Scared of Intimacy

Assume, for a moment, that pop psychology mantras tell cultural truths. In this instance: men are afraid of intimacy. If one studies the politics of intimacy, especially those intimacies that arise from propinquity, it becomes difficult to understand how anyone can be unafraid of intimacy. In this instance, perhaps “men” have it right.

It is intriguing, for instance, to believe that in making ourselves vulnerable to each other, we issue welcoming invitations. “I’m naked, I’m vulnerable, love me” has to be one of the most frightening statements ever penned, and when said, it makes the world explode. In part, I suspect such statements, made popular by irresponsible love songs, do not quite understand the ethical demand they place on one, a demand compounded by an intimate imperative: you have my heart in your hands. How can one not squeeze or drop or pierce with uncut nails. Such giftings of self are occasions for terror.

I cry from a piercing joy.

Such giftings are dangerous. Another’s nakedness should terrify us. (I think, here, of the “gifting” between bug chasers and givers, and how instead of being extraordinary, it might actually reveal something about the nature of all intimacies, might be a metonym of intimacy in its terror-inducing form—still waiting for Tim Dean’s book to be released!)

To be scared of intimacy, terrified of vulnerability, one’s own and another’s, might be to apprehend something of the risks and responsibilities created and demanded by propinquity. A friend reminds me of my ongoing love for the term propinquity—I had missed you, lovely word!

I am reminded that proximity to deities is marked by fear and trembling, passion and desire. (“Fear the Lord your God.”)

We underestimate the power and obligation of intimacy when we think of it purely in terms of warm fuzzies—I like being with you quickly goes through the range of affect produced by frottage: excitement, irritation, pleasure, tingling, and so on. We invite others into our territories and feel invaded.

It is precisely this sensation of “invasion” that is evaded, voided, in fact, in the rhetoric that “x” are “scared of intimacy,” because that rhetoric presupposes that intimacy should always be welcomed and is, in fact, benign. Or, to be more fair, it presupposes that vulnerabilities can be shared, made bare in the same way, and in that sharing act as buffers of some kind. I have yet to work this out. Play with me.

To be scared of intimacy might be to understand the complexity of its demand: that in sharing space one exchanges bodily elements. I spit on you as we chat, though you may not feel it. The germs coating my hands transfer as I shake your hand, hold your shoulder. My diseases, and their memories, leap across skin barriers, to be combated by your defense systems, but they leap. We are always infecting each other with pieces of our selves.

Taking propinquity as a model for intimacy requires a certain faith, a certain leap that feels disingenuous. After all, we distinguish between the woman on the bus who stands too close and the man we fuck in the bathhouse. Different strangers. Different intimacies. Different potentials for disease.

Increasingly, I wonder about the line between propinquity and intimacy, how to refract each through the other, to see what models might emerge. The slave ship becomes crucial in this endeavor. And the problem of time. But the time of propinquity might be equivalent to the time of intimacy, and irrelevant to the happening of affect. Sensation lingers and flavors time, colors space.

Propinquity orients one. From its point, worlds emerge and look different or the same, and how we feel about them is different or the same. A casual ride on the metro results in: “so this is how people on this metro stop behave,” and one’s orientation to that stop changes, one’s relation to that particular space.

Intimacy orients, a lesson I take from Sara Ahmed.

What might it mean to think of intimacy not as a relation between individuals, but about orientations toward orientations?

I think, for instance, of the U.S. version of the “me, I”: “I’m the kind of person.” Having taken the injunction to “know thyself” to a sad extreme, many of us run around convinced that our inner knowledge about ourselves, mediated by factors we fail to footnote, provides a template for the world. We are unaware of our orientations, that is, how we project our desires into the world.

Those moments when desires project into the world, when orientations become visible, when we turn to this and not to that, those moments fascinate me. Those moments become the orientations that determine, in part, my own orientations. I am, then, less interested in confessional declarations based on self-knowledge than I am in where one turns—the why is also relatively unimportant. (That this is itself a moment of confession based on an un-footnoted mediation does not elude me, and that I’m aware of it as such also does not elude me. The impossibility of evading mediation is itself another mode of mediation.)
I am trying to imagine what it might mean to take propinquity as a model for intimacy, and how to consider the obligations of orientation, where to turn, how to turn to those spaces and places, and how those acts of turning enable other kinds of turnings and turnings away.

To understand, that is, how our practices of space enmesh us in overlapping, unavoidable forms of sociality.

If we begin from these enmeshments as the conditions that allow for and enable intimacy, enmeshments that are rarely within our control, and here I am taking propinquity as the model for intimacy, then it strikes me that a degree of terror should accompany intimacy.

I avoid here the distinction between casual intimacy and deep intimacy, and that might be where this excursion falls flat, though it might have flatlined from the first word.
Would it be possible to “admit” being terrified of intimacy without that being viewed as a move toward greater intimacy? Is there something denuded, always already appropriated, about intimate discourse that makes it difficult for it to be difficult?

One can end on a series of confessions.

Once, a knowing person said, “you’ve been hurt in love.” And I wanted to slap the person. It was the sureness with which each intimate history and present could be plotted along a chart—our cues already given, our natures already known, our orientations already measured. Underlying this, of course, a narrative of intimate normativity—“we all want to be loved,” says Reba McEntyre.

What if I just want cum from strangers?

What if a “terror” of intimacy is not a condition to be overcome, not a pathology, but an orientation toward the world? What might that kind of orientation enable? What if one is indifferent toward intimacy? What if one is agnostic? Can one be agnostic?
I have been circling around the stare that rubs, the rub that aches, the ache that lingers, the constitution and afterlife of propinquity. In an indirect way, I have also been offering a reading of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed.”

Arguably, intimate life is already too complex without my attempting to complicate it further. But the only boy meets boy and girl, enters into polyamarous relationship, and lives happily ever after narratives I like live in romance books, and those are the only ones I give a pass.

Intimacy is complicated. Terror in the face of intimacy is a justifiable reaction.

One thought on “Scared of Intimacy

  1. I’ve thought about this on and off, with attachment as my subject rather than intimacy. I had read Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents and he puts forward a similar idea. Roth’s The Dying Animal struggles with this problem of intimacy and Woody Allen almost gets there in just about all his films about this sort of thing. I don’t know. I just think it is odd, given “human nature,” (if there really is such a thing) that there is no option in what is socially acceptable / accessible other than the standard soulmate/perfect-fit/other-half line. It’s interesting that you link this to religion because I’ve always thought both institutions require a sort of unquestioning faith.

    What work by Sara Ahmed are you referencing? It would be interesting to read something in this vein from a different perspective.

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