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Why London’s kink clubs are under serious threat

Tower Hamlets Council is attempting to shut down some of the UK’s most diverse kink and fetish nights, including Klub Verboten and Crossbreed

London’s kink scene should be thriving. Since emerging throughout the mid-late 2010s, events like Klub Verboten and Crossbreed have been celebrated for their modern and more inclusive approaches to kink and fetish clubbing, which prioritise community and safeguarding. Even after the pandemic put the UK’s nightlife industry on indefinite hiatus, many events were bouncing back with higher demand and surging membership applications. In 2021, Verboten even successfully applied for Arts Council funding as part of its COVID Culture Recovery Grant. By all accounts, they should be on the road to recouping some of the time and money lost to the last few years of uncertainty. Sadly, they now face a new threat.

Tower Hamlets Council is attempting to shut down some of the UK’s most prominent kink and fetish nights, including Klub Verboten and Crossbreed. The council has contacted the organisers of both events, seeking to “prohibit nudity and semi-nudity” in venues across the borough. The council has also contacted venues threatening legal action if they continue to host the events, which could impact Klub Verboten events as early as this Friday. In a statement to members this week, Karl Verboten – one of Klub Verboten’s founders – described the legislation as “outdated and moralistic”.

“Many councils have a narrow and incomplete understanding of the role of adult and sex entertainment within their Night Time Economy,” Leo Charalambides, a leading sex establishment licensing barrister, adds in the statement issued by Klub Verboten. “Their policies and practices are dated and poorly informed. Typically, councils regulate lap-dancing venues but wilfully ignore the full range of adult and sex entertainment that openly operate in their local area.”

With live DJs and a focus on music, modern events like Klub Verboten and Crossbreed combine sexual freedom with rave culture in a way that simply isn’t reflected in the current legislation. It’s unclear whether they need to be covered by a sexual entertainment license, which typically applies to venues such as sex shops, sex cinemas and strip clubs and are granted by local authorities. However, sexual entertainment licenses also have strict conditions around sexual activity and touching, which means they are highly unlikely to host kink and fetish events. Instead, Klub Verboten and Crossbreed have found their homes in live music and multi-purpose spaces such as E1 and The Colour Factory, which are among the venues contacted by Tower Hamlets Council.

“It’s a complex task to cater for over 1,000 people,” Verboten says, speaking to Dazed about the difficulties Klub Verboten has faced in finding a suitable venue in London. “Congestions, temperature levels, personal space, waiting times, safeguarding, the complexities around human interaction – [let alone] kink. Of course, we did not get it right from day one, but E1 were equally ambitious in doing the hard, detailed legwork when listening to our people and aim to improve with every step we go. Without it, we may all move to Berlin.”

Tower Hamlets Council has a long history of hostility towards Sexual Entertainment Venues (SEVs). In 2014, the borough was among many in the UK to adopt tougher legislation, introducing a nil cap policy on licenses for new premises and stricter controls and fees for existing ones. The East London Strippers Collective (ELSC) formed in Tower Hamlets in 2014 in reaction to these changes, which they say has “led to deterioration in working conditions in SEVs, leading to greater levels of workplace abuses and business malpractice.” Now, they’re beginning to impact kink and fetish nights too. 

Nobody seems to make any sense of these dated and fragmented types of licenses,” Verboten explains. “There may be a theoretical paragraph [in SEV licensing] that pretends to care about regulating sex cinemas, strip clubs, and sex shops, but the reality is they have been turned into weapons against strippers’ rights. SEVs do not cover kink and fetish events, although councillors like to pretend they do.”

These issues are by no means confined to Tower Hamlets. “Bristol, Blackpool, and Edinburgh are currently hot spots for unleashed councillors, responsible for severe censorship and loss of income to workers,” says Verboten. “Sadly, local politics already had their crusade on strip clubs, but things are not too late. The National SEV coalition is at the very forefront working on de-stigmatisation and is worth supporting right now.”

