Sex and the City
For the New City Reader
Ten years ago, Bruce Mau published his landmark book Lifestyle, setting his own work against the context of contemporary culture and declaring that crafting visually compelling work was no longer sufficient. Instead, Mau argued that the contemporary designer’s task was to craft landscapes of consumption that give fuller, richer meaning to individuals.
In retrospect, Mau’s text proved remarkably prescient. Lifestyle has become a central part of everyday life in the city. Take New York. Once a metropolis, producing wealth through trade and manufacture of industrial goods, it fell into decline in the 1960s, reaching its nadir in the late 1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s it turned to producing wealth through the fabrication of financial products. During the last decade, however, it became a sink for overaccumulated capital, luring in oceans of wealth under the pretext of real estate investment while serving as a venue of luxury consumption. New York, like Venice and other late empire cities, is now a dumping ground for wealth.
The change in the city would not have been possible without lifestyle as a mediating element. Through lifestyle, the bourgeoisie refigured itself as a “creative class,” seeing work and consumption as a continuum to be shaped together. Lifestyle makes it possible to understand that holding an unpaid position at an architect’s office, owning a money-losing clothing store, buying an apartment at 40 Bond, or eating a meal at Momofuku are all crucial experiences that make one’s life complete. Even expense is now a virtue; after all, lifestyle never goes on sale.
But Mau made one mistake. Trained to believe in the designer as an avant-garde figure, he believed that designers would shape lifestyles. This was not to be: in a network culture awash in information, individuals act as aggregators, turning not to one expert source but to many voices, preferably voices of individuals they feel they can relate to, freely combining an array of sources plus their own impulses into a lifestyle.
Lifestyle emerges out of leisure, but needs to be carefully distinguished from it. As surplus time, leisure was originally the province of aristocracy, the only group that had the luxury to partake of it. For the aristocracy, however, leisure time was rarely idle. Instead it was a matter of carefully producing an image fitting their position in society. The bourgeoisie followed that model, understanding the role of the housewife to be that of a consumer, ensuring that both the family and its home were properly appointed. Still, the pressures of metropolitan life threatened to overwhelm nineteenth century individuals so they sought—and were often instructed to seek—unstructured leisure as an escape valve. Even though the Protestant Ethic demanded that all time be regimented and useful, psychologists understood that the modern worker needed “time off.” Uselessness became therapy, a compensation for the instrumentalism of mass society.
Still leisure time posed sexual danger: idle hands are the devil’s plaything. With too much excess time, men and women could lose energy through unproductive sexual activity such as onanism or sodomy. Freud wrote that unfettered sexual impulses would make leisure time stressful and could even dominate work life. Moreover, the dangers of uncontrolled sexuality threatened the competitiveness of nations by undermining the production of children so sexuality would be limited to the production of children by a married man and woman. Reinforcing this idea of production in the home, domesticity became a project of home economics. Throughout the late 19th century, idle time was rationalized into organized leisure, consisting of activities that included gardening, playing music, attending church, volunteering, scouting, improving oneself by going to museums and parks, and belonging to social organizations. Sports too were a form of discipline, training bodies capable of receiving instructions.
Lifestyle begins in the remote isolation of southern California. There, a middle class society appeared to be all there was, a continuum free of class distinctions and established social structures. Southern Californians enjoyed the benefits of an easy climate that supported low-cost construction and a less Protestant, more Latin attitude toward work that romanticized the ranch tradition, suggesting that leisure take place every day. Soon, as Charles and Ray Eames would show, crafting one’s way of life by designing daily habits could be leveraged into a career. This transformation of leisure into lifestyle was argued as a healthier way to live, a natural means of capitalizing on the benefits of fertile land, clean air and sunshine.
After the excess sexuality celebrating the end of World War II produced the baby boom, population growth ceased to be an issue. Instead, over-rationalized consumption and a satiated populace threatened to slow economic growth. As a means of stimulating the economy, advertising agencies began to market goods for their pleasure value, encouraging consumers to buy objects for novelty and aesthetic qualities. Cocktailing, a relaxed evening of drinking with friends which began in the late 1920s among wealthy Americans, spread into mass culture as the “cocktail hour,” to become integral to both American business and social culture. Among the champions of this lifestyle was Hugh Hefner who, through the 1953 launch of Playboy magazine, brought pornography mainstream, combining racy photographs with celebrity interviews, literature and an affirmation of the bachelor way of life. Throughout the 1950s, sexuality was increasingly tolerated. Female lounge acts like Rusty Warren and Terry “Cupcake” O’Mason produced stag records that brought the nightclub atmosphere home while laws governing pornography were relaxed allowing for greater displays of nudity and sexuality in both print and film.
