Fueled by the Internet, a rapid rise in public exhibitionism is plaguing Britain’s country parks, turning beauty spots into popular gathering points for thrill-seekers watching each other engage in open-air sex.
THE PHENOMENON, called “dogging,” proliferates Western Europe, but hits Britain’s country parks particularly hard, according to Richard Byrne, an expert in countryside management at Harper Adams College in Newport, about 200miles northwest of London.
In a survey conducted by Byrne of wardens at Britain’s some 260 country parks, nearly two-thirds of respondents said public exhibitionism was a primary management problem, overtaking the traditional ills of graffiti and poaching.
“A number of park wardens said that dogging was a bigger problem,” Byrne said in an interview. “It is a very organized activity.”
Dogging is an extension of the swinging scene, Byrne said, with the difference that people set up meetings where they can watch people perform sexual acts, and then join in.
“This is more than couples going out for a kiss or a cuddle, or whatever,” he said.
British Web sites dedicated to dogging list hundreds of rural areas, from car parks to country parks, that lend themselves to outdoor exhibitionism.
“They use country parks, because they are accessible, usually 24/7, with no gates or fences. They are well marked. They fulfill the criteria for people meeting over long distances,” Byrne said.
The poor cousins of Britain’s storied national parks, country parks, managed by local authorities with smaller budgets, fit the bill. Byrne said many wardens are in charge of several parks and, due to demands on their time, visit infrequently.
Designed to protect the British countryside from urban sprawl, country parks have fought hard to survive the 40 years since their inception by government planners. A recent report by the Britain’s Countryside Agency declared 1990 to 2003 a “period of stagnation for most country parks,” which are used for conservation, recreation and children’s education.
Doggers, increasingly linked by Web sites and chat rooms, have seized on the parks for their outdoor activities, Byrne said. “Before, the meetings might be set up by phone, which would take longer. Now Internet sites will list meetings later the same night. It’s a much quicker turnaround.”
‘JUST WALKING THE DOG’
InsertArt(2000761)Exactly where the term “dogging” originated is of some dispute. Byrne said the term came from the police, who are told by “doggers” caught in the act that they are “just walking the dog.”
One British Web site, however, says the term hails from the swinging 1970s, and was used to describe voyeurs following, or “dogging,” couples having sex outdoors. Swingers, the site writes, have commandeered the term and given it modern meaning.
The act of dogging lives on the legal fringes. On Web sites, doggers defend the practice, viewing their cars, where much dogging takes place, as private property. But British laws protect unwilling witnesses to sexual behavior, especially in public spaces.
DAMAGE TO PARKS
While researcher Byrne said wardens had received complaints from passersby, the trash left behind after visits by late night doggers — condoms, bottles and lubricants — is having the biggest impact on the parks.
“There’s a concern that this activity can lead to a downturn in user groups of country parks,” Byrne said. “One site may get a reputation and decline even further. Not using it for what it was intended for will damage the integrity of the country parks.”
Byrne said park wardens who recognized the problem were liaising with local police to crack down on doggers.
One park warden, Katy Menday, a ranger for Ham Hill Country Park, said she was unaware of a dogging problem in Somerset, where a dogger identifying himself as “km” recently posted an online ad for “anyone interested in dogging at Ham Hill near Yeovil.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what it is,” she said.
Alan Chinn, a crime prevention officer for the Somerset district, said members of the public have complained about sexual encounters witnessed at Ham Hill. “It is a place where you can park and look at he stars and have ideas,” Chinn said.
MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is based in London.