Pin It
Megan Eagles, Soho, Dazed
Photography Megan Eagles, styling Lauren Anne Groves

Is London’s Soho losing its sex appeal?

Amongst the tide of sanitised BDSM, Christian Grey wannabes and overpriced ‘kink’ nights, we trace the castration of Soho

For months there has been a tide of articles debating gentrification and its affects on London. Some of them have been defamatory and smug, railing against London itself – as if the city had a heart or was a lover who had left them. Others highlighted how the tall empty houses and blank windows were depriving the city of culture as the rich, but absent, oligarchs were contributing nothing except rising rents. The most helpful raised an eyebrow to the hipsters and asked them to acknowledge their part in the capitalistic nightmare that London is becoming; one that increasingly smells a lot like coffee and moustache grease. Others wrote so poignantly about diversity that they were almost a cry to take back our city. But now, London, we need to talk about sex.

Sexuality is one of those things that can be so intimate that people love to believe it is unique. But sex, like creativity and stock markets, is inextricably linked to society. And so, in our glittering capital, it is not only the buildings but also our desires that are being gentrified. And while there are many avenues this article could go down, let us focus on Soho.

Beneath the new and synthetic lights of Soho lie hidden histories. Stories are cemented over to make for fresh windows that borrow the neon lights of porn stores and parlours without acknowledging the people who gave this aesthetic its seedy – and now sought after – glamour. Gemma, a sex worker and activist from the English Collective of Prostitutes, says, “What is currently going on in Soho is a perfect example of the recent commodification of sleaze. The people who frequent places like (restaurant) Bodega Negra would never have gone into the real sex tape stores or porn cinemas themselves. Not that there is a direct problem with that in itself.”

“What is currently going on in Soho is a perfect example of the recent commodification of sleaze” – Gemma, from the English Collective of Prostitutes

In the last few weeks there has been a media frenzy over Amnesty International’s landmark decision to decriminalise sex work. Following the advice of those in the industry and health care professions, Amnesty proposed a bill for the full decriminalisation of sex work worldwide, meaning those involved can access better medical services and hold police forces accountable if they fail to protect them. Despite the vast amount of research Amnesty put into this proposal, celebrities decried the decision; the bottom line of their reasonings being that they believe their opinion is worth more than facts and the lived experiences of others. While this addition to the conversation might seem to be going off on a tangent, it is directly linked to the process of sexual gentrification we see happening in Soho.

The debate around the decriminalisation of sex work is relevant because those with a pop culture platform are marginalising the voices of sex workers, while enjoying – yet not recognising – their contribution to culture. Rather like cultural appropriation, the process of gentrification in Soho profits from the work of others but, quite literally, is throwing the real people who produced the history and marketable gritty glamour onto the streets. According to Cari, another member of the English Collective of Prostitutes, this takeover of Soho by rich and predatory property developers is even more concerning at a time when so many women, especially mothers and students, are entering into sex work because of the brutal austerity politics of the current government.

Last December, under the guise of a moral crusade, the police raided the buildings supposedly inhabited by pimps and traffickers. They also allowed news outlets to photograph the women they’d thrown out of their homes and into the streets – showing a blatant disregard for their safety and revealing the incident was merely a show for the city’s plush new residents. Aside from some activist group protestations, there was little outcry from the new local community; all that this says is: ‘we want your legacy, we want what you have produced but we don’t want you’.

The state of Soho’s current cultural capital was built from the energies of sex workers – who did it to pay bills rather than to give you somewhere sordid looking or wild to take your Tinder date. It has also come from the queer and fetish community, whose innovation and deviance is also being packaged and sold up in Soho.

If you tease your eyes into glancing into the many sex shops that line Soho’s streets, you’ll be met with the words ‘do you want to play like Grey?’ As pretty much everyone will know, Christian Grey was a man whose behaviour towards his young lover verged on abuse – but, he was rich. So, his chamber and his desires were sexy… right? Apparently so, as Soho’s shops are happy to sell items whereby you can be bound and gagged, following the storyline of this questionable Hollywood ‘blockbuster’. Furthermore, as London’s queer spaces are vanishing before our eyes, not just in Soho but across the capital, Soho purports still to contain one such ‘theatre of varieties’.

This self-proclaimed theatre – in venues like the Box – has been spoken of with near reverence for being London’s most exclusive and daring sex club. Exclusive it may be – at over £1000 for a table – you aren’t going to get your average Londoner wandering in… but, daring, that is more debatable. Honestly, there is nothing experimental or transgressive about a bunch of white, straight and wealthy men in suits leering at women. Sure, these performers might also be wearing a gorilla’s head or drenched in blood but all that gives you is a lovechild between heterosexual porn and a B-grade horror movie.

“When fetishism is commodified and packaged to the wealthy it is deemed acceptable... The rich have long been allowed to have supposedly eccentric tastes but if you are poor and outside the elite you have to fear the label pervert” – Cynth Icorn

“When fetishism is commodified and packaged to the wealthy it is deemed acceptable”, Cynth Icorn, an international fetish model and performance artist, explains. “If it involves all social groups, it becomes dangerous and deviant again. The rich have long been allowed to have supposedly eccentric tastes but if you are poor and outside the elite you have to fear the label pervert”. However, there is a huge void of difference between the pre-packaged ‘liberation’ that we see seeping into Soho, on the posters of ‘Killing Kittens’ and genuine underground sexual expression. From speaking to members of the fetish community, they recount how they might be asked to perform at expensive nights ‘like freaks’ but are unable to find venues happy to host their own nights. Icorn adds, “Venues which cater towards exclusive clientele flourish whilst 'scene' clubs struggle to obtain venues – for us it’s down to economics. The highest bidder wins.”

At a moment in society where people are increasingly embracing gender fluidity and adopting a more liberal stance towards sex, we should issue ourselves a caution. There is little point celebrating diversity if it is simply a rebranding of heteronormativity or misogyny masquerading as a monkey; true sexual liberation does not just equate to a wild night for the wealthy or the commodification of sex workers histories as those involved in the industry face abuse on the streets.

Cover image courtesy of Megan Eagles, styling by Lauren Anne Groves