Sir Beville Stanier, nephew of the Queen’s late crown equerry and owner of an 800-hectare estate in Oxfordshire, was not the first one to notice the public orgies taking place on his property. “My tenants stumbled on the scene after dark and called to let me know,” he explained in an interview. “I’ve been down there myself in the daytime and the ground is littered with used condoms and tissues. It really is quite unpleasant.”
The orgy in question was not a random occurrence, but part of an established British activity known as “dogging,” in which participants meet to have—and observe—sex in parked cars and wooded lots. The phenomenon is hardly new. The BBC reported instances of the dogging “sex craze” back in 2003, with the news that “the Internet and text messaging are fuelling a practice which involves unprotected sex with strangers in public parks.”
Since then, however, the subculture has grown into a full-blown social nuisance, in which certain public and private lots, usually accessed from motorway lay-bys (a.k.a. rest stops), have been overtaken by swingers and voyeurs who arrange to hook up anonymously by cover of night. Aided by social media sites, the phenomenon appears to be on the rise, and many English country folk are decidedly not amused.
Some residents and landowners are lobbying local councils to up policing or close down lay-bys, while other communities, like the town of Puttenham, Surrey, are almost reluctantly tolerant. Police there have designated a popular wooded lot a “public-sex environment,” and put up a sign politely asking people not to engage in “activities of an unacceptable nature”—to no apparent avail.
Last spring in Darwen, Lancashire, the local council cut down 6,000 mature trees on a popular spot in an attempt to deter the practice. Other communities have been forced to deforest picnic grounds, demolish disused buildings and install fencing.
Some residents have argued for the installation of CCTV cameras and motion-sensor lighting. But opponents say such measures would be too expensive and could even backfire, given that many doggers are exhibitionists. One Cotswolds recreation area has become so notorious that pranksters had a fake sign installed by the motorway that read, “Official Dogging Area.”
So why aren’t local authorities cracking down? The problem is that dogging falls under a legal grey area and police are reluctant to press charges. While indecent exposure remains against the law, unobserved public nudity or sex is technically legal. Add to this Britain’s unpleasant history with persecuting homosexuals: gay sex was a felony in parts of the U.K. until the early ’80s, and since then many men have been controversially busted for having sex in public bathrooms (known as “cottaging”). The result is a legal climate in which the authorities are loath to get involved when it comes to public predilections in the bedroom—or the countryside.
Enter the words “U.K. and dogging” into Google and you will find a proliferation of websites depicting pale, paunchy middle-aged folks in ski jackets and rubber boots engaging in outdoor sex acts. Many provide forums to meet, and maps (Dogging After Dark lists over 5,000 dogging spots in Britain). Dogging may be the sexual equivalent of an English day at the beach: cold, damp and decidedly perverse—to all but those who enjoy it.
Professor Richard Byrne, who teaches at Harper Adams University College in Shropshire, has spent years studying the phenomenon and considers it a modern extension of the English pastoral tradition of engaging in youthful, intimate relations outdoors. “The ‘lovers’ lane,’ ” he writes, in a 2006 paper published in the Canadian academic journal Leisure, “is a place of variable geography, which for many users simply fulfills a functional need—it is a private place to go and have sex.”
As for why dogging is back in the news today, Byrne blames advances in technology. “It’s much more accessible now than when it first started a few years ago,” he explained, “because mobile Web access allows for greater information flow.” He also adds that police deterrents may have pushed doggers to new areas, causing outcry in different communities.
Like many Britons, Simon Ellis, director of the 2009 independent film Dogging: a Love Story, is divided on whether dogging should be legal. “Should it be illegal to make out in your car, which has surely happened since cars were invented?” he asks. “Or should it just be illegal if there is someone standing there [masturbating] at the window because then it becomes something entirely different? It’s certainly not for me—but I’d say that so long as it is consensual, and not in a location that’s likely to be happened upon by an unsuspecting public, then what’s the harm?”
Sir Beville Stanier vehemently disagrees. After spending thousands of pounds clearing bush and repairing fences on his property (they always get broken down again), the peer has taken to lobbying his local council to shut down the lay-by next to his property. Enough, he says, is bloody well enough. “There are all sorts of things people are more than welcome do in their own homes, but they don’t need public grounds for that purpose,” he said. “And they certainly don’t need to be doing it on my estate.”