PinkNews.co.uk Investigation

Cruising and its indoor partner cottaging have been brought back to the table for debate this month.

George Michael started the discussion when, following a News of the World allegation that he had been cruising on Hampstead Heath, he called it “the best cruising ground in London.”

Rubbishing reports that the allegations might put strain on his long term relationship, the singer told journalists that “anonymous no-strings sex” was just part of the gay lifestyle.

News chat boards were awash with messages from people in the gay community commenting on the story, discussing the line between infidelity and “just sex”, wondering where the boundaries were.

Papers and news programmes ran the story – even Richard and Judy gave it air time.

Much debate was given over to the legality of the situation. Would the singer be arrested as he had been in the States? What exactly was a person allowed to do on Hampstead Heath legally, anyway?

In fact, The Sexual Offences Act 2003 doesn’t legislate specifically against sex in public. “This means, it isn’t specifically illegal” said a Home Office spokeswoman. Instead, cruising and cottaging are covered by Public Order laws.

They are considered an “offence” if they cause “outrage”, or if they are beyond the realms of “taste and decency.” Usually this would require people to witness the act, who felt that they had been caused “harm and distress” or harassment.

Basically, if you’re having sex in a secluded area where you have a reasonable expectation of privacy, it’s legal. It seems that cruising is one of those rare things; a crime that really is only illegal if you get caught.

But though George Michael wasn’t breaking the law, his assertion that cruising was a

normal part of main stream gay culture has raised some issues that people find very difficult to discuss; how faithful is a relationship that does not include sexual fidelity? How much is being gay defined by sex?

Of course, the internet was always going to give a squewed view of the sex lives of the nation, it being almost perfectly designed to make the passing and sharing of such information as private and easy as possible. Taken that as read, there’s still a lot of cruising on line!

Some of the biggest international sites on the whole of the web are dedicated to cruising. In the top 1000 websites in the world, two are dedicated solely to advertising cruising and cottaging hotspots, and giving advice via chat rooms as to when is the hottest time to go where.

The cottaging website Squirt.org has just under three times as much traffic as PinkNews.co.uk, the largest gay news website in Europe.

Should it surprise us that many more gay people online are more interested in sex than news? Probably not, but it is still a shock to quantify how much the word “gay” identifies with “sex” on the internet.

The most UK-centric site, cruisingforsex.com has 500,000 active online members, which suggest that 10% of all gay people in Britain are interested in finding and having anonymous sex.

Cruising and cottaging are not illegal, but this does not necessarily mean that they are a safe pursuit.

In a month where police have again had to appeal for witnesses to an attack on a gay man at night in Copgate Woods, the dangers of homophobic assault are darkly underlined.

A study of Squirt highlights the pitfalls only too graphically.

The website, which came to media attention after it recommended the site of a notorious child murder in Australia as a cottaging venue, runs lists of the best places in most countries in the world to have anonymous sex.

The website offers tips for new cruisers ranging from the pedestrian and common sense, (“smile”) to the explicit and unprintable. It also emphasizes the importance of safe sex, offers basic legal advice in case of being caught in a country where it’s illegal, and practical tips for avoiding honey traps set by the police; “you could always kiss the guy first. I’ve never heard of a cop who’d let a guy kiss him just to get an arrest.”

The website owners are aware of the dangers of cottaging or cruising drawing attention to itself; attack, or closure.

A warning on the website states; “the biggest thing that pisses me off about guys cruising … is that they leave used condoms, tissues … Not only does this destroy the beauty of the park, it threatens cruising spaces. Litter is evidence to our enemies as to exactly what is going on where” – yet one quick flick through Squirt would make an “enemy” even more aware.

Next to a description of each cottaging venue, there is a message board where members can post comments about their experiences and read about the experiences of others before deciding to go or not.

Anyone can become a member by choosing a password. Thus anyone who wanted to could read; “I’ll be there tomorrow between 10 and 11. Anyone else?” and know exactly where to find the sex party.

“Wednesdays from 7. Join me?”

Some members of the Squirt community call for caution, both out of fear of closure of the sites and also attack; “please email rather than post things here! I need to use these places and this is the quickest way to getting them closed down!”

But a scan over the message boards reveals that this advice has not been taken to heart. “Will anyone be there tomorrow between 11 and 11.30? I will”.

In fact, some of the posts are so extreme they make one wonder if they are not written as an incitement to violence against the community, rather than from happy members of it.

One visitor to a site by a children’s playground wrote; “I waited for an hour by the swings and no-one came, so eventually I took care of myself and came all over the path. Then I saw two hot guys arrive. I’ll be back tonight from 6 to see if there’s any better action.”

Clearly, this is a very risky approach to anonymous sex.

“It makes people easy targets, which is very concerning” said gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.

“It also brings the places to the attention of people who would be prepared to close them down,” he added.

But it also raises another issue that might be covered by the Home Office’s “taste and decency” caveat. Is a children’s playground really an appropriate place for sex?

One mother in North London said; “I’ve found used condoms, lubricant tubes, tissues covered in god knows what! I don’t take my kids there anymore.”

Several of Squirt’s most recommended daytime hot spots are decidedly public; the toilets of several supermarket chains on Saturday mornings, library toilets, and even the toilets in the minor injury’s unit of a hospital.

One cottaging site is reputedly in the British Library, (“good today. Lots of action”). The press office spokesman was shocked by the news, as who wouldn’t be; “I’m blushing! Gosh, how embarrassing, really? It’s news to me.”

Later she bravely called back to say, “We do check the toilets regularly and no-one is aware of it. I hope that people will use the library for learning and reading and to see our exhibitions. We hope they have a good time, but not that!”

Bravely, because five restaurants, six local libraries, three hospitals, two hardware stores and a brace of supermarkets and department stores decided that a “hear no evil, see no evil” approach would be their best one, and never returned my emails and calls.

“Nobody should have sex in a public place where any member of the public is likely to see and be offended,” said Mr Tatchell.

But while a minority of people choose to risk “outrage”, the whole community, and indeed the whole notion of cruising topples on the edge of distaste and indecency.

How much harder to persuade the wider communities in which we live that policing of cruising sites is a vital service when used condoms litter a children’s playground, or block a hospital toilet?

“Given the closeted nature of some people’s sexuality,” Mr Tatchell added, “cruising will always be a part of gay life.”

A safe, private and dignified part, we can only hope.