Chapter 2, Part 2: Gender, Sexual Touch, and Rethinking Intimacy


Splendor in the Grass

Splendor in the Grass: the residue of pleasure in Lakeshore Park, Chicago

Although the first half of this chapter describes EDM events as intensely tactile spaces where there is a greater openness to touch, it’s not like everyone at a nightclub is hungry for touch—sexual or otherwise—nor is everybody all that tolerant of being touched. And yet, touch is everywhere at EDM events. How does that work? How someone manages this diversity of attitudes towards touch in a crowd of strangers is one of the more obscure aspects of EDM tactility, and when it comes to the case of sexual touch, the stakes of stranger-touch are even higher. Obviously, receiving unwelcome sexual touch negatively affects your experience at an EDM event, undermining any sense of intimacy you may have been feeling; and it is also very clear (in the interviews as well as in my observations) that these negative encounters affect women disproportionately. To put it bluntly, women at EDM events in Paris, Berlin, and Chicago, are much more likely to be subjected to unwelcome sexual touching.

(NOTE: This is the fifth installment of a series where I summarize my dissertation in through blog posts. You can find the inaugural post here.)

Putting the Moves On: Sexual Touch

For most of the women that I interviewed, the overly tactile sexual attentions of some men (i.e., “grabby” guys) reduced their sense of comfort in a crowd and interfered with their enjoyment of the party. The emotional impact that this unwelcome touching had on these women ranged from annoyance to eye-rolling exasperation to a profound sense of violation. When this unwelcome touch persists, it can drive women away from the dancefloor and even out of an EDM event entirely; in other words, unwelcome touch makes it harder for women to enjoy the dancefloor as a site of (uncomplicated) pleasures.

These problems are sometimes dramatically clear when touch-norms don’t align (see yesterday’s post for an explanation of what I mean by “touch norms”). One woman I interviewed, for example, grew up in Mauritius (an island nation and former colony in the Indian Ocean), where touch played an important part in everyday life. According to her, people in Mauritius frequently touched each other while chatting or to express friendliness; notably, she considered many tactile gestures (like a hand on the forearm, a hug, a pat on the shoulder) to be entirely casual and non-sexual. Then, she moved to Paris, where people very rarely touch each other in everyday life, and many kinds of tactile contact are considered highly sexual. At first, she couldn’t figure out why nearly every guy she met at EDM events tried to make out with her after chatting with her for only a few minutes. Eventually, a friend of hers told her that a lot of the gestures that she used to express friendliness or sincerity were in fact gestures of flirtation/courtship/seduction in Paris. So, she learned to be less tactile with people around her, which was something she lamented during our interview; she missed being able to touch and be touched without having to worry that it would put her at risk of sexual harassment.

This anecdote might give the impression that women are constantly being assailed and having their intentions misunderstood, but none of my interviewees actually described their own clubbing/raving experiences as non-stop sexual harassment. When they complained about intrusive sexual touching, they were often speaking of clubbing or urban nightlife in general, and sometimes they were referring to particular nightclubs that they avoid. But when it comes to the EDM events that they attend as part of their particular sub-scene, they say these problems are much less present—although not entirely absent, either.

But all of this raises some difficult questions about what counts as “unwelcome” touch. This is the sort of thing that social norms are for, right? But norms are usually implicit, learned through experience, and not necessarily held by everyone. This gets even more complicated when you’re talking about situations like the dancefloor of an EDM event, where a lot of the people around you are strangers (who might not share your sense of touch norms) and the “party” atmosphere encourages a slackening of norms. This is a problem both for the toucher and the touchee: what is appropriate? What reaction can I expect? How can I express my interest or disinterest? With whom is touching OK? What should I assume about the other person’s intentions?

Some people drew a bright and clear line between strangers and more familiar people. One interviewee, for example, said, “If you don’t know me, don’t touch me.” But “know me” was actually a pretty broad category for her, including not only friends but acquaintances and friends-of-friends and so on. So, despite her adamant resistance to being touched by strangers, she’s actually very tactile with people she knows is some way. Some other women that I interviewed, however, still wanted to remain open to touch from strangers in some way—even sexual touch; they found something valuable in moments of intense connection with new and unknown people. But a pattern emerged: every time a female interviewee expressed a desire for tactile intimacy with strangers, she always shifted immediately afterwards into a self-conscious pose, stressing that she was “not that kind of girl.” What kind of girl is that? This quick shift from expressing a desire for stranger-intimacy to a morally defensive posture says a lot about the way that gender impacts the kind of sexual persona we’re comfortable inhabiting.

In the dissertation, I closed this section with a review of philosophical/ethical literature on touch. It’s way too dense to summarize here, but here’s the important bits: I covered Sartre, Beauvoir, Lévinas, Alphonso Lingis, and Cathryn Vasseleu, showing that there’s been a long tradition in Western thought of  1) denigrating the sense of touch as a source of knowledge (in contrast to vision, for example) and 2) worrying about how touch might threaten the model of the “rational and free individual” developed during the Enlightenment.

