Introducing ‘Intimate Civility’: Towards a New Concept for 21st-Century Relationships




Intimate Civility

How to Cite

Reid Boyd, E., Grobbelaar, M., Gringart, E., Bender, A., & Williams, R. (2019). Introducing ‘Intimate Civility’: Towards a New Concept for 21st-Century Relationships. M/C Journal, 22(1).
Vol. 22 No. 1 (2019): rage
Published 2019-03-13

Fig. 1: Photo by Miguel Orós, from

Feminism has stalled at the bedroom door. In the post-#metoo era, more than ever, we need intimate civil rights in our relationships to counter the worrisome prevailing trends: Intimate partner violence. Interpersonal abuse. Date rape. Sexual harassment. Online harassment. Bullying. Rage. Sexual Assault. Abusive relationships. Revenge porn. 

There’s a lot of damage done when we get up close and personal. 

In the 21st century, we have come far in terms of equality and respect between the genders, so there’s a lot to celebrate. We also note that the Australian government has stepped in recently with the theme ‘Keeping Australians safe and secure’, by pledging $78 million to combat domestic violence, much of which takes place behind closed doors (Morrison 2019). Herein lies the issue: while governments legislate to protect victims of domestic violence — out of the public eye, private behaviours cannot be closely monitored, and the lack of social enforcement of these laws threatens the safety of intimate relationships. Rather, individuals are left to their own devices. We outline here a guideline for intimate civility, an individually-embraced code of conduct that could guide interpersonal dynamics within the intimate space of relationships.  

Civility does not traditionally ‘belong’ in our most intimate relationships. Rather, it’s been presumed, even idealised, that intimacy in our personal lives transcends the need for public values to govern relationships between/among men and women (i.e., that romantic love is all you need). Civility developed as a public, gendered concept. Historically, a man’s home – and indeed, his partner – became his dominion, promoting hegemonic constructions of masculinity, and values that reflect competition, conquest, entitlement and ownership. Moreover, intimate relationships located in the private domain can also be considered for/by both men and women a retreat, a bastion against, or excluded from the controls and demands of the public or ‘polis’ - thus from the public requirement for civility, further enabling its breakdown. 

The feminist political theorist Carole Pateman situated this historical separation as an inheritance of Hegel’s double dilemma: first, a class division between civil society and the state (between the economic man/woman, or private enterprise and public power) and second, a patriarchal division between the private family (and intimate relationships) and civil society/the state. The private location, she argues, is “an association constituted by ties of love, blood … subjection and particularity” rather than the public sphere, “an association of free and equal individuals” (225).  In Hegel’s dilemma, personal liberty is a dualism, only constructed in relation to a governed, public (patriarchal) state. Alternately, Carter depicts civility as a shared moral good, where civility arises not only because of concern over consequences, but also demonstrates our  intrinsic moral obligation to respect people in general. This approach subsequently challenges our freedom to carry out private, uncivil acts within a truly civil society.

Challenges to Gender Ethics

How can we respond to this challenge in gender ethics? Intimate civility is a term coined by Elizabeth Reid Boyd and Abigail Bray. It came out of their discussions proposing “a new poetics of romance” which called for rewritten codes of interpersonal conduct, an “entente cordiale; a cordial truce to end the sex wars”. Reid Boyd and Bray go further:

Politeness is personal and political. We reclaim courtesy as applied sexual and social ethics, an interpersonal, intimate ethics, respectful and tolerant of difference. Gender ethics must be addressed, for they have global social and cultural ramifications that we should not underestimate. (xx)

As researchers, we started to explore the idea of intimate civility in interpersonal violence, developing an analysis using social construction and attachment theory simultaneously. In defining the term, we soon realised the concept had wider applications that could change how we think about our most intimate relationships – and how we behave in them. Conceptualising intimate civility involves imagining rights and responsibilities within the private sphere, whether or not loving, familial and natural. Intimate civility can operate through an individually embraced code of conduct to guide interpersonal dynamics within the intimate space of relationships.

