On A Dark Night, You Can See Forever, part 2: Sex and the Super City

As we approach the opening of Dark Night, Auckland Libraries’ guerrilla season of events exploring sex and sexuality, I’m blogging on the way that our culture and our intimate relationships speak to one another. As part of my job is pushing librarians out of their comfort zone, I figured I should probably do the same to myself as a writer…

Michael Fassbender in SHAME
Michael Fassbender in SHAME

I’m also offering you a different take on the arguments I’ve been making in recent weeks, that libraries offer a place for us to immerse ourselves in culture and participate in a way unique from any other space. Libraries as a place of imagination, learning, and connection applies to everyone, from the guy who wants an auto repair manual to the devotee of erotic fan fiction. As I argued last time on this blog, in a world where Fifty Shades of Grey sells 70 million copies world wide, libraries need to be part of the conversation around contemporary erotica.

Here, I wanted to connect our most intimate relationships with two kinds of text – the movies and literature we consume, but also the wider discourse of city life. As Auckland’s Dark Night opens with the New York-set movie Shame, I figured the time was ripe to contemplate “Sex and the Super City”.

Last January, I was sitting shiva in Manhattan – mourning, but also playing waiter and factotum to an unusual group of lawyers, designers, academics, and journalists commemorating the life of an inspiring and kind-hearted friend.

One woman complimented me on the kindness I’d shown in a time of grief and offered to introduce me to an eligible young lady, an Australian PhD candidate based in Washington.

Just before she could finish telling me about this amazing girl, a friend passed by in the hall. “Are you talking dates with Matt? He collects girlfriends the way other people gather lint.”

The woman’s mouth snapped shut and no more was said of my chances with the Aussie cleverclogs.

I didn’t always have that reputation. When I first went to New York a few years ago, I was a shy schoolteacher trying to find his way into freelance writing. I quickly fell in love with the city – as my old PhD supervisor put it, anyone with an atom of affinity for urban environments is helplessly drawn to NYC.

I got to thinking about this once Auckland Libraries secured Shame as the opening movie for our Dark Night library season. As the Jezebel review of this harrowing movie about sex addiction makes clear, this movie is as valuable for its clear-eyed depiction of New York as for its interrogation of emotionally damaged lives.

The question that occurred to me was: Do the people make the city, or does the city make the people?

Matt at Coney Island Subway

Whichever way round, this shy Londoner’s dating life was very different in NYC. The first bar I went to, a barmaid ended up taking me home. Another night, I parted company with a girl and put her in a taxi home, returned to my building, got in the elevator – then dashed back out to the stoplight and asked if she’d take me back to her place (she said yes). Less impulsively, I asked out another, fiercely clever girl by making a voice recording of a crossword-style clue on a USB stick: the solution to the puzzle told her where to find me for our first date.

Yeah, I thought I was pretty slick. But thankfully there was always someone ready to put me in my place.

At the end of one night’s adventures, I parted company with my date for the evening and had already passed the subway turnstile when I turned and said, “I don’t expect you to take me home. And I don’t need to drink any more. But I just wish there was a place to go and talk more – like a library, with sofas. And with duvets.”

The Octagon, Queen Mary University of London
The Octagon, Queen Mary University of London

(I was picturing something like a cross between a gentleman’s club and the Octagon at my old university, Queen Mary, in London).

Apparently these were the magic words. (Always mention a library! It plays to the John Waters Effect). She took me back to her Brooklyn apartment – decorated like the set from an early Tim Burton film, and yes, she had books – and, in deference to my Englishness, she made me a pretty appalling cup of tea.

We sat on her sofa, kissed and cuddled a little bit, and then it became clear that things were going to go further. And here came the most quintessential line of my New York dating career:

“You can sleep with me, but we’re not having sex, because I just used up all my condoms on my regular guy.”

I was flabbergasted. Of course, I hid the fact – and it didn’t stop me from staying. But that’s the British stiff upper lip for you.

This wasn’t even the worst of my New York dating stories. (I’m sparing you the one about the female journo with a poster from the Cremaster cycle over her bed). And I’m not pretending that I was in any way exploited by people like my tough-talking, Burton-loving Brooklynite. (Quite the opposite, I suspect that her attitude was born from a certain set of expectations on single women which she would have been happier living without – and I was the one taking advantage of that imbalance). But I definitely experienced a distinctive way of forming relationships and casual encounters when I went to NYC. And, in the light of that Shame review, I’m looking forward to hearing what our guest speaker Dr. Pani Farvid has to say about sex, dating, and urban society when she introduces our featured movie on 21 June.

Auckland is the metropolitan heart of 21st century New Zealand: the “Super City”, a sprawling suburban landscape which is home to about a third of the entire Kiwi population. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key recently sparked a debate about the relative importance of Auckland and the capital, Wellington, when he claimed that the latter city was “dying”  – in one report, a journalist rather marvellously described Auckland as “the Death Star which pulls business life from smaller centres into its maw.”

Auckland CBD - or possibly the Death Star?
“Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

Auckland has a reputation for being cliquey and divided by its suburban mentality – since I’ve been here, I’ve heard a lot of outsiders and ex-pats describe it as a tough community in which to find a home– but what impact does this urban culture have on the dating game in New Zealand’s self-proclaimed “super city”? Does a hook-up in Wellington work differently to one in her northern rival? What about gay, lesbian, and transgender relationships? And how different is dating in South Auckland – more diverse, less wealthy – from those hipsterious hangouts in the suburbs of Grey Lynn, Ponsonby, or Kingsland where I’ve observed the boho dating game in action?

For provocative answers, and even more provocative questions, and more, keep following our Dark Night adventures at Auckland Libraries…See more at the Auckland Libraries Dark Night page, or book tickets for our 21st June launch event at Academy Cinemas in Auckland.

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