Few aspects of the intimate relationships of people in the developed world have been more profoundly and quickly changed than that made possible by the birth control pill. It changes the very essence of being a mammal, which is creating and raising new versions of itself. The sustaining of those lives depends upon the ecology, which dictates how they must be fed and sheltered until they, too, can reproduce themselves. In turn, those terms create roles and assumptions we call “culture,” which might mean living in a house of snow and eating “blubber,” or living in a Manhattan apartment and eating in ethnic restaurants. But ethnographies have been written about much smaller groups.
Opportunities for intimacy will be of different kinds and in different places depending on those basic arrangements. Tending a baby is one thing; playing in a string quartet is another: both can be intimate. The physiological responses that make these things possible are embedded in the connectome, the webs of neuron relationship in the brain that control memory and the hormones of emotion. One culture will encourage big warm hugs and another will prescribe a respectful bow with hands together, but these are not limits on intimacy or how much empathy is available to create real depth of relationship. Some cultures are steely, some are plexiglas, some are plush. All might allow for intimacy — or not — even for sex.
After the pill the internet is another massive change in the ecology of intimacy, introducing “virtual” relationships among people who have never met and whose cultures are pointillist, joined from little dot locations all over the planet, and layered, bringing together thin sheets of community in larger contexts that don’t suspect them until they are outed, as in the data-studies of “porn” viewers. Intimacy, linked emotionally with trust, makes people want to unmask by undressing and want others to do the same.
Usually such issues are so embedded in the culture that one doesn’t feel them or even identify them as issues. But moving from one culture to another can bring them up to the surface, along with a lot of questions about behaviour and feelings. Suddenly head scarves are a major issue because hair is considered irresistibly sexy. The culture itself can shift drastically and suddenly as it has with the advent of the pill or the internet. Old consequences and taboos are suddenly removed, replaced by unexpected and unintended new consequences. How to survive? Immigrants want to know.
Generations can develop strong new age-related, education-determined, wealth-dictated cultures that have no relationship to the generations of their parents or grandparents, They can co-exist in the same places, the same houses. I married a man twice my age and found that it was like marrying someone from a different country. In a way I was colonized, food and music were imposed. My own age cohort, born at the beginning of WWII, was remarkably different from the cohort born at the beginning of WWI. At the same time, we had many shared intimacies of temperament and experience, sexual relations being one of them.
I’m reading Kim Zupan’s novel, “Ploughmen,” in which a prisoner and his guard explore an intimacy based on the land and the ploughing of it. Of course you know that plowing is a metaphor for sexual intimacy.
I’m also watching “Homeland” in hopes it will help understand our political situation. What I discover is intimacy in the culture of criminalization, suspicion, deception, and torture. The Marine sergeant has been shattered and reassembled by Abu Nassir, the powerful terrorist, through his loving intimacy with the man’s son. Now he loves Nassir. Carrie, an analyst and tracker, has a damaged mind that sometimes shatters but is unified by paranoid determination to capture or kill Abu Nassir. The sergeant is the only person as intense as her.
The screen writers skillfully exploit this set-up to reveal — to thoughtful people — how much our national politics are dominated by the same forces. This is intense enough to forget it’s invented. Again, it is enacted as sexual union, which seems to be our cultural obsessive trope.
A substantial body of literature describes the intimacy of torture. An example: https://shadowproof.com/2009/04/26/the-terrible-intimacy-of-torture/ During WWII there were conflicting impulses: ennobling soldiers with the presumption that they could heroically resist betraying their brothers, and portraying the enemy as practicing Inquisition-based atrocities. (They were. So were we.) But then the Korean War brought into focus the frigid mind-washing of the Asian context of torture, and the Vietnam War demonstrated how to explode minds and bodies in a kind of ecstatic entry into chaos and meaninglessness. Unbearable noise — then silence.
But hot war is not the only source of torture. A peneplain is a geological term for land worn down to a flat surface: no mountains, no abysses, no erosion, no volcanic action. Our torture in civil life today is confinement to a white cube that imposes a peneplain of experience. Nothing happens. Because a human is a process, in order to live it must be always processing something, people begin to hallucinate and self-harm. Infants confined to a peneplain of a crib simply die of mirasmas. Repititious computer work is done in cubicles. The antidote is intimacy. Even false intimacy or professional paid intimacy like a therapist or sex-worker or a tango class.
The third invention that transforms intimacy in our times is the automobile — a cushioned, self-guided, easily stolen, music suffused, sometimes glamourous, sequestered protection and propulsion that is limited mostly by road infrastructure and fuel, the same as the Internet.
One of the early lessons of my ministry was never to get into a car with a single parishioner. I was not molested, but I was captured. After the destination had been reached and the meeting finished, the parishioner would be so pleased with the intimacy of being alone with his or her minister, that they would not take me home. Women were actually more likely to do this than men, because to them “culturally” it was a harmless thing to do. Comparing it to demon truckers who kill women did not occur them. But it was the same thing — forced intimacy. No death, luckily.
At some point between my undergrad education (’61) and my seminary education (’82), intimacy became far more guarded. The walls went up, then the person departed. Thus the impulse to capture someone who could presumably provide intimacy, someone obligated to be safe, because intimacy of any kind is very, very dangerous. And women are beginning to understand the new intimacy in a way that makes them more dangerous, esp. now that they have escaped the burden of pregnancy.