Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses (Marjorie Garber, 2000)

Perhaps it is more pronounced here than in other places. But the evidence seems to indicate otherwise. Dallas, Texas, is the real estate capital of America. A large portion of the city’s economy is dedicated to real estate oriented business: architecture, real estate development, real estate management, and banking. More than just a local phenomenon, Dallas developers are behind much of the land development nationwide. Compounding Dallas’ real estate preoccupation is the fact that north Texas is “topographically challenged.” There are no mountains, beaches, or rivers that trump the human scale or man-made monuments. Its history is captured in the beautifully restored Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John F. Kennedy. Its future is captured in the Dallas City Hall designed by world-famous architect, I.M. Pei. Dallas is proud of its buildings (there is even a website that lists them by height), but even prouder of its homes. It is here that one locates the underlying psychology of the metroplex.

A newcomer to Dallas is often perplexed, even offended, by the common greeting by a perfect stranger: “Where do you live?” At the gas station, the grocery store, the cleaners, or the florist, the question is always the same: “Where do you live?” Dallas like many other cities across America has established a social hierarchy determined by zip code, whether Manhattan’s Upper East Side, San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, or Dallas’ Park Cities.

Here as well as in all the major cities of America, real estate location and house selection are the primary social markers of status. Here are our monuments to the American Dream coupled in the twin concepts of the saga of the self-made man or woman and the fantasy of home ownership. America’s love affair with houses is a cultural indicator of our cultural idolatries.

It is this preoccupation with houses that led Marjorie Garber to write Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses. Professor Garber is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English and the Director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University. From the opening paragraph her thesis is clear: real estate has become a relational substitute in the lives of many Americans. She begins, “What do college students talk about with their roommates? Sex. Twenty years later, what do they talk about with their friends and associates? Real estate. And with the same gleam in their eyes. Real estate today has become a form of yuppie pornography.”

Our use of words, Garber claims, reveals our heart condition. She makes a compelling case that home-buying has been cast in relational terms. House hunting is like dating. Realtors are the matchmakers. We relate to our homes in relational terms. Homes become surrogate lovers, emotional mothers, trophy wives, summer mistresses, and even embodied selves.

Her deeper claim is that homes have not only become surrogate relationships, but substitute lives. Our homes become symbols of a life we wished we lived, if only we had the time. “For busy people,” Garber explains, “space has come to substitute for time, and the house becomes the unlived life. In an era when the ‘welcome mat and the answering machine’ all-too-often stand in for personal greeting and the human voice, the house—with its ‘living’ room, ‘dining’ room, ‘family’ room, and ‘media’ room, is the place where we state the life we wished we had time to live.” In a housing market filled with “McMansions” and “Starter Palaces,” restaurant-like kitchens and spa-like bathrooms are not for cooking or bathing, but indicate that the owner appreciates fine dining and takes care of his or her body. And so the house becomes the ultimate fashion accessory for the branded persona. Emily Post advises, “If the house expresses the architect or the decorator and not the owner, then its personality is a song out of tune.” A cartoon in a 1978 New Yorker showed a man confiding to a woman seated next to him in a bar, “I’ve tried to express myself clearly, but for a truly definitive statement of me you’d have to see my living room.”

And so our homes—our largest financial investment—serve to reveal our heart relationship to things in general. Professor Garber quotes one homebuyer’s critical observation, “We once lived in houses and worshiped in cathedrals. Now we want to live in cathedrals; what does this say about what we choose to worship?” Indeed.

Food and shelter have always been seen as a basic human need. Yet our super-sized houses are testaments to egos run amuck. They give the lie to our true priorities, proportionality, and purpose. The prophet Haggai’s complaint was one of priorities. “Give careful thought to your ways. Is it time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while the Lord’s house remains in ruin?” Whether the priority is the Lord’s house or the Lord’s work, we have uncritically followed the cultural patterns and too often put our houses first. We worship in modest functional boxes with faux fronts and live in luxurious homes with exposed imported beams from French chateaux.

We have lost sight of proportionality. Common laborers built the cathedrals of Europe in their spare time over the course of hundreds of years. They stand today as a testament of their cultural priorities—transcendence, beauty, and permanence. Barbara Corcoran, president of the Corcoran Group, says of contemporary homebuyers, “There’s so much new money around, and buyers want to flaunt it. They’ll swear and they’ll protest and say they don’t want to show off, but they do. They want a house that makes a clear, undeniable statement that ‘I am rich’ and ‘I have style.’” And so some future anthropologist will observe that here are cultural artifacts dedicated to ego, opulence, and transience.

Paul’s emotional warning echoes in our guilty consciences, “Take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven.” One wonders when our attachment to our homes undermines our cognitive awareness of our status as pilgrims. It was in answer to a question about wanting to follow him anywhere, that Jesus spoke most directly about our over-attachment to homes: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” To follow Jesus is to be a pilgrim. We are to be like him—spiritual vagrants. We will have no sense of mission if our mortgages cripple our commitment to the kingdom purposes that should animate our lives. We are citizens of heaven. Heaven is not a distant place, but a present reality. “Where do you live?”


Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses (Marjorie Garber, 2000)