The Morphogenesis of the Intimate Role Array, or, Why It Is Fucking Stupid To Worry About Being a ‘Substitute Boyfriend’…

I was just reading this post on the Good Men Project: it’s a question by a guy who’s worried he’s being ‘used’ as a ‘substitute boyfriend’ by a female friend who regularly calls him to talk before bed. The ‘expert’ columnists advise him that, yes, he is being used and that he should break off contact with this (clearly very close) female friend because, as one of them puts it, “The only people you should be regularly talking with, under those circumstances, are your boyfriend, your girlfriend, or your sex friend. And just so we’re clear, those people should be IN your bed while you’re talking to them”.

I’ve rarely stumbled across something which encapsulates the confusions of late capitalist intimate culture as perfectly as this. Let’s leave aside the vacuity of the two advice columnists branding themselves as a platonic partnership to forge a new media career (see their website called “she said, he said” here) while also glibly advocating the dissolution of close platonic friendships without even any pretence at expert insight.

What really grates is the sheer repressiveness loaded into how they approach their normative claims. There are a certain range of legitimate roles (romantic partner, ‘sex friend’, friend) with a specific set of normal behaviours attached to them (i.e. friends don’t talk before bed, it’s wrong to talk to anyone other than a romantic partner or a ‘sex friend’ while you are in bed etc). If a relationship with another person can’t be construed in terms of one of these legitimate roles and/or the behaviours manifested in the relationship don’t match those expected from the role in question then the relationship is deemed to be pathological and ought to be dissolved.  The possibility that relationships can take satisfying and sustainable forms which don’t fit into these constraints and that the the roles plus expectations attached to them should be reshaped and expanded is entirely foreclosed, as is an awareness that this is the process through which intimate culture changes over time.

The content of the advice of columnists like this relies upon a whole set of social and cultural changes relating to intimate life which were the product of people coming together to struggle against repressiveness and assert their moral agency. Most obviously, their casual use of the category ‘sex friend’ wouldn’t have been widely accepted until fairly recently. In part these changes have come about because people were able to expand the array of intimate roles that are socially recognised (e.g. the concept of the ‘sex friend’, the idea of a boyfriend having a boyfriend or a girlfriend having a girlfriend) as well as expanding the freedom individuals have about how they behave towards each other within those socially recognised roles (e.g. the acceptability of premarital sex or cohabiting without marriage). Through a loose and inchoate (though nonetheless passionate and committed) rebellion against the repressive consequences of construing personal life in moral terms, a new freedom was won: a degree of moral agency about our intimate lives became possible which had never been seen before.

Yet the sort of advice offered in this column, which I’m obviously taking as an ideal type, threatens this. The language of normality and pathology relating to intimate life risks replacing the old language of morality and immorality. In so far as it has (and continues) to become cultural common sense, we risk losing the freedoms that had been won as the expanded array of intimate roles and expanded space for intimate behaviour ossifies and collapses due to our unexamined concern to live our intimate lives in a ‘normal’ way. We also risk losing the capacity to win new freedoms, as the shrinking space of the ‘normal’ and the fear of the category of the pathological inhibits experimentation in our lives and leads to its censure in the lives of others. I really do wish sex and relationship ‘experts’ like the two in that column would shut the fuck up. I genuinely believe they are doing, as a whole and over time, a profound violence to freedoms which a previous generation struggled and died for.

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