Each year I teach about love in a psychology class at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. Each semester there are at least a few students who question why I am teaching this content in a course about the psychology of LGBT people. They seem to echo Tina Turner: What’s love got to do with it? I confess that their question always leaves me a bit speechless. I don’t know how to teach about the psychological impact of Stonewall, liberation, Harvey Milk, or HIV without talking about love. Who are we as a people or as a community without it? And how do we understand that the implicit and explicit expectations of heterosexuality in our families, if we cannot recognize them as the limits of the love so profusely professed?
Equally perplexing to even more students is the notion that the word intimacy does not equal sex. So common is our sort of 1950s discomfort with insertive sexual activity that we use intimate (as in, “They were having an intimate moment.”) when we actually mean they were having sex. In that limited understanding of the word, an intimate conversation would sound something like, “Oh, yes, yes, YES! Okay, more, no…no…wait, yes!”
But intimate conversations are actually not about sex, or at least not usually about sex. In fact, I wonder about how many sexual conversations are really all that intimate. In years of counseling, I rarely heard of people talking about sex outside of therapy that didn’t seem completely goal related. Sexual novices plowed forward with little notion of what a partner wanted or expected. Hell, they rarely asked for what they wanted or expected. “Are we good?” meant anything from “Did you have an orgasm?” to “Should I worry about an STI or pregnancy?” Sister Wendy Beckett of PBS fame had more to say about an artist’s representation of fluffy pubic hair than most of us have to say to our supposed lovers. I think the majority of us are just too embarrassed and stupid about sex to have meaningful, intimate conversations about it.
For me, intimacy involves the honest expression of our thoughts and feelings. It requires self-knowledge, self-confidence, sufficient self-esteem, and an underlying desire for union and reunion. People who are responsible risk-takers can be intimate. Intimacy requires that we be vulnerable, knowing what we know, how we know it, and what we believe — even if our beliefs are not grounded in knowledge. Intimacy requires that we be honest even when we are unsure; sure, even when we might not be right. We need to know where we stand in comparison to those around us and take the bold plunge toward honesty, even when it might only serve to lower our rank or status. The honesty of intimacy may or may not be direct, but it should be as unambiguous as possible.
Intimacy is not for the weak.
Here are some examples of what I hear as intimate communications:
- I will not prioritize this vacation over a saner childcare arrangement this summer.
- When you wake in the morning and feel all amorous, you are forgetting that your breath is stale and unpleasant for me.
- I ran over my neighbors’ cat when I was learning to drive and said I found it in the road.
- While we are all scurrying around worrying about the Olympics in Brazil, I want to scream about our country’s lack of response to HIV 30 years ago. I don’t feel like I am ready to move on without acknowledging that.
- Privatizing the schools and parks and local facilities that my grandparents, parents, and I have paid for looks like theft to me.
- I feel insulted by your apparent indifference.
- This pain is so intense that I know I don’t want to keep on living with it.
- I think you would find greater happiness by deferring marriage until you are closer to 30. I have experienced a lot of unnecessary upset by not waiting longer myself.
- It looks to me like you’d like me to leave this job before I am ready to do so.
- I don’t mind starting a half hour later, but I do mind waiting for you for a half hour. Please keep your commitment to our agreed upon start time or let me know well in advance so I can plan accordingly.
I freely admit that my standards for intimate communications might be kind of high. However, I got to this point through a variety of life experiences and have found no good reason to abandon my view. A few years ago, some colleagues and I went to a very large political gathering. We arrived on time for the event line-up which was an hour before the doors opened. We were in a long line, but one that could easily have gotten us into the building within minutes of the door opening. And, even though there were a couple of hundred people ahead of us, the venue was huge and we were likely to get seating well in the front so we could see the candidate. As we waited, the candidate herself approached the line twice, greeting people and shaking hands. She thanked us for our support and listened to snippets of comments people made about issues of concern to them. The doors opened and a completely different line of people were allowed in the venue ahead of us. They had not been waiting at all. They had different tickets apparently. It started to rain as we continued to wait. When we finally got it in, we were further shuttled to a side entrance and a loop around the venue to be wedged between the media that were situated on some bleacher seats. We waited another two hours, standing. The candidate then appeared on stage, just as I needed to leave for another pressing engagement, having just pissed away almost four hours of my time.
It is unlikely that the candidate lost the election because of this episode. Still, I wonder about the conversations that happened between the candidate and her election team. In this situation and others that I have observed from a distance, it seems like candidates that people actually like are severely affected by campaign staff who do not appear to actually like people. When I hear statements about staff wanting to know how best to put a candidate out in front of the people so they can show themselves, I wonder if those same staff could learn to get out of the way. In these political situations, as in many community communications, very little of the staging is honest. Had we all been told on that rainy day that the candidate needed to look popular and have a bunch of cheering bodies around, I still would have gone. Later. And with no expectation of more.
One joke I sometimes use in talking with teens and their parents about sexually intimate communications is telling them that I never have sex with someone whose middle name I don’t know. Most of the time both teens and parents laugh at my humor, but sometimes they look aghast. Then I ask them what their parents’, spouses’, boy/girl friend’s middle names are. They invariably hesitate. Not so subtle on my part, but a good reminder that honest conversation is as tricky to navigate as sex, maybe even more.