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History & Politics

For young people it is difficult to imagine that the most important place for men to have gay sex in the period before 1970 was in public urinals and sometimes parks.

by Gert Hekma - 23 February 2019

length: 6 min. Printer Friendly Page  
The Exciting Public Secrecy of Tearoom Sex

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
length: 6 minuten

© Marc Martin
Around 1960, there were around fifty urinals with gay sex activity in Amsterdam. They were meant for men who worked outside to answer nature’s callin. I want to discuss those “privaten” or “secreten” - as they were called in Dutch - that men used for their gay pleasures, in those days the most common place to have gay sex.

After that, it was pubs and discos with or without dark rooms (spaces inside gay bars for gay sex opportunities) that were used for picking up men. In our present times, these gay pubs and discos are disappearing and making room for Grindr and other apps for sexual encounters that mostly take place in the privacy of men’s homes, a lot less public than those pissoirs ever were.

Tearoom sex - as “cottaging” (the British term) was called in the United States - has a long history.

Oosterpark, Amsterdam
We know that in the eighteenth century, sodomites used “gemakken,” wooden structures that were under bridges and were used by both genders to answer nature’s call directly into the canal. They were ideal places to have sex in secret. If other people descended, they betrayed themselves by the noise they made - many people then walked on clogs which - wood on wood - made quite some noise.

There were also other places, such as churches, the ramparts of the city, or other public places where they could make contact, for instance the former Amsterdam city hall, since 1806 the Royal Palace on Dam Square.

The city hall then served multiple functions: sodomy was punishable by death at the time, meaning anal or non-marital sex for which mainly gay men and a few heterosexuals have been convicted. (Sodomy could also refer to bestiality.)

Men caught sodomizing, whether they had been betrayed by others or had confessed to it because of their “burden of sin,” were imprisoned in and sometimes executed on a scaffold in front of the City Hall. What is now the Royal Palace was once a multifunctional civilian centre where the whole process of crime, arrest, imprisonment, condemnation, and punishment took place.

The stigma on homosexual behavior suddenly changed with Napoleon’s conquering and incorporating of what is now the Netherlands into the French empire (1795-1813). This led to the separation of church and state and a new Penal Code in 1811. Suddenly, sodomy was no longer a crime. Homosexual behavior was only punishable as a violation of public honor - i.e. public sex -, an enormous change. In 1886, the minimum age of consent became sixteen, and in 1911, with the advance of Christian parties, a new minimum age was introduced to prevent “sexual abuse” of adults with young people under the age of twenty-one of the same sex.

People were afraid that minors would become gay themselves through homosexual contact and would “learn” it from others. After 1850, a lively tearoom scene had developed, mainly because of a change in public lavatories which, due to the connection to the new waterworks and sewers, had disappeared from their location under bridges to aboveground locations. Models were constantly redesigned in order for the police to be able to see from the outside whether homosexuals were using them.

What were those men doing in public lavatories?

© Marc MartinThey were cottaging because they were looking for sex with other men. Inside, they sometimes let their sex hang out of their pants, giving others the opportunity to strike and have a quickie. It was a subtle game of who did and did not want to have sex with other men, and sometimes you had the misfortune of running into a reluctant straight man or undercover policeman. Now, sex is often anal, but then it was mostly oral or handjobs.

There was also room for voyeurs who would rather watch than play the game. Men discovered sexual traffic by chance because they were answering nature’s call there, told each other about it, or heard about it in a different way. Boys often heard of it early, in puberty, or saw it. It usually was a valuable experience, a first step on a gay path that would mark their lives.

It was not only homosexual people who frequented these places, but often also “straight” guys who wanted some adventure outside the home, for instance with sex workers. For both groups it was less difficult than entering a gay pub, which would be more of an admittance that you were homosexual. Pissoirs with not much talk but all the more cock action, were more non-committal.

Sometimes graffiti artists brightened them up, many men left messages, and rent boys worked there. They would charge, whereas other visitors would not. They were “democratic” locations that were frequented by men of all classes and ages. Pissoirs were extremely dirty and smelly places, but also exciting and horny. Lots of men came quickly - true quickies. And as a frequenter once told to me, also easy because there you would see first what you see last elsewhere.

© Marc Martin
These places were not without peril. Some frequenters were swindlers, thugs, robbers, or murderers. Two years ago, a Pole was murdered in Oosterpark, although not in a urinal but while cruising. As is well-known, sex is not only pleasure but also danger, and not just equality but also difference - which makes it risky.

After 1950, these pissoirs to have sex at could be found next to bars and dance halls. There were also ordinary cinemas where men used the back rows for gay sex, and all rows in sex cinemas. It occurred in other places as well, for instance in swimming pools, in trams, in the facilities of department stores, almost everywhere, as homosexuality was so forbidden that you did not talk about it, did not even see it. As at the time, it certainly was not apparent that actor, singer and comedian Wim Sonneveld was as gay as could be - people were blind to it.

After 1970, there were three places for gay sex: outside in urinals and parks, and inside at bars and saunas, and finally at home with gay men who now had their own beds. It made Amsterdam into the “gay capital” it once was, because it had many cruising places that were not possible elsewhere because of discrimination. Gay urinals disappeared around the year 2000. Now women want urinals again, not for sex but to relieve nature. When it comes to women, this “lust for cottaging” is lost on them, as well as gay pubs, the leather scene, dark rooms or sex apps like Grindr. It is a hurdle feminist still have to take.

Marc Martin’s Vision

Marc MartinIn 2017 French photographer Marc Martin, who for some years already had been exploring the history of and stories about public toilets from Paris to Berlin, published the book “Fenster zum Klo: Hommage an den Klappensex.”

This isn’t “just” a photo book, because it also contains interviews with experts and aficionados of this sexual playground, documents from the archives of the Parisian vice squad, quotes from authors and reproductions of drawings and historical photographs. The 300 page book was released by Agua éditions, but sold out very quickly and therefore recently a shortened version of 128 pages and with a new cover was published.  See



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