On 16th march 2015 a comrade of ours, Alessia Acquistapace, held a conference in Paris talking about her work as an anthropologist, which is deeply connected to the work of Laboratorio Smaschieramenti and SomMovimento NazioAnale, and focuses on relationships of love, care, intimacy and solidarity not based on the norms of the couple, which we have called here Other Intimacies / Altre Intimità.
The conference was held in (simple) English. Given the scarcity of material accessible to non Italian speakers on this blog, and since we would really like to connect to transfeminist and queer activists internationally, we publish the transcription of the conference.
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The conference was held in Paris, Université Paris IV on 16th march 2015, in the programme for Les Jurnées des Femmes.
I am an anthropologist with backgrounds in semiotic. I am a queer and feminist activist and I am a member of the transfeminist and queer collective Laboratorio Smaschieramenti, based in Bologna, and of the Italian network of transfeminist and queer collectives and single activists SomMovimento NazioAnale.
This is very important because as I will explain my work as a researcher is deeply connected to the work of my collective. And also most part of my education comes from my experience in the collective, and in a more general sense in the queer, feminist and anti-capitalist movements in Italy.
Currently, I am a PhD student in cultural and social anthropology at the University of Milan Bicocca.
Plan of the talk
I introduced myself, let’s introduce the conference topic now: love. Or maybe clearing our minds form Love as it was taught us.
The basic idea of my talk today is that love, in the sense of Love with capital letter, l’Amour/ l’Amore / romantic love / couple love, is not something “natural” and is not necessarily something “good”.
I will critically address the idea that there are different degrees of “truth” and value about love, the idea that there is True Love and it is a natural feeling, something that happens and you can do nothing about
And most of all I disagree with the idea that you can detect true love from certain signs… that are basically the desire to live as a couple in the way we have been told that a couple should live.
I will then talk about how some people I know have managed to decolonize themselves from this kind of discourse. It is not about “how to decolonize ourself” because I don’t like this kind of selfhelp-handbook discourses, this kind of how-to knowledge that is so fashionable nowadays.
I conducted a qualitative field research with about 20 people who did not put the couple at the centre of their life, or at the centre of their plans and expectation for the future. At the same time, they were not alone, they had plenty of affective relationships in their lives.
Some of these relationships included sex, some of them did not, some of them did not include genital sex but included a very strong component of physical intimacy.
I know their experience, the experience of this 20 people plus their friends and lovers. It does not tell us “how to”. But it tells us that there are other possibilities, possibilities that perhaps we have never thought of.
Love in social sciences
In Italy, social scientist are deeply concerned about why people do not marry, or do not live in couple, why they have so few children and so on. But nobody asks what people do instead.
They take for granted that they are “life-long sons or daughters” = that they stay with their parents all life long, or that they live a lonely, individualistic existence. This is taken for granted, they don’t even feel the need to do field research on this because it’s obvious for them.
This is not to say that I or Smaschieramenti are very smart because we inquired on this for the fist time. This is to say that social sciences are blind to any experience that do not reproduce the model of the couple, they are unable to conceive the very possibility that something different can exist.
And the reason for that is political. Not in the sense that there is a conspiracy, but in the sense that social scientists in this case are unable to distance themselves from the common sense of their own culture. And this is not good for a sociologist/anthropologist, who should do exactly the opposite.
Also, the studies about the so called “new families” usually are studies about homosexual families, step-families (familles recomposès), people who have babies with medically assisted procreation: sociologist and anthropologists are very interested in this new, exotic subjects, but as you can see, there is always a couple…
And, especially in Italy, when they take interest in friendship, mutual help among people who are not relatives etc. they are interested in that only as far as friends could be a support for families.
(Only in the UK there have been some studies, not many, and recently in Portugal, University of Coimbra, there is a project going on about “living with friends in adult age” – see References)
How this research was born
Let me say something about the field research my talk is based on and how it was born.
