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Welcome to Erotica: Laurie Penny on Britain’s Gulag of desire

If you had to build a prison for human pleasure, it would look like this.

You shuffle through the clinical, white foyer of the Olympia Grand Hall in Kensington and, after presenting several forms of ID to prove that you've paid the requisite £20 for your sexy times, security guards usher you into a huge iron stadium full of concession stands and bored-looking women in their scanties.

This is Erotica, "playtime for grown-ups": a festival that is billed both as Europe's "best-attended erotic event" and "a unique shopping experience" - statements that, taken together, possibly explain a great deal about western sexual dysfunction.

If you had to build a prison for human pleasure, it would look like this. Among booths selling tacky, made-in-China suspender sets and a smattering of interestingly shaped dildos are concessions for discount bathrooms and homoeopathic Viagra substitutes; towering above the entire bazaar are giant inflatable female limbs, naked torsos and amputated legs in stockings suspended from steel girders a hundred feet high.

The punters are English, bourgeois and middle-aged; the strippers onstage and in the booths are young and eastern European. They smile desperately through shrouds of fake tan. The punters, a mixture of hardcore fetishists in rubber and older couples in fleeces, clutch plastic pints of lukewarm lager as they watch the grim stage show. Strippers gyrate in nothing but thongs and a couple of England flags, a cross between a jiggle joint and an Anglo-fascist rally. In true British style, the audience claps politely while pre-recorded applause thunders over the speakers.

Damply obscene

I have lingered too long by the lube stand. A wolf-eyed salesperson in a company-branded T-shirt pounces, asking with rehearsed haste if I'd like to hear about the range of titillating products they have on offer today. Without waiting for an answer, he proceeds to test out a variety of intimate friction-reducing fluids on the backs of my hands. It's when he reaches the part about “a nice, tingly, minty sensation all over your bits" that I lose the will to live. I back away, smelling of spearmint and sensing I've been violated.

By this point, I'm starving but the only nourishment that can be had here takes the form of gigantic hotdogs: fat, grey phalluses, oozing chemical grease and waiting to be popped into polystyrene buns for a fiver. Ravenous, I buy one. It tastes rubbery and damply obscene, like an unwelcome intimate encounter. I tear into it vengefully. Behind me, the canned applause begins again.

Since puberty, I had wondered precisely what crypto-capitalism had done with desire. Like many randy young creatures, I always suspected that somewhere behind the welter of sterile posturing, the airbrushed thighs and hollow iconography of abuse, real sensuality was somewhere, straining for release. Now, I know. This is the Gulag. This is where pleasure is stripped down to its most profitable parts and flogged back to the middle classes at a profit. This is where sexuality has retreated, behind endless rails of overpriced latex. This is pleasure turned, inch by torturous inch, into work: the repetitive, piston-pumping moil of mass-produced erotic kitsch that passes for sensuality.

In a way, it's worse than work because we have to smile and pretend we're having fun. The Daily Sport girls in their booth have to smile. The rubber-clad dancers have to smile. Even the grey-faced punters have to smile, resigning themselves to a middle-age in which desire and satisfaction are gradually replaced by the purchase of more plastic tat.

At the end of the day, we all leave unsatisfied. Of course we do: if there were a single stall here where you could actually buy an orgasm, the whole edifice would collapse. It's the Gulag of desire. Nobody gets out, and nobody gets off.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Congo

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How Theresa May is trying to trap her opponents over Brexit

An amendment calling on MPs to "respect" the referendum outcome is ammunition for the battles to come. 

Theresa May is making a habit of avoiding unnecessary defeats. In the Richmond Park by-election, where the Liberal Democrats triumphed, the Conservatives chose not to stand a candidate. In parliament, they today accepted a Labour motion calling on the government to publish a "plan for leaving the EU" before Article 50 is triggered. The Tories gave way after as many as 40 of their number threatened to vote with the opposition tomorrow. Labour's motion has no legal standing but May has avoided a symbolic defeat.

She has also done so at little cost. Labour's motion is sufficiently vague to allow the government to avoid publishing a full plan (and nothing close to a White Paper). Significantly, the Tories added an amendment stating that "this House will respect the wishes of the United Kingdom as expressed in the referendum on 23 June; and further calls on the Government to invoke Article 50 by 31 March 2017". 

For No.10, this is ammunition for the battles to come. If, as expected, the Supreme Court rules that parliament must vote on whether to trigger Article 50, Labour and others will table amendments to the resulting bill. Among other things, these would call for the government to seek full access to the single market. May, who has pledged to control EU immigration, has so far avoided this pledge. And with good reason. At the Christian Democrat conference in Germany today, Angela Merkel restated what has long been Europe's position: "We will not allow any cherry picking. The four basic freedoms must be safeguarded - freedom of movement for people, goods, services and financial market products. Only then can there be access to the single market."

There is no parliamentary majority for blocking Brexit (MPs will vote for Article 50 if the amendments fall). But there is one for single market membership. Remain supporters insist that the 23 June result imposed no conditions. But May, and most Leavers, assert that free movement must be controlled (as the Out campaign promised). 

At the moment of confrontation, the Conservatives will argue that respecting the result means not binding their hands. When MPs argue otherwise, expect them to point to tomorrow's vote. One senior Labour MP confessed that he would not vote for single market membership if it was framed as "disrespecting Brexit". The question for May is how many will prove more obstructive. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.