Considering Intimate Lives: Ways Forward

We seldom consider the relationships between our access to and experiences of human intimacy and our political, economic and cultural citizenship as thinking, moving, acting subjects. Culturally speaking, intimacy is a closeness that happens in private; it is produced in the spaces of our lives that we consider warm, safe, and protective: our loving and sexual interactions, our friendships, our relationships with biological and chosen family, and within our networks and close communities. Intimacy is about proximity, affection, compassion, and sometimes, bodies, passion and desire. How connected we are to our social world, to chosen others, and within our local, national and global communities underpins what it means to be both valued and human. Our access to the category of the human (not a given, for many disenfranchised people) dictates how we imagine, live and experience intimacy and intimate citizenship in the 21st century, as well as the cultural makings of our public, private and intimate lives and selves. Thus, it’s important to consider the impacts of new iterations of neoliberalism, capitalism and austerity on human intimacy, connection, and belonging; and the extent to which these lived, emotional and affective experiences continue to define our humanness and serve as a marker of humanity in advanced capitalism.

Wordle diagram

‘Intimate citizenship’ is a term coined by the British Sociologist Ken Plummer (2003). It refers to the evolving relationships between the private and personal with public aspects of our lives. More simply, matters of sexuality, childbearing and rearing, loving partnerships, intimate labour and work, gender identity, friendships, care and caring relationships, spirituality and other ‘personal’ concerns are increasingly contoured by, and penetrate, public life. Intimate citizenship necessarily involves negotiating body-based, psycho-emotional and social contact with others. As such, intimate problems, commonly understood as private, have significant public and policy implications. Intimate citizenship brings into relief how our apparently private and personal choices – who we love, our work to maintain loving and intimate relationships, and our consumption and capacities that shape and sustain this work – inevitably involve and affect others. Inevitably, changing political and socio-economic relations of public life significantly shape such relations, making austerity a key determinant in the extent to which socially disenfranchised and vulnerable groups have access to and can make claims for intimate citizenship.

Intimate citizenship is fragile for many, particularly disabled people. Indeed, it routinely contested, controlled and contained in the lives of disabled people, particularly those who have the label of learning disability and/or autism. This is despite the fact that the rights of disabled people to pursue several spheres of intimate life associated with love, labour and care, including sexual identity and expression, friendship, marriage and cohabitation, family life and parenthood, are enshrined in the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). These rights are important because intimate relationships establish the social networks necessary to support employment, educational success, secure housing, family stability, sexual health and wellbeing, and build resilience to deal with multiple forms of oppression, discrimination and disempowerment. Barriers to intimate ties lead to social and economic costs associated with vulnerability to abuse and violence, child protection involvement, new forms of institutionalisation and over-reliance on private and social care resources. In practice, we know little of disabled people’s experiences of intimate citizenship; little detailed exploration of people’s intimate experiences has been undertaken. Even less is known about the spaces disabled people may easily access and stake claims to their intimate citizenship, especially in austere times, and how this may shape intimate subjectivities, relations and practice. Nor do we know what new ableisms – the exclusions, disadvantages and silencing of people with impairments – or other barriers are encountered within the exercise of intimate rights and/or in the contexts of austerity. Importantly, our knowledge rarely includes disabled people as competent commentators on their own life conditions. Clearly it’s time for this to change, to ask, in conjunction with disabled people: which way forward?

Considering Intimate Lives: Ways Forward is a workshop for people with learning disabilities and/or autism, self-advocates, their families, friends, allies and those who work with and for them (e.g. care staff, support workers, social workers, and associated professionals). Members of the public, students, and activists who share an interest in the workshop themes are also welcome. The workshop is taking place at St Mary’s Church on Monday 9th November 2015 as part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science 2015. Click here to book your free ticket.

 By Dr Kirsty Liddiard, School of Education, University of Sheffield (Twitter: @kirstyliddiard1). This blog post was originally published on Medium, please click here to view.


Plummer, K. (2003) Intimate Citizenship: Private Decision and Public Dialogues. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press



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