This post summarizes our paper for the 16th Culture and Power Conference ‘Spaces‘ (Murcia, 2-4 October 2013)
In the last decades the public/private divide is being deeply rearticulated, for instance by the emergence of forms of public intimacy challenging the taken for granted identification between privacy and intimacy. Transformations in gender relations and the widespread uses of new technologies of communication and information are two important agents in this process. These relations can be thought as choreographies, in which women, men and digital devices play a dance where their positions and gestures depend on the positions and gestures of the other players, where contemporary digital devices and application remediate heterosexual couple relations and the production of couple intimacy is the result of the shared agency between people and devices enacted in everyday life digital practices.
The pair inhibition/exhibition in relation to gendered expression of conflicts, disquiet, vulnerabilities and empowerment provides a good way to analyse the re-articulation of intimacy. We discuss two examples of emergent forms of inhibition and exhibition. First, drawing on a three years research in Madrid about heterosexual couples and mobile communication, we see how mobile phones are a player in the game of designing and defending territories. Such as men’s inhibition from the domestic realm and from the accessibility and availability obligations an expectations set around mobile phone use; or women’s inhibition from “annoying” their male partners with their calls and messages.
“I think it is due to insecurity, maybe by thinking that it is my fault, that he can become bored of me, that he can feel annoyed, that I can disturb him” (31-year-old woman)
“He really bothers if I am not available […]. But in his day by day work he only phones me for children arrangements: ‘Listen, I can not arrive on time to pick them up at their music class, so go yourself’.” (40-year-old woman)
“When he is there, I try not to use the phone. And if somebody phones me I say ‘I will phone you back tomorrow’.” (24-year-old woman)
These forms of inhibition go with certains forms of exhibition. For instance, mobile calls and messages are a way of displaying love and attachment, thus a mutual display of ties, obligations and dependencies, and for other people witnessing these interactions as well.
“It is a sacrifice he does […] I am infinitely grateful to him […]. I am the kind of person who needs to be told constantly what is felt for me. It’s a condition, you know, quotations marks, that I pose and he perfectly accepts and satisfies it. And I love it, because he does it. […] It makes me feel more happy and supportive. And thus I think we get a harmonious relationship” (31-year-old woman)
These different modes of gendered inhibition/exhibition in the everyday management of intimate bonds and territories of the self shape the location of couple intimacy, whilst ordinarily reconstituting gender hierarchical differentiation. These gendered ways, in conjunction with mobile telephony affordances and constraints, are producing the contextual norms and expectations which set the condition for privacy, or the lack of it, within current couple intimacies.
In this play gender coreographies are not symetrical; women appear to be (and perform) more explicitly and tightly subjected to gendered norms, particularly related to the the dynamics of inhibition/exhibition, as it is expressed in the myth of “feminine discretion”. But both women and men have to deal with that tension, although from different positions and attitudes, as it becomes clear in the second example: the making, display and sharing of self-portraits, commonly known as selfies, of nudity and self-pornification, for instance in mobile and online seduction play, or in blogs such as vaginasofthe-world.tumblr.com. Such practices reveal a complex gaze game, where one is at the same time the photographer, the model and the audience. These practices provide pleasures, reconciliation with one’s body, as well as an empowering exhibitionism, but they can be disquieting as well, specially for heterosexual men, as this exhibitionism implies a displacement of traditional male identifications, positions and practices. These forms od self-disclosure and exhibition raise conflicting views about what is considered to be suitable, as in the example of public campaigns in different countries warning against these practices, addressed to young people, especially women, in order to counter these trends and to put embarrassment and inhibition back in the picture, using fear and highlighting potential risks and threads. These campaigns shame women who upload or send selfies but not those who misuse these images, in a kind of re-mediation of old practices of “slut shaming”.
In the rituality of everyday ordinary encounters and digitally mediated forms of communication, gender relationships emerge as a particular choreography, a performance in which one’s position, subjectivity and movements are arranged regarding the position and movements of one’s partner while simultaneously other orders and hierarchies are performed and re-enacted as well fixing, sustaining and challenging the boundaries of the (gendered) territories of the self.