I am part of Laboratorio Smaschieramenti, as I said, since it was created in 2008. At the beginning, it was created as discussion group about men’s violence against women, about the social construction of male desire and the social construction of the desire for men.
It was interesting because it was a gay collective – a collective made only of gay males – that had the idea to create such a group, and the group was open to people of any gender and sexual orientation, as long as they critically assume the partiality of their position and its implication in the asymmetries of power between men and women and between so called sexual majorities and sexual minorities.
To put it simpler, a straight man can be part of Smaschieramenti only if he realizes and takes responsibility for being privileged in a number of ways in this society. Straight men and women can be part of Smaschieramenti only if they realize that their sexuality is not “natural”, and if they realize that, since most of the people in this society think it is, this grants them privileges even if they don’t want.
During the discussion about male violence/male desire/desire for men, the women of the group shared their experiences of male violence, and we realized that male violence is not only rape, harassment, etc.
There are also very small and everyday form of violence… maybe one wouldn’t even call them “violence” but they follow the same logic of the worst and most evident forms of violence.
And this small, everyday violence happens in intimate relationships… intimate relationships = even the most modern ones, such as unmarried couples, couples of left-wing, well-educated young people, or among “friends with benefits”…
Violence does not happens only in the the backward nuclear families of immigrants, working class people, southern Italy people, as the media were representing the whole thing at the time in Italy.
(I will return on this idea of the couple as something toxic, I will explain it better).
From this reflection it came the idea of a self-inquiry on relationships.
But since we were sick of talking all the time about the bad things – and also for other reasons liked to the gay marriage debate, but let it go – we decided to inquiry on the alternatives to the couple, c’est a dire all the relationship that allow us to feel loved and safe even if we don’t have a partner, and all the experiments we make (and that sometimes are successful) to change the normative way to relate to our partners.
We realized that in our daily lives we were already experimenting a wide range of different forms of love, care and intimacy:
– we had networks of friends or room-mates that take great care of each other,
– we had lesbian “sfamilies” made of partners, friends, ex-partners who became a very special kind of friend,
– we had friends we also had sex with, at times,
– we had also casual sex partners, one-night stands, and enjoyed having them, and this is also meaningful in terms of emotional wellness and affection.
So we decided to tell these stories, analyze them collectively, try to see if they had a political potential. This is how Smashiermenti’s self-inquiry on non normative relationships was born.
Then I was studying anthropology and when it was time to write my master thesis, I asked the collective if I could continue this work (which we had stopped a few months before). They said yes, and so I used the material coming from our self-inquiry for the thesis.
In addition, I made 10 in-depth interviews to people that were not involved in the collective and some of them not involved in activism at all.
But I used not only the ethnographic material, the so called “data”, I also used the ideas, the concepts, the insights we developed in our self-inquiry to analyze the new interviews I made. Of course I developed these concepts further, but that’s where they come from.
A queer research involving straight people
It is important to note that some of the people who are part of Smaschieramenti have heterosexual practices – not me 😉 And also some of the people I interviewed had heterosexual practices. So this research includes also heterosexuality.
It is a queer research not in the sense that the sample is queer, the object is queer, but because the approach, the point of view is queer.
We involved straight people, or better people who had heterosexual practices at the moment, because we were convinced that some of them may feel uncomfortable in reproducing the heteronormative society – like marry, have babies, pretend to be monogamous, believe that their sexuality is “natural”– so we thought that perhaps some of them may refuse to be “proper heterosexuals”.
We as queers, we were not saying look, we are normal – we were saying look, you can be abnormal too.
– The field research was based in Italy, mainly in Bologna.
– Participants (and I include myself in “participants”) were all white and Italian citizens.
– Most of them, including me, came from southern Italy – this means that we lived far from our families of origin, this means also that we come from a poorer area of the country with a long history of emigration.
