London’s 14th Annual Erotica Expo

from – As the train approaches the Olympia exhibition center in London, the redhead realizes her predicament: her neighbor’s tweed jacket has snagged on her bustier, which is little more than a web of chains straining to cantilever a substantial bosom. In a Hugh Grant movie, such an incident would trigger a tsunami of awkwardness, but then again, bashful Brits of the kind impersonated by Grant would probably not be beating a path to the opening day of Erotica 2009.

The 14th annual sex-themed expo is billed by its organizers as “the best-attended adult lifestyle event in the world,” and this year attracted some 70,000 visitors over three days in November. The redhead and her neighbor, his paunch nicely emphasized by a gleaming blue PVC vest beneath his jacket, calmly disentangle themselves before joining the queue for admission.

It’s a textbook example of what a queue should be. Everybody knows Brits excel at queuing, but eroticism? This is the culture that produced Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but then suppressed the novel for three decades. Brits have always been uncomfortable about sex — unless they’re laughing at it. This is a nation of dropping trousers, pinging brassieres, guffaws, sniggers and euphemisms for sex like “slap and tickle,” an image crystallized in a series of low-budget, high-smut farces filmed mostly in the 1960s and ’70s that were known as the Carry Ons after the first two words in every title.

Even now, the country is collectively clutching aching sides over the appointment of Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as President of the European Union. It may be a joke that an obscure politician should get the top job in Europe, but it’s Van Rompuy’s name that convulses Brits with its echoes of another naughty Britishism: “rumpy-pumpy.” (See pictures of Silvio Berlusconi and the politics of sex.)

Even the country’s best-known blue movie director, christened Lindsay Honey, a name many porn stars would kill for, chose instead to adopt the comedy moniker Ben Dover. There’s an innocence about such humor, as if Britons have been permanently stuck in adolescence since the Victorian era. But adolescence isn’t the slow awakening it used to be, as Britain’s soaring rates of teen sex and pregnancy indicate. The annual British Social Attitudes surveys chart a steady liberalization of British views on sex, with a majority of the public now finding nothing wrong with sex before marriage and same-sex relationships. Brits have long been apt to say they’ve got no problem with what people get up to in the privacy of their own bedrooms. But a tour of the erotica show in London suggests the stricture on privacy may be eroding too.

It’s not just the exhibitionists at the exhibition, though there are plenty of them, goose-pimpled in the chilly air. It’s the way that sex, the perennial tool for advertisers seeking to sell products, has been commoditized into a must-have range of products. Nowadays, keeping up with the Joneses might mean flaunting specialist furniture such as a £2,500 ($4,130) Stretching Bed from Dungeon Equipment or a £115 ($190) Funswing, which looks like a cross between a hammock and a baby bouncer and could be mistaken for a comfortable perch for watching TV if the brochure didn’t deploy explicit photos to illustrate its (im)proper use. “You can sell anything. You just need to find a niche,” says Anna Grant, the proprietress of Funswings. (See a TIME video on celebrity sex tapes.)

Grant and the vast bulk of her fellow vendors are selling mechanistic solutions to the quest for sexual satisfaction. After an hour surrounded by gadgets, gizmos and extreme fashions, even the most exotic exhibits lose their power to hold the attention. Is it possible that chronic overexposure to sex — not just at this show, but in a society saturated with sexual imagery — might leave us, like tottering economies, in need of ever-bigger stimulus packages? Monique Carty, director of the succinctly named Web company Sex Toys, thinks more openness is a good thing, but admits that by “seeing sex aids every day, they become nuts and bolts. You become immune to them in the work environment.”

John and Alan, former colleagues at a London airport, also report a certain numbness on their eighth annual visit to the show. “The first time is an eye opener. After that, there are no surprises,” says John. “But we’ll be here next year,” says Alan. “Oh my word,” says John, suddenly distracted as an elderly man clad only in shoes and socks and a posing pouch ambles past. (See eco-friendly sex aids.)

The oldster passes a stand where auteur Honey is doling out autographs and promoting Ben Dover–branded merchandise. Honey explains that he has diversified since people started giving away porn for free on the Internet, rendering his filmmaking economically unviable. He has even developed a one-man show: Ben Dover — Innocent Until Proven Filthy, in which he pokes fun at “porno-land vs. reality. In porno-land, pizza delivery is a great job.” The erotica show may draw the crowds, but there’s no danger that Britain will ever be the natural home of eroticism. There’s also no danger that Brits will ever stop finding sex a hoot.

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