Rethinking Intimacy

The instances of intimacy that I have observed, studied, and participated in during my fieldwork take a form that is “rather particular” [assez particulière], as one of my Parisian contacts put it. On the dancefloors at EDM events, intimacy arises without familiarity, without talk, without prior relationships, and without the long narrative of “getting to know you” that’s supposed to make intimate relationships possible. So what is intimacy, in this instance? To begin with, we might ask what intimacy is conventionally, that is, the commonsense notion of what intimacy is.

The term “intimacy” circulates widely in a variety of discourses, with a variety of meanings: it appears on talk shows, internet dating sites, self-help books, sex-toy packaging, and restaurant reviews, to name a few examples. This leaves the concept of intimacy both undertheorized and difficult to conceptualize. When you read for the word “intimacy,” you can find references to long-standing relationships, affective attachments, warm feelings, mutual knowledge, routine, tacit communication, trust, marriage, risk, vulnerability, closeness, sex, contact, consent, and disclosure. The term is actually really broad and encompasses more than one concept. Some of the scholarly research on intimacy is explicitly normative (i.e., telling you what intimacy ideally should be), usually by promoting some combination of the themes I listed earlier in this paragraph (e.g., Jamieson, Intimacy: Personal Relationships in Modern Societies, 1998; Kasulis, Intimacy or Integrity, 2002). Some scholars take a more descriptive approach, such as Karen Prager (The Psychology of Intimacy, 1995), who gives us a helpful distinction between intimate interactions and intimate relationships (in her model, intimate interactions build intimate relationships, but you could have an intimate interaction with someone you’re not in an intimate relationship with). This descriptive work, however, risks replicating and naturalizing cultural norms; in other words, there’s a risk that saying “this is the way it is (as I’ve observed it)” will be read as “this is the way it is (and it’s the natural/correct/only way).” In addition to these approaches, there are also some scholars who make critical interventions, mostly geared towards reclaiming intimacy for marginalized groups (especially sexual minorities, queer people, etc.) and highlighting its political stakes (e.g., Lauren Berlant’s intro to a special issue on intimacy in Critical Inquiry).

So, the problem posed by the sorts of intimacy I’m examining at EDM events is that, judging from the normative discourse of intimacy already in circulation, they’re likely to be discounted as incomplete, illusory, damaged, unhealthy, or otherwise inauthentic. Many of the qualities conventionally associated with intimacy are unlikely or impossible on a nightclub dancefloor: the public, anonymous, and happenstance aspects of crowds displace conventional social forms of intimacy (such as the spouse, lover, parent, and sibling) and replace them with strangers and acquaintances. This raises doubts about whether this sense of intimacy in crowds is real or authentic—in fact, many of the people I interviewed raised this issue, usually by saying something like, “People who don’t party probably would think this is fake and superficial, but…” In other words, people in the scene are aware of the potential criticisms/skepticism, but they still insist that there is some sort of connection happening.

In any case, this “dancefloor intimacy” does happen to line up well with one conventional definition of intimacy: physical closeness and contact. For many of the people I interviewed—even those who were really averse to being touched by strangers of the opposite sex—touch was an important sensory and social aspect of the parties they went to. Touch not only provides a sensory basis for an emergent feeling of intimacy (i.e., it’s the feeling of intimacy in the physical sense), but it’s also a way of expressing a whole range of intimate feelings: care, desire, warmth, familiarity, openness, vulnerability, trust, and sincerity. In the case of intimacy on the dancefloor—in a mix of strangers and acquaintances pressed together in space as well as affect—touch provides a way of short-circuiting the usual narrative of intimacy.

Conclusion

To summarize, touch and proximity are privileged modes of intimacy in nightclub crowds, where social touch-norms are stretched and partially suspended. Tactility is especially important in these contexts, because many other modes of doing intimacy are difficult in a mostly-anonymous and fluid social space. Touch and proximity provide a sensual medium for the representation of immaterial aspects of intimacy, they allow the production and transmission of affects that can engender intimacy, and they open up an ethical and social relation to strangers. The music that can be heard and danced to at these events draws attention to texture and activates the body’s touch-senses, thus engaging partygoers in a sort of “haptic aurality” (listening through the skin) that saturates EDM parties with tactility. The intensely tactile experience of a club dancefloor raises concerns about unwelcome touch—particularly in the form of sexual harassment—but interviewees also report a relatively low occurrence of such problems within their particular sub-scenes.

Previous in series: Chapter 2, Part 1: Touching Strangers: Touch and Intimacy on the Dancefloor

Coming up next: Chapter 3: Liquidarity: Vague Belonging on the Dancefloor

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