“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. 

 
 
 
 

Academics are mapping the legacy of slavery in Britain’s cities

A detail of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map showing central Bristol. Image: LBS/UCL.

For 125 years, a statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston stood in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly to commemorate the philanthropy he’d used his blood money to fund. Then, on 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled it down and threw it into the harbour

The incident has served to shine a light on the benefits Bristol and other British cities reaped from the Atlantic slave trade. Grand houses and public buildings in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond were also funded by the profits made from ferrying enslaved Africans across the ocean. But because the horrors of that trade happened elsewhere, the role it played in building modern Britain is not something we tend to discuss.

Now a team at University College London is trying to change that. The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is mapping every British address linked to a slave-owner. In all, its database contains 5,229 addresses, linked to 5,586 individuals (some addresses are linked to more than one slave owner; some slave owners had more than one home). 

The map is not exact. Streets have often been renumbered; for some individuals, only a city is known, not necessarily an address; and at time of writing, only around 60% of known addresses (3,294 out of 5,229) have been added to the map. But by showing how many addresses it has recorded in each area, it gives some sense of which bits of the UK benefited most from the slave trade; the blue pins, meanwhile, reflect individual addresses, which you can click for more details.

The map shows, for example, that although it’s Glasgow that’s been noisily grappling with this history of late, there were probably actually more slave owners in neighbouring Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish political and financial power.

Liverpool, as an Atlantic port, benefited far more from the trade than any other northern English city.

But the numbers were higher in Bristol and Bath; and much, much higher in and around London.

 

Other major UK cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – barely appear. Which is not to say they didn’t also benefit from the Triangular Trade (with its iron and weaponry industries, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University said in 2007, “Birmingham armed the slave trade”) – merely that they benefited in a less direct way.

The LBS map, researcher Rachel Lang explained via email, is “a never-ending task – we’re always adding new people to the database and finding out more about them”. Nonetheless, “The map shows broadly what we expected to find... We haven’t focused on specific areas of Britain so I think the addresses we’ve mapped so far are broadly representative.” 

The large number in London, she says, reflect its importance as a financial centre. Where more specific addresses are available, “you can see patterns that reflect the broader social geography”. The high numbers of slave-owners in Bloomsbury, for example, reflects merchants’ desire for property convenient to the City of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the district was being developed. Meanwhile, “there are widows and spinsters with slave property living in suburbs and outlying villages such as Chelsea and Hampstead. Country villas surround London.” 


“What we perhaps didn’t expect to see was that no areas are entirely without slave owners,” Lang adds. “They are everywhere from the Orkney Islands to Penzance. It also revealed clusters in unexpected places – around Inverness and Cromarty, for example, and the Isle of Wight.” No area of Britain was entirely free of links to the slave trade.

 You can explore the map here.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

All images courtesy of LBS/UCL