Sex and Hotels

The erotics of the anonymous space, where everything is clean and begs to be defiled.

A man in a bathrobe lies on a bed covered in rose petals.
Doris Liou

Once published in the online magazine of sex, Geoff Dyer’s glorious essay “Sex and Hotels” has fallen off the internet. Slate is proud to republish the essay, which appears in Dyer’s essay collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, in its entirety.

Hotels are synonymous with sex. Sex in a hotel is romantic, daring, unbridled, wild. Sex in a hotel is sexy. If you’ve been having a sexy time at home you’ll have a sexier time in a hotel. And it’s even more fun if there are two of you.

Yes, so far we’ve only been talking about masturbation, an activity that, at home, often has a hurried, lavatorial quality to it. In a hotel—and I should add that “hotel” throughout this piece is short for “expensive hotel”—it’s something to luxuriate in. At home you want to watch news, sports, or documentaries about human rights abuses. If you are watching television in a hotel, on the other hand, you want to see things going in and out of other things in extreme close-up. Ideally, to square the circle, the porno you watch in your hotel room will be set in a hotel room.

And what will you be wearing as you watch hotel porn in your hotel room? Why, a fluffy white bathrobe, of course. Even though they are frequently stolen, these fluffy white bathrobes are theft-proof in the sense that almost as soon as you get them home they lose that fluffy quality. How do hotels maintain robes in that state of perpetual fluffiness? Keeping them white is easy; keeping them fluffy is one of life’s enduring mysteries. Is it a question of using gallons of fabric conditioner? Apparently not (I’ve tried it). The answer can only be: because they are not just fluffy white bathrobes—they are fluffy white hotel bathrobes.

Not only are they fluffy and soft and white—they are also clean. And the chances are that you too are clean beneath your fluffy white robe because everything about a hotel is clean. Cleanliness might not be next to godliness but it is certainly adjacent to horniness. 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 an effort to keep the rooms unsullied by that dirty stuff, air, urban hotel rooms are almost always sealed off from the outside world, cocooning you totally in the ambient hum of overnight luxury. It doesn’t matter where you are on the planet; you could be anywhere. More exactly, you could be nowhere. The luxury hotel is a quintessential example of what the French theorist Marc Augé calls the “non-place” of supermodernity. In The Right Stuff Tom Wolfe pointed out that the defining architectural feature of the motel—namely, that you don’t “have to go through a public lobby to get to your room”—played a major part in the “rather primly named ‘sexual revolution.’ ” 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. 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. The act of the porter carrying your stuff up to your room means that you are, as they say, not carrying any baggage. As a result (I am basing this claim on zero medical evidence!), men are less liable to be impotent in a hotel than in any other environment. If a man goes to a motel with his mistress, he cheats on his wife. In a luxury hotel, on the other hand, there is no moral liability, only financial.

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition book cover.

As befits this utterly amoral environment, everything is available—for a price. If hotels are, as I claimed at the outset, synonymous with sex, then the two are coeval with money. 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. In the bar of a very expensive hotel the feel of potential sex in the air is almost palpable. If you are in the bar alone, a casual encounter seems more likely with every overpriced drink you sign for. This impression is so strong that a hint of the one-night stand is imparted to a late-evening drink with a partner of 20 years. Almost certainly the most commonly enacted fantasy in a hotel bar involves a couple pretending that they are strangers who have just picked one another up, that one of them is a hooker.

The reality, too, is a kind of historical fantasy. Luxury hotels offer the chance to live—for a while—like an 18th-century libertine for whom life consists entirely of pleasure because there is a retinue of servants to clear up the mess. Every whim is catered for. A hotel is a chore-free zone, leaving you free—DO NOT DISTURB—to engage in limitless carnality. Every hint of the mundane—even turning down the covers of your bed—is taken care of by other people, by the staff. As a consequence, your actions have no consequences. What the British writer Adam Mars-Jones calls “treating the facilities to mild abuse” is certainly the privilege of every hotel guest, but major abuse is also tolerated (as long as it’s paid for). The rock star’s famed tendency—obligation almost—to trash hotel rooms simply takes this to its extreme. Every day is a new beginning. Everything broken can be replaced. Every day the room and its contents are wiped clean of staining evidence and incriminating fingerprints (a fact that, in turn, feeds into the sense of rampant amorality that is at the heart of the hotel experience). This has its dangers, of course; it takes an effort of will not to succumb to the delusion that the mere fact of being in a hotel room is both prophylactic and contraceptive.

At this point a slight qualification is needed, namely, that in some ways a room is more erotic than a suite. A suite subtly revives the division of labor and leisure on which the architecture of the house is predicated. In a suite the bed is kept separate as an adjunct or option. In a room the bed is all-dominating and unavoidable. However big the room, the bed expands proportionately to fill it up. Since the outside world scarcely exists, the bed becomes the world (“This bed thy centre is, these walls thy sphere,” as the great hotelier John Donne put it.). You do everything in or from this bed: You read, write, watch porno, have sex, sleep, make calls … basically, the only time you’re not stretched out on the bed is when you’re stretched out in the king-size bath, which is, effectively, a liquid bed.

The St. Martins Lane Hotel, smack in the heart of London’s Covent Garden, is exemplary in every regard. It is extremely, ludicrously expensive. The rooms are white, the sheets are white (though the lights over the bed can be adjusted to impart a discreet purple, yellow, or greenish glow to the whiteness), the walls are white, the towels are white. Everything is so white it’s like it has been designed as a camouflage for cocaine, that other component of sex-hotel-money nodality. If certain styles of architecture—courts and police stations, most obviously—are inherently judgmental, this is a style of interior design that acknowledges no moral currency other than American Express. It goes without saying that the rooms are completely soulless (one might as well expect a credit card to have a soul). The fact that they are also small manifests itself mainly by its implicate opposite: the all-engulfing hugeness of the bed. In addition, there is the spatially amplifying illusion of a life-size mirror. Ah, the mirror! This, of course, is another indispensable part of hotel erotics. The mirror is a virtual porn channel in which fantasies of hotel sex are simultaneously enacted and broadcast, to the delight of participants and viewers alike.

“The point of rooms is that they’re inside,” writes Don DeLillo in a famous passage in White Noise. “People behave one way in rooms, another way in streets, parks and airports. To enter a room is to agree to a certain kind of behavior. It follows that this would be the kind of behavior that takes place in rooms.” Some rooms, though, are more inside than others. Hotel rooms, for example. As such, they generate a special subset of room behavior that one might term hotel room behavior—otherwise known as sex.

So there you are, behaving appropriately in an extremely expensive, hermetically sealed, totally safe, utterly artificial environment. You look out through the smear-free windows at the soundless city that could be any city. No one can see you, and even if they do it’s not you they see: All they can make out—as in a memorable sequence from Ryu Murakami’s Tokyo Decadence—is a figure silhouetted in the window: a figurehead and totem of the depraved, atrocious, inhuman sexiness of hotels.

Geoff Dyer, “Sex and Hotels” from Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews. Copyright © 2011 by Geoff Dyer. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of the author and his publisher, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.