Will wonders never cease? After several years of not greatly esteeming the brash mega-event that Erotica had become in its accustomed home of Olympia, I was pleasantly surprised by the somewhat more subdued, intimate, sex positive event that was Erotica 2013, over at Tobacco Dock.
Whatever can be up?
The answer, I guess, is that forced by circumstance to downsize, Erotica has managed, this year to resolve some of the contradictions historically inherent in its very existence. Olympia was a cavernous undifferentiated space into which large exhibitions might comfortably extend their displays, both sidewise and upwards. This didn’t work for Erotica, whose assortment of smaller stands rattled around uncomfortably like a collection of dried peas in an over-size pod.
Nor did it help that entertainment at Olympia was therefore pushed onto a wide central stage which was great for some of the more extravagant acts, but mostly wasn’t. What it couldn’t achieve in size, it more than made up for in volume, with the unfortunate result that any and every attempt to discuss the finer points of vibrator technology on stands clustered close by was drowned out by the booming sound system.
Contrariwise, Tobacco Dock in Wapping, once a bonded warehouse for the receipt and storage of New World tobacco, offers a series of discreet and intimate spaces which feel altogether better suited to the business of discussing intimacy. Its amazing how much difference a venue can make: an assortment of stages where shows such as the brilliantly funny Eastend Cabaret could happen; side rooms where one could attend (and hear!) demos ranging from electro play to what to wear at fetish clubs; and with a series of segregated spaces, the sense of being at a cross between a trade show and a somewhat tacky overlit bazaar was gone.
Smaller, more intimate: still, Erotica 2013 continued to defy the question: what is it for?
Erotically speaking, it remains tempting to say there was little here that one would not get for free from a visit to Sh! or one of the larger more grown-up adult sex stores. And it is not cheap: a day out for two at Erotica, including showguide and travel within London, would likely set you back between £50 to £60 – and that is even before the high-priced food court which achieved the almost impossible, of offering even pricier eating than Olympia has done in previous years.
Is that unfair…at Sh! one wouldn’t be able to buy a novelty jewel encrusted condom (for mantelpiece and NOT for personal wear): nor would one encounter the annual staple – it has to be some sort of subtle in-joke on the part of the organisers – of toffee vodka, this year supplied not by the Welsh boyos who previously supplied it, but by Thunder Vodka of London.
Nor would one be able to see the range of shows, of which there were many.
A group of lesbian visitors described the atmosphere as somewhat “hetty”. They meant, I suspect, heterosexual, but one might also suggest “heteronormative”. Sure: there were nudges in the direction of the kink community. Swinging. A bit more bdsm. But it was patchy.
A couple of stalls tempted visitors with visions of puppy play: gone the embarrassment of a few years back, when tabloids sniggeringly reported how one visitor was told in no uncertain terms by a security guard that they could not walk their puppy round the show on a leash. Erotica now does kink.
Less impressive was the individual on one stall who misgendered once and then, being rebuked by his assistant, turned round and did it again. That was hurtful, but also shocking that a space as allegedly sex positive as Erotica would not yet have its diversity policies sported out.
An improvement, then, on previous years. Fewer stands. Disappointingly less in the way of fashion and corsetry. Lower footfall. Product a little more upmarket, though that was to be expected: this is not an exhibition you could ever justify in terms of high volumes of cheap dildos sold: and if you wanted high priced dildonics, We-Vibe did not disappoint.
But why, why, why? Is it, in the end, possible that such a show can ever bridge the gap between those who see sex and the erotic as celebration, and those who see it as business opportunity.
Don’t ask me. My absolute favourite stand included a deep vibrating bed. Erotic potential? Maybe: but mostly it spoke to me of back massage and a good night’s sleep. And if only I’d had to hand the £3,000 price tag they were asking, I’d have left Erotica a very fulfilled woman!