Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Public Sex, the Internet and the Media: Haven't We Been Here Before?

I do despair at times. Another cruising story has broken over the past few days and it follows a very familiar pattern. On Saturday, the Bournemouth Daily Echo reported a cruising story with the headline: 'Dorset Fury at Explicit Gay Sex Website'. This has in turn been picked up by the Pink Paper and the Pink News. Pink News adds a little more on the original story by writing:'There are no laws which specifically state that having sex in a public place is illegal but police may charge cruisers with "outraging public decency". This is usually reserved for persistent offenders or when activity has been viewed by members of the public.'

Let me put this in the most simple way. This is not true.

I continue to be amazed that people who should know better get the law in the area of public sex arse backwards. Take a look at section 71 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. It specifically makes sex in a 'public' toilet a criminal offence, and largely re-states an offence originally created in the Sexual Offences Act 1967 - the same legislation that 'legalised' homosexuality in England and Wales. Read the Act yourself:

S71. Sexual activity in a public lavatory

(1) A person commits an offence if—

(a) he is in a lavatory to which the public or a section of the public has or is permitted to have access, whether on payment or otherwise,

(b) he intentionally engages in an activity, and,

(c) the activity is sexual.

(2) For the purposes of this section, an activity is sexual if a reasonable person would, in all the circumstances but regardless of any person’s purpose, consider it to be sexual.

(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or both.

This is in addition to the common law which Pink News refers to. OK - moving on to this particular Bournemouth story; a 15 year old male was propositioned by another male in a car park toilet (thus - hello - covered by S.71 folks) and complained to his father, prompting the local paper in turn to 'expose' a series of locations revealed on a cruising website (like so many papers have before). This then led to a local councillor calling for the website to be closed. Jeez, where to begin. OK - I'm not going to defend someone propositioning kids in a public convenience but a number of questions seem pertinent - did the boy look like a 15 year old or did he look older?

The stories report that the guy propositioning the 15 year old asked if the teen was a member of the website the councillor is trying to shut down. Whilst it's possible someone would go in and say outright are you a member of x website', I find it unlikely. What actions did the 15 year old undertake when he entered the space? Did he say or do anything that might have left the other guy at the centre of this to believe the 15 year old was interested? The whole paedophile angle in the story seems from another age and one reader of the Bournemouth Daily Echo responded in a quite brilliant letter to the paper. So brilliant, I reproduce it at the end of this post.

Finally, if you want to read some articles that do discuss the law and public sex, take a look at a couple of my articles on the subject:

'Sexuality, public space and the criminal law: the cottaging phenomenon', Journal of Criminal Law (2008) 71(6) 506-519.

'The only gay in the village: Sexuality and the net', Information & Communications Technology Law, Vol. 15, No. 3, October 2006

Finally, I've got a book coming out on the subject, more info here. Think that's quite enough plugs! Here's the letter from an anonymous reader of the Bournemouth Daily Echo:

'I was absolutely sickened by your story about the gay sex website. Oh no – not about the gay sex, but about the hideous comments that you published from Cllr Smith.

Your editorial standards were appalling in printing her comments which are effectively linking homosexuality to paedophilia and which are possibly the most hurtful and disgusting words I have ever read – it’s 2010 for goodness’ sake!

Yes, Cllr Smith should have had her right to say what she thought, but why include the paedophilia line, the playground line, and emphasise young children?

What strikes me as an even bigger concern is that there is nothing to balance this story from Bournemouth’s pretty active gay community, who have worked for years to try and break down the stereotypes and hypocrisy.

Why print those comments? It doesn’t make sense and is just scaremongering.

Why would a gay man, looking for sex with another gay man, end up propositioning a child, or have sex near a child?

Yes, a small minority of gay men go cruising, that’s not news, especially in Bournemouth!

The majority of gay men do not and never would go cruising for sex.

Straight people have sex in public places too – much more regularly than gay men! You have failed to mention that.'

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