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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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.