Could the aimless, atomized souls living in discrete domiciles in the United States be missing out of really sexy sex by not living more communally? Probably, but at the very least, if you’re living in a “house” that’s separated from your immediate “neighbors” by “windows” and “walls” that simultaneously envelope you in a cocoon of shame for your biological functions and permit neighbors to spy on you to make sure you’re not a deviant, than you’re a prisoner locked in the gaol blissfully civilized Westerners like to call “society.”
In a recent article (which really doesn’t merit all this finger-flexing snark because it’s pretty interesting) in Aeon magazine, Richard J. Williams, a professor of contemporary visual cultures at the University of Edinburgh, suggests that architects (especially Western architects) have been designing domiciles that make sex far more difficult and shameful than it should be. He offers, as an example of such sex-frustrating structures, his first home, located in a “Victorian suburb” called Morningside:
Never threatened by wartime bombs, post-war developers, or the vicissitudes of the housing market, this suburb has a direct line to the ‘Victorian city’ — and its morality. Its moral character is there for anyone to see: in the bay windows watching over every inch of street, the church on every corner, and the sheer solidity of the stone. Morningside is propriety in built form.
The suburb’s respectability was a huge attraction for me at the anxious moment of buying a flat. But after a few years of living there, that same respectability had become a bore. Then it became oppressive. The buildings began to represent a desiccated social life, defined by emotional reserve and obligation. Patrolled by curtain-twitching killjoys, Morningside seemed determined to put a stop to fun of any kind.
Williams goes on to partially absolve the Morningside Panopticon of its Victorian moral policing, saying that this slow drain of constrained suburban living probably had at least a little to do with he and his wife growing up and learning “together that this was simply what adult life was like, a mess of contradictory demands.” Growing up means taking on an oppressive amount of responsibility, selling your vinyls, turning in your collectible action figures, and putting your big box-o-porn in the trash — basically, everything that happens at the end of a Judd Apatow movie. People grow up, develop paunches, have trouble putting their socks on in the morning, and very gradually fall into the habit of not having sex with their partners because, ugh, it’s so much hassle.
Maybe, though, all the this domestic sexlessness isn’t strictly a byproduct of getting older. Maybe the places people live are actively trying to keep them from mingling their genitals. It’s all a scheme to make people more efficient. Think about it in terms of a scuttled Pixar movie concept — our houses are alive, prudish, and totally freaked out by the idea that we would be having sex in them.
In more academic terms, Williams explains how building design creates boundaries between places that are appropriate and inappropriate for sex, thus making sex more inconvenient and onerous than it should be:
It’s odd how little architects have had to say on the subject of sex. If they’re routinely designing the buildings in which sex happens, then you might expect them to spend more time thinking about it. Buildings frame and house our sexual lives. They tell us where and when we can, and cannot, have sex, and with whom. To escape buildings for sex — to use a park, a beach, or the back seat of a car — is a transgression of one kind or another. Most of us keep sex indoors and out of sight.
An important early find in my reading was Mating in Captivity (2006) by Esther Perel, the New York-based sex therapist. According to Perel, sex wastes time, needs space, and (most intriguingly) is inhibited by too much intimacy. All these things have implications for architecture, which in the West has been coloured by the language of efficiency for at least a century. By contrast, in Perel’s terms, sex was profligacy and decadence. She also remarked that ‘sexual desire and good citizenship don’t play by the same rules’.
Williams’ article is worth reading in its entirety because it contains a lot of great scholarship about how architecture broadly reflects a culture’s (or, in the case of England, an era’s) attitudes about sex. Where we have sex is important because attitudes about sex basically determine our cultural identity (somewhere, you can be sure, Camille Paglia is nodding vigorously). Are we scrubbing each other down in some balmy subterranean bathhouses? Or are we conducting procedural sex in a cold, stone room, clothes on, blinds and eyes firmly shut?
Thankfully, Williams makes a judgment call about what the ideal living situation looks like (hint: it’s communal):
For me, the ideal would be some form of co-housing, the best-known example being Sættedammen in Denmark, established in 1972 (with the founding creed: ‘Children should have 100 parents’). It occupies the right space between the wilder forms of intentional community, and market-dominated individualism. It doesn’t explicitly challenge sexual norms. However, by providing shared facilities (childcare, gyms, swimming pools, saunas, rooms for parties), it provides time and space to play, and addresses the deficits that Esther Perel identified as inhibiting our sexual lives (sex loves to waste time, remember).
So, what Williams is telling us is that all those smug hippie Baby Boomers with their mason jars full of sticky weed and their DVRed Masterpiece Theater marathons have been onto something this whole time. He also points out that, by the way, “University students live like this,” i.e. communally, “and we do the same thing on holiday; both forms seem to provide a better emotional environment in which to explore and develop primary relationships — including sexual ones.”
There certainly are certain conveniences of communal living, but both of Williams’ examples — college kids and people on vacation — have mitigating factors: college kids are young and, on the whole, living away from home for the first time since their sexual maturation, and people on vacation are super-relaxed, free from the normal grind of their daily lives. Those things facilitate sexy times, probably a little more than sharing meals among fifty strangers and waiting in line to use the toilet.
Room for sex [Aeon]
Image via Getty, Matt Cardy