– Age ranging from 25 to 49
– All cisgender (more or less)
– All of them had a high school degree, and most of them had been enrolled to university at least one year, even if many did not graduate.
I do not made statistic correlations in my research obviously, it was a qualitative approach, I give you this information only to locate the research, to make you understand from the experiences of whom all my reflections come from.
The field research, meaning the self-inquiry and the interviews, took place between September 2009 and may 2011.
But the work went on in different forms and is still going on, in our political work in the collective, in my PhD research, and in the research of other comrades that have academic jobs.
In December 2012 Smaschieramenti contributed to create a network of transfeminist and queer collectives from various places in Italy called SomMovimento NazioAnale [not national…] which is intersecting all this discourse on intimacies with the search for strategies to resist precarity, work exploitation and austerity politics, but I’ll talk about it later if we have time.
I said the basic idea of my talk is that romantic love is not something “natural” and is not necessarily something “good”.
Many sociologists say that our sexual and emotional lives here in the so called western countries are increasingly free from social norms and traditional values.
I (we) think that traditional norms may also be disappearing – it is true that today you can be single, you can live with your partner without being married, you can even be homosexual, you can have casual sex even if you are identified as woman – but…
> first, it is not entirely true, in the sense that if you are a woman, or if you are not rich, healthy, young, glamorous it takes much more courage to “take these freedoms”
> second, the discourse of romantic love is something that still disciplines our sexual and affective lives a lot.
Most of the people that participated in this research has been told at least one time that they “were not able to love” or that “it was evident they were not really in love” or that “that they were afraid to love”.
Why? Because they refused to perform, or were not enthusiastic about, this or that aspect of the standard way to live as a couple. Which is the standard way to live as couple?
1) Being two people.
2) Being monogamous
3) Give your partner the priority over all other affective relationships that you could have – sometimes with the exceptions of your close relatives
4) Aspire to fulfil if not 100%, at least 99% of his/her emotional needs
5) Project the relationship into the future, imagine a future together.
Then of course if the two people are man and woman is more normal that 2 men or 2 women; if they are living under the same roof only the two of them it’s more normal than living apart; if the projection into the future includes having children, even better. But those I have mentioned are the very basic rules of the standard couple, as it emerges from my fieldwork.
If you don’t follow them, you are not really in love, you are not able to love, it is not “true love”. And this is bad of course, because “true love” is believed to be universally good.
Why the people involved in this research did non like this model, why they felt uncomfortable with the standard couple?
Some of them were sick of the guilty trips that the couple produces – that is to say, when you blame your partner of not having done that or that, or your partner blames you. They found that the standard couple induces you to have too high demands on a single person, and it is obvious that you get frustrated and insecure.
Some of them could not stand monogamy, the control over your partners’ life and even desires.
Some of them simply realized, after having had so many relationships and break ups, that something was wrong, especially because the rule of the priority creates isolation, and when you break up, you find yourself completely alone.
So when this people refused to spend all their free time with the partner, or when they refuse to be monogamous, or when they refuse to full fill the excessive demands of care of their partner, especially if they were female, but also male, they were said that they were “afraid to love” or that they were not “really in love”. They were said this not only by the persons they had sex with, also by other people.
Or sometimes it happened that their partner thought that it was only a sexual affair, with nothing emotional going on, and felt free to behave very bad (like, stop seeing each other without even say goodbye and stuff like that). As if there are only too possibility: either you just have sex, or you love, which means, you perform the standard couple.
In my view, this discourse, this conception of “true love” makes the couple a privileged and almost compulsory form of relationship.
With “privileged” I mean that it is a relationship that gives you access to privileges that people who are single or people who are in a non normative relational arrangement don’t have.
With “compulsory” I mean that they teach us since childhood that having a couple – a committed couple, a serious couple as they say in Italy – is something that makes life worth living. Something that you have to experience sooner or later in life.
Something that makes you credible as an adult, too. To be considered an adult, you need a job, and a steady partner.
