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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

Photo: Getty
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What the debate over troops on the streets is missing

Security decisions are taken by professionals not politicians. But that doesn't mean there isn't a political context. 

First things first: the recommendation to raise Britain’s threat level was taken by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), an organisation comprised of representatives from 16 government departments and agencies. It was not a decision driven through by Theresa May or by anyone whose job is at stake in the election on 8 June.

The resulting deployment of troops on British streets – Operation Temperer – is, likewise, an operational decision. They will do the work usually done by armed specialists in the police force protecting major cultural institutions and attractions, and government buildings including the Palace of Westminster. That will free up specialists in the police to work on counter-terror operations while the threat level remains at critical. It, again, is not a decision taken in order to bolster the Conservatives’ chances on 8 June. (Though intuitively, it seems likely to boost the electoral performance of the party that is most trusted on security issues, currently the Conservatives if the polls are to be believed.)

There’s a planet-sized “but” coming, though, and it’s this one: just because a decision was taken in an operational, not a political manner, doesn’t remove it from a wider political context. And in this case, there’s a big one: the reduction in the number of armed police specialists from 6979 when Labour left office to 5,639 today. That’s a cut of more than ten per cent in the number of armed specialists in the regular police – which is why Operation Temperer was drawn up under David Cameron in the first place.  There are 1340 fewer armed specialists in the police than there were seven years ago – a number that is more significant in the light of another: 900, the number of soldiers that will be deployed on British streets under Op Temperer. (I should add: the initial raft of police cuts were signed off by Labour in their last days in office.)

So while it’s disingenuous to claim that national security decisions are being taken to bolster May, we also shouldn’t claim that operational decisions aren’t coloured by spending decisions made by the government.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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