Along with postwar prosperity came a surge in college attendance. The 1944 Serviceman’s Readjustment Act or G. I. Bill of Rights opened the door for middle class Americans returning from service to attend college or vocational school while the National Defense Education Act provided federal assistance to the civilian population. Colleges slowly became more integrated and inclusive of the general population and once attendance swelled, the dependence of these schools on increased revenue meant that a college education became increasingly common.
Loosened by the hippie movement, oral contraceptives, and the Cold War idea of America as a land of individual freedom, a more openly sexual and loose vision of American society slowly emerged. Within this milieu, college developed as transitional utopia between childhood and adulthood in which students’ every need would be provided for and desire could float freely. Co-ed dormitories and the easy availability of birth control pills allowed sex among college students to become more frequent and more casual throughout the decade.
The city had its share of sex as well. Manhattan fell on hard times for the decade beginning in the late 1960s as both industry and middle-class families pulled out. Still, less restrictive laws and cutbacks in policing led to a thriving sex trade in the city. Peep shows, porn theaters, and sex shops sprouted around Times Square, long an area in decline. Located by the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the Lincoln Tunnel and in close proximity to both Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Station, Times Square served as a key entrance point to the city, the sort of area of great mobility that sociologist Robert E. Park described as crucial to cities, allowing individuals to throw off their old identities for new.
At the same time, New York became a center for youth fashion, rock music, and art, and individuals involved in these professions enjoyed experimenting with all aspects of their lives, including their sexuality. Andy Warhol’s Factory, located on East 47th Street was a scene that encompassed celebrity culture, fashion and the glamour of color television. Art became an index or record of the events in the space and sexual self-fashioning on the part of the participants was critical to its success.
While artists had some flexibility to flirt with gender roles and dabble in perversions, deviant sexuality was still largely forbidden. Prior to the 1969 Stonewall riot, gay bars were largely "private clubs" and were often raided by vice cops. In the gay culture of the time, the focus on the right and ability to legitimately have sex led to public sex acts that became an important means of self-expression. Exposing others to gayness, it was thought, would help normalize it. Identity became constructed and performed. Gay men would undertake an aggressive and stylized hyper-masculine emulation of workout wear, lumberjacks, construction workers, and policemen. After Stonewall, gay bars proliferated but public spaces were also colonized for sex, most notably the West Street piers, the meat market truck yards, the Rambles at Central Park, and subway restrooms. All of these provided exciting venues for spontaneous and anonymous sexual encounters. The openness of gay sexuality was attractive to heterosexuals as well, and watching or partaking in gay sex was hardly unusual.
Most of all, the gay sex scene focused on bathhouses like the Continental Baths, facilities that included gyms, pools, restaurants, dance floors and live. Bette Midler, the New York Dolls, the Pointer Sisters, Sarah Vaughn, and Nell Carter performed at Continental Baths to an increasingly mixed crowd that often included celebrities. By 1974, the entertainers, together with the attraction of watching gay sex, had brought too much straight clientele into the baths. Gay attendance dwindled and the club ultimately closed only to be opened again in 1977 as Plato’s Retreat for heterosexual swingers.
Plato’s Retreat’s primary appeal was with a “bridge and tunnel” crowd of suburbanites and residents of the outer boroughs who came in to experience evenings of pleasure in the city. In this, it had a counterpart in Studio 54, the disco that also opened in the same year. Named after an old television studio on 54th street, this somewhat more staid version of Plato’s Retreat brought together celebrities, models, housewives, and politicians in the delirious excess of disco culture. Unlike Plato’s Retreat, sex generally didn’t take place on the premises, although the sexually charged atmosphere was commonly understood to be a place to meet people for sex. Also unlike Plato’s Retreat, which welcomed all, Studio 54 maintained a strict velvet rope policy, judging people on the basis of the clothes they wore and whether or not they were regulars, amplifying the idea that Studio 54 was not just a place to go out to but a total way of life.
Studio 54 would be closed by the IRS in 1980 for tax evasion. Even though Plato’s Retreat’s founder was imprisoned for tax evasion after being investigated by the IRS, the club endured until 1985 when Mayor Ed Koch ordered all sex clubs shut amidst the AIDS crisis. Still, both clubs had a catalytic role in bringing the city back from its low point, making it attractive not only to the bridge and tunnel set but also suggesting that the city could be appeal to both young people and empty nesters tired of aging suburbs who sought lives of greater pleasure and distraction. The Lifestyle had brought lifestyle to the city.
