These developments might seem unrelated. The first is another of the many ghoulish ways Silicon Valley preys on desperate people; the second concerns a distressing public health trend. But together they encapsulate a crisis facing the West more broadly: physical and emotional isolation facilitated by state policy is killing us, while Silicon Valley “innovations” only make matters worse. This crisis predated COVID-19, but the pandemic has further eroded our already endangered sense of community.
According to freelance journalist Sophie K. Rosa, we are experiencing the results of a half-century-long assault on intimacy, which she defines as “connection, care, and community.” Some of these attacks are obvious, such as how tech companies attempt to normalize constant surveillance in the workplace and in our neighborhoods. Others are more insidious and harder to recognize because they are often taken for granted. Black feminist scholars, queer activists, and others have raised attention to the ways states try to enforce patriarchal, heteronormative family models. Drawing on the work of sociologist Melinda Cooper, Rosa offers the specific example of how welfare was restructured in the United States during the New Deal “to subsidise (white) normative lifestyles: Black single or unmarried mothers could not claim benefits.”
In the face of these dystopian trends, Rosa’s excellent new book Radical Intimacy (2022) does more than articulate the kinds of threats we face and their long, sordid histories. Rather, the author highlights how people have resisted efforts to fracture their communities, in the past and continuing into the present. She even points readers toward how they might get involved in such efforts themselves. What all the alternatives Rosa offers have in common is the guiding principle of radical intimacy, or “a politics with imagination and abolitionism at its core, that seeks to transform the world by getting to the root of why things are the way they are under capitalism.”
This is, undeniably, a political book, but not in the sense that it panders to one or another side of the political spectrum. Rosa cites plenty of examples of how right-wing reactionary politics have contributed to the problem, but also argues that the left is not immune from a corrosive lack of intimacy: “[T]he intimate realm is devalued on the left today.” This can lead to labor organizers ignoring those involved in care work, which is “largely done by women, especially racialised and migrant women,” and “devalu[ing] the experiences of trans and queer people, for whom normative intimate forms, such as […] the nuclear family, are often exclusionary and oppressive.” By embracing the intimate sphere, leftists could engage with what “activist adrienne maree brown calls ‘pleasure activism,’” which demands that social structures reflect the fact that “we all need and deserve pleasure.” A conviction that “the personal is political” underlies all of Rosa’s arguments, and readers of all political leanings are likely to find something useful and illuminating in them.
The book is divided into five sections, each of which explores intimacy in a specific context: self-care, romantic love and sex, family, home, and death. The first section on self-care begins with a galling story involving BetterHelp, “the Uber of mental health services” (you may recognize the name from ads that pop up during your favorite podcasts). For a monthly fee, the app purportedly offers therapy sessions in a “24/7 ‘room’ using video calls, phone calls, live chats and text messages.” Reviews are rife with “stories alleging unhelpful or harmful therapy, data privacy concerns, [and] excessive charges.” The “help” on offer ranges from useless to actively harmful. The app even features a disclaimer that reads: “If you are in a crisis or any other person may be in danger—don’t use this site.”
One of the principal reasons for the widespread deterioration in mental health, according to Rosa, is that, “under capitalism, mental health is understood as a personal failing, rather than the result of societal forces.” Yet the societal factors are painfully clear—more and more people are forced to spend most of their waking hours working multiple precarious jobs, with few if any benefits, under constant surveillance. There is additional pressure to self-commodify, “whether by accruing ‘positive reviews’ […] or by constructing ‘strong personal branding’ on social media,” while the threat of automation rendering millions of jobs obsolete leads to a pervasive sense of dread. Plus, there’s the looming climate crisis.
Just as the realm of self-care has been exploited by tech corporations and violently policed by the state, the domestic sphere of family and relationships has also been infected. Rosa writes that, “[t]hroughout history, laws regulating intimate relationships, especially marriage laws, have been about nation-building.” The promotion of “white population growth over Black (for example in prohibitions of Black and interracial marriage)” is one despicable example. Another is the “breakup of Indigenous peoples’ collectively held lands into privately held allotments controlled by men as heads-of-household” to facilitate “the transfer of ‘surplus’ lands to the state and to mostly European or Euro-American settlers.”
