Whatsapp There are nights when, crossing the dark parkland by my house, I see a man beneath a remote streetlamp. He is usually alone, and smokes as he circles the low walls of a squat little building. Most nights, after innumerable cigarettes and several laps of the place, he will slip from the light for good. Sometimes another figure will appear, warily loping in and out of the lamplight. A brief exchange follows before cigarettes are extinguished and both slink off into the building.
This, I have discovered, is cottaging — or at least the first stages of it. Those who know about cottaging might, quite understandably, have thought it a thing of the past. But as my man under the streetlight explained to me later, when we met, even in the internet era it still has appeal. Cottaging, to clarify, is the act of anonymous sex in a public loo, taking its name from the traditional cottage-like huts that sprang up in almost every popular park in the 19th century.
Like its alfresco counterpart, cruising, cottaging takes place uniquely between gay and bisexual men and in the past was a way in which men could meet for sex at a time when homosexuality was illegal.
These strange brick shanties with their tiled interiors became safe havens. Paradoxically, it was cottaging itself that largely brought about the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The Act did nothing to discourage cottaging. The number of convictions for indecent exposure doubled in the next decade and what was once a slang term used exclusively by a small community of gay men became reasonably common knowledge.
As cottaging entered the public consciousness, so our attitudes underwent a gradual shift. No need to step out into a wet night, uncertain of success.
But there was that man under the streetlamp. So one evening, while tripping home tipsy from the pub, I spotted his lighted cigarette across the park — and decided to join him for a smoke. I told him that I saw him down here often. He replied that it was a nice spot, stamped out his cigarette and started to walk away.
He was married to a woman for 14 years he said. The first time he cottaged was when he was still with her. I drank half a bottle of vodka beforehand and hung around the cottage for hours. Then finally one guy came, who could see I was new to it. He showed me what to do. So why then does he still choose to spend his evenings by a public lavatory?
Why not sit at home and find men online? Sideways glances, foot-tapping under cubicles and eye contact maintained for just a moment too long all add to its cloak-and-dagger allure. More than any of the hookup apps, cottaging represents sex purely for its own sake, in its most basic form. Grindr and Gaydar demand an element of pretence, a bit of perfunctory bantering. A recent article in gay magazine Attitude even suggested that it might be enjoying a mini renaissance. For my man beneath the lamp, nothing can ever quite match the thrill of a dusky Sunday evening spent waiting by a park toilet, smoking countless cigarettes to quell the rising tide of anxious excitement.