And this goes for heterosexual people as it goes for homosexuals, there is no difference, or better: there is difference of course in the number of privileges you can access but not in the functioning of the whole thing.
The concept of “compulsory heterosexuality” by Adrienne Rich has been reworked by the Spanish activist Itzar Ziga, by myself and by the British sociologist Elinor Wilkinson into “compulsory couple”, each of us unaware of the other:
“Compulsory heterosexuality” – Adrienne Rich, Compulsory Heterosexuality and lesbian existence, 1980.
“Coppia obbligatoria” – Alessia Acquistapace, Relazioni senza nome. Relazioni senza nome
Reti di affetti, solidarietà, intimità e cura oltre la coppia (eterosessuale) obbligatoria, Master Thesis in Anthropology of the Body defended on 13/7/ 2011, University of Bologna, Italy
“Pareja obligatoria” – Itziar Ziga, Feminista way of live, Pikara (Spanish feminist magazine on line) 25/11/2011
“Compulsory couple” – Elinor Wilkinson, Desperately seeking anyone? Compulsory coupledom and single existence, workshop held at University of Leeds, 30 November 2011.
The privileges of the couple
Let’s go back to privileges now. When I say that being in a couple gives access to privileges, I mean institutional privileges, but also and most of all everyday social privileges.
There are a lot of very small social practices that make life easier for couples, that support you in taking care of your partner. You have the duty and the right to take care of him or her, and people recognize it.
You have the right to spend time with your partner, so people invites you-both for dinner, lunch, weekend, whatever.
You have the right to be bad if he or she is bad, or if you had an argument, so people are supportive, listen to you for hours, forgive if you are absent-minded and so on.
You have the duty to be there for your partner, so if he or she is hospitalized or things like that, you are allowed to take a day off from work.
When you have to take care of a friend who is hospitalized, when you are sad because you had an argument with a friend, it’s not the same. People say, “come on, it’s just a friend”.
When you don’t have a “proper” couple relationships with someone and you have problems, and you are suffering, people either don’t notice, because they think that you are not really in love with that person, so you cannot suffer, – or they think you deserve it, because you did not want to “commit”.
Some participants said that when they had been in a stable couple, their parents begun to accept their homosexuality, or begun to give them more expensive presents “for the new house”.
There are not only the two of us when we are in couple.
We think that there is only the two of us because we are so used to all the stuff that is all around that we can’t see it.
The consequence is that it is not up only to the two of us to change the rules of the couple. It is not only about negotiation between two individuals.
Let’s take the rule that says that “true love” is aspiring to full fill all the emotional needs of the person you love.
People involved in this research did not simply decide not to do so and not to expect so from their partners. They had to reorganize their lives so that their emotional needs could be fulfilled by someone else, and not only the partner.
So they placed much more importance and effort on friendship; they decided to share a flat with friends rather than living alone in a studio; they tried to work less, if possible, so they could have time for their friends and so on.
But these things are not entirely under your control. For example, people involved in this research put more importance on friendship, but not all their friends responded.
Some friends think that when you are having sex with someone on a regular basis, then you are OK, there is someone who takes care of you, and they can take a step back, or must take a step back.
And you cannot decide to have a shorter working day if you are paid 4 Euro per hour. And so on.
I could give other examples, but this is just to say that changing the rules of the couple is not a matter of individual choice, and it does not depend on “how good you are” at that, how radical you are at decostructing and educating yourself. It is a collective work, and it is a political work also.
Nameless relationships / unpacking the couple
Some of the people I interview made it explicitly political. The self-inquiry for us in Smaschieramenti was a way to make it political, indeed. For some other people this was less explicit.
But their way of living, their disinvestment from the couple and from the family gave space to a lot of different forms of love, intimacy, care and support.
I interviewed two women who had been room-mates for 20 years, and had boyfriends and girlfriends during this 20 years but never moved in with any of them.
