Feminist Friday: High Life and Nonstandard Behavior
I’ve been on a New York architecture run lately, I know. But more directly concerned with land use (and Feminist Friday territory) is the new Standard Hotel in Chelsea, cantilevered over the equally new High Line linear park, which snakes through several Lower West Side neighborhoods on a refurbished elevated rail line. The dramatic cantilever aside, the building is not daring in the same soaring sense of Jean Nouvel’s tower; more interesting is the Standard’s business decision to market itself as a love hotel, catering particularly to exhibitionists. On top of a public park.
To be sure, the article in the New York Post (America’s Asshole Paper!) which first brought this to the attention of many New Yorkers was rife with deeply unfair, trivializing and irrelevant slut-shaming – something that echoed as an undertone in Jim Kunstler’s later commentary. (I have to wonder whether Mr. Kunstler actually objects to the aesthetics, or really hates parks so much that he’d deny lower Manhattan one more chunk of desperately-needed green space; or whether he resents people having sex per se or just the fact that the patrons are insufficiently penitent about peak oil for his liking, despite New Yorkers having the lowest carbon footprint of any Americans. And yes, I do have some issues with the God of Clusterfuck Urbanism, why do you ask?)
Indeed, numerous comments have already been made that on the whole, Chelsea residents were actually happy with what was going on at the Standard; that there is a long history of public sex in Chelsea, that Americans generally have an unhealthy unwillingness to confront nudity and many aspects of open sexuality, and that there are fewer and fewer places in which to express this and other aspects of what we could call FKK (abbreviated from the German for “free-body culture“). In many ways this should probably have been less exceptional than it is – and probably would have been, were it not happening in the airspace of, and therefore intervening in, a public park open to the public at all hours in a densely populated area.
Alternately, though, it’s difficult to deny that the aspect of exhibitionism that requires an unknowing participant constitutes a certain degree of sexual aggression and possibly even assault. While this argument has an ugly cousin in routine complaints that any public display of even remotely non-normative sexual behavior is “throwing it in [someone’s] face”, there is something to be said for the lack of consensuality given asymmetrical knowledge of the event and its highly public nature, even when community standards are quite tolerant.
I think that it’s acceptable (or at least tolerable) for the exhibitionism at the Standard to continue if they put up signs where it would be visible to unsuspecting people, and preferably if they stop marketing or encouraging the behavior at peak hours. But a surprising number of people to whom I’ve proposed this have found it unacceptable – effectively arguing that they want sexuality to infringe on everyday public discourse, that aggression is somehow deeply essential to the sexual act, and that given the history of the neighborhood anyone uninterested in participating in their impromptu acts without prior knowledge is an interloper that should simply go away.
(Beyond this, ironically, there’s been some fracas about the Standard banning a gay bear/leather event because it “would not fit the character” of the hotel. So does this mean sexual openness for me but not for thee? The manager has attempted to mend fences of late, but the subtext is clear: the Standard doesn’t care if you think they’re hypocritical or aggressive as long as you think they’re thin.)
I understand that architecture and land use are symbolic acts, and are often informed by histories that are complex and can involve a great deal of frustration, trauma, nostalgia, or decline. But is it ever really fair to use history as an excuse to create quasi-permanent public statements whose key element is aggression – and not the continuing life of its inhabitants?