Sophie K Rosa’s debut book Radical Intimacy is a clarion call for a new way of loving. In this extract, she examines the characteristics of society that alter our understanding of care, romance and relationships. From capitalist cooptions of queerness to the destabilising of the nuclear family, Rosa argues that, under capitalism, there is a perceived scarcity of love, but through radical acts and radical thinking, we may generate love in abundance.
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Expanding the realm of the possible in our thinking about romantic relationships and sex has much to recommend it. It is widely accepted that more freedom in this sphere up until now has been a positive. Though the horizon of liberation remains far off, gay relationships, for example, are today less persecuted than they were, and unmarried women and single mothers are subject to less discrimination than before. Despite this, even on the left, it can be hard to convince people that much more freedom is necessary. Conversations relating to intimate relationships and sex can evoke peculiarly defensive responses.
Indeed, conflicts over sex often spill over into societal-level politics in ‘moral panics’. As observed by [Gayle] Rubin [in Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality], these panics are never about what they claim to be: ‘Because sexuality in Western societies is so mystified, the wars over it are often fought at oblique angles, aimed at phony targets, conducted with misplaced passions, and are highly, intensely symbolic. Sexual activities often function as signifiers for personal and social apprehensions to which they have no intrinsic connection.’ For example, the ‘sex wars’ of the 1970s and ’80s, in which feminists battled over the meaning of pornography, sex work and sadomasochism; and the intense homophobia whipped up during the HIV/AIDS crisis. Often, ‘protecting the children’ is invoked to displace fear and hate. At the 1987 Conservative Party Conference, Margaret Thatcher warned that ‘children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay’. Today, we see this rhetoric being used in attempts to justify transphobic views.
Moral panics reveal sublimated anxieties. If women are allowed to petition for divorce on equal terms, my wife might leave me for another man! If gay people are allowed marriages, it might change the significance of my straight one! If some relationships are non-monogamous, my monogamous one might be threatened! People often find reasons to negate increasing freedoms in the intimate sphere – intentionally or unintentionally shoring up the status quo – because, on some level, we are scared that a widening of acceptable ways of being might challenge the validity or stability of the identities and relational forms in which we seek meaning and security. Moral panic might take the form of, say, launching a ‘Marriage Foundation’, or refusing to bake pro-gay marriage cakes. Or, it could take the shape of feminists attending conferences attempting to mastermind trans-exclusionary politics, or people demeaning polyamory on Twitter.
[Lauren] Berlant [in Desire/Love] defines ‘the phobic’ as ‘those who fear instabilities of privilege and embrace the social as a site of sameness’. In the phobic imagination, she argues, ‘non-normative sexualities threaten fantasies of the good life that are anchored to images of racial, religious, class, and national mono-culture’. We are all, in one way or another, phobic; dismantling the ways that we are is lifelong work. It isn’t simply possible, by making certain choices, to ‘opt out’ of the ways in which the dominant logic of romance and sex is oppressive. To a large extent, the systems we live in under capitalism predetermine the possible – possible thoughts, feelings, desires and ways of relating. But we can, at least, try to become conscious of the ways we have internalised the dominant culture, and ask ourselves what this might mean for our lives.
In progressive political movements today – unlike in the 1960s and ’70s – intimate life, including sexual relationships, is rarely considered a key battleground. Fighting systems – capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy – is considered more important political work than changing individual behaviours and lives. This makes sense: changing our lives alone, so far as that is even possible, won’t change the world.
Non-normative relationships and sex are not necessarily ‘more radical’, anyway. Certainly, such intimacies can mirror and recreate the oppressive dynamics common to heterosexuality. Patriarchal domination, for example, can well live on in queer couples, or polyamorous triads. ‘The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’, wrote Karl Marx. ‘And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionising themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before … they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past.’
Supposedly ‘radical’ ways of relating can well be subsumed by capital. As Natasha Lennard writes in her essay ‘Policing Desire’, ‘sexual practices which were once considered threats to capital’s reproduction through the family form and property relations’ have been eaten up by ‘technocapital [that] soothes the status quo: there can be polyamorous configurations with BDSM dungeons in the basement, but the houses are owned’. In the same vein, she asks: ‘when there’s a popular app for organizing your next queer orgy, how rupturous of our political status quo can the mere fact of such an orgy be?’ But whilst the existence of non-monogamous queers won’t topple capitalism, intimate practices do carry political weight: they can be praxis. To deny this can amount to a patriarchal dismissal of the political relevance of the intimate sphere, which is coded as feminine. Experiments in living and relating matter because – amidst everyday and structural violence – they can expand the realm of the possible and prefigure the future.
Sophie K Rosa is a writer and freelance journalist. She has written for Novara Media, Guardian, Buzzfeed, VICE, Al Jazeera, Aeon and CNN. In 2018, she was openDemocracy‘s feminist investigative journalism fellow, producing a series of articles tracking the backlash against women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights. Her debut book Radical Intimacy is out on March 20th.