Desire is a place
October 30th, 2023
Aisling O’Leary on the private zones and public arenas defined by wants.
The street, the tube, an open public space
It starts on the street, on the tube, in the park, on the dancefloor. Eyes lock, eyes move up and down, perhaps a small smile. There are no expectations, no emotional baggage. There is only the script of my choosing, the one that plays out in my head.
The street was the beginning of my awareness of my blossoming womanhood. Whenever I’d go into town, I’d count the number of men who looked my way. I found that I loved being an object of desire—it was a quick and cheap form of approval, an ego boost. I loved the fantasy that played out in my mind, the places we’d go, the adventures we’d have. Even today, there is nothing sexier than walking down the street and catching someone’s eye. It adds a jaunt to my step. And there is nothing sexier to me than walking away, leaving them with their fantasy as I move with mine, playing out the places we’d go, the adventures we’d have.
But looking back, I realised that those early years of my ripening sexuality formed the baseline of the sexual script I was unthinkingly performing, reinforced by other elements in society and popular culture: I am desired, I swoon at the idea of being desired in an open space and, given certain circumstances such as time and place, I’d give in to the desire.
Your place or mine?
For a long while, the answer to the question ‘your place or mine?’ was always yours, never mine. I completely dissociated the sexual me from the woman who slept in ‘mine’, the one who was a socially sanctioned good girl and hadn’t a clue what she wanted.
Rooms have a script and my bedroom was a sanctuary. Inviting someone back risked puncturing the peace. In my room, I was me. I was not catering to or negotiating with anyone else’s desire. I was free to roam myself. It was safer that way—less complicated, less messy.
This was at a time when I lived in a shoebox of a room. Of course, a lot of the mental energy in partnered sex is divided between the other and yourself, but there are other factors to consider: the events of the day, physical space, lighting, music, thread count. A Diptyque candle is peak. But in a room with paper thin walls that’s just off the kitchen, I was not going to be as relaxed as, say, when I’m in a warm, secluded cabin in the woods, or for the more exhibitionist personality, in a playroom with a dozen others (to be honest, the latter might have dug my shoebox room off the kitchen).
According to Esther Perel, sex wastes time, needs space, and is inhibited by too much intimacy. She has said that “sexual desire and good citizenship don’t play by the same rules.” Richard J. Williams, Professor of Contemporary Visual Cultures at the University of Edinburgh, further probed this architectural concern for civility and order in his essay "Room for Sex" published in Aeon in 2013. “If architecture is a physical representation of the society that makes it,” he wrote, “then, in a Western context such as ours, it is bound to be designed to keep the lid on sex.”
And therein lay the problem with my bedroom; in there, I was a good citizen who didn’t want to wake up her flatmates.
More than that, I had this recurring image that if I brought someone back to my place, they’d be hanging around the next morning expecting breakfast, when I really just wanted them to leave. I knew myself well enough to know I would want to have the place back to myself. When someone else entered my fray, the notion of being a good host never left. The relief at their inevitable absence was tantamount to the two orgasms the night before.
But in the Uber or on the walk back to ‘yours’ the adventure continued. I could be whoever I wanted, as loud as I wanted. I didn’t need to play the part of a good citizen.
I walked into my first sex dungeon when I was 24. Like any dungeon, it was black, and like any sex dungeon there was a house domme. He wielded a vibrator on his submissive while a crowd of us looked on as she gasped to a climax. He tended to her afterwards (see: aftercare), soothing and stroking her as she came down from her high.
I learned then that I do not feel soft and open in dungeons; I feel on edge. In any case, it wasn’t a conscious choice at that time to go to a sex dungeon, it just happened to be a part of a sex positive club night that my friend really wanted to attend for her birthday. My happy place is the dancefloor, a wide-open space where my body can move wild and free.
So when I recently made the decision to go to another sex party, it wasn’t with the intention of reformulating my thoughts on the dungeon. I wanted to unlearn certain sexual scripts, to put myself in a space where I could rethink different ideas I had about myself and my sexuality. Because I’ve come to realise that repeating mottos such as ‘I need to work on myself’ while I scurry back to my bedroom, alone, is futile. It is through others that we discover our truth (thank you Perel). And it is by putting yourself among a crowd of others who are equally curious and open-minded that you might just propel yourself in an entirely new direction, one you hadn’t thought was open to you.
Just like the last time, there was a dungeon, but unlike the last time, I went in there with a man I danced with all of five minutes. He led me into the brightly lit cave as I gave him permission to ‘kiss me down there’. This was a sex party after all, the point of which, I told myself, was to just let go and stop overthinking my desires.
A person was loudly getting off behind me, spectacle-like, making it hard to relax. This space might have allowed for the woman behind me to bloom fully into her orgasm, but I felt trapped in my shell. As the man—who, not normally the type I’d go for but, again, this party was about exploring other styles—went down on me, I realised I was repeating an old script: I was going along with a man’s desire, the swoon of feeling desired, but I was not quite questioning what I wanted out of the moment. And the power of being in a sex party was that I could say goodbye and move on and try something new. It forced me to push past all the awkwardness and shame I have around sex and instead confront my very bodily desires, the visceral nature of all that’s opposite to what I was brought up to think about how a woman should act and feel.
And so I did in the playroom on the other side of the warehouse, where the lighting was a moody red. I had a long conversation with a woman before engaging in another sexual encounter, creating a new sexual path for myself which I hadn’t at all envisioned, one which was soft, tender, and a continuous checking in with each other on how each touch felt.
Goodbye hermit’s hut?
As Katherine Angel eloquently wrote in her book Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, “it is immensely appealing to fantasise oneself to be inviolable, utterly autonomous and in possession of firm boundaries.” Allowing for porousness does not come naturally to me. I am wary of letting people get too close for fear of getting hurt and, indeed, nowhere is invulnerability stronger than within the four walls of my bedroom.
But sex is not a single act that happens—it exists as multiple conversations, starting between you and yourself, eventually spilling out to invite that cute person at the bar back home with me, someone whose joyousness implies that they’ll respect the sanctuary-turned-hermit-hut. I hadn’t quite thought what the script would be for my bedroom but it revealed itself as the night unfolded, reminding me that the blueprint is different with each person, lines being drawn and redrawn.
I am done with my little hermit’s hut. Yes, it’s a risk, but I’ll be damned if I end up with a tombstone that says Here lies Aisling O’Leary. Cause of death: afraid to say what she wanted, to admit her desires.
Like any script, I am subject to redrafts.