men who were actively seeking to become HIV-positive through unprotected gay sex, because they found the idea of sero-conversion the “ultimate erotic turn-on”.
One of Mr Freeman’s contacts, Carlos, is quoted as saying: “It’s about freedom. What can happen after this? You can fuck whoever you want, fuck as much as you want and nothing worse can happen to you. Nothing bad can happen after you get HIV.”
Such psychotic and suicidal thinking may, of course, be just the province of a few sad individuals who have become obsessed this new sexual madness and are desperately trying to justify it. Or it might be the voice of a newly-emerging subculture of significant proportions.
The problem is, there has been no objective research and so we don’t really know how widespread it is or whether the figure of 25% has any basis in reality.
That did not stop the reactionaries grasping this opportunity to point out how feckless and irresponsible gay men are. Hadn’t they said so all along? At the same time liberals pooh-poohed the story, anxious to deny it as something that no sane person could dream up.
Nobody knows who is right.
The Spectator then picked up the story, with an article by Matthew Laza, a BBC journalist, who said he, too had come across the same phenomenon in Britain while researching a documentary. Once again, the story was based on anecdotal evidence gathered from a few individuals rather than on empirical evidence. But are the people featured in these articles isolated freaks or are they the tip of an incredible iceberg? The Spectator story was irresistible to the Mail on Sunday, which also ran it the following week.
A very pertinent point in all of this is that the bug-chasers track down their “gift givers” using the Internet. As we know, the web has liberated every highway and byway of sex, and made even the most esoteric desire achievable. Even if there are only two people in the whole world who share a particular fetish, they only need a PC and a bit of perseverance to find each other.
A couple of months ago, for instance, a case came to court in Germany of a gay man who wanted to eat – that is literally cannibalise – another man as a sexual experience. He put out his request on the net and, unbelievably, within days he had a queue of men waiting to fulfil his fantasy. The first man who came to the cannibal’s home agreed to chop off his own genitals and share them as a snack with his soon-to-be murderer. This was all videotaped for future delectation, and had even the most hard-bitten police investigators puking on their uniforms. The cannibal then went on to eat a large proportion of his contact before he was arrested and put on trial.
It seems almost impossible to imagine that anyone would want to engage in such activities, and that brings us back to bug-chasing. Does it fall into the same category as erotic cannibalism – the sick fantasies of a very few people? Or, like bare-backing, is it something that we have to take seriously, and consider?
The stated motivations of the bug-chasers seem plausible, in a lunatic kind of way. They want to belong to a special club that sets them apart from other men, they want to take charge of what happens to them, rather than leaving it to fate or accident, they want to be free from the fear of contracting HIV by getting it over with.
The question is, who is most irresponsible, the bug-chasers or the journalists who are giving them more attention than their numbers justify?
According to an article in The Observer, the recently appointed British editor of Rolling Stone, Ed Needham, had been told that he had to create a stir to get the magazine noticed. The bug-chaser article certainly achieved that. Which then raises the question: is this controversy for the sake of selling more magazines. Is it sensationalism or an important piece of investigative journalism?
Dr Marshall Forstein, medical director of mental health and addiction services at the Boston-based Fenway Community Health Centre is in no doubt: “This is entirely a fabrication,” he says. And Shana Krochmal, a spokesperson for the San Francisco-based Stop Aids Project, said: “There is nothing more frustrating than when a story is wrong and inaccurate, and that’s all the story is.”
Presumably there will now be some properly conducted research into the issue so that we can have a definitive answer. If that investigation should find that bug-chasing involves significant numbers of people, it could provide a devastating blow to the gay community. The fragile peace that we have negotiated with society over AIDS since the first mad panic in the 1980s could be broken. Our enemies, who already see us as being protected by a wall of what they consider “political correctness”, could find a new and effective front on which to attack us.
Why should we fund the treatment of people who behave in this way and seek to make themselves ill, they will ask, and it is a seductive argument (although no more seductive than the one about smokers knowingly inviting cancer by persisting with their habit).
The best we can hope for is that bug-chasing turns out actually to be circulation-chasing in disguise.