Today, whether through the persecution of trans individuals or discrimination in social housing against unmarried couples, public policy makes it clear that the state is just as obsessed with what constitutes acceptable forms of relationships or families. What is perhaps most insidious is that all this effort is spent on protecting a supposedly sacred institution that is, in reality, often quite dangerous. Rosa writes that, “[s]ince ‘privacy’ is a fundamental building block of the nuclear unit, abuses within it are usually configured as ‘private matters,’ which enables their perpetuation.” Configuring family matters as “private” also has the convenient consequence of foisting an enormous amount of labor onto individuals with “as little [support] as possible from their community and the state.”
As for romantic and sexual relationships, Silicon Valley makes billions through online dating websites. Rosa acknowledges that such resources “can make dating more accessible for those who face more barriers to meeting people in person,” but “discrimination rooted in oppressive systems plays out on the platforms. […] [P]erhaps it is even amplified.” Related to the proliferation of dating sites is the toxic “manosphere,” in which men—in an effort to increase their personal assets and profit from the dating market—pay for courses run by misogynistic pickup artists. Or they might take refuge in alt-right, anti-feminist communities of incels that have inspired acts of terrorism.
Alongside these long histories of state-enforced and profit-driven isolation is a rich, inspiring history of solidarity and resistance. Rosa describes how alternative therapeutic spaces, like Kingsley Hall in the 1960s, provided true care for those who suffered cruel treatment at the hands of traditional institutions. In the 1970s, the People, Not Psychiatry network issued a “non-manifesto” that asserted, “it is people that are important; people, not psychiatry. And people need people; that is to say human beings cannot be fully human in isolation from other people.” Around the same time, the Red Lesbian Brigade protested the criminalization and “pathologisation of homosexuality and attendant conversion therapy.” Another particularly hopeful example comes from the 1984–85 UK miners’ strike. LGBTQIA+ groups such as Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners and Lesbians Against Pit Closures raised funds to support the miners. Due to the rampant and overt homophobia of the time, it is unsurprising that there was “some initial suspicion and even hostility” towards the activists. Yet soon enough, miners were giving talks at lesbian and gay pubs and throwing a massive party for both the strikers and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. One activist described “the collective joy” evident at the celebration as “one of the most moving experiences of all our lives.”
According to Rosa, “Today’s queer spaces—essential sources of joy, refuge, solidarity and resistance—have their genealogy in sexual dissidence,” stretching back to the 18th century. Socialist second-wave feminists organized consciousness-raising projects and attempted “to build alternatives to […] the nuclear family.” The fight for family abolition goes back centuries and is carried on today by the Black Lives Matter movement, which has articulated its opposition to the “Western-prescribed nuclear family structure,” advocating instead for “extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another, especially our children. […] We foster a queer-affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of hetero-normative thinking.”
It’s important to note that family abolition does not make you “kill your husband or make you hate your parents.” It is about demanding “the flourishing of all the things that the nuclear family promises but does not deliver: cradling kinship for everyone, characterised by loving commitment, safety, care and camaraderie.” Maybe your nuclear family works for you, but they shouldn’t be the only option, especially for those who have historically suffered within them. This touches on one of the book’s key takeaways—resisting the deterioration of intimacy includes a refusal to let capitalist interests narrowly dictate how we allow people to express intimacy in their personal lives and material conditions.
A second takeaway is that there are plenty of alternatives to the failing models Rosa outlines. We can embrace a more inclusive idea of what it means to be a family, make it easier for people to build homes that don’t conform to heteronormative frameworks, and join mutual aid support networks. Such radical changes are possible. The pandemic proved this when “overnight—as if conceding that survival being contingent upon having money was an abusive logic—the Tory government banned evictions and ordered local councils to eradicate rough sleeping. Such measures, whilst flawed, proved that rapid societal transformation is possible.”
Meanwhile, mutual aid networks flourished. In the United Kingdom, the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement, as well as United Sex Workers, organized “meet-ups to share information and resources,” unionized “to take back power from exploitative bosses,” and started “hardship funds and workers’ co-ops.”
In the United States, among the hundreds of mutual aid groups that have sprung up, a Black women–led mutual aid organization called BLMHTX “became critical during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Houston began evicting people at one of the highest rates in the nation.” These groups provided “positive emotional experiences, increased engagement in life, improved social relationships, and greater sense of control,” according to a study published by the National Library of Medicine.
Instead of resigning ourselves to a lonely life in a New Gilded Age, Radical Intimacy points towards the long and difficult path to a kinder, better future.