Meat market


‘One of them made me a bone in the shape of a penis; one of them showed me a video of his penis. One of them asked me if I’d like to go upstairs and have sex with him … would I like to have an affair?’

I have a new, unlikely kink, courtesy of the BBC. Smithfield market, trading meat in the centre of London since 1174. (Pretty much) all-male, misogynistic, racist, homophobic – the filth here is as much about the attitudes of the traders as it is about the blood that stains their white coats.

I’ve had a thing about butchers for years now, but this confirmed everything I’d ever suspected to be true, in a way that thrilled and horrified me in equal measure. It starts, as these things always do, with the fact that this is a twilight world. Open from 2 till 8 a.m., it operates to its own codes, its own rules. It is, to quote one trader ‘an oasis from the PC world outside.’

It’s a terrible place to be a woman.

As with all the best filth, it seems, at first, to hide its nastiness well. The traders are old, and jovial, for the most part – they have comedy names, like Biffo – and there’s a flashing plastic santa on one of the counters that opens its coat to flash its pants. Dee, the first woman ever to work as a meat cutter, rather than a cashier, seems to tolerate the ‘banter’ she attracts with a wry smile. Her friends, she says, are proud of her for being the first ever woman in the role – they say it’s ‘girl power.’ Girl power, as you may have guessed, isn’t really respected in this environment. The women who do work as cashiers are, to quote the narrator, ‘cocooned in portacabins,’ locked away from the threats the men present.

These men only respect women in traditional roles. One, asked if he likes Christmas, says no, he hasn’t liked it since his mum died in 1975. ‘Your mum’s your best mate, in’t she?’ he says, turning away from the camera. Another, whose wife has recently died, tears up when asked if he misses her, says ‘Oh, yeah,’ and excuses himself from the interview. Male weakness is a failing, clearly. And, asked about the design of the building, which was redeveloped at some stage, the response is ‘Don’t quote me on this, but I think the new market was designed by a woman, and it shows.’


New male staff don’t get an easy ride of it, either – before they pass their training, they undergo some kind of archaic ‘initiation ceremony,’ where they stand naked in the street aside from a ‘mankini’ while the other traders pelt them with ‘various rotten produce – eggs and blood and offal …’ This is filth in its most traditional, most visceral, most stomach-churning sense. ‘As long as he takes it like a man, we’ll respect him,’ says one of the older guys. Like a man. Of course.

It’s not the kind of thing that should make you horny. The men are old, and unattractive, but that’s not why you wouldn’t want to fuck them. You wouldn’t want to fuck them because they’d treat you worse than the animal carcasses they spend the whole programme chopping up. Take Dee. By the end of the programme, she’s left her job at the market.

‘I think it was the pressure of things happening at home, as well as market life,’ says her former boss.

Dee disagrees. Talking about the men she came into contact with, she says, ‘One of them made me a bone in the shape of a penis; one of them showed me a video of his penis. One of them asked me if I’d like to go upstairs and have sex with him … would I like to have an affair? After a while, it’s just a bit degrading, you know?’

‘That’s Smithfield market, unfortunately,’ says the boss. He doesn’t sound like he thinks it’s particularly unfortunate.

Unlike him, I do know, which is why I’m ashamed to say the whole thing left me vaguely turned on, and not only that – it left me wanting to write …

36 thoughts on “Meat market

  1. This is full of very intriguing tensions. In the FB ‘grab for the blog post, the moments of awful sexism Dee recalls, taken out of context, actually came across as a bizarre erotica story – a woman immersed in one of the most misogynist old-school masculine worlds possible – full of carnal, visceral scenes. I haven’t eaten red meat since I was 21, but I was curious enough to come & read!

    • Thanks for this, Adrea – I felt bad for writing it mainly because Dee is a real person and I didn’t want to trivialise what was obviously horrible for her, but it fascinates me that there are these places in the world where men just behave exactly as they want to, and it turns me on, I think, because it’s essentially a socially-sanctioned form of non-consent…

  2. How utterly marvelous! Intelligent and soulful assessment of the shortcoming of the individuals and the society, AND honest acknowledgment of the sexy side, without apology.
    ‘Don’t quote me on this, but I think the post was designed by a woman, and it shows.’

  3. An interesting post to say the least. I have often found myself attracted to carnal aspects of life that on their face I would not expect to find attractive. I enjoyed reading your honesty and directness as I always have.

  4. I’m a vegetarian, as you probably know, so there are few things I find less attactive than the idea of having sex with a butcher.

    What I was interested in was the idea of the Smithfield market being a twilight world. We live in London, a city with its many contradictions and hidden corners, and yet the truth is that we know precious little of it, despite being curious and offered a glimpse every now and again – through a documentary, interview, or random circumstance.

    London, after dark, is practically a different city – the Jason Statham film Hummingbird does a good job of showing so, even if the streets are familiar – and yet it never slows down. There are constant hives of activity still buzzing after the final tube has left the centre and the partygoers are freezing on the night bus.

    It’s what happens in those smallest of hours that intrigues me. I hope it does the same for you.

    • You’re right, the twilight world is totally part of the appeal. As they point out during the documentary, Smithfield is there, right in the heart of London, next to a load of nightclubs and the two worlds are barely aware of each other. Makes me want to experiment with a blurring of that divide

  5. This is only peripherally related: I’ve long since wanted to have sex with a pile of cold hamburger. All that has stopped me has been not wanting to make the necessary purchase. More to the point: I enjoyed your post.

  6. I can completely relate to this piece. It is exactly how I felt about the rape scene in The Accused. It took me a very long time to admit to those feelings as I was so conflicted by them.


      • I was 18 when I 1st saw it. The rape scene is utterly harrowing and I remember being very confused about it all as despite my absolute chilling horror at it I was also wet and throbbing. It was a ‘secret’ kept for many years. The first person I confided in was Michael and his complete acceptance and understanding of the whole thing made me realise that I was not the complete fucked up sicko I had let me brain convince me I was.


  7. My thoughts are very much along the same lines as Adrea’s. This is really is an excellent piece that, for me, explores the tensions between the erotic imagination and the more raw realities fantasies are based on. NB: I haven’t been able to even look at or think about red meat for the past four months without being physically ill thanks to my current situation and yet this held my attention from beginning to end! Jane xxx

  8. Now, I can completely understand where you’re coming from. However, I was the first woman in the UK to hold a particular role. Whilst it was a great achievement, it was hard, really fucking hard. I have fought my entire working life to get noticed and to be taken seriously, I’m still not and I don’t know how much longer I can keep fighting for. I get the cock shots, the passes etc and it’s the one reason I hope beyond hope my blog is never exposed!

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