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Erotica 09: Bit limp, but crowds still up for it

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NSFW In a week when scientists trumpeted the discovery of a new drug to boost flagging female libido, Erotica 2009 - the UK’s premiere female-friendly erotic event - was looking decidedly limp.

According to its lavishly illustrated brochure, Erotica is all about "serious fun". The annual event, now in its 14th year, is starting to look decidedly frayed around the edges - however, according to its organisers, numbers were slightly up on last year, suggesting that even in the midst of recession some 80,000 people are still happy to shell out £22 – or £27.50 on the peak Saturday – to attend what is essentially a glorified marketplace specialising in erotic accoutrements.

There were fewer stallholders, and Erotica does feel as though it is retreating to a base that is essentially vanilla, straight - but interested in bedroom hijinks. In previous years, specialist sexual niches were broadly catered for: the BDSM bunch, the swingers, the gay community. This year, the niches have shrunk down to little more than isolated islands of difference cut off by a rising tide of conventionality (or in the case of the gay community, going under entirely).

Punters with a spare £2,500 burning a hole in their pockets could have splashed out on the latest state-of-the-art combined cage and bondage bench. Alternatively, they could have saved a small fortune and picked up the latest state-of-the-art jacuzzi, reduced to just £1,000 for the show.

The effects of the recession were all around, with a Heath Robinson-esque assembly of scaffolding and webbing, describing itself as an erotic "fun swing" – presumably targeted at a more athletic punter – retailing for the "lowest price ever", at just £99.

Toffoc, the toffee-flavoured Welsh vodka, was still there. So too were renapur, purveyors of a beeswax product designed to put a seal back into your leather.

Was it a success for traders? There were mixed reports, with some claiming that business was down as much as 25 per cent on last year – and others reckoning it was their best year ever.

One success story appears to revolve around the current fascination for burlesque. Several purveyors of corsetry - including Velda Lauder and Burleska - reported doing a roaring trade, some selling made-to-measure garments in the £400 to £600 price range.

However, if burlesque is this year’s story, the next wave may well be steampunk – a radical mix of Victoriana and sci-fi, represented brilliantly by Engineers of Desire - which seems to be carrying the fashion focus back to the 1890s.

The NHS were there, handing out condoms, advice, and offering free sexual health check-ups: given the interests of the average punter, this was probably a sensible idea.

Meanwhile, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have shaken off the mantle of establishment respectability and are now touring rock festivals, Gay Pride and indeed Erotica, in search of a different sort of member base. Those who visited their stall – decked out with provocative slogans such as "Give your MP a spanking" – and joined up then and there could walk away with a T-shirt bearing the words "Great Tits" or "Shag" on the front. In a purely ornithological sense, of course.

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