The Ethics of Intimacy

5 May

I am Tam Sanger, a teaching fellow in the school of sociology, social policy and social work. My research to date has been focused on the intimate lives of trans people and their partners (I define trans people as individuals whose gender identity does not match that assigned at birth). Following my Ph.D. where I interviewed trans people and their partners about issues like legal standing, marriage, sex, sexuality, medicine and embodiment I have written a book where I use this interview data to explore the possibility of what I call an ethics of intimacy.

I found through carrying out my Ph.D. research that the lives of trans people and their partners are intensely governed by the state and by other people, using Michel Foucault’s notion of governmentality to explore this. The broader findings indicated that everyone (not just those who identify as trans) is governed with respect to their gender and sexuality identifications and the recognition they gain from others.

In Trans People’s Partnerships I focus in particular upon the ways in which people’s intimate lives are governed and how we might think differently about intimacy in order to loosen the ties of governance. Foucault has defined the ethics of the self as the relation one should have to oneself; an idea I have applied to intimate life. So the ethics of intimacy is about exploring whether our intimate desires are limited by social norms and expectations, and if so what we might be able to do about it, or how we might be able to think differently about ourselves. Throughout the book I use interview data collected during my Ph.D. to give concrete examples of the governance of intimacy.

I argue that our relations with others are central to how we identify ourselves and interact with the world around us. As I say in Trans People’s Partnerships: ‘As we are all both the same as and different from one another in multiple ways, how we engage with one another needs to be a more studied and reflective encounter, rather than reactions to otherness being based upon initial impressions. This aspect of the ethics of intimacy potentially allows space for more accepting and less phobic relations’ (Sanger, forthcoming). So my focus is on relations with others and how these also make up a part of the complexities of intimate selfhood, with the ethics of intimacy being a means of reconsidering these links and relationships.

One of Foucault’s major aims was to help people realise that they are freer than they might imagine, and I have applied this with respect to intimacy in my work. Despite the intense governance brought to bear on people, it is possible to think differently about how we’ve become who we are and what we can do to become who we want to be. As Foucault argues, ‘[p]eople have to build their own ethics, taking as a point of departure the historical analysis, sociological analysis, and so on that one can provide for them’ (1994 [1982]: 132). I hope to raise awareness through this book of how intimate life is governed, what this means for us and how we can rethink ourselves in order to engage in a more agentic way with this governance.


Foucault, M. (1994 [1982]c) ‘Michael Foucault: an interview by Stephen Riggins’, in P. Rabinow (ed.) Michel Foucault. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 Volume One New York: New Press.

Sanger, T. (2010) Trans People’s Partnerships: Towards an Ethics of Intimacy Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.


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