To round off BUTT's monthlong (okay, lifelong) obsession with cruising, we caught up with Paul Knight, who has spent the past year photographing London’s decommissioned public toilets. He also has a keen interest in the ones that are still functioning, as they’re the perfect place in which to have a quickie. Last week, Oskar and Paul headed out for a stroll around some of the city's many closed privies.
Oskar: So we’re talking about having sex in toilets. Is there an official term for that?
I’ve never actually looked at why it’s historically called cottaging. I assume it’s because the toilets used to be like little cottages in parks.
When exactly was the first time you did it here in London?
Well, I’d visited London before when I was living in Glasgow. I got into the train station in the afternoon and had a few hours to kill, so I just went around and found some places. I found some good places that day.
And was that the first time you’d ever done it?
Oh no, I did it in Glasgow too.
What kind of guys would you find there?
Mainly working class, East End sort of guys. Heaps of scallies.
With tracksuits on?
The type of guy that would kick your head in if they saw you in the street.
Probably. I was never that interested in them, but there would be quite a few older guys who would go in for the younger scally guys.
So you’ve got these young guys and old guys who would beat each other up out in the real world…
They’re all fucking at it.
And they’ll never set foot in a gay bar.
Lots of these guys, maybe they’re not even gay or bi or whatever, they’re just a bit interested. Maybe they just like to look at cock. Cottaging allows people to move between these categories without disrupting their daily lives. There’s also heaps of gay guys that are obviously gay, but many are going home to their girlfriends and wives.
They just want to suck a cock every now and then.
I thought with London being such a wealthy and international city, you’d have business suits instead of tracksuits.
Yeah, you get businessmen, but you also get working class guys.
Have you ever been harassed or caught in the act?
No. I’ve definitely had situations before where I needed to leave, like maybe my intention had been flagged or I’d overstayed my welcome. But I’ve never felt personally threatened. Touch wood. There’s one cottage in particular in Haringey… I stood outside it one day with my partner to have a look, but it was just too scary to go in.
They just all looked so rough. I’m sure that’s some people’s fantasy, but it just looked too threatening. People could be in there just to mug you.
It seems like loads of public toilets are closing due to public spending cuts.
There was a wave of closures about ten years ago. I’ve noticed a recent wave in the last couple of years where toilets that used to be in parks are being closed and changed into different types of toilets— the ones with one single cubicle.
Do you think there’s a government initiative to combat cottaging?
It wouldn’t surprise me if they had some kind of strategy to counteract what they consider ‘anti-social’ behaviour. I can think of a few parks where they’ve built these huge playgrounds for children right next to where they’ve shut down a little cottaging area.
Could you go into a place like IKEA and expect a handjob after having meatballs in the canteen?
Well, cottaging has moved into that realm. The thing is, you can’t stop it. It will always pop up somewhere else. I’m sure some guys swap locations with each other and talk about the different cottages they’ve been to. Like, ‘Have you checked this place out?’ or ‘Oh, that one was bad, I had a scary situation here.’ I recently found a new place that seems quite busy.
Were any guys there?
And what did they do with you?
They didn’t really do anything with me. I was maybe only there for fifteen minutes, and I saw three guys cum.
So it was like an orgy?
No, these were all one by one. There was this one middle-aged guy in a blue suit, he kinda looked like a lawyer.
And someone attended to him?
He was just kinda jerking off, and this younger Brazilian guy, probably in his early twenties, came in. The Brazilian had a huge cock and as soon as he flipped this thing out — well let’s just say that suddenly I was not important at all. The guy in the suit started sucking his dick straight away.
And they never spoke a word?
Do they ever speak?
Yesterday, one guy said something to me after I had cum. As he walked past me, he said, ‘Thanks mate, take care.’
Okay, so for those of us who’ve never actually gone cottaging. How does one get started?
Well, you’d just go up to the urinal, and if you need a piss then go and piss. If you don’t, then just stand there and take your dick out. If somebody’s there long enough and like you they aren’t actually peeing, they’ve either got a bladder problem or they’re up for it. You’ve got to give subtle signs as well as pick up on them.
Like just catching their eye?
Yeah, you need to interpret their moves, and then build that trust because they don’t know whether you’re there for ill gains or just to piss.
So we’re both standing there with our cocks out, me and this old man in a parka jacket. Could I just put my hand over and grab his dick?
You could do, but that’s a bold move. You would probably just jerk off, make it obvious that you were interested, and then he would start doing the same. That way, you’d confirm with each other to know it’s safe.
And then we’d go into a cubicle?
If you want. The thing with going in the cubicle is: sometimes it can be hard to get out. Two guys can’t be seen coming out of cubicle together. You risk people going to an attendant. This will flag the cottage and potentially ruin it for other people. On the other hand, you could get stuck in the cubicle and someone comes knocking on the door…
Like ‘What are you up to in there?’
Yeah, and then you’re nabbed.
So you’re better just staying out at the urinals?
I think so, if you can get away with it.
Sounds like a lot of effort for a handjob, I mean, rather than just meeting a guy on the internet and inviting him over. What’s the appeal?
It’s a big commitment to go to somebody else’s house. You have to get ready, make the journey, get the train or whatever.
So cottaging is like a condensed version of the hookup?
Totally. You can get really lucky, get exactly what you want and be done in five minutes. Then you’re out and it’s like, ‘Right, where was I?’