Until recently, kink and fetish nights catered to a very straight, white, and financially well-off crowd. It’s only since Klub Verboten launched in 2016, and Crossbreed in 2019, that the scene has started to become more accessible and, as a result, more diverse. The demographics of both nights skew young and LGBTQ+. They invest heavily in safeguarding through door vetting, bouncers licensed by the SIA (Security Industry Authority), externally trained safeguarding teams who monitor all activity at the events and, in Verboten’s case, a strict “don’t be a dick” policy.

Curiously, The Boudoir Club – a private swingers club in Tower Hamlets aimed at a heterosexual crowd, whose ticketed events cost £80 and cruises up to £10,000 – has not yet been contacted by the Council.

“I can’t believe that is this day in age; local councils are using taxpayer funds to snoop around our Instagram account instead of just picking up the phone to ask what a fetish dress code stands for” – Karl Verboten

“Local politics have never cared to understand our community to a large extent, although we have pro-actively approached various Councils since early 2019,” Verboten explains. “Any dialogue we ever initiated led to closed doors, more stigmatisation and the occasional soft threats. Now the bombs are dropping as everyone is afraid of us, and nobody bothered to learn the language and human attributes required to navigate our community. I can’t believe that is this day in age; local councils are using taxpayer funds to snoop around our Instagram account instead of just picking up the phone to ask what impact play is or what a fetish dress code stands for.”

There is a belief that sex clubs or sexual entertainment venues need to be regulated from the outside by those who have very little understanding of how they operate and seem largely unwilling to learn. It is typically the case that more uninformed legislation creates room for more exploitation and discrimination, as it prevents workers – whether it’s strippers, dancers or kink event organisers – from implementing safeguarding procedures that work best for them. In the case of kink and fetish nights, for example, the council has failed to provide clarity on what is defined as ‘semi-nudity’. The current legislation is binary – for eg women can’t be topless, men can’t have their arses out – and discriminatory. As Verboten clarified in an interview with Vice, “Existing legislation would force a venue to inquire about someone’s gender before they could take their top off."

The focus on ‘nudity’ and ‘semi-nudity’ also stems from a moral belief that certain dress codes or consensual sexual environments – whether it’s a sex club or a strip club – pose a greater risk of sexual violence. But many members of Klub Verboten and Crossbreed say they feel safer and their events than in other clubs, where security is primarily focussed on disrupting drug use.

“We have trained and accredited Klub Verboten’s staff and policies three years in a row as an organisation taking the utmost care when it comes to building cultures of consent in nightlife,” ​​Bryony Beynon, co-founder of Good Night Out, added in a statement. “Their procedures are among the most stringent and well-written I’ve audited in ten years of working to prevent gendered violence in nightlife, so frankly strikes me as deeply reactionary and ironic that this clause is being used to target an LGBTQ+ space, given that we also work with hundreds of high street nightclubs where, while nudity may be less likely, sexual violence and abuse is far, far more likely.”

The risk of sexual violence is often flagged by local councillors and law enforcement – hardly pillars of the community on the subject, as we have seen again and again – but it’s a thin veil for the real issue, which is ‘we don’t like it’. In response, the community is currently mobilising under the hashtags #savekinkspaces and #savequeerspaces in an effort to protect their events. Meanwhile, Klub Verboten has proposed an open-panel discussion called ‘The Sex Club Summit’, and has extended an open invite to local councillors, policy makers, the police, licensing barristers, charitable organisations, and community leaders to share their views. 

“We should be all in the same boat of working together to keep people safe(r) and set the required standards, training and practical implementations for this complex but accomplishable task,” says Verboten. “Safer Sounds Partner Ships and the Good Night Out Campaign have been absolute superheroes in providing venues and communities with training around ending sexual harassment in nightlife culture. I don’t mean to judge, but perhaps it’s time local councillors and law enforcement book in for a refresher as a start.”

Tower Hamlets Council has yet to respond to our request for comment.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that venue E1 hosts events by The Boudoir Club. The Boudoir Club events take place in the E1 postcode.