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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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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times