The Legal Status of ‘Cottaging’ and ‘Cruising’ Law in the UK

It is said that whatever goes on between consenting adults in the privacy of their bedrooms is no one else’s business but theirs. However, the same cannot be said for consenting adults in the setting of a public toilet, at least not in the eyes of the law.

Having sex in such a fashion is seen by many adults to be a bit naughty or dangerous. Perhaps a way to put the ‘spice’ back into a lukewarm sexual relationship, or simply just a cheap thrill because of the risk of getting caught. However, the apparent problem with this is, well, the possibility of getting caught!

The Legal Status of 'Cottaging' and 'Cruising' Law in the UK

So what is the act known colloquially as ‘cottaging’, and what should you do if you find yourself accused of taking part in it by the long arm of the law? Since the penalties for being convicted are a bit steeper than many would imagine, it might be a better idea to save your sexual energy for the bedroom and you and your partner to order another drink for now, instead!

What exactly is ‘Cottaging’? 

In layman’s terms, ‘cottaging’ is a slang term for having sexual intercourse in a public toilet. Somewhat bizarrely for a period in which the sight of a woman’s bare ankle was considered to be obscene, the term dates back to the Victorian era, when it meant ‘small, public houses’. 

The term applies to both heterosexual and homosexual sex but is often more closely associated with the latter, mainly due to the Hampstead Heath-based exploits of the late George Michael during the 2000s. Such notorious perpetrators are somewhat crudely referred to as ‘cottage queens’ in slang. 

Is it illegal?

As you may have deduced from this article’s introduction, the act of cottaging is, indeed, illegal. It is outlawed under section 73 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, with the wording of the legislation explicitly prohibiting “engaging in sexual activity in a public lavatory”.

Unfortunately for would-be lavatorial lovers, discretion is no defence, like sexual intercourse, even inside a locked toilet cubicle, is still against the law.

What are the possible penalties for being caught cottaging? 

The potential punishment(s) for a cottaging conviction is somewhat harsher than many people are aware. They include:

  • A maximum prison sentence of six months, as well as a possible fine.
  • A caution, which can be accepted as an alternative to prosecution. However, this caution would still appear on your criminal record, so you should not accept a caution unless the alternative is a virtually-guaranteed conviction.
  • May be banned from certain premises. For example, suppose you were caught having sex in the toilets of Costa Coffee. In that case, you could be barred from the outlet forever, regardless of how many free skinny lattes you were entitled to via their customer loyalty scheme!
  • Under certain circumstances, your name may even be added to the Sex Offenders Register.

What are my legal rights if I am arrested on suspicion of cottaging? 

If you are arrested on suspicion of cottaging, the only information you are legally required to provide is your name and address. You cannot be forced to provide any details concerning your place of work or your occupation. You also do not need to declare your HIV status, although a police medic can ask you about this if you need medical assistance whilst in custody.

In other words, do not offer any information that you are not obliged to provide, especially if it can potentially be damaging to your reputation, career and possible safety.

Other top tips for if you find yourself accused of cottaging include not signing any document you are asked to sign until you have read and understood it, not admitting to an offence (or offences) you have not committed, and to not accept a caution without first seeking legal advice from either the duty solicitor or your lawyer.

What about ‘Cruising’?

For the unenlightened, ‘cruising’ is a slang term within the gay community. It typically refers to the act of driving or walking the streets to seek out sexual activity with random partners; or public places such as parks, lay-bys or beaches. It is generally considered to be a public nuisance because frequently, innocent members of the public are approached with indecent proposals. However, cruising is also a valid description when the use of technology is involved, e.g. via apps such as Grindr.

Cruising is not a term specific to homosexuals, as cruising grounds can also be used to describe areas where straight couples meet up to engage in sexual activity. This is often described as dogging.

Unlike cottaging, the practice of cruising is not illegal. However, any subsequent sexual acts between cruising partners are still prohibited if they fall foul of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

 Action Plan

If you are caught having sex in a public toilet by a police officer, or a member of the public reports you, you run the risk of a possible prison sentence. Contact a criminal law solicitor to get the law on your side.


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