Defining Intimacy

In my anthropology lecture today, we talked about proxemics, that is the study of how space is used and negotiated in communication. One of the things we touched on briefly was the idea of space and intimacy.

Defining intimacy is interesting, because it can take so many forms and mean different things to different people. And there are different kinds of intimacy as well – intimacy that you have with family and friends, intimacy that you have with a romantic or sexual partner.

Being asexual has quite an influence on what I consider intimate and what I don’t. It can be quite specific sometimes. For instance, I crave backrubs and will ask for one from just about anyone, even if I don’t know them very well. That sort of touch/spatial relationship has nothing to do with sexuality or intimacy for me. However, I once had someone tell me that they assumed that I was flirting with them when I asked them for a back rub at a party-like event.

In another example recently, I was out dancing at a club with some friends. I have only been to a club twice in my life, so I’m still learning to negotiate the spaces there. I was dancing on my own and a guy came up and danced close to me for a while – I guess you could say we connected without touching for a while. But then he went to put his hand on my waist and immediately it felt very wrong, so I shrugged him off and he got the message and headed off.

I’m very comfortable with touches between close friends. I love hugs and friends lying sprawled across me. I don’t mind shaking hands with people I don’t know, or hugs with people I know slightly less. But I don’t like little touches, to my arms or shoulders, especially not without warning. Sometimes it seems the smaller the touch, the less I am comfortable with it.

Connotation and intention seem to be very important for me in whether a touch feels ok (or even nice) or whether it feels threatening. Unfortunately, it’s something I’m very bad at reading in people. I also often worry about the way I am read as well. I’m terrified of people reading romantic or sexual connotations into things I do, like hugs, compliments, even smiles. For me, those things are completely unconnected to any sort of flirting or romantic interest.

Affection to me is platonic and completely non-sexual, rather than something tangled up in interest, motivation and sexuality. It’s one sort of intimacy, the sort I’m comfortable with and enjoy. I’ve always seen the other sort of intimacy as a little threatening, to be honest. It’s not something I want for myself. But it’s interesting to examine what I perceive as friendship-intimate and what I don’t. Sometimes they can be quite different, but not in the way you’d imagine.

What about you, dear readers? How do you configure space and intimacy?

6 thoughts on “Defining Intimacy

  1. Great piece Jo! I think this is very interesting. I find myself to be quite aware of people’s touching of me, and like you, I am so comfortable with hugging friends and lying across them. Strangers touching me sometimes can make me uncomfortable… and people who invade my personal space when I’m standing talking to them makes me a bit uhhhhmpleasemoveback.

    I think it must be odd for someone such as yourself who doesn’t see their actions as sexual signals, but other people do.

    1. Thanks Emma! Thankfully it doesn’t happen too often that someone interprets something I do as something sexual/romantic. Or should I say thankfully I never find out? I find it especially hard around guys, because they’re the people society assumes I will be attracted to, even though I’m not. With girls it seems there is a lot more freedom.

  2. Wow, another thought provoking post – I didn’t even know there was a word for such an area of study!

    Personally I struggled with any close contact for much of my life (whether due to nature or nurture is both hard to differentiate and most likely futile). Nowadays, having grown socially, I am much less inclined to recoil from unsolicited touch, but still do not actively seek it. However I do understand the importance of certain touch interactions (e.g. hugs) between friends as a way to demonstrate and reinforce close bonds, so am able to reciprocate such gestures as I appreciate the meaning both for the other person (that I value their friendship) and myself (that they value mine).

    In regards to my asexuality and disinterest in intimacy, it is again hard to tell to what degree one affected the other, though it is probably safe to say that there is some level of interaction. For a long time I was afraid that my lack of interest in other people was merely a side effect of my intimacy issues (asexuality being a negative label, a ‘lack’ – I think you touched upon this in an earlier post Jo), and that should I manage to resolve it, I would awake to find a completely alien, completely unknown aspect of myself. I realize now that that was an imposed stress from an oppressive, heteronormative patriarchy and am able to separate those two characteristics of myself as discrete attributes.

    Luckily not having to self-police my own actions so not to enthral the opposite sex is one of the luxuries I am afforded by appearing as a white cis-male. I had actually not thought about my actions being misread that way, and you’re right Emma, it is strange to consider that… I’ll have to contemplate on that.

    This is all, of course, excepting my cat. Furry hugs are the best hugs.

    1. Hey Thom, thanks for the comment – I didn’t realise you were asexual as well, always lovely to find that out about people.

      I totally agree with your thoughts on certain forms of touch as reinforcing bonds of friendship – those are the ones I am most comfortable with! But unsolicited touch is something I’m generally not comfortable with unless it’s purely professional/easily able to be predicted. And it’s really no-one’s business to touch you without asking (or in the case of close people, general agreement).

      The self-policing thing is something I really struggle with – because I hate doing it and can’t really do it for long periods. But it would have saved me a lot of trouble and uncomfortable situations, that much is true. But I also don’t see why I should have to police myself.

      I’ve always been hyper-aware of the way I could be read after a staff member from my high school basically propositioned me, thinking I was into him. It was all a bit much, especially seeing as I was seventeen and still identifying as a lesbian back then. But before that I had never thought about it either, because it just wasn’t interested in other people and as such didn’t think about it.

      Furry cat hugs are definitely the best. 😀

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