There are networks of friends who don’t share the flat but take great care of each other, who feel a responsibility about that, or that are very close physically, can sleep in the same bad, that have the key of the house of each other, or that can come over without being invited and so on.
There is this kind of friend you don’t see so often, and maybe you do not want to see so often, but you know that you can count on each other, especially for practical help, if you are in trouble. Often this kind of friends were ex partners or ex friends you shared the flat with.
There are room-mates that are not really friends, but support each other in their everyday life in a very basic way, by sharing a meal, asking how was your day, lending a t-shirt, and so on. This kind of relationship can be very important emotionally – you get to know each other in a very special way by living together – but it has no projection into the future at all: as soon as people move somewhere else, the relationship just disappear.
There are couples (let’s call them couples) that actively try to deconstruct the rules of the standard couple, including monogamy but non only monogamy. And they also try to avoid the privileges of being considered a couple by other people.
There are people who decided to have a baby together without being a couple.
Imagine that in the couple you have a lot of dimensions, all concentrated in the same relationship: you have sex, you trust the person, you live together, you take care in everyday life, you help the person in emergency, you feel committed to do so even when you are tired or busy, you make plans for the future, you introduce the person to your relatives and friends etc.
In my field research, I find all this dimensions unpacked: you can have one, two, three of them in different combinations for different relationships. I think this is very important, the possibility to unpack.
Also because with this research I (and we as a collective) did not want to demonstrate that this kind of relationships are equal or better than normative ones…
What we wanted to do was to see if the experience of other intimacies may question the very criteria through which we usually tell if a relationship is “good” or “bad”.
For example, usually people think that a relationship is good if it lasts for a long time, but we found out that this was not so important for all of us, not always.
Or people think that a relationship is good when there is much commitment, but we found out that we are sometimes uncomfortable with commitment, which means also guilt trips, doing things because you have to and not because you want to and so on.
By the way, commitment and long-lasting are considered a good thing because people (and also sociologist) think they bring safety. You are safe, you are not alone.
But this is not entirely true, for example, for people who have to move often from a place to another to look for a job. You can have the strongest commitment to be there for your friend, but if he or she lives one thousand kilometres away, or more, and you do not have money to travel, you cannot do so much.
For this people, safety means being able to make new friends over and over again, rather that being committed to the old friends.
So there are also material reasons for changing our culture of intimacy. And about this, let me tell something about the work we are currently doing.
Relationships and crisis
As the crisis arrived, and austerity politics begun to destroy Italian welfare state (which was already quite bad) we begun to be much more interested in the connection between our queer subjectivities and political economy. (We already were, but it become much more important for us, for surviving.)
So at the moment I am trying to analyze how being queer can make you a better worker, which means: a worker who is easier to exploit, or can turn into a potential for resistance.
As a queer person, and/or as a person who has non normative intimate arrangements….
– you can work without looking at the clock because you have no children to take care of,
– you can be the one who can travel for work and does not need the company to pay the hotel because there are friends and friends of friends everywhere who can lend you a coach,
– you may be more committed to work because having a job compensates being queer in terms of respectability (–>this is what diversity management is all about: society does not accept you, but the company does, so love your company).
But being queer means also – or can mean also – that you don’t need so much money to be happy, you don’t need a flat on your own to feel fulfilled, that you don’t need to work hard and save money to build a family in a normative sense.
For example, we are trying to decostruct the idea that becoming adult means having a couple and a steady job, two things that anyway (being queer or not) are more and more out of reach for the most of us.
They are out of reach for the most of us, they are not granted as they were in fordist times, but for this very reason they push us to compete…
Or we are trying to develop forms of mutual support that could help us being less dependent on labour market demands and on our parent’s or partner’s economic support.
*Note on the title
Originally the conference’s title was “Decolonize Love”. My staying in France and the conversations I had with transfeminist and queer activists over there made me think that using the word “decolonize” as a metaphor for something else than decolonization was not a good idea.
