Saturday, 6 August 2011

Cottaging and the (Homo)normative

The September issue of Gay Times is 'The Sex Issue' featuring the often constructed dumb but rather sweet Alex Reid on the cover. For my money, it's a horribly unflattering picture of him, leaving you wanting to prescribe a new skin-care regime for him (mine is terrible but then I'm not a celebrity on the front a of a national magazine).

Anyway, beyond these superficial issues, the issue includes a welcome piece on dogging covering several pages and written by Jack Cullen. He also blogs here and his blog reveals he is a very young journalist. This is perhaps evident in the disappointingly superficial piece. It has lots of great bits and he is brave enough to reveal his own experiments with cottaging for the piece (although whether this is his normal pattern of behaviour is left unclear). Although much of the piece makes reference to gay men, the piece concludes with: '[cottaging] hasn't fully died, and will forever remain a window of opportunity for straight men looking to cross the borderline'. Where does this come from? How does it fit with the piece? What of the young guys using cottages? What of the way these places are still policed? What impact does that have? This feels a real missed opportunity.

I know, I know, I'm an academic and not a journalist. My take on a subject
I've studied for years is going to be different but it seems a shame that when a subject is examined, it misses out some key and interesting issues. It's also a shame that they don't mention the ongoing documentary project The Strange Decline of the English Cottage. There are also a number of living academics - Paul Johnson, Les Moran, Matt Houlbrook and myself - who could have provided Jack with a better understanding of this issue. The piece is therefore more important for telling us what a young gay journalist in their early twenties will say about cottaging rather than as a piece about cottaging.

Finally, Gay Times flags up (repeatedly) that 'cottaging is illegal' - which it is - although no indication of how it's policed (lots of things are illegal, the question is if you can get away with it, and what happens if you're caught). GT provides a 'top tips' for cottaging but then off-sets this with the statement: 'Under no circumstances does GT think you should go cottaging'. Wow, prissy little GT. If ever there was an example of the emergent (homo) normative narrative it was this anti-public sex stance. Along with bareback sex and drugs, we put cottaging in the new anti-gay bucket. In reality of course, many gay men (and journalists) do, I would suggest, cottage, bareback and take drugs, but these are increasingly the censored aspects of modern gay men's lives. This is a sex issue that tells gay men to stop having the 'wrong' sort of sex. It's an interesting development.

I discuss this idea of the (homo)normative in a piece just published in Durham Law Review (when I get a PDF of it I'll stick it up on here and SSRN). It should also be available on Heinonline at some point. I also pick up these issues in the media context in a recent webzine piece that you can read here.

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Jason said...

Great post! Can't wait to read your Durham Law Review piece.

Chris Ashford said...

Thanks Jason! I always appreciate feedback :-)

Graeme said...

I always assumed cottaging had died out beefore my time, when all the toilets did.


Elly said...

I think there may be a bit of romanticism about cottaging by some people who emphasise how it is still going. Like Graeme said it is hard enough to find a public lavatory...

I am interested that you said the article was about 'dogging'. Did it include men/women activities? Isn't one of the problems that the thing that is dying out is 'Gay'- that special brand of people who go out and do sex in that special 'gay' way?

I mean many heteros 'bareback' as I have said but they just don't have it as an 'identity'. I really think magazines like Gay Times are behind the 'metrosexual' to coin a phrase, and even 'post-sexual' times.

Chris Ashford said...

There has certainly been a short fall in the number of cottages Graeme but transport hubs still feature lots of toilets, as do shopping centres.

Elly -where do I mention dogging? I'm a bit lost (probably just me!)...

On the bareback, yes they do 'bareback' but it's constructed differently. If you've not read TIm Dean's Unlimited Intimacy, you should. I think you'll find it useful and it will help you to see where I'm coming from.

Jack Cullen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jack Cullen said...

Hi Chris,

Thank you for critiquing my feature in the September issue of GT, “The Death of Cottaging”

Firstly I have to disagree with you on your opinion of Alex Reid. I also conducted the cover interview for this issue and I have to say Alex is an intelligent, caring and really friendly guy to work with. I think the photos inside are jaw-droppingly sexy, amongst the most daring in his career so far and the cover itself is handsome, alluring, inquiring and full of sexual energy.

As for my feature on Cottaging, the piece didn’t mention dogging anywhere in it – a completely different phenomena predominantly involving cars, straight couples and groups of spectators.

An A-List magazine feature is never going to have enough space to turn over every stone and must act as a glossary to some extent. You rightly identify that I’m in my early twenties and feedback through my blog and other writing in the Guardian reveals that my readership is predominantly male teenagers and men in their early twenties, with a sprinkling of more mature readers like yourself.

If I wrote a piece reflecting what my core demographic think of Cottaging then it would have been a much bleaker piece, the general consensus amongst gay teenagers is that Cottaging is a filthy, disgusting pursuit that is completely unnecessary, damaging to the gay community’s profile and pursued by a handful of weirdos.

So, on the contrary I set about to illustrate aspects of the other side of this coin, using humour and light-hearted analysis to encourage young readers to pay attention.

As for a better understanding of the issue, I’m fully aware that I could talk to older men, look up second-hand books in Gay’s The Word and read council and police reports, but my feature was an eye-witness first-hand expose on Cottaging – mirroring exactly the experience a boy would endure if they were to step into a public toilet and look for sex.

I’ll follow your blog and take a look at the webzine and look forward to reading your more statistical and stoic take on this fascinating subject.

I hope you continue to enjoy Gay Times in the run-up to its 400th issue. Hopefully more of my writing will appear in it over the next few months.

You can find me on Twitter @jackcullenuk

Be seeing you,
Jack xx

Chris Ashford said...

Thanks Jack. Firstly, on Alex Reid - it was only the cover that I made reference to, and I stand by the comment (check out the hard-copy rather than the digital image). I didn't make any comment on the inside pictures, but if I were to, I would broadly agree they are much sexier. I'm not enough of a fan to say whether they are 'the most daring ever'.

Also to clarify, I didn't offer any opinion of him, I merely noted how he is often constructed (i.e. by others). As it is, I agree with that view - a nice guy, who is a little dumb and hopeless and yet oddly endearing. All of which is obviously based on the media presentation of him rather than a personal encounter.

I totally agree that a magazine like GT is going to be pitched in a different way and not turn over 'every stone'. However, I was attempting to point out that the concluding remarks seemed removed from the body of the article - specifically the sudden appearance of the 'straight'.

I did not make any suggestion that you head to Gay's the Word (a very London-centric reference I might add) or read archive police reports - you're a journalist, not an academic or expert, so I'm not sure why you take issue with me on that.

I think your comment about your core demographic is really interesting - could you expand on this? I'm genuinely interested in hearing more.

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