Gay Sex Through The Ages – Have We Met Before?

Chronicling how men meet other men for sex, filmmaker Oliver Mason dove into half a century of the UK’s sexual history, looking at the impact the internet had on our sexual culture.

Through intimate interviews recalling first-hand accounts, he weaves together a brief history of gay sex, from the caravan clubs all the way through to the apps.

We caught up with him ahead of the short film’s premiere to pick his brain about the impact the world wide web has had on our sex lives.


Hey Oli! How did you go about finding your subjects; people that were willing to openly discuss their sexual escapades?

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Well, I guess that was one of the problems. I specifically wanted it to cover hooking up through the ages. It wasn’t going to be about romance and partnerships. I’m in my early-mid thirties and I have a lot of gay friends my age with a little bit of variation, so my biggest concern was that I wanted to have a breadth of ages for it to feel reflective of the UK. I started panicking about finding much older gay men, so my mum suggested a friend of hers who I did interview. He opens the whole film.

Must be awkward the next time he’s round for tea.

Yeah! He’s a bit older but I still wanted to try and get men with different stories, say, from the 1950s. I heard a great story from a friend about a couple who met cruising in Piccadilly Circus just after WW2 and stayed together ever since until one of them passed away 10-20 years ago, and the other died last year. A week or two into interviewing men my age and a little older I had a panic of finding people at the younger end of the spectrum. I wanted to cover men around the age of 20 who would have grown up with a mobile phone.

So do you start off in the ‘70s?

There’s a prelude which covers secret gentlemen’s clubs which, from my limited research around them, existed in the ‘20s, until possibly the ‘70s or ‘80s. We start properly in the ‘70s with the Hanky Code and the first Gay Pride in London. The hanky code was a way of singling sexual tastes or interests, where the colour of your hanky might indicate the type of sexual interaction you were looking for, be it anal or fisting, to more complicated fetishes you might want. The original published guide was maybe eight colours, and then by the time it was put on the internet in the ‘90s there were about 50 colours with very specific interests.

Where do you go on from there?

Whilst we move chronologically forwards, I’ve carved out prevalent behaviours from each era. Moving to the 80s you have cottaging and cruising, back to back. I had this phenomenal contributor who was very intelligent and clear in expressing his feelings, saying that mostly when he was cottaging as a teenager in the early ‘80s, for him cottaging wasn’t just a sexual act, it was a form of rebellion. It was a way of fighting against heteronormative society. What he was doing was illegal because the age of consent was 21, he was 17, plus it was a public space. For him, it was a subversive punk act of rebellion. I thought that was fucking awesome.

Then come the nineties!

Then we move on to the arrival of the internet, which was ‘89, but computers weren’t really in the home until the late ‘90s. There was a very clear cut gay use of the internet with the launch of Gaydar.com in ‘99. I was chatting to my mum’s friend who mentioned there were other ways they had of meeting men before Gaydar, with ICQ and other messaging sites, forums and chatrooms. By the ‘90s on forums, you could be a little less coded, a little more obvious in what you were looking for. What I found really interesting with people who were using all these digital spaces, a lot of the time it was for community and connection, as well as being for sex or relationships. Decriminalisation happened back in ‘67 but it only became somewhat socially acceptable in the 80s and 90s, but even then it could be quite isolating.

And after the Internet came the App.

Grindr launched back in 2009. Based on the interviews (and personal experience) the fact that you could have access any time anywhere was very different. It wasn’t a case of only when you were at home at your desktop, or at work as a lot of people did, you could be on the tube, walking down the street, going to the doctors, it was always there. You didn’t have to go to a cruising ground or a toilet. A point quite a few people made was whilst it opened up the access to men having sex with men, it also made it possible to be even more secretive. In the past, you had to physically be there to show you were interested, whereas now you can be as anonymous as you like up until that point of meeting.

Having looked back across the decades, what do you think the future holds for men meeting other men for sex?

Technology is ever changing. I’m sure there will be crazy virtual ways for meeting but not physically meeting men in the future. I personally would always like a physical experience, but who knows, suddenly porn becomes more interactive, a lot more interesting. My personal hope is that the gay community and queer spaces do still exist. It’s interesting seeing that other spaces are trying to open, spaces not just for drinking and clubbing.

Have We Met Before is on BBC 4 at 10pm on Sunday, the 17th of March.

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