Soho, a shot of animal nitrate in the nostril of London, is where no man would wish to be on a cold Monday morning. The red light district was open and ready for business at 10am, when I turned up with my notepad and camera, attempting to secure anonymous face time with the people who work in smut shops, X-Rated video banks and peep shows.

I wanted to speak to these people for many reasons. I was hoping that the corner boys of the sex industry would be a hardened species of social pariah battling shame and guilt. I wanted to know if people who spend 40 hours a week surrounded by 12-inch rubber phalluses, fake vaginas, ‘Charge’ pills, edible underwear, novelty nipple chocolates, 10-inch plastic dildos, anal beads, vibrating cock-rings, 18-inch rubber cocks, blow-up sex dolls, penis weights, the latest in intimate massage technology, Viagra, swathes of porn, and that all-important lubricant possess a super-human semi-mutant sex drive, or have become so desensitised to sexual imagery that they walk around like Robocop in an X-rated neon fantasy land, unstirred by all but the most graphic and extreme sensations. I wanted to know if there were any National Trust members among their ranks, if they have a trade union, and how many of them are gay. What ugly picture of society would these people paint, whose work is deemed by British law to be too saucy for the human eye and must be shielded from public view? What do they think about the rest of society’s attitude to sex? What do their mothers think of their bread-winning? Can they recommend any good websites? I thought they would offer a picture of the population that’s been stretched around the edges, offering snapshots of desperation, boredom and full-on, pants-round-the-ankles lust. They would make for fascinating interviews, if only I could convince them to speak to me.

The signs were cheap and unsubtle. The middle and old-aged men wandering the gutters were even less subtle, heads down in the obligatory trench coats, and red faces either from the cold, the alcoholism or the throbbing erection underneath their coats. These men were embodying the embarrassed stereotype to such an extent that it was faintly sad that they’d fallen into becoming mere parodies of human beings. I geared up to enter the first premises, a blue movie retailer with paper drapes in the doorway. The breeze was blowing the drapes apart, and I could spy tits and pussy on DVD boxes lining the wall. Inside, I was confronted by a man whose face was so rough you could strike a match on it. “Allo, what can I do for yer?” Well, it’s funny you should ask, I’m writing a feature for a publication you haven’t heard of, and would like to sit in your shop for a couple of hours and just observe, as part of my research, if you wouldn’t mind, mate. He got uncomfortably close, I could practically taste the cigarettes on him. “I can’t have you doing that, sorry, not interested.” And why? What do you have to hide? “Look, I can’t have you sitting in here asking questions because then the police will get involved, so I think it’s best…” I backed off as he squared up to me, breathing heavily through his mouth.

It turns out that whilst it is legal to run as sex shop in England, you need a licence, for which the council in London charges £30,000 per year. This means there are both licenced and unlicenced premises, with the first place I visited clearly constituting the latter, and the more friendly, upmarket places being the only ones who can affort to shell out that kind of cash. The illegal businesses don’t bother to get a license because it works out cheaper for them to get raided by the vice squad and fined £900 every month than it does for them to buy a license for thirty grand. It means they can also get away with selling moody goods (animal porn, untested sex toys and who knows what else) from Eastern Europe and Asia at knock-down prices. When you talk to the people in the clean, legal shops, they’re annoyed that more isn’t being done to run the seedy, non-licensed places out of town. Sure, they’re undercutting their prices, but much worse, they’re giving their industry a terrible reputation. Just look back at the first two paragraphs of this article and you’ll see what they mean. People envisage the sex industry as being run by gang-affiliated perverts like the cigarette man, and there are still plenty of dirty stains on the map like his humble abode.

The most popular sex shops in Soho appear to be the cleverly-disguised chain of sex shops which look, at first glance, to be book shops. On the ground floor they’re a perfectly respectable chain of special interest book seller, but the ever-telling neon sign points downstairs to the filth. Most of the staff hail from Eastern Europe and have the manner of people who have spent long periods of time in locked metal containers. They clammed up when I asked for interviews, or when I ignored their pleas for clemency and started firing off questions about work visas and the minimum wage. I got the same response from all of them. “You need to speak to Anthony,” in accented English. It turns out that Anthony al-Ghabban is a well-spoken young businessman, whom I found downstairs in one of his shops, resembling a contestant from The Apprentice. He, like everywhere else, has a blanket refusal policy on interviews, which contradicts his shops’ ethos of being more accessible than your average smut house. Just as long as these shops make people feel as though there’s something to be embarrassed about, people will continue to be embarrassed. I can understand why people don’t want to be seen entering one of these places when even the owners play up to the taboo.

Up until this point I’d been in about twelve sex shops, had been refused in all, and was pretty sick of the sight of double-ended dildos. I never thought I’d find myself saying that. But my fortunes changed when Ross, 23, and Viv, 20, who work at Simply Pleasure, offered me a cup of tea and a chat. It was one of the more interesting cuppas I’ve had, surrounded by dildos and hardcore gay porn. You should go in to their shop next time you’re in the area, they’ll talk about anything, and they may even make you a drink. I asked Viv if she would consider doing porn, and she said she would. Try asking the girls who work in Topshop about a porn career and they’ll slap you. And she does take advantage of the staff discount, generally treating herself to the various vibrators they have in stock*. I got my immature questions out of the way first.

‘The funniest thing is the bunches of macho straight guys who come in for a laugh, but slowly edge towards the penis extension kits,’ said Viv. She’s funny and sexy, you should get her number when you go in there for that cup of tea, providing you aren’t intimidated by girls who know more about sex than you do. But she’s not become desensitised to sex, like I’d imagine some of the less desirable, older women in the sex industry who know and have done everything have. ‘I call myself straight because I’ve never been with a girl, but I don’t think sexuality is that simple,’ she said.

‘Everyone has this idea of the sexual norm that’s far from the truth,’ said Ross, as a middle aged man in a long rain coat came in to ask if his butt plugs had arrived. ‘There are so many guys who buy chicks with dicks porn, it makes you wonder if there is such a thing as gay or straight.’

‘Sexuality is so intrinsic to identity, but we’re not born with just one set of ideals. So that’s true about sex and sexuality. The way a society’s norms and values are pressed upon you, when you do come out as gay, it’s because you’re coming out against the norm. You can choose to express it or repress it,’ says Ross, when talking about sexual identity. He had, either consciously or unconsciously, just boiled down Foucault’s A History of Sexuality into three simple sentences, which most philosophy lecturers would struggle with. I was pretty impressed.

I don’t think I would have got this kind of debate with cigarette man in the video shop, or with Anthony’s army of migrant workers. I was feeling pretty relaxed in there, so I decided to wave a dildo in Viv’s face for fun, which surprisingly didn’t get me thrown out. If I had done this in another sex shop, I’m pretty sure I’d be in too much pain to be writing this article. But I really shouldn’t be. I shouldn’t have to feel like I’m putting my life and reputation at stake in order to peruse the latest selection of rubber fists. It’s silly that we have to cordon off places which are a hell of a lot of fun, because our society is still sexually repressed. It’s illegal to broadcast a picture of an erect penis on television, which means someone, somewhere, thinks it’s okay to censor a biological function. And that’s madness in a society which values rationality and reason over hocus pocus. So despite how much fun I had in Simply Pleasure, I’d still feel a little feel embarrassed to go anywhere like it again. Not because I think I should feel ashamed, but because people would probably assume that I’d be going to see someone like cigarette man, not Viv and Ross. And that’s not cool.

* This sentence is sponsored by The Sun, Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper and the author’s personal favourite.