From a woman whose daily dog walk in Surrey woods has been ruined... Why do the police now think it's OK for people to have sex in public?
Walking my dog in woodland a few weeks ago, I suddenly became aware of a man following me.
Not liking the look of him, I began to walk faster. From several paces behind me he called out: ‘Is this the place to get sex?’
I kept walking, uncomfortably aware that there was no one else around.
‘You’ve got nice legs,’ he called after me. I ignored him and walked faster. He walked faster, too.
‘Come on, love, give us a kiss.’ He sounded impatient. A brief glance behind me showed a man in his 40s, short and balding with a pot belly.
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Melissa Kite with her dog Cydney at the woods, where she walks everyday and regularly sees men using the woods for sex
With the car park in sight, I started fumbling with my keys. He was still behind me, still asking if I would kiss him — and more.
I clicked the wrong button as I tried to unlock the car door. ‘Oh come on, come on,’ I muttered desperately under my breath.
Pressing the right button at last, I jumped in. As I drove off trembling, he was still there, shouting at me, his arms out to the side as if to say ‘What’s your problem?’
I kept driving until I reached home, unnerved and shaken.
What was most shocking to me was I had not ventured out after dark, or along a city centre back street after pub closing time.
Tonight, Channel 4 will show a documentary called Dogging Tales, which looks at 'this peculiarly British pastime'
This happened in broad daylight in picturesque Surrey woodland right next to the Royal Horticultural Society gardens at Wisley.
Later, when I called the police they were polite, but seemingly unperturbed.
‘Why didn’t you ring from the scene?’ the officer asked.
‘Because I had to get away.’
‘Well,’ the officer said, ‘there’s not much we can do now.’
I explained, rather crossly, that this was not the first time this had happened.
In fact, I come across men seeking partners for sex in these woods more and more often. It used to be a well-known spot among men cruising for gay sex, but increasingly the woods are also being used by straight men looking for encounters with women.
'I began to walk faster. From several paces behind me he called out: ‘Is this the place to get sex?’ I kept walking, uncomfortably aware that there was no one else around'
Surely, I asked the officer, the police should send a patrol just in case this particular man found another female dog-walker to hassle — or worse?
He replied that he would log my call and send an officer if they had one spare.
But as I put the phone down, I had little expectation of my complaint being investigated. This is because the leafy and peaceful area of Ockham and Wisley commons is now officially designated by the police as a ‘Public Sex Environment’, or PSE.
At night, the car park is filled with cars flashing their lights as dozens congregate, apparently unimpeded by police. Among the gay men who visit the woods during the day, many wear wedding rings. They sit in their cars, pretending they are reading a book, then follow another man into the woods.
Dogging is not a victimless pastime. Beauty spots are becoming no-go areas, and many will no longer take their children for walks on the common for fear of what they may inadvertently stumble across
I once saw a man emerge with another man from behind a tree, then start walking back to the car park on his phone saying: ‘Yes darling, I’m on my way. Oh great, I love lamb chops.’
The police insist that PSE is simply a convenient shorthand and that it does not mean the activity is facilitated by the authorities.
They may not have intended it, but the term PSE has come to be seen by people who frequent such outdoor spaces as a badge of distinction.
Melissa comes across men seeking partners for sex in the woods more and more often, and they have now officially been designated by the police as a 'Public Sex Environment', or PSE
In internet chatrooms, PSE is generally accepted, rightly or wrongly, to describe an area where open-air sex is lightly policed.
People now pull off the nearby A3 for sex in these woods, which sit in a glorious corner of Surrey between the attractive and well-heeled commuter districts of Esher and Guildford. And they seem to have little fear of being caught because the police patrols are surprisingly infrequent.
To understand why this should be, you need to realise that there is nothing in the law that explicitly prohibits having sex outdoors, unless it can be proved that you are causing ‘alarm, harassment or distress’ to someone.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that in our increasingly inclusive, anything-goes society, there is very little censorship of open-air sex acts. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 outlaws flashing and sex in public toilets — but sex behind a tree is not illegal, per se.
What’s more, in 2008, an internal police report advised officers to avoid a ‘knee-jerk reaction’ to those found having sex in public spaces.
This politically correct attitude seems to have resulted in officers being reluctant to confront ‘doggers’ — the unpleasant term used to describe those who meet in public spaces and car parks to have, and watch others have, sex, because open-air sex has been deemed simply another sexual preference.
