Issue 34, Intimacy
Intimacy is one of those taken-for-granted terms, a vague concept that most of us think we understand and don’t need to define. In actuality, the concept of intimacy evokes varied and contradictory emotions, complicated by its intersection with personal histories, memories, desires, and ideologies. When embedded in amorous privacy, intimacy conveys feelings of closeness, relatedness, and of caring and being cared for. Encapsulated in a feeling, a relationship, an atmosphere, or a moment, intimacy is pleasurable and deeply nurturing for humanity and the human heart. In these ways, intimacy is intertwined with trust, enhancing our lives and feelings of connectedness. With intimate relationships, we feel less isolated in our daily lives; we feel like we belong, like what we do and who we are matters.
Even so, for some people and at some times, intimacy is violent and traumatizing. State and military policies have repeatedly been shown to weaponized intimacy, sometimes through campaigns that include sexual assault and rape, and often by turning a blind eye. Take, for example, how “honor” killings that target a coupling between two lovers of different religions or castes are systematically ignored or explained away; or how hundreds of migrant women get intimately abused every week as they travel from Latin America to the U.S.-Mexico border; or how prison officials use sexual abuse as a form of torture in some prisons around the globe; or the frequent incidents of sexual abuse of youth by trusted priests. One may think of these occurrences as individual acts of violence, or as cultural or historical aberrations. However, history reveals how intimate violence can be systemic, with broader societal and global factors that perpetuate the intimate abuse of people. In our modern day and in the past, communities that are persecuted, excluded, targeted, or exiled are acutely affected by intimate violence.
Intimate violence can also be entwined in relationships among peers – in domestic violence, a toxic relationship, or sexual assault in college campuses. In these and all examples, intimate violence can be a physical or an emotional act; it is often both. We see this in cases of domestic abuse, where an individual is both physically and emotionally tortured, yet unable to imagine ending the relationship. These experiences not only taint that relationships with fear, rage, and isolation, but they also have long lasting impacts on other and future relationships.
So, how is intimacy weaponized? How are issues connected to intimacy surveilled by totalitarian states and fundamentalist groups? How does the state perpetuate cases of intimate violence differently depending on people’s identities?
Time and again, heads of states, governments, and community organizations have controlled certain aspects of intimacy, blurring the lines between private domain and what is considered public. Around the world, states intrude on our most intimate spaces by erecting laws limiting whom we can love, with whom we can have sex, and what we do with our own bodies. Although these forms of intimate violence differ from explicitly brutal forms like rape, the state’s intrusion into our private intimate lives reveal a telling story about which people matter, and which people can be subjected to state control. In some countries, including the United States and Poland, the private spaces of women’s bodies are controlled by the state with access to abortions severely restricted – even if the pregnancy was caused by intimate violence – and the menstrual cycles of young women surveilled by state actors. Nearly 69 countries have prohibitions on same sex love, sometimes with draconian punishments including “conversion therapies” or even death. Bodies that do not conform to a standardized binary are subject to examination by doctors and lawyers to determine which bathroom a person can use, which sports team they can join, and whether they have access to life-saving healthcare.
Yet, against all odds, people resist. When authoritarian and fundamentalist forces penetrate the sacred private sphere, tear down communities, condemn gestures of love, people rise up. Some risk everything by crossing the Mediterranean in search of a place they can call home, where they can express themselves without fear or find a job so they can support their family. Others go to the streets to demand rights that should have been theirs to begin with or to protest patriarchy’s control over their lives, education, marriages, and bodies.
When people are struggling, positive intimate relationships can be healing and nurturing. For marginalized or threatened communities, a caring intimate relationship can be incredibly meaningful, shining light within a landscape of hardship and offering individuals a sense of agency and direction. Consider the experience of a migrant family finding a welcoming community as they resettle; a child at a refugee camp forming a close-knit relationship with another child they can trust; or an exiled writer having the freedom to speak their truest opinions and thoughts, allowing them to re-create an intimate relationship with the self. Consider learning how to nurture and love yourself and your own body, despite years of social and political scrutiny and abuse about the color of your skin or your gendered clothing choices.
Intimacy is also embedded in the simplest acts, entangled in the rhythm of everyday life: a kiss, an embrace, interlocked hands, a kind deed; a parent caring for their children; a family snuggled around the fireplace on a cold, wintry evening; the interspecies bonds of care and affection; the sharing of food whether from the same plate, the exchange of a piece of wedding cake between newlyweds, or the offering of paan as a token of love. Intimate encounters may be fleeting, but they can offer hope and meaning when life feels especially difficult.
Despite the concept’s broad parameters, its personal impact is deep, and commonly encompasses profound and memorable experiences. There is also an air of secrecy in intimacy – an expression and experience that is shared with only a few, that occurs only in proximity, and that is deeply personal and private.
This issue of Shuddhashar takes a critical look at intimacy in its myriad forms and considers how it affects communities and individuals both positively and negatively. We hope these multifaceted descriptions of intimacy will inspire you to notice how the concept is interwoven in your personal life and the lives of others.