Happy Families

preview_america_swings_480x368_1012221505_id_403437Among the many interesting reactions to my Sex and Buildings was the observation by Ed Hollis, and separately, Annemarie Adams, that it was unusual these days to see a discussion of sexuality from a straight perspective. To anyone outside the academy, this might seem odd. But to anyone with a working knowledge of recent research on sexuality it will, one way or another, ring true. That’s not a value judgement at all. It simply acknowledges that the loudest voices in recent years have been queer and feminist ones To read about sex in any serious way is to read about the challenges to what was once thought of as ‘normative’ sexuality. So we now generally understand sexuality as a fluid continuum, rather than a set of fixed categories. We accept gender as socially constructed. We understand sexual expression as an unalienable individual right. Most Western societies, even rather conservative ones, have enshrined these things in law; no-one these days is likely to question them in public.

So far so good. However, this great sexual adjustment has inadvertently produced a lot of  left-behinds. They are the heterosexual majority struggling with one or other form of monogamy. There has been remarkably little said about them, perhaps because sexual laws and ethics were for so long constructed in their image. But these days they could probably use a bit of help. They too have developed a sense of sexual rights, and they’ve seen new communities define themselves in sex-positive terms. They might appreciate a piece of the action – or if nothing else, to be asked what they would like.

What they’re left with themselves is – ironically – a hardened, residual version of monogamy that is if anything even less well adapted to contemporary circumstances. The erosion of the ‘double standard’ – the acceptance of male transgression but not the female equivalent – was  necessary and correct, but it also removed a rare safety valve. The new condition, serial monogamy has the great advantage – contractual clarity – but that is offset by a lack of forgiveness. Transgression is easily defined, but equally easily punished. It demands high, and probably impossible, standards of conduct (its contradictions were explored in by the psychotherapist Adam Phillips in the short book, Monogamy)

The problems and opportunities of the present situation are nicely illustrated by the Canadian photographer Naomi Harris a well-known book of photographs, America Swings published in 2008 by ‘sexy books’ editor Dian Hansen of the reliably bonkers Taschen. It shows the results of a quasi-ethnographic survey of swinging parties across 38 American states. Leaving precisely nothing to the imagination, it describes an alternative universe in which America’s most conservative, God-fearing parts turn out to be the most sexually liberal. It is a book I like a great deal; Harris’s thoroughness is awe-inspiring, and the photographic results outstanding. It also shows communities taking an eminently practical approach to solving the problems of monogamy. Rather than take a sledgehammer to it, they license deviation within certain clearly prescribed community norms. And if the pictures are anything to go by, it really works. As Harris says in the text, ‘these people are definitely having better sex than the rest of us.’

America Swings also points up a serious problem. It isn’t an argument for change, but a work of art (a limited edition of 1000, retailing for $1000 or so, much more for the signed edition). The swingers it depicts are ludicrous and bizarre, and fat. Their clothes and furnishings are revoltingly suburban. We’re invited to stare at them in slack-jawed wonder, not (God forbid)  empathise. It’s a classic work of surrealism, in other words, amoral at best, indifferent to the sensibilities of its subjects. In the end, the context – the art world, Taschen – means it’s impossible to see it any other way.

Now ask yourself if there are in fact any favourable depictions of swinging out there – any depictions that don’t fall into the same trap of sniggering at the lower classes. And then ask yourself a broader question. Are there in fact any sex-positive depictions of heterosexual monogamy? Monogamy has become arguably more rigid in recent years, more idealised, and more exclusive, as if the sixties never happened. There may be good reasons for that. Equally, there may not. It would be nice to have a debate.

Notes: Ed Hollis’s new book, Memory Palace: A Book of Lost Interiors, has just been published by Portobello Books. Annemarie Adams is the head of architecture at McGill University, Montreal. The image above is from Naomi Harris’s America Swings, published in 2008 by Taschen.

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Sex and the ‘normal’ city

Morningside, Edinburgh, 2013

Morningside, Edinburgh, 2013

Edinburgh, where I live, has just published some remarkable new statistics. (http://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/downloads/file/10548/edinburgh_by_numbers_2013_14) This bastion of social propriety actually isn’t very proper at all. Of all households in this city of half a million measured in the survey, just 3% could be described as a conventional family unit, that is two adults with one or more children. That’s right: three percent of the total. Single parent households accounted for 9%. By far the largest proportion (41%) of households consisted of a single adult living alone. The remainder was taken up by adults living together in various combinations.

Edinburgh is an exaggerated case. If ‘normality’ is defined by two adults together with kids, then Manhattan is about 10% more ‘normal’ than the Scottish capital. But Edinburgh’s experience does parallel that of cities in the rest of the industrialised world. They are getting older and greyer, and more people are choosing to live alone.

So what? Well stats like these contrast abruptly with the nature of the built environment itself. Edinburgh is strongly defined by four-floor tenement buildings constructed between roughly 1820 and 1920, and home construction in the city in private and public sectors, continues to take a lead from the tenement form. What’s interesting in this context is that it defines the city in terms of the normative family. In effect, the tenement is the normative family in stone. So there are clearly defined private and public spaces, rooms clearly intended as bedrooms for a married pair, smaller rooms for children, public rooms to be kept for ‘best’ (traditionally for receiving the minister of the local church) and so on. The built image of the city doesn’t any longer represent its lived reality.

Arguably this doesn’t matter. Our housing has been remarkably good at adapting: in Britain’s university towns, middle-class Victorian family homes have proved ideal for groups of cohabiting students. These buildings won’t last forever, however, and neither will the social trends that currently sustain them. Sooner or later, we’ll have to build in our own image again.

In terms of sex, all this is important. Compared to previous generations, we can expect extremely long lives, and increasingly healthy ones. Because they’re long, we can also expect increasing degrees of sexual complexity; only a small part of our overall lives is going to be lived out in what might be termed normative surroundings. And there is increasing recognition that permanent monogamy is unrealistic (we may, most of us, still believe in monogamy, but the statistics suggest we act otherwise). So – shouldn’t we start to imagine different ways of building for life? In Sex and Buildings I describe a series of attempts to make buildings that better represented our sexual lives as lived. They mostly failed, sometimes spectacularly so. That shouldn’t put us off, however. We will have to build again sometime, and better to do so realistically, with our eyes open, than to insist on nostalgic fantasy.

For me, the ideal would be some sort of co-housing, the best-known example being Sættedammen in Denmark, established in 1967 (founding creed: ‘Children Should Have One Hundred Parents’. I didn’t write about co-housing in Sex and Buildings, but on reflection it seems to occupy 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, party rooms) it provides time and space to play, starting to address the deficits that inhibit our sexual lives (sex ‘loves to waste time’ in the words of the psychologist Esther Perel). The odd thing is that we already strongly value co-housing, albeit in an occasional and time-limited form. University students live like this, and as adults, we do the same thing on holiday; both forms seem to provide a better environment to explore and develop primary relationships including sexual ones. Now if we can accept that some of our lives, why not the rest of the time?