Gringart, Grobbelaar, and Bender explored the concept of intimate civility by investigating women’s perspectives on what may harmonise their intimate relationships. Women’s most basic desires included safety, equality and respect in the bedroom. In other words, intimate civility is an enactment of human-rights, the embodiment of regard for another human being, insofar as it is a form of ensuring physical and mental integrity, life, safety and protection of all beings. Thus, if intimate civility existed as a core facet of each individual’s self-concept, the manifestation of intimate partner violence ideally would not occur. 

Rage, from an intimate civility perspective, rips through any civil response and generates misconduct towards another. When we hold respect for others as equal moral beings, civility is key to contain conflicts, which prevents the escalation of disagreements into rage. Intimate civility proposes that civility becomes the baseline behaviour that would be reciprocated between two individuals within the private domain of intimate relationships. Following this notion, intimate civility is the foremost casualty in many relationships characterised by intimate partner violence. The current criminalisation of intimate partner violence leaves unexplored the previously privatised property of the relational – including the inheritance of centuries of control of women’s bodies and sexuality – and how far, in this domain, notions of civility might liberate and/or oppress.  The feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray argues that these kinds of ‘sexuate rights’ must apply to both men and women and the reality of their needs and desires. Equality, she argued, could not be achieved without a rewriting of the rights and obligations of each sex, qua different, in social rights and obligations (Yan).

Synonyms for intimacy include, amongst others, closeness, attachment, togetherness, warmth, mutual affection, familiarity and privacy. Indirectly, sexual relations are also often synonymous with intimate relationships. However, sex is not intimacy, as both sex and intimacy both exist without the other. Bowlby proposed that throughout our lives we are attentive to the responsiveness and the availability of those that we are attached to, and suggested that “intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person’s life revolves, not only when he is an infant or a toddler, but throughout his adolescence and his years of maturity as well, and on into old age” (442). Although love is not by nature reciprocal, in intimacy we seek reciprocity – to love one another at the same time in a shared form of commitment. Kierkegaard hypothesised that genuine love is witnessed by one continuing to love another after their death as it obviates any doubt that the beloved was loved and was not merely instrumental (Soble).

Intimate Civility as a Starting Point

Civility includes qualities such as trust, duty, morality, sacrifice, self-restraint, respect, and fairness; a common standard allowing individuals to work, live and associate together. Intimacy encourages caring, loyalty, empathy, honesty, and self-knowledge. Thus, intimate civility should begin with those closest to us; being civil in our most intimate relationships. It advocates the genuine use of terms of endearment, not terms of abuse. We can only develop qualities such as morality and empathy, crucial for intimate relationships, if we have experienced secure, intimate relationships. Individuals reared in homes devoid of intimate civility will be challenged to identify and promote the interest or wellbeing of their intimate counterparts, and have to seek outside help to learn these skills: it is a learnt behaviour, both at an interpersonal and societal level. Individuals whose parents were insensitive to their childhood needs, and were unable to perceive, interpret and respond appropriately to their subtle communications, signals, wishes and mood will be flailing in this interpersonal skill (Holmes and Slade). Similarly, the individual’s inclusion in a civil society will only be achieved if their surrounding environment promotes and values virtues such as compassion, fairness and cooperation. This may be a challenging task.  

We envisage intimate civility as a starting point. It provides a focus to  discuss and explore civil rights, obligations and responsibilities, between and among women and men in their personal relationships. As stated above, intimate civility begins with one's relationship with oneself and the closest relationships in the home, and hopefully reaches outwards to all kinds of relationships, including same sex, transgender, and other roles within non-specific gender assignment. 

Therefore, exploring the concept of intimate civility has applications in personal therapy, family counselling centres and relationship counselling environments, or schools in sexual education, or in universities promoting student safety. For example, the 2019 “Change the Course” report was recently released to augment Universities Australia’s 2016 campaign that raised awareness on sexual assault on campus. While it is still under development, we envision that intimate civility decalogue outlined here could become a checklist to assist in promoting awareness regarding abuse of power and gender roles. 

