Kudos to Slate for republishing Geoff Dyer's essay, "Sex and Hotels." I looked forward to re-feeling those first-read frissons when I settled into our tackiest loveseat with Dyer onscreen. Edging into the second paragraph, I was startled to find the shoulders stiffening, the head shaking slowly, the lips tightening for a scrimmage. Frequently the female sitting on her hands to keep from asking the speaker that please-please-answer question, I am also the one who keeps a pen and notebook nearby to extinguish mental brush fires. The scribbler, the wilderness, the riot.
What follows is my dialogue with Dyer's piece across the interim between first read and present.
"A hotel room is horny because it is clean: The sheets are clean, the toilets are clean, everything is clean, and this cleanliness is a flagrant inducement to—what else?—filthiness. Ideally, the room is so clean as to suggest that it has never been used. It cries out to be defiled. If the room is, in a sense, virginal, then the act of breaking the seal on bars of soap and other stealable accessories has something of the quality of breaking its hymen. Slightly archaic it may be, but to speak of “taking a room” is, in this context, pleasingly suggestive."
"In a sense" is like a cotillion skirt in that one can hide a cannon beneath it. Upon examining the metaphorical sense in which a room is "virginal", we are presented with the likelihood of hymen. Considering the hymen-optics wherein cracking the seal on bars of soap and other cheap bathroom accouterments resemble the act of breaking a hymen, it becomes less clear which virginity is being tainted. I don't understand the virgin metaphor unless the hotel room is a born-again virgin of the megachurch type, in which case I don't understand what business the fetishization of mega-churchings has to do with the illicit, furtive sex we seek in hotels.
The immaculate cleanness of the hotel room isn’t alluring for its virginal connotation (especially since sex with virgins tends to be the least erotic and satisfying variant) so much as the blatant knowledge that I played no part in the work of spotlessness. I didn’t have to clean it and I won’t be responsible for any wine stains or disasters thereafter. Unlike sex with a virgin, the mess may be mine but the responsibility is on the house.
(Note: Dyer mentions this in passing but glosses over it as a form of luxury akin to having someone turn the sheets. The fact that I can't mention it in passing suggests a difference, perhaps, in the way Dyer and I experience daily household life. That difference is a minefield of untouched sex bombs.)
Maybe a hotel room is “horny” because it asks nothing of me except imagination tangled with banality, the perfect Moravian moment. And maybe a hotel room is thrilling because it’s secretly filthy; ultraviolet light would reveal splatters of sperm and bloodstains, a woman screaming while biting a hand, all the ways in which patriarchy follows us into the private spaces. This is the undertone of actual. Stanislaw Lem’s story floats through my head like a love letter I won’t share with my partner. My head is always a little dirtier than his, always more fascinated by the grime beneath the shiny American smiles.
"In international hotels, however, the passage through the lobby—a process of which checking in is the ritualistic expression—is also a passage from place to non-place. By checking in and handing over your credit card or passport, you effectively surrender your identity. By becoming a temporary resident of this non-place you become a non-person and are granted an ethical equivalent of diplomatic immunity. You become morally weightless."
Humbug. A hotel lobby is sexy not for its “moral weightlessness” but for its reckless, bureaucratized complicity in the exchange of transactional sex.
There I am, waiting in the brutal splendor of a hotel lobby where personal emptiness is magnified and reflected back from every gleaming surface-- I am breathlessly lonely, horribly aware, compressed by the emptiness spun into the architecture, the codified professional displays, the silent confession that all bodies in this lobby are missing something that going upstairs will not relieve. All the stairwell sex in the world will not unlonely us as we stand in the hotel lobby. When else is our weakness ever this stark?
"In the confines of the hotel you are no longer Mr. or Ms. Whoever, you are simply the occupant of a room. You have no history."
It’s not the relinquishment of identity that feels liberating—it’s the permission to fully inhabit the multiple, ever-mutating selfhood. To be Mrs. Someone and Mrs. None simultaneously. To be authentically doubled and dislodged from the strictures of rigid social roles.
Is there anything more volatile than a married mother who just turned forty and finds herself without a kitchen to clean, a dinner to cook, a family of mammals to over-feel and tend?
As a Romanian-Alabamian, I don’t play singles when it comes to identity. I need a polymorphous closet for all the costumes.
Basically, the more expensive the hotel the more arousing it is. There is, in other words, almost no distinction between the building itself and the prostitutes who ply their trade in it.
Money and price are a measure of preference, especially with respect to risk. For some of us, the lure of the thirty dollar motel room with vibrating beds and possible parking lot shoot-outs is more enticing than the platitudes of the fancy hotel. I need the sort of sex that acknowledges my desperation—the feeling that I’m risking my life for a moment of pleasure. The urgency matters. I don’t want to be insulated from the costs of my desire—I want to feel them panting down my neck.
Of course, it helps when the motel lacks an internet connection or a working television--because there is literally nothing left to do except sex. And conversation. And more sex. And not a single damned American Express card machine in sight.