For this reason, I changed the title and changed “decolonize” in “clearing our minds” in the transcription.
I hope our work will be more sensitive to race issues and more connected to queer of colours’ movements from now on. Telling the story of this conference’s title is a way for me to make this visible instead of just “cleaning” my language leaving no traces.
Acquistapace, Alessia. 2013. Relazioni senza nome. Reti di affetti, solidarietà, intimità e cura oltre la “coppia eterosessuale obbligatoria”. Tesi di laurea in Antropologia del corpo. Università degli studi di Bologna, Facoltà di lettere e filosofia, Corso di laurea specialistica in Antropologia culturale ed Etnologia. Discussa il 13/7/2011. CreativeCommons. http://smaschieramenti.noblogs.org/?p=537.
———. 2014. “Decolonizzarsi dalla coppia. Una ricerca etnografica a partire dall’esperienza del Laboratorio Smaschieramenti.” In L’amore ai tempi dello tsunami : affetti, sessualità, modelli di genere in mutamento, edited by Chiara Martucci, Gaia Giuliani, and Manuela Galetto, 69–85. Verona: Ombre Corte.
Brown, Betsy. “La Sfamiglia”, in Memoria irregolare: vent’anni di testi lesbici selezionati da Bollettina del CLI (Collegamento fra le lesbiche italiane) – original edition must be somewhere
Esteban M. L., 2011, Critica del pensamiento amoroso, Barcellona, Bellaterra.
Lo Iacono, Cristian. 2014. “Lavoro, affetti, ‘flexiqueerity’. Per la critica dell’economia politica degli affetti queer.” In L’amore ai tempi dello tsunami : affetti, sessualità, modelli di genere in mutamento, edited by Chiara Martucci, Gaia Giuliani, and Manuela Galetto, 176–89. Verona: Ombre Corte.
Roseneil, Sasha, and Shelley Budgeon. 2004. “Cultures of Intimacy and Care Beyond ‘the Family’: Personal Life and Social Change in the Early 21st Century.” Current Sociology 52 (2): 135–59.
Rubin, Gayle S. 1984. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” In Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, edited by Carole S. Vance. Boston and London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Rebucini, Gianfranco, « Mariage pour tous » et émancipation sexuelle. Pour une autre stratégie politique, http://www.contretemps.eu
SomMovimento NazioAnale. 2013. “Report del tavolo Altre Intimità.” http://sommovimentonazioanale.noblogs.org/files/2014/01/altre-intimit%C3%A0-report-def.pdf.
———.2015. “San Valentino 2015. La crisi del settimo anno.” http://sommovimentonazioanale.noblogs.org/post/2015/02/09/san-valentino-2015-la-crisi-del-settimo-anno/,
english traslation http://sommovimentonazioanale.noblogs.org/post/2015/02/17/valentines-day-2015-love-in-the-crisis-more-than-a-seven-year-itch/
Wilkinson, Eleanor, and David Bell. 2012. “Ties That Blind: On Not Seeing (or Looking) beyond ‘the Family.’” Families, Relationships and Societies 1 (3): 423–29.
Woltersdorff, Volker. 2011. “Paradoxes of precarious sexualities. Sexual subcultures under neo-liberalism.” Cultural Studies 25 (2): 164–82.
Weston K. 1995, “Forever is a long time: romancing the real in gay kinship ideology”, in S. Junko Yanagisako e C. Delaney (a cura di), Naturalizing Power: Essays in Feminist Cultural Analysis, London, Routledge, pp. 87-122.
Weston K. 1992, Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship, New York, Columbia University Press.
Ziga Itziar. 2011. Feminista way of live, Pikara, 25/11/2011. http://www.pikaramagazine.com/2011/11/feminista-way-of-live-este-25-n-itziar-ziga-nos-anima-a-escapar-del-heterodestino-y-la-pareja-obligatoria/