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The secret world of cottaging explored in new photography exhibition

'Public Toilets, Private Affairs' is the latest work of French photographer Marc Martin.

By Will Stroude

For generations, public toilets have been a bastion of secret same-sex liaisons, frequented by men who can’t express their sexuality openly or those who simply enjoy the rush of sexual dalliances in a public space.

The act known as ‘cottaging’ has simultaneously been a source of both safety and shame for members of the gay community, and now a new photography series, book and and exhibition from French artist Marc Martin is shedding more light on the illicit activity.

‘Public Toilets, Private Affairs’ opened at Berlin’s LGBT Schwules Museum earlier this month, with the aim of celebrating a part of gay history – and still for many, everyday life – that is rarely discussed in public.


“As far as the history of cottaging is concerned, remembering it always seems to be tinged with a great deal of pessimism,” Marc says of the inspiration behind the series, which saw him photograph models in staged encounters at public toilets around Europe.

“Within the gay community, they remain more a source of shame than pride. And yet, these public aedicules, which sheltered the escapades of so many gay men, transvestites prostitutes and libertines, were also sites of unbridled freedom,” he explains.  

“Despite being disparaged as sleazy and dirty, they allowed for immediate, anonymous sexual contacts. They were a godsend to those who could not entertain at home and expose their sexual proclivities to the outside world.

He adds: “I wanted these men’s bravery to be acknowledged, and the heady sensuality of places that generated so much excitement to get due recognition.”

You’ll be able to see ‘Public Toilets, Private Affair’ in full at the Schwules Museum in Berlin until 5 February 2018, where a program of events including talks, discussions, and film screenings is set to take place alongside the exhibition.