The Disappointment of Modern Sex

One of the good things about the top-floor flat my boyfriend and I are sharing in Berlin is its panoramic views. We look down on a kebab shop, an Apotheke (pharmacy), a tram line, traffic weaving around to Friedrichstrasse and in the distance, the steaming top of a huge hospital called Charite.

Also, we can see into 50 odd bedrooms of the Arcotel Velvet -- that face us with embarrassing nakedness. Each room is a glass box, their street-facing walls entirely windows. The whole block of them look directly into our living room.

It's not just the rooms that are naked in their proximity and transparency. Many of their occupants are too; these occupants don't draw the curtains.

One of the first things my boyfriend did when he got to the flat, two months before me, was draw the blinds on the window that faces the hotel. He reported seeing one too many naked, old men wandering around, as well as the making of a porn film. It appears that his distaste at the former outweighed everything.

I thought he was being a bit prudish. What fun! Seeing 50 sets of strangers shag in different hotel rooms! Like in Sex and the City or a seasonal, French comedy-drama!

So I kept peeking through the blinds, and I never saw more than some contemplative women in bras working on their laptops or some men in boxers crawling into bed and turning off the lights.

That is, until yesterday. It took my father (my parents are visiting) to raise the blinds, but this is not as bad as it sounds. He had been left unattended in the flat for a few hours and likes light (a scant entity in Berlin in winter). He saw closed blinds and opened them, and then, he continued reading about geological formations in the Galapagos.

A few hours later, my parents, Simon and I were having tea and some Linzertorte. Suddenly Simon said, "Oh God, here we go."

We all looked. A naked man was mid-coitus with a naked woman; she was flopped backwards, over the bed, while he stood and thrusted. It was an extraordinary scene to see with your parents and your boyfriend.

"Well, that's why there are so many people on the planet!" noted my mother, before returning to her cake.

Thank God the others were also genuine in their determination to continue as before. Nobody looked again, besides me; I was riveted. Five, 10, 15 minutes would pass, and they'd still be going strong. The man would be coming at her from behind, she'd be on top, hair flying, back arched like in a movie; he'd be pleasuring her orally, then having at her missionary style. Repeat.

Hours seemed to pass and the lady was clearly not climaxing, or maybe she came immediately and he had to catch up, and in doing so, give her several more orgasms. But something about it didn't give me that impression. It looked like such hard work. To be fair, it was hard work; the man did not flag.

But I was riveted, not because this seemed an erotic scene, but because it seemed so anti-erotic, so sad. It encapsulated the pressure of enjoyment under which modern sex-havers labor: You will climax. The reality is that after 30 minutes of hammering, a woman is not suddenly going to climax because of a position switch. It's gone. Even the most artful finger or mouth session may be futile as the area can become desensitized due to psychological, as well as physical, wear. Plus, by then, both parties know the game is up and it's become a job, at which point failure reflects badly, terribly, on the modern lover -- particularly the casual modern lover who is meant to have all kinds of experiences of climax at their fingertips; a portfolio for every situation.

On and on they went. This position then that position... a break... then back he went. They seemed to stop, and lay side by side. But then he began trying again to pleasure her. He was giving it a good effort, I'll hand him that. You could see him thinking, "How annoying that these days you have to make the woman have an orgasm too; still, needs must I guess!" while she was probably thinking the exact same.

Eventually I forgot to watch, but hours later, I felt a bit depressed by what I'd seen. Not because I'd suddenly discovered myself to be a filthy old voyeur. But because I had seen a crystallization of modern sex: an international city in Europe, 3:30 p.m., a November day in a minimalist hotel room and I hadn't liked it. It had seemed like a real bore, a hollow shell -- like I was watching porn. It was performance; it was rogering, hammering, it was get to the finish line sex at whatever cost. It made me uneasy about this great edifice of meaning that we call sex, and it made me wonder if it really is just animals rutting after all. Simon noted that from a distance (in this case, about the width of Regent Street), people having sex really does look like animals having sex. (This is not an arousing thing to either of us, for the record.)

I don't know for sure, obviously: they might have been lovers reuniting and enjoying every second of their bodily contact; they might have met the night before. But, it reminded me of something Germaine Greer said in the introduction to the 2007 Palladin edition of The Female Eunuch -- about how no amount of the the masturbatory thrusting of polished limbs gives the kind of orgasm that emotional intimacy and physical frankness can.

These two were thrusting and their limbs were polished. In the end, I am sure they both got to the finish line, but the effort it took to get there didn't look erotic, it looked exhausting.