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Gay cruising describes the act of searching about a public place in pursuit of a partner for sex. The activity has existed since at least the 17th century in Great Britain, and has a colourful legal history. It differs from prostitution in that the parties involved do not seek money for sex, and from gay nightclubs or bathhouses in that they are not on private premises, although they may take place on private land to which the public have been granted access.
The history of gay cruising is fairly poorly documented, as the illegality of gay sex meant that those who used such cruising grounds were likely to be discreet about them. Rictor Norton, author of Mother Clap's Molly House (a reference to Margaret Clap), is one of the few historians to address the topic. He believes that the first gay cruising grounds and gay brothels in London may have sprung up in the early 17th century. Theatres were sometimes denounced as such by moralists of the time.
Before the 20th century, anal sex, whether conducted in public or private, was illegal under sodomy laws, including the Buggery Act set down by Henry VIII in 1533. The penalty for anal intercourse during most of this period was death, however, specific proof of successful anal penetration was required for this verdict to be brought; the lesser crime of "gross indecency" carried penalties including the pillory (as in the case of the Vere Street Coterie, who were arrested in a raid of a gay club in 1811), transportation, imprisonment, etc.
The death penalty for anal sex was lifted in 1861, however, gay men have continued to be at risk of prosecution for public sex. An 1855 law prohibited "gross indecency" including mutual masturbation and oral sex. Eventually, in 1967, the Wolfenden Report led to the legalisation of homosexual sex in private; no such legal privilege pertains to sex in public places either for homosexual or heterosexual sex.
A number of well known people have been arrested for sex in public places in Britain. They include:
- Wilfrid Brambell was arrested in a toilet in Shepherd's Bush (date unknown).
- Guy Burgess
- Peter Dudley, arrested in 1982 in a toilet in Didsbury.
- Sir John Gielgud, arrested for "importuning" in 1953 in Chelsea.
- Joe Meek, arrested in a toilet in Islington in 1963.
- Stedman Pearson, arrested in a toilet in New Malden in 1990.
- Simeon Solomon, who was arrested in a London toilet in 1873 with a 60-year-old stableman. He was later also arrested in France for a similar offence.
- Michael Turnbull was arrested for gross indecency in 1968, before he became Bishop of Durham.
- Peter Wyngarde, arrested for gross indecency in Gloucester in 1975.
- Leigh Bowery, arrested for gross indecency at Liverpool Street Station in 1985.
The Sexual Offences Act 2003, which prohibits "sexual activity in a public lavatory", has nothing to say about sex in other public places. However anyone who engages in homosexual or heterosexual intercourse in public can find themselves charged with offences under the Public Order Act, if the police have sufficient evidence to convince a court of law that the activity was witnessed by a third party, or there was a high likelihood of the activity being witnessed by a third party.
Presently, there is an active population of men who visit cruising grounds, which include parks, picnic areas and lay-bys where sex takes place in the bushes or other sheltered areas. These areas exist in all parts of Britain, including isolated rural areas. The attitude of the police to cruising at any given location varies, according to the time of the day or night, and the level of public concern measured by the number of complaints from local residents and councillors. Occasionally, police will visit a cruising area during the early hours of the morning with the intention of advising cruisers of the risk of homophobic attacks, and any persons seen to be involved in sexual behaviour will be asked to move on rather than being arrested. A number of police forces actively participate in on-line discussions with cruisers in order to gather information on hate crimes and to discourage cruisers from using locations about which complaints have been received.
Many cruisers complain about the practice of leaving evidence of sexual encounters, such as discarded lubricant and condom packets, soiled toilet tissue and used condoms, because it draws the attention of other people to the fact that the area is a public sex environment, even if no sexual activity has been seen by others. The presence of such debris leads to complaints to the police and local council on moral or environmental grounds, and an increased police presence.
During an interview on BBC News24, George Michael, who was allegedly caught cruising on Hampstead Heath by News of the World photographers, claimed that his cruising was de facto private because it occurred at 2am
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