In March, Tower Hamlets Council contacted the organisers of both nights seeking to “prohibit nudity and semi-nudity in safeguarded venues”, as founder Karl Verboten – who shares his last name with his night – told VICE.
Both Klub Verboten (also known as Verboten) and Crossbreed attract sex-positive, LGBTQ-friendly millennial and Gen Z audiences, with the former launching in 2016 and the latter starting up three years later. The two nights have operated in a number of venues in London and play electronic music – primarily techno at Verboten – as well as providing a BDSM dungeon and playroom where consenting attendees can hook up with and experiment with other guests.
The two nights have been profiled in VICE, the Guardian and music publications like Mixmag as part of a trailblazing wave of sex-positive nights that have seen playrooms popping up at more and more clubs in the capital and further afield in cities like Manchester and Bristol. In 2021, Verboten successfully applied for Arts Council funding as part of its COVID Culture Recovery Grant.
“As some of you may already be aware, Tower Hamlets Council have targeted Klub Verboten's event this weekend and are trying to shut it down,” Crossbreed founder Alex Warren – who goes by the DJ name Kiwi – wrote in an email on Wednesday to mailing list members. “Yesterday we received an email from Tower Hamlets putting pressure on us, quoting the same archaic laws and attempting to shut us down. We stand with Klub Verboten and all queer space's against state-sanctioned oppression.”
It is not an offence to be nude in public in the UK, though it may become an offence if it can be proven that it occurred with the intention of harassment or causing alarm and distress. Due to the heavy vetting on entry at both clubs – which includes a chat with safeguarding staff – it would be nigh-on impossible for someone who isn’t expecting nudity to end up at any of the events.
However, local councils have jurisdiction over licensed premises, including the power to dictate and influence the terms of businesses that take place there.
“Tower Hamlets Council is relying on an outdated and moralistic licence condition that purports to prohibit ‘nudity and semi-nudity’ at clubbing venues to shut Klub Verboten down,” Karl said in a published statement to members on Tuesday. “This type of condition was designed to stop unlawful lap dancing in venues across the borough, and not prohibit informed, consensual adults from nudity in safe and well-monitored venues.”
A Tower Hamlets Council spokesperson told VICE: “The venue is in a residential area and has a premises licence which allows for alcohol and entertainment. It does not have a sexual entertainment licence or a licence that would allow for nudity or partial nudity. We understand Klub Verboten is hosted by this venue and therefore the events take place in its premises has to be decided by the venue in line with its licence.”
Lawyers warn that attacking such nights on the basis of nudity or semi-nudity could also discriminate against non-binary, gender-fluid and transgender people, who are protected under the Equality Act 2010.
“This could definitely have implications in terms of equalities,” says Leo Charalambides, a leading sex establishment licensing barrister. “Think about it, a trans man who’s transitioning might not be able to take off his top.”
Karl voices similar concerns: “The council has requested for these conditions to be enforced and yet has failed to provide clarity on what is defined as ‘semi-nudity’,” he told VICE. “Existing legislation would force a venue to inquire about someone’s gender before they could take their top off."
Crossbreed’s Warren told VICE that their team is consulting with lawyers and “assessing our options”, but said that their weekend's event at Colour Factor in Hackney Wick will “absolutely be going ahead”. Verboten says that their event on Friday can't go ahead "unless everyone is fully clothed and no sex or play takes place".
The council spokesperson clarified that they have not shut down Crossbreed, “but, as with any licenced premises, we do expect the venue owner to operate within their licence”.
A licensing barrister told VICE that Tower Hamlets Council “are basically not really in favour of sexual encounter venues”. Gareth Hughes, who has had experience dealing with the council, added: “[They] have been engaged, I think, in a process of over several years of ensuring that no more operate in that area.”
But many have questioned the arbitrary manner in which they enforce “nudity and semi-nudity” in private members clubs. The Boudoir Club – a swingers club in Tower Hamlets aimed at a more heterosexual crowd – has not yet been subject to such scrutiny or licensing issues, a spokesperson confirmed. This is despite advertising events that involve nudity and sexual contact between consenting adults. “It's a very arbitrary and discriminatory approach, it’s also very narrow-minded,” Charalambides says. “It's really harmful.”
Karl tells VICE that he believes that Verboten has been specifically targeted as a result of its demographic, which includes a large proportion of young queer people. “Inconsistencies were created by councils turning blind eyes to most sex clubs and their likes for decades, entirely disregarding safeguarding measures and the council’s duty of care for kinksters,” he says. “But this new version [of parties] has youth momentum, so it’s suddenly not okay. The question is: Why can’t we talk about this like adults?”
Both Verboten and Crossbreed say they invest heavily in ensuring a safe environment at their nights, including heavy vetting of prospective guests, very strict door policies, bouncers licensed by the SIA (Security Industry Authority), and externally trained safeguarding teams who oversee and monitor all activity at the events. This is arguably more than a typical electronic club night in London does to ensure safety.
“Many councils have a narrow and incomplete understanding of the role of adult and sex entertainment within their night-time economy,” Charalambides says. “Their policies and practices are dated and poorly informed.”
He added: “Events such as those by Klub Verboten seek to celebrate the full range of informed, adult, consensual sex and sexuality. They are at the forefront of tackling issues around safety, consent, diversity and inclusion that should be emulated rather than condemned.”
Queerness, alternative relationship styles and sexual practices – whether that’s non-monogamy or kink – have been edging closer to the mainstream for years, particularly among young people. It makes well-run and responsible spaces essential for these communities to explore and play. Unfortunately, the attack on Klub Verboten and Crossbreed is just one sign that the rest of society has yet to catch up.
In the meantime, both clubs are throwing their weight behind a campaign – using both #savekinkspaces and #savequeerspaces hashtags – tackling what they see as an attack on queer culture. “In the coming days we may well need to mobilise our community to contact councillors in support of our position, we will not sit down quietly and we may need to make some noise,” says Crossbreed founder Warren. “We’re up for this fight.”
Update: This piece has been changed to include a statement from Tower Hamlets Council.