Thursday 17 December 2015

Gender, Intimacy, Equality

By Charlotte Faircloth and Katherine Twamley

This blog accompanies the special section we edited on gender, intimacy and equality. Here, we give some background to the workshop which led to the special section, explore some of the key themes which emerged, and describe the kinds of conversations and reflections which the workshop provoked (and which we hope the special section continues…).

The topics of gender, equality and intimacy were selected as the basis for a workshop based on our own interest, and from our observation that recent scholarship has begun to unpack their intersections, particularly in the context of personal life (Jamieson 1998, Smart 2007, Gabb 2008). One conclusion of this work has been that, while some theorists predicted a straightforward correlation between greater ‘equality’ between men and women, and enhanced intimacy in personal relationships (see, for example Giddens 1992, Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995), this has not necessarily been the case. Instead, empirically grounded work has revealed the three concepts of gender, intimacy and equality to be ‘uncomfortable bedfellows’. An important trend in this work, then, has been to explore the clash between ‘ideal’ relationships promoted by policy, expert and self-help literature, on the one hand, and the pragmatics of family life, on the other (Gillies 2009, Jensen and Tyler 2013)

In April 2014, we – the editors of this new special section of SRO – convened an event at the IOE in London entitled ‘Gender, Equality and Intimacy: (Un)comfortable bedfellows?’ This workshop was set up to explore further how such connections between equality and intimacy are experienced by men, women and families. At the workshop we aimed to create a dialogue between junior and senior researchers, with presenters pre-submitting papers on new and emerging empirical research, whilst respondents reflected on the papers’ theoretical contributions to the field.

Drawing on very different empirical examples, the authors in this resulting special section explore how discourses of appropriate sexual intimacy shape the personal lives of men and women, and focus on two themes in particular:

Representing sexuality

The first three papers examine representations of sexuality in sex advice literature and ‘communities’, and the ways that these exert influence on individuals’ experiences of intimacy in particularly gendered ways. Introducing these papers, Professor Ros Gill noted that the pieces are very ‘brave, difficult and challenging pieces of research’, which all, in different ways, reject the optimistic treatise of the transformation of intimacy school. They all also look at notions of mediation and story-telling in intimate narratives, which intersect with gendered power relationships in important ways.

The first paper, from van Hooff, for example, explores married women’s experiences of sex as these relate to idealised images of the couple relationship; the paper problematizes what van Hooff calls (after Jackson) ‘everyday, mundane, conventional sexual lives’ (Jackson 2008: 34). This paper explores the considerable gaps between aspiration and experience for many of her participants, a theme picked up by Woodiwiss, who looks at women’s responses to what she calls a narrative of ‘compulsory sexuality’ in self-help literature.  Both these papers focus on the ways in which cultural narratives around appropriate (hetero)sexuality impact on understanding of self and intimate relationships. These narratives around gender appropriate sexuality form the subject of the third article by O’Neill, who looks in particular at the commercialisation of intimacy through a study of men in the ‘seduction community’ in London. This is both a chilling and fascinating case-study into an increasingly ‘mediated’ intimacy. O’Neill argues that the seduction community can be seen as ‘of a neoliberal sensibility or rationality to the domain of personal and intimate life’ (p8). The implications of O’Neill’s analysis, in terms of gender equality, are bleak: the men view women as objects to attain - women who are ‘consumed’ and paraded as markers of status.

All three papers show how discourses of ‘normal’ sexual behaviour are governing the lives of men and women. ‘Good housekeeping has now been replaced by “good sex-making”’ (Hawkes 1996:121) as Van Hooff comments (p9).

Discussing the papers, Dr Meg John Barker noted that as someone who tries to both write, and criticise ‘self-help’ literature, these papers were particularly useful in thinking about the way in which we treat both ourselves (and others) as objects. Barker also commented on the relationship between emotional and sexual intimacy, noting that in all papers, these different kinds of intimacy were conceptually separated, while in ‘real life’ they tend to be conflated.

Sexuality and parenting

The second three papers look at sexuality and intimacy in the context of parenting.

Commenting on this, Dr Esther Dermott noted that the reason parenting raises questions of gender equality is because it’s the organisation of parenting tasks and responsibilities which seems to be the stumbling block, time and again, for gender equality. Whilst transformations have happened in the realm of paid work, this has not been matched in the domestic sphere. Similarly, the suggestion that the transformation of fatherhood is the answer to this problem does not seem to be the case – instead, research shows that ‘intimate’ fatherhood might mean ‘new-ness’ without necessarily transforming gender relations. Rather than continuing with this line of analysis, however, she noted that the papers here take the focus off fatherhood, and refreshingly look at gender equality in parenting through different lenses.

For example, Layne’s paper uses the case study of a ‘single mother by choice’ showing the uncomfortable relationship between parenting culture and the couple relationship as traditionally defined. Layne’s research participant, Carmen, happily avoids the compromises involved in a marriage. She wonders whether marital intimacy is laden with negotiation around household labour and intimate exchanges. Like Van Hoof’s participants who are in relationships, she expects men to want to have sex more often than women and is reticent to enter into a relationship where having sex, even when not wanting to, may be ‘part of the deal’. Carmen’s intensive approach to parenting, whether in part caused by lack of a romantic partner, also prohibits making more intimate adult connections.

Faircloth, by contrast, explores how couples manage transitions around intimacy as they become parents, looking in particular at the tensions between an ‘intensive’ parenting culture and a strong emphasis within the couple on the importance of sex and intimacy. By taking into account the policy context shaping parents’ lives, especially their division of care, Faircloth explores the role of the state in shaping the intimate lives of parents. Morris pursues the same themes but through work with single mothers, showcasing the competing accountabilities single mothers feel they must accommodate in order to avoid charges of deviance. Gender inequality pushed them out of relationships, but also left them vulnerable once out of them, economically, socially and emotionally.

What becomes apparent cross both sets of papers, are the ways in which men and women are increasingly treating their intimate lives as projects of improvement and individual endeavor, which Professor Gill referred to as the ‘toxic individualization of intimacy’.

Brought together, the six articles from the special section unpack the ways that enduring gendered discourses, whether ‘mediated’ through policy, social discourse or self-help literature, shape intimate life, and the ways in which individuals attempt to make sense of these in their narratives and intimate practices. Far from being a straightforward correlation between greater gender equality and intimacy, a look at shifting sexual practices across a range of settings shows that this relationship appears to be more fraught than ever.