The car Park at the woods in Surrey, a well known 'dogging area'. At night, the car park is filled with cars flashing their lights as dozens congregate, apparently unimpeded by police
Perhaps the police fear that if these people are confronted they will go to the European Court of Human Rights to uphold their right to sexual fulfilment.
There is certainly, according to those officers I have talked to, a concern that gay cruisers should not be confronted too robustly for fear the police will be deemed homophobic.
Indeed, when I called Surrey Police to ask them to explain their policy about sex in outdoor spaces, I was told that I would need to speak to their ‘diversity officer’ and also to LAGLO.
‘What is that?’ I asked. ‘It’s our Lesbian and Gay Liaison Officer,’ he said. In fact, the person who called me back with a response to my queries was a Press officer at Surrey Police headquarters, but his response will fill any right-minded person with utter despair.
‘Surrey Police works closely with local residents and users of the public sex environment (PSE) site at Wisley. Officers carry out regular patrols and if any criminal incidents arise then proportionate action will be taken.
‘However, it is not against the law for people to be present at a PSE site with the purpose of meeting others to engage in conversation or activity that doesn’t contravene existing legislation.’
If you think this is straying into the absurd, it seems it is difficult to get anyone to take this subject seriously.
Melissa nearly stopped walking in the woods after coming across three men engaged in a sex act
Tonight, Channel 4 will show a documentary called Dogging Tales, which looks at ‘this peculiarly British pastime’. They make it sound like a game of cricket or a visit to a stately home.
The film is shot in atmospheric soft-focus, but the men are manipulative, the women nervous and the overall impression is sad and sordid.
This is not a victimless pastime. Beauty spots are becoming no-go areas. At the stables where I keep my horses, there are mothers who will no longer let their daughters hack out into the countryside on their ponies because teenage girls have been flashed.
Many people I know do not take their children for walks on the common for fear of what they may inadvertently stumble across.
I nearly stopped walking there myself after coming across three men engaged in a sex act I had never even heard of before I actually saw it. I felt troubled that my dog had witnessed it, never mind a child.
Those who regularly walk in the woods also complain of the litter which accompanies such acts.
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I’ve seen debris including condoms, pages of pornographic magazines, even underpants.
Stephen Bungay, who owns the Ockham Bites café on the common, says that every morning before opening up he collects a bin-bag full of debris from outside his kiosk including sex toys and latex gloves.
‘I haven’t got a problem with what anyone does in their own home, but this is a lovely family place and I want families here,’ he says. ‘I have four children and if they saw something like this it would scar them for life.’
The rangers from Surrey Wildlife pursue dog-walkers who fail to pick up dog-mess, but I have never seen them ask a cruiser to pick up their condoms.
Hazel Longworth, a Surrey resident, has been campaigning on the issue for years.
She says: ‘I’ve got a four-year-old grandson and I’m worried he will see people having sex, or pick up a used condom. It’s all very well saying people have the right to have sex in the woods, but what about our rights?’
If people are foregoing the pleasure of walking, horse-riding and going for picnics with their children in their local countryside then surely that does make them the victims of a crime.
It should not fall to us to prove to the police that we were ‘alarmed, harassed or distressed’.
If local forces patrolled known sites regularly, they would catch men and women indecently exposing themselves, and could impose on-the-spot fines. They are quick enough to fine any motorist caught parked on a double yellow line.
But it seems they just may not want to police this particular crime.
Two years ago, a Freedom of Information request to Surrey Police elicited an astonishing response.
The request asked if the county force had given out food and drink at public sex sites as part of their strategy of policing these sites. The reply was ‘yes’, it had ‘provided teas and coffees to all members of society using the area for various reasons’.
The force were also asked how many public sex or cruising sites they were aware of in Surrey. The answer came back with estimates of 19 in Guildford, six in Waverley, nine in Woking, eight in both Elmbridge and Mole Valley — 50 in all.
Meanwhile, tonight’s Channel 4 documentary about ‘this intriguing and unusual’ pastime will doubtless appeal to viewers who pride themselves on being non-judgmental.
In doing so, the film-maker no doubt wants to tackle the prejudices of people like me who want to enjoy the countryside without being hassled for sex. How very small-minded of me.
- Dogging Tales airs on Channel 4 Thursday 4 April, 22.00 GMT
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