Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sex in the (Industrializing) City

Figleaf is asking how the heck people managed to have sex in the past in one-room abodes, and how they do it today.
So I'm starting to wonder how much of modern Western sexual progress has coincided with modern Western "bourgeoise" trends in housing.
Historically, many people just had no choice about where and when to do it. In premodern times, people's sensibilities were quite frank, and sex was not nearly as private. The whole notion of "privacy," for that matter, is quite modern. People did try to be somewhat secretive about their activities, which meant that sex would often be rather furtive and fast, but no one expected sex to be wholly hidden.

This changed with the advent of the bourgeoisie and the birth of modern notions of privacy. The more prosperous classes promoted an idea of sexual discretion, and they had enough space to conform to it. Parents and children slept in separate rooms, and the idea of shielding kids from their parents' sex lives became prevalent enough that Freud could write of a child viewing the "primal scene" as a traumatic event.

But space remained at a premium for the poor, and their housing actually grew worse as industrialization advanced and poor people flocked to the cities in hope of work. The urban working class often suffered much worse crowding than rural people did. In 1918, half of the apartments in Berlin, Germany, had just one room. The situation was worse in some other European cities. Poor women commonly rented out (part of) a bed to unrelated tenants, which meant that the family's young daughters might share a bed with a young, unmarried man. About a third of 5000 poor housewives surveyed in Berlin in the early 1930s had sublet arrangements with boarders.

I know a little about this issue from my research on the history of childbirth. As you might imagine, the lack of space and privacy also became an issue at the other end of the pipe, so to speak. A one-room apartment doesn't allow for a hygienic home birth by modern standards. Nor does it facilitate the sort of privacy that doctors and midwives increasingly saw as morally necessary in childbirth. This was a big factor driving women's choice to give birth in hospitals.

The key term here is "bourgeois," both morally and materially. In the 1920s, middle-class housing reformers pushed for better apartments for the poor - not necessarily larger but chopped into fewer rooms - partly because they saw morality endangered by the lack of privacy. This seems to have been a much bigger deal for the middle-class do-gooders than for the working classes, which continued to embrace bawdier morals. (Poor people did want better housing, just not necessarily for the same reasons that reformers saw it as desirable.)

But it's a nice little irony that the birth of privacy, which initially cast sex as something to hide from the world, actually created a space where sex could ultimately become less furtive. Sexual variety needs time and space to flourish, and those buttoned-down reformers inadvertently created just that.

The consequences of privacy for female pleasure are particularly profound, since "fast and furtive" just doesn’t cut it for most of us women, most of the time. In addition, young women had more sexual autonomy when they didn't have to fend off the advances of a tenant; the reformers were right that such tenants could pose a threat to women's bodily integrity. So even if the reformers were interested in protecting women's purity, in the end they did much more to facilitate women's sexual self-determination.

I'm still left wondering how people cope in Tokyo or Moscow, as figleaf asks. Many of them still live in conditions similar to early-twentieth-century crowding, with whole families in a single room, but they're subject to modern ideas about privacy and sexual propriety. I'd be very curious to know how they manage the resulting clash.

7 comments:

Lynn said...

You know, these are the kinds of things my husband and I discuss at night when we try to go to sleep- recently we went to a funeral and people were talking about how at one time there were almost twenty people living in the one house. Then more and more children, we wondered where they MADE them all!!!

I think people made use of cellars and pantries...quick and furtive isn't quite adequate but I guess if thats all you have...

Sungold said...

Yeah, a pantry would've been pretty cushy and romantic for some folks who lived in one big room.

Even so, 20 people in a house - I'm assuming a single-family home? - has got to be close to some sort of record.

It's nice to know that I'm not the only one who has weird bedtime discussions with my partner. :-)

Hesperis said...

I'm just wondering, when we assume that sex would have to have been fast and furtive, aren't we imposing that bourgeois privacy value already? Isn't the original question already coming from a place where we can't imagine sex could occur under not so private conditions?
The sexual "practice, for lack of a better word, of the poor and working classes have always come in for pretty harsh treatment. Particularly girls and young women. They always "knew" stuff they weren't supposed to know and they knew it from a very young age (I'm way generalizing, I know). How do we know that all manner of sexual interaction wasn't more out in the open, and not just the fast and furtive?
So interesting.

J.B. Kochanie said...

Many ...still live in conditions similar to early-twentieth-century crowding, with whole families in a single room, but they're subject to modern ideas about privacy and sexual propriety. I'd be very curious to know how they manage the resulting clash.

Sungold,

I personally know families who emigrated from Eastern Europe to North America from 1900 through 1960. While some had left homes that offered more in the way of privacy, virtually all had to live in cramped lodgings, at least temporarily, when they arrived in North America.

How did they manage? Visual privacy could be provided by dividing the living space by means of a curtain, a screen or a piece of furniture. The living space may have been the living or dining room that also served as the sleeping area for the family.

What we forget is that privacy is a social ritual which is "learned," i.e., the art of not seeing or not hearing what you can physically see or hear. Yes, children will see and hear and ask question, but parents would deflect questions they deemed too prying by saying, "Little pitchers have big ears," which means, "Stop being so nosy."

To varying degrees we practice this social ritual of not seeing or not hearing when we share office space with coworkers. Which is why sitcoms focus on the egregious behavior that makes it impossible for the fictional characters to maintain the facade of privacy.

Sungold said...

Yes, I'm presupposing a certain bourgeois value on privacy - to some degree. But there's also historical evidence for a lot of encounters being furtive, especially if they were relatively taboo. I'm thinking of a study I read ages ago on homosexual encounters in early modern Europe (and no, I can't remember author and title - darn it!). The gist was that such acts were secretive but not private - and that they did not categorize the actors as "homosexual."

Kochanie, the East Germans I've known got married ASAP; that's how they negotiated the space crunch under the old regime.

I tend to think that visual privacy is the least of it, but maybe that's because I'm not very good at keeping quiet under those circumstances? :-)

The thing is, people can and do have sex under almost any circumstances. What interests me is how they (we) have made the shift to expecting enough privacy to really enjoy and explore rather than just quickly scratching an itch.

And oh, office cubicles! I remember too well the fun of calling my gyn's office for Pap smear results - with all my officemates able to listen in.

Great comments, everyone. Thanks!

Sally said...

This is really quite fascinating. I always knew that there wasn't much privacy, but I guess I just never really considered how a sex life factored into that equation.

Thanks, sungold, for the post, and thanks to j.b. kochanie for a bit of insight.

Sungold said...

Crowding affected almost *every* aspect of life if you lived in an urban tenement. How do you wash laundry or bathe when you have no space? How do you stop the spread of disease? How do you find space for contemplation? Mostly, you just didn't.