“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. 

 
 
 
 

How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.


Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.

 

The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.