“What is it about London that is making us so promiscuous?” On urban planning and online dating

At it like rabbits. Image: Getty.

He opens my window and lights a post-coital cigarette. To fill the time I ask, a bit late into the date, “So why did you join OkCupid?”

“London,” he replies in a husky voice, blowing the smoke out. “It’s hard to meet people otherwise.”

But he never calls me back. And I am left to wonder whether his online dating habits have less to do with “meeting people” and a lot more to do with accessibility to someone’s pants. OkCupid, after all, is a rather popular and free option.

I wasn't upset. I didn’t feel like calling him either, and besides I too was looking to get laid. But his answer got me thinking. What is it about London that, with or without swiping right, is making us so promiscuous? I look at my single female friends living in the Big Smoke. Over the past year, a handful of us have collectively bedded nearly 100 people. Is the big city making us all big sluts? 


(Disclaimer: I believe this is a good thing. To be able to express one's sexuality freely, comprehensively and prolifically is a right still arduously fought for. And besides, surely the slogan is “peace and love” because nobody would want to go to war if there were other, sultrier options available.)

I ask around for people's views on how moving to London affected their sex lives. "Reckon you shag more now than when you lived in Liverpool?" I text a girl-pal, as you do. She ventures that, while people seemed to date more and more seriously in smaller cities, sex is easier to access in larger metropolitan centres. "In London you can get away with a lot more.”

I turn to a male friend. Big dater, smooth operator, surely he'd give me the lowdown on the town versus big city sex-scene. "Dating in a small town is generally slower paced because the pool of people to date or fuck is generally much smaller," he says.

But while London's density of singletons and Tinder (where London's popularity with the horny is on fleek) has helped my mate get laid plenty, he still thought it was an easier process when he lived in a town in Warwickshire. 

"In small towns it is usually easier to move from a date to sex because of the fact you don’t have to take public transport,” he says. “It’s much easier to say ‘Oh, I just live round the corner, fancy a night cap?’ than in London, where everything is 40 minutes of tube or an Uber ride away.

“In London you feel like you have to make the decision to go home with someone when you leave the bar,” he goes on. “You’re committing to spending the night, really, because by the time you leave, get to theirs, fuck, cuddle and so on, you’re proper far away from home and it’s late at night." He called it the "first date dilemma"; romancers across the pond seemed to face it too.

This lot have a lot to answer for. The cast of Sex & the City. Image: Getty.

I speak to urbanist and researcher Stavros Papavassiliou. He tells me that online dating means the process of getting down and dirty in the big city is not so much facilitated as it is commodified. "When you think highways and buses, and sewers do you think liberating?” he asks. “Sure, all these things allow you to do thing that before you couldn't. But simultaneously, as soon as you are in, you adopt all the material and behavioural systems that allow you to use the infrastructure.” By way of example of such codes of behaviour, he mentions the Oyster card, standing on the right on London’s escalators, and the rule that you can’t ride a bike on a motorway.


Online dating apps work on a similar dynamic, he adds. "It requires material subscription” – a smart phone – “and behavioural subscription” – appropriate/sexy pictures, common friends, chat up lines. Between them, they plug you into an economy. “The bartering of sex,” he concludes, “is the 'sharing economy' equivalent of prostitution.”

I start to worry. Not so much because of his analogy (yay, ethical whores!), but because suddenly I feel like my sexuality is trapped in a capitalist wet-dream. Have I been supporting the patriarchy rather than eroding it with my liberated, free-loving hook-ups?

"The point is that these infrastructures are neither inherently liberating nor inherently repressive," he says mollifying me a bit. "It's like saying, 'Hooray for Crossrail, it's so liberating to be able to cross London very quickly!' – but without thinking of who and how it can also harm and repress, like the people in the eastern suburbs who will be priced out by yuppies who can now take a 15 minute train to the city."

I think back to that naked guy, smoking a cigarette by my window. He was a product of my marketed sex-drive; but it was also a lot of fun. Back in the smaller city I came from, we would have said goodbye at the pub, and not in my bedroom in the early hours, because of a mixture of smaller population density, socio-cultural norms and general awkwardness. I would have been very pent up indeed. 

My privileged, middle-class, big-city dwelling hanky-panky might be a speck in the history of sexual liberation. But I'd like to believe that, as the jingle goes, every little helps. 

 
 
 
 

A warped mirror: on gentrification and deprivation on London’s Caledonian Road

The London Overground crosses Caledonian Road. Image: Claude Lynch.

Capital cities are, more often than not, a focal point for the stark divide between rich and poor – places where the most economically deprived meet the most economically empowered. In London, these divides can be more than stark: they can be close, even intimate, and there are districts where crossing the street can be like entering a different world. One such street is the Caledonian Road.

Known local as “the Cally”, Caledonian Road runs for about a mile and a half, from Kings Cross to the Nags Head junction in Holloway, and was built in 1826 to provide a new arterial route to the north from the West End. At first, developments on the road were sparse; among the first notable buildings were the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which gave the road its name, and H.M. Prison Pentonville.

For some time, the northern half of the road was seen as far removed from central London, which stymied development. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century residential development really got going. By the time Caledonian Road station opened on the Piccadilly line in 1906, the area was flush with Victorian terraces.

These, though, mainly lay on the eastern side. To the west, the proximity of King’s Cross prompted the development of heavy industry, particularly the clay kilns that were helping to build Victorian London proper. The divide had begun:  the east side of the street, the area known as Barnsbury, was notably quieter and calmer than the west side. Ever since the 19th century, the ‘V’ formed by Caledonian Road and York Way has been known for a high incidence of gang violence and social problems.

As in many parts of London, the end of the Second World War brought a chance to start from scratch. Many of the slums to the west of the Cally had been bombed to smithereens, and those that remained still lacked gas and hot water.

But this was the era of municipal dreams: Islington council cleared the slums and constructed the Bemerton Estate. Instead of reflecting the industrial history of the area, the estate reflected Barnsbury back at itself, treating Caledonian Road as some sort of warped modernist mirror. The square gardens of Barnsbury were reimagined as the spaces between the highrises of Bemerton, and this time, they were actually square.

The estate was immediately popular, its open design prompting a renewed sense of community in the west. But it didn’t last.

Square gardens on one side, not-so-square on the other. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric

As far back as the 1950s, Islington had already become synonymous with gentrification. Forty years later, before moving to Downing Street, Tony Blair’s London residence was Barnsbury’s leafy Richmond Crescent. House prices in the area have gone through the roof and now Barnsbury is mainly home to a the professional elite.


At the same time, though, Caledonian Road’s warped mirror has given Bemerton the exact opposite: in spite of attempts to rejuvenate it, downward spiral of deprivation and antisocial behaviour have blighted the estate for some time The promise of inviting square gardens and communal living has been inhibited by crime and poverty; the gardens lie empty, while those in Barnsbury thrive.

The disparity of wealth across Caledonian Road is regrettable. That’s not just because it speaks to a wider segregation of London’s rich and poor – a phenomenon exemplified last year by the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington & Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. It’s also because, in the Bemerton Estate, planners had thought they saw an opportunity to offer more Londoners the idyll of square gardens and leafy streets, often reserved for the richest.

It might be too much to claim the estate as a failure; events such as the Cally Festival aim to bring together both sides of the road, while other council programmes such as Islington Reads help to foster a greater sense of neighbourhood.

Road should never divide us; rather, they should unite those who live on either side. The spirit of Caledonian Road should cross the gap – just like the railway bridge that bears its name.