The use of the term “the Lifestyle” as a synonym for swinging (itself named after a form of dance)—non-productive, polymorphic sexuality—underscores how lifestyle comes after production. The Lifestyle emerges after the mainstreaming of nonproductive sex (thus the accepting of homosexuality, alternative sexualities, and gender choice in society and even more widely acceptable homosexuality through “lesbian” pornography). Thus, it’s no accident that the lifestyle is most common among empty nesters whose children have already grown.
But just as true regulars of Plato’s Retreat wound up finding jobs in the sex industry and true regulars of Studio 54 turned to fashion, music, or dealing drugs, lifestyle suggests that it’s not enough to merely consume anymore; one has to participate fully. By the end of 1970s, the post-Fordist economy had driven more and more individuals to more fully identify with their work. Thus hippies pursuing craft production wound up running boutique industries, phone phreakers Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak wound up starting Apple Computer, and actor Ronald Reagan would become President.
Lifestyle suggests that the traditional aspects of leisure—that is self-realization, following one’s idiosyncratic interests, and consumption—can take place anywhere. Moreover, lifestyle is accompanied by a relentless marketing of the self, so that one can be understood by his or her aspirations and interests. Lifestyle becomes the ultimate form of consumerism and under it no aspect of life can be pulled out as free of consumption. But in its affirmation of individuality, cultivation of lifestyle becomes a Nietzschean pursuit. Thus, today individuals neglect their families not because they are forced to work to get ahead or because they are driven by a Protestant work ethic but rather because work gives them meaning. Where workaholics were seen as abnormal, the overworked lifestyler serves as a model for the family, affirming the importance of life itself, showing how much he or she cares.
Just like “the Lifestyle,” lifestyle turns deviance into an amusement. Absorbed into niche marketing and tolerated by capitalists eager to market every last aspect of human experience, subcultures and sexual practices alike lose their transgressive and political elements. In the process, control becomes ever more total, dissent increasingly impossible. When Kurt Cobain sang “everyone is gay” in the early 1990s, he discerned an emerging world in which virtually all forms of deviance would be accepted, a world in which effeminate, drug-addled rock stars would be merely banal, a world in which he would be merely another hipster. For the rest of the song (which he dedicated to his family), he apologized repeatedly and within a few years took the only route preserving his deviance and avoiding becoming a figure of amusement and nostalgia by committing suicide.
As Mau was formulating his notions of lifestyle, the phenomenon matured in cities. This was epitomized in the television show Sex and the City. Here, four female protagonists—recent arrivals who had grown up in suburbia and thus become used to lives of idle pleasure—navigated a landscape of sexual adventure in New York City. Instead of retreading the momentary encounters of Plato’s Retreat, however, intercourse in Sex in the City revolved around elaborate rituals of consumption. Soon, following in the footsteps of the show’s protagonists, a generation of pleasure-seekers arrived in the city to indulge in the same experiences that the characters in the show experienced. Organized Sex in the City tours are common today, enthralling participants with visits to authentic sites like a sex shop in which a character purchased a vibrator, a shoe store, and a bakery that largely makes cupcakes (themselves nostalgic markers of childhood, that is pre-sexual, indulgence).
If Sex in the City established urban life as a matter of lifestyle, it has long ceased to give an insight into actual life in New York. Candace Bushnell, the author of the New York Observer’s “Sex in the City” column, upon whom Carrie Bradshaw is based, “retired” by getting married in 2002 and the show ended in 2004. As a symbol of consumption without consequences, Bradshaw became increasingly untenable after the collapse of the real estate bubble. Her own tastes now appear dated, fashions that even the bridge-and-tunnel crowd would feel out-of-date and overexposed wearing.
Instead, the new urban figure is the hipster. Like Carrie Bradshaw, the hipster lives to consume but does so following Internet-based sites like the Selby and the Sartorialist, monitoring sidewalk fashion and trends rather than the catwalk. Simultaneously interested in authenticity—goods with established history and lasting value, the discovery of which produces trends that move too fast for traditional publications to digest—the hipster is marked by a detached and cynical voyeurism rather than the participatory enthusiasm of the fashionista. Hardly employable and highly judgmental while participating in the same system he or she condemns, the hipster is the twenty-first century flâneur.
Consumerism and everyday life, suburban and urban, authenticity and fashion, and production and consumption are no longer distinct spheres. Instead we have a new form of life, a gesamtkunstwerk in which everything is designed, subsumed by lifestyle. As the hipster navigates this terrain, endlessly searching for the thrill of the next new old thing, he or she moves from one adapted lifestyle to the next in search of meaningful novelty. It’s no longer clear if there is any alternative or if this endless drift from lifestyle to lifestyle is really what we wanted all along.