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

Article @ CityMetric, published 19 January 2016

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.

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.

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