A recent example of cultural reframing of gender and power in intimate relationships is the Australian Government’s 2018 Respect campaign against gender violence. These recent campaigns promote awareness that intimate civility is integrated with a more functional society.

These campaigns, as the images demonstrate, aim at quantifying connections between interactions on an intimate scale in individual lives, and their impacts in shaping civil society in the arena of gender violence. They highlight the elasticity of the bonds between intimate life and civil society and our collective responsibility as citizens for reworking both the gendered and personal civility. 

Fig. 2: Photo by Tyler Nix: Hands Spelling Out LOVE, from

The Decalogue of Intimate Civility 

Overall, police reports of domestic violence are heavily skewed towards male on female, but this is not always the case. The Australian government recently reported that “1 in 6 Australian women and 1 in 16 men have been subjected, since the age of 15, to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or previous cohabiting partner” (Australian Institutes of Health and Welfare). Rather than reiterating the numbers, we envisage the decalogue (below) as a checklist of concepts designed to discuss and explore rights, obligations and responsibilities, between and among both partners in their intimate relationships. As such, this decalogue forms a basis for conversation. Intimate civility involves a relationship with these ten qualities, with ourselves, and each other.

1) Intimate civility is personal and political. 

Conceptualising intimate civility involves imagining rights and responsibilities within the private sphere. It is not an impingement on individual liberty or privacy but a guarantor of it. Civil society requires us not to defend private infringements of inter-personal respect. Private behaviours are both intimate in their performance and the springboard for social norms. In Geoffrey Rush’s recent defamation case his defence relied not on denying claims he repeatedly touched his fellow actor’s genitalia during their stage performance in a specific scene, despite her requests to him that he stop, but rather on how newspaper reporting of her statements made him out to be a “sexual pervert”, reflecting the complex link between this ‘private’ interaction between two people and its very public exposé (Wells). 

2) Intimate civility is an enactment of a civil right, insofar as it is a form of ensuring physical and mental integrity, life, safety and protection. Intimate civility should begin with those closest to us. An example of this ethic at work is the widening scope of criminalisation of intimate partner abuse to include all forms of abusive interactions between people. Stalking and the pre-cursors to physical violence such as controlling behaviours, online bullying or any actions used to instil fear or insecurity in a partner, are accorded legal sanctions. 

3) Intimate civility is polite. Politeness is more than manners. It relates to our public codes of conduct, to behaviours and laws befitting every civilian of the ‘polis’. It includes the many acts of politeness that are required behind closed doors and the recognition that this is the place from which public civility emerges. For example, the modern parent may hope that what they sanction as “polite” behaviour between siblings at home might then become generalised by the child into their public habits and later moral expectations as adults. In an ideal society, the micro-politics of family life become the blueprint for moral development for adult expectations about personal conduct in intimate and public life.

4) Intimate civility is equitable. It follows Luce Irigaray’s call for ‘sexuate rights’ designed to apply to men and women and the reality of their needs and desires, in a rewriting of the social rights and obligations of each sex (Yan and Irigaray).  Intimate civility extends this notion of rights to include all those involved in personal relations. This principle is alive within systemic family therapy which assumes that while not all members of the family system are always able to exert equal impacts or influence, they each in principle are interdependent participants influencing the system as a whole (Dallos and Draper). 

5) Intimate civility is dialectical. The separation of intimacy and civility in Western society and thought is itself a dualism that rests upon other dualisms: public/private, constructed/natural, male/female, rational/emotional, civil/criminal, individual/social, victim/oppressor. Romantic love is not a natural state or concept, and does not help us to develop safe governance in the world of intimate relationships. Instead, we envisage intimate civility – and our relationships – as dynamic, dialectical, discursive and interactive, above and beyond dualism. Just as individuals do not assume that consent for sexual activity negotiated in one partnership under a set of particular conditions, is consent to sexual activity in all partnerships in any conditions. So, dialectics of intimate civility raises the expectation that what occurs in interpersonal relationships is worked out incrementally, between people over