Why is it that some gay men go in search of sexual encounters in lavatories?
IF SINGER George Michael had been caught with his pants down in a London public lavatory - rather than a gent's washroom in the neatly manicured Will Rogers Memorial Park in Los Angeles - then he would have received a few quiet words of advice from the local community bobby about his "inappropriate behaviour". He would then have walked away feeling a little embarrassed, but with his reputation intact and no one else knowing anything of the incident.

Last autumn David O'Dowd, Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary, and the Association of Chief Police Officers issued instructions to chief constables that surveillance operations of cottages (public lavatories used for gay sex) and cruising areas, including the use of pretty policemen as agents provocateur, was no longer acceptable. If there is a perceived problem with such venues, they proclaimed, then the police should get together with gay community organisations to resolve it discreetly.

The Los Angeles Police Department, unfortunately for George Michael, is far less enlightened. But as one American commentator lamented on a British television news bulletin on Thursday morning: "This guy has money, a house and hotel bedrooms at his disposal. So why on earth did he need to go and do this?"

Speaking to the Pink Paper earlier this year, a number of cottagers gave their verdict on anonymous, public sex.

"While the gay scene is so structured, cottaging is a far more spontaneous outlet for gay sex," says Henry, a 26-year-old lawyer. "I've used cottages in hospitals, department stores, concert halls, libraries, colleges - even straight pubs - as well as the usual."

But Robert Cole, 40, despises the time he has spent hanging around public lavatories. "I started cottaging at 12 because I was too young to go to pubs, but wanted to find a boyfriend. But it then becomes compulsive and a mechanism for avoiding sorting your life out."

Henry isn't moved by that argument: "I even dream about cottaging. You don't know what or who you might find next. It's just so exciting. And it's the very stuff of life, don't you think?"

Recent research suggests that the stereotypical image of the cottager being either an elderly or closeted, and invariably married, man is misleading. Sex in public lavatories in the UK is routinely sought by two distinct groups: openly gay men who also frequent gay pubs and clubs; and boys and teenagers keen to explore their sexuality.

This month sees the publication of a survey of men who cottage in north London by the Aids Education Unit of Barnet Healthcare NHS Trust. More than 200 men were asked to complete an anonymous questionnaire, and the results are eye-opening.

Twenty per cent of those questioned started cottaging between the ages of 10 and 14, and 32 per cent started between the ages of 15 and 19. And the survey's finding that just over 75 per cent of those questioned also regularly visit gay social venues and groups somewhat destroys the myth that cottagers are sad, closeted individuals who are unable to come to terms with their sexuality.

"We have a very good relationship with the local police in case there are any problems with the cruisers up on Hampstead Heath at night," says Jamie Taylor of the group Gay Men Fighting Aids, which provides safer sex advice and condoms at the country's most famous cruising ground. "The main problem we suffer is complaints from the locals about the amount of condom litter found on the Heath the next morning. But the police are always available if there is any sign of queerbashing, and people generally accept what goes on up there. The place has also developed quite a social atmosphere with some people just come along to socialise without any intentions of having sex," he adds.

The lessening of the taboo of having sex in cottages and cruising grounds is relatively recent. Even until the mid-1990s the Metropolitan Police would organise major cottaging sweeps that would net dozens of men in one short cost-effective operation. That in turn guaranteed a high rate of convictions in the local magistrates court and an improved crime clear- up rate.

George Michael is not the first famous man to be arrested for an offence in a public lavatory. Earlier celebrated cases of men convicted of cottaging and cruising did in fact contribute to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Two cases in particular - the 1931 conviction of Bobbie Shaw, eldest son of Tory MP Nancy Astor, and Sir John Gielgud, who was arrested in a Chelsea public lavatory in October 1953 - had this effect.

"Lord Astor owned the Times and the Observer, and was able to ensure that Bobbie Astor's case never made it into the press," says historian Patrick Higgins, author of the Heterosexual Dictatorship. "This made him realise just how unjust the law was, and when the debate heated up over the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the Observer became one of the main intellectual forces behind that debate. And Lord Astor was the main financial backer of the Homosexual Law Reform Association."

Although Sir John Gielgud's career survived without so much as a blemish, what are the chances of George Michael's surviving likewise? "People will continue to judge Michael on his artistic skills, and you would have to be very small-minded to do otherwise," says pop writer Ian Watson of Melody Maker. "What he does with his private life is his business - he is an intensely private person, and I can't imagine that his standing as a singer will suffer in the slightest as a result of this incident."