A common belief is that intimacy is about being deeply understood, like knowing another and being known by them in return. Like holding space for each other by deeply understanding them. Consequently, there might be an expectation of effortless interrelating; no conflicts, just peace. For example, I often hear people romanticise dream-like conversations with strangers which can touch deeply hidden truths usually inaccessible under the layers of mundane topics with which we usually coat our everyday interactions. Achieving this intimacy is about gathering as much information about the other as possible, like a detective or interviewer. Then, with all this knowledge, one can co-exist with the other by always knowing what to do. However, this idea of intimacy is wrong, and what convinced me was an interview with Leo Bersani, the co-author of the book Intimacies. This alternative idea about intimacy is greatly reflected in my bodywork sessions, how I teach about sadomasochism, and how I relate privately.
Foucault, in The Birth of the Clinic (1963) and the feminist philosopher Roslyn Wallach Bologh (who analyses Max Weber) writes about the subject-object relationship. Take the example of a doctor and a patient. Given the power of education and knowledge, the doctor is educated to evaluate and eventually cure the patient. The patient is not an equal ‘subject’ but rather an ‘object’ to be studied and fixed by the doctor. Another example, when learning medical massage therapy, I remember this muscle called pectoralis minor sitting underneath the breast. I had to grab and move the boob to massage the muscle. Terrifying. But only if I related to my client as another subject evaluating and relating to me. However, if I saw them as an object and the breast as a piece of meat or a logistical issue, then it was no problem, and my client felt safe with me because there was no intimacy. The more I thought.
– Oh, what will they think about me?
The more I asked to be evaluated as an object, therefore turning the therapeutic relationship around. Some ten-twenty trial sessions passed before I felt safe forming the subject-object relationship with clients, and since then, massaging pectoralis minor hasn’t been a problem.
Should A Therapeutic Practice Be Intimate?
However, this changed again when creating my therapeutic rope bondage and even more in the initiation for submissives. I found that clients were increasingly turning to me to work on issues of intimacy. Either because they had been traumatised by intimacy and wanted to build a new relationship with it, or because they had been stuck in a subject-object way of relating to the world. In a capitalist patriarchy, objectification is the way to go. To shape the surrounding world of objects into understandable and usable things which offer maximum reward for minimum effort. To be a successful player, one quickly learns the subject-object game, just as I had in the medical massage therapy training. Things get even more deeply entrenched in objectification the deeper we step into the world of science. Obviously, I have nothing against science for its problem-solving potential and, in bodywork, help with a malfunctioning muscle. But it does not – and should not – create intimacy. Instead, intimacy emerges from a subject-subject relationship. When relating object to object, there is always the danger that too much knowing interrupts the listening process; believing that ‘I know’ gets in the way of deeply listening and truly knowing. Listening becomes something that simply becomes an inefficient use of time and energy. When a massage therapist works on a tense pectoralis minor muscle, it is of practical help, but it is not intimate. Even within a sexual interaction, when one knows what mechanical moves to repeat to get one’s partner off, this is practical but not intimate. However, that ideal conversation with a stranger feels intimate because they don’t know each other and so tend out of social pressure to listen to each other better than they might with their regular gang of friends.
So when my bodywork sessions are aimed toward intimacy, the key is establishing the subject-subject relationship. The clients often ask for permission to feel me, not with their hands, but by feeling my presence in proximity to them. They tend to feel that I’m listening to them by feeling them. In my experience, people are so unused to being listened to in this way, so they often describe what I do as reading their minds. Instead, they are used to the subject-object relationship from most doctors and therapists and unfulfilling love relationships.
Heteronormative Love is Not Very Intimate
Roslyn Wallach Bologh describes heteronormative sexuality also as a subject-object relationship. The man should find and study his female subject until he can drive her as a race car to impress his buddies and feel accomplished. Men also don’t focus on their emotions because they are seldom or never the object. That’s also why they primarily take indirect pleasure in observing their partner’s reactions. The same dynamic is evident in heteronormative sadomasochism, with the dominant man whipping his submissive girlfriend. Of course, this often leads to performance anxiety and feeling lonely and objectified. I remember two heterosexual lovers at a couples retreat; they were so much in love, but the guy was a massive doer and very successful in his career, and so he wanted to learn how to perfect his doing as a dominant. How to whip the right way, tie all the knots, and give the correct orders in the most effective manner. She, meanwhile, felt the compulsion to reacting in the right way, to validate him—massive performance anxiety for both. Eventually, it broke for them; he cried and she replied.
I will never be good enough at this.
I just want to feel you.
In my experience, intimacy doesn’t need to be erotic. Eros in relation to bodywork is already complicated because of prostitution, unfaithfulness in relationships, and how it’s portrayed today with over-dramatic fiction and pornography. Retreats and rituals are outstanding opportunities to learn about and celebrate sexuality; doing it inside a therapeutic relationship is more complex. Many people think that sexuality is what they want when intimacy is what they need. I believe that intimacy is big enough by itself. Perhaps, once one has learned intimacy, sexuality can flow smoothly. Sex is but one end goal of many in the world of intimacy. The first steps along the path to truly understanding and embodying this is learning how to listen and feel.