The legalised brothel issue has long been a favourite British media topic; and one to which our legislators and moralists of all stripes frequently return. In recent times it has been given added momentum by the trafficking problem. Early in 2014, egged on by commercial interests eager to turn the area into more luxury apartments and sheltered by Articles 52 and 53 of The Sexual Offences Act, police raided a number of the modest Soho flats used by prostitutes and their maids. These sex workers were abused, turned out of their places of business and, it is alleged, had their money confiscated.
I am sitting on a late Friday afternoon staring disconsolately at a pile of books recently sent to Erotic Towers for review. All, pretty much, have restrained grey covers and strap lines like ‘An erotic series so steamy, it sparkles!’
Josephine Butler was a middle-class Victorian woman; a respectable wife and mother, safely ensconced in a culture that idolised wives and mothers. She nevertheless exposed herself to abuse and humiliation in her campaign for the rights of prostitutes. Under the Contagious Diseases Act, these often vulnerable and voiceless women were subject to humiliating and painful gynaecological examinations and forced quarantines. Butler was a vocal opponent of the Contagious Diseases Act and, as a result, the target of insult and innuendo. One MP said ‘I look upon these women who have taken up this matter as worse than the prostitutes’. Helen Mathers’s biography of Butler – Patron Saint of Prostitutes: Josephine Butler and a Victorian Scandal – builds a rich history of sexual ethics and early feminist thought around the life of one remarkable woman who isn’t as celebrated, or as well known, as she should be.
I first encountered Émile Zola’s anti-love story Thérèse Raquin, by that giant of nineteenth century French literature who gave us J’accuse, some time in the winter of 2006 while recovering from my first genuine French love affair. Consoling myself with incomprehensible continental philosophers and copious quantities of vin rouge, I happily embarked on a new liaison, of the literary kind.
‘The Institute of Sexology’, the Wellcome Collection’s inaugural exhibition in its newly refurbished gallery space, is tellingly subtitled ‘undress your mind’. This is a thoughtful traipse through the history of sexology rather than (or at least as much as) a titillating collection of curiosities, though you wouldn’t know it from the kind of sniggering coverage it has already attracted.
When asked toward the end of his life if he had any regrets, the poet John Betjeman famously replied ‘not enough sex’. Few of us I suspect, would think we have too much sex and surveys are unreliable measures. But it is a safe bet that for most people our sex lives cluster around some median range of frequency and satisfaction; although there will be outliers on the frequent and great or rarely and disappointing spectrum. Overall however, society’s preoccupation with sex acknowledges that we humans are predisposed to find sex attractive and pleasurable in prospect and often (if sadly not often enough) in practice.
I have an overwhelming desire, since listening to this strange little album, to give a dinner party, have it playing quietly in the background and see how long it would take to stop the conversation. Because stop the conversation it most certainly would.
When you are next in London, head for the National Portrait Gallery and you will not regret buying a ticket for admission to Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy. It’s a brilliant exhibition, lovingly and intelligently assembled by author and art historian Fiona McCarthy.
Sensible, hard-working Lucy Green fleetingly meets a handsome stranger on the tube, wielding a picnic basket of all things. As he turns to exit he drops his wallet – which Lucy picks up. Should she hand this over to lost property and continue on her way to work? Or should she try and return it – personally?
I’m not going to beat around the proverbial bush: the latest offering from Black Fire, those masters of twistedly erotic stagecraft, is a disappointment. All the more so because it’s easy for the hopes to soar. Have a Google to yourself and you’ll find Circus of Men billed as ‘London’s newest, most erotic, sexual and dynamic all male show’. Never mind that two of them mean basically the same thing, and one of them makes no value judgement whatsoever, there are four superlatives in there. Four. You don’t expect anything that’s given four superlatives to let you down. And even for those who need a less tenuous basis for their great expectations, Circus of Men was something to look forward to. Fuel Girls, Black Fire’s self-styled Rock’n’Roll dance troupe, give a genuinely stunning, uncomplicatedly sexy show. Why should I have expected Circus of Men to be anything but two hours of sweet titillation?