A sure fire way to trigger snickers or invite suspicion about your morals is to raise the topic of 'dogging' and 'cruising' at a parish council meeting.
Someone in the public gallery might innocently ask what is this term? Well, it's a little bit indelicate but dogging is heterosexuals engaging in sex in a public place and cruising is homosexuals meeting up for anonymous sex, usually in public places.
Amendments to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 mean that outdoor sex is not in itself an offence. However, section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 makes an offence of being threatening, abusive or insulting in a way which is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress, which could include people engaging in public sexual activity.
Section 71 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, makes it illegal to engage in a sexual act in a public toilet. The law applies equally to men and women and will be regarded as a ‘nuisance’ offence rather than a serious sex crime.
If you want to look it up further without tripping pornography blockers or to find the most relevant information; the subject is generally referred to as Public Sex Environments (PSE).
Puce-complexioned brigadiers might demand a police crackdown after complaints of PSE activity but the local constabulary are unlikely to immediately divert manpower to patrolling public toilets, country parks and lay-bys to catch people in the act. With limited budgets for police or ranger patrols, too often the only options to tackle PSE is removal these amenities for everyone by their closure.
Public sex is engaged in by people of every gender and sexual orientation and in both rural and urban environments. The public's concern seem to be less with heterosexual activity but greater when it involves homosexual activity. This leads to further marginalisation and victimisation of the gay community.
As far as I know, there isn't much mileage in considering the problem is different between heterosexual or homosexual men and women, or urban or rural area but urban or rural locations might determine different policing strategies. Many rural PSE are frequented by both 'straight' and 'gay' users.
In a survey of nuisance and criminal activity such as fly-tipping and vandalism in English country parks, problems with sexual activity was reported in 60% of them.
PSE are not new; 'lovers lanes' have been tolerated for years but they have always been problematic as they bring together incompatible parts of societies’ attitudes to morality and the law. The two are often out of step leaving PSEs not just a problem for lawmakers and the police, but more commonly for the residents and the users themselves.
PSE should be a concern for communities because:
- Sexual activity in a public place can cause offence or distress to those who unwillingly witness it and can result in people feeling intimidated when using public places and facilities.
- Users can make mistaken approaches to the public for sexual activity. This denies the public the right to use the amenities without molestation.
- There is often unsanitary litter (usually the first indication the area is a PSE) and increased general littering. The discarded material can affect the degree to which a site is seen as suitable for educational or recreational activities.
- There is damage to the environment or amenities such as trampling of undergrowth or damage to trees and damage to locks and gates and public toilet cubicles by contact graffiti and cutting of 'glory holes'.
- There is increased vehicle traffic at unsocial hours with longer utilisation of laybys thus less availability of them for their normal purpose and more vehicle erosion as users park off the road.
- Sex in a PSE is high-risk activity and generally users have multiple contacts. It is more often without condoms and so they have much greater risks of contracting and spreading STDs and HIV.
- PSE can eventually attract prostitution (not a crime in itself) and the associated criminal activity of drugs, trafficking and exploitation of children as well as filming and photography to produce pornography.
- Female users and to a lesser extent male users are at a greater risk of coercion and so rape.
The ‘established’ approach to policing PSE is to target the users. While effective in discouraging activity in certain areas, it can push the problem to other places which are harder to police. Policy to reduce PSE shows enlightened tolerance.
- PSE users can attract hate-crime persecution and they are often victims of assault, harassment and robbery and theft from vehicles and users also leave themselves open to blackmail. There is less likelihood that victims will report such crimes to the police. Victimisation and enforcement has also led to the ’outing’ of individuals, with tragic results, particularly if they are married men who do not identify with being gay or bisexual. Suicides are not uncommon.
- PSE activities are also a challenge for the staff at a site. Cleaning up the litter is an unpleasant task. When activities are disturbed, volunteers and staff often suffer embarrassment and some have been physically threatened by pimps and users wanting to discourage their presence. Unwitting visitors to PSE have greater risk of becoming victims of crime when there is a criminal element preying on PSE users.
The Suffolk Constabulary Policies & Procedures: Policing of Public Sexual Activity / Managing Public Sex Environments is well worth reading.
You can also find the Association of Chief Police Officer of England, Wales & Northern Ireland Guidance on Policing Public Sex
The Suffolk approach to PSE complaints is the Scan Analyse Respond Assess (SARA) problem-solving method.
Within that is the Problem Analysis Triangle (PAT) that breaks incidents down into features of the victim, the offender and the location (also called the wolf, duck, den model). If you can reduce or remove one part of the model, the others cannot exist.
Like a pub with a bad reputation, PSE is predominantly a 'den' scenario but as closing that den removes an amenity from the public, the approach to address the 'wolf', the user who takes the opportunity to offend around a PSE and is not unrestricted from doing so by the furtive (though not necessarily illegal) nature of the activity, is to deter the 'ducks' the users who more likely to become victims of the criminals.
Unless there is a specific suggestion that a more serious offence such as sexual assault, someone being held against their will or a child or young person is involved with an adult, no deployment will be made.
Likewise, unless there is criminal activity such as theft, assault or drug dealing at a PSE, police efforts will be more focussed at first on informing users that their behaviour is exposing them to considerable risk of becoming a victim of crime or compromising their health and that of others.
This can be done in a variety of ways including using Gay Liaison Officers as a source of information and putting up posters. There is a difficult balance because visible enforcement or notices can advertise the site and actually increase the usage.
It is a conundrum too that while there is no criminal activity, this approach may be seen as a form of tolerance and police informing users of the risks they take may not be enough of a deterrence so creating the opportunity for criminal activity. Depending on the users, for instance men seeking men, there can be partnership working with LGBT health workers, such as the Terence Higgins Trust, to inform users of risk and encourage users to modify their behaviour so to reduce risk and the chance of conflict with other users of the space.
If the situation does not improve, the Partnerships and Safer Neighbourhoods Team could consider controlling access by restricting hours of opening and employing toilet attendants or park patrols trained to work within intervention protocols.
Other interventions could be:
The third step would be more frequent police patrols but their emphasis would be on information passing regarding the stepped process and the subsequent enforcement action that may be taken.
- Increased signage.
- Environmental design – landscaping and cutting back of shrubbery.
- Increased lighting.
- Overt surveillance, (e.g. CCTV).
- Staff vigilance and guidance (e.g. gardeners).
- Increased litter bins.
- Target removal, (e.g. closure of facilities).
- Patrols/intervention by accredited County Council wardens.
You should be careful in your media relations when dealing with issues surrounding public sexual activity as this can backfire by advertising a PSE and enable vigilantism or persecution. Whilst there are circumstances when localised leafleting is a viable option, the ‘outing’ of problem venues through the media is to be avoided. It can escalate fears, fuel prejudice and place all persons in that vicinity at risk.
In the future society may realise that managed tolerance through ’zoning’ presents the best opportunity to tackle a growing problem and tackle the influences which degrade some of society’s most valued recreational and conservation resources.