This is our truth, tell us yours
The excellent Chris Ashford is quoted on the subject of dogging and cruising here, on the BBC website.
If I haven’t been as open on this bog about the topic of cottaging the problem is two fold; partly, I haven’t wanted to get in the way of writing the novel that might one day be a stand-in for my autobiography, and partly I haven’t wanted to rush to the blog with ideas that I am well aware run the risk of starting the wrong kind of controversy before they are fully formed.
Cottaging and cruising have their own sub-culture, and their own mores and customs, of which I only know a part, but I’d add one specific point which I suspect Chris Ashford is aware of.
The criminalization of cottaging makes it much harder for those at risk of exploitation, or those who have been exploited, to complain and engage with the legal services and support they might require. For those providing services to men who have sex with men it means there is a constant sequence of ethical dilemmas that have to be navigated as they seek to help the vulnerable and ensure that, whatever else happens, the sex is as safe as it’s likely to be and the people involved are as free from exploitation as is possible.
What about those of us who want to write about it? Or talk about it? I’m not the only man in the world who had his first experience of sex in a public place before he was of legal age, either by the standards that apply then or now. To write about it autobiographically in the first person would require me to write misery porn of the kind that ends up in a constant debate about how true it is, or how authentic the author is, obscuring the issues. If I am to write a novel about it I have to accept that for every reader who will engage with honest descriptions of my experiences, and who will understand why, sometimes, euphemisms just won’t do, there will be another reader having a wank and wishing they had the courage to do with others what adults did with me.
I’ll say this though. I knew what it was to have sex with men before I ever went into a public toilet and noticed or understood the writing on the walls. My experience was that we gravitated to public toilets because we knew that that was the place where we could make some kind of human contact that we craved with others. I am sure someone else will come along and deny this, and say that they were entirely innocent before an experience in a public toilet transformed them. That is their story. Mine is that the boys and men who gathered, and shuffled their feet, and made sideways glances at each other before hurrying out the door to walk round the park before returning, determined to try and make contact this time, to have the courage to reach out to someone else, were knowing but nervous participants.
An academic like Chris Ashford may know of better data than I have at my disposal, or more rounded studies, but if I had to hazard an hypothesis it would be that somewhere around half of all encounters in cottaging or cruising spots do not proceed to full sex, oreven sexual contact, and that the nervousness of those involved means that they frequently abandon encounters for reasons that are nothing to do with the desirability of the other person or their own desire for fulfillment.
I’ll add one other point. There is no area where the law of unintended consequences applies more fully than in the area of public sex. Close down one cottaging or cruising site, and another one will open, or spring into life. It has ever been thus. In some cases what happens is that the supply of places for encounters is commercialized – hence swingers clubs and saunas benefit from police activity. In most cases though, the activity is simply removed from one place to another, and continues. If the police conclude ‘better the doggers you know’ that may simply be an utilitarian judgement, not an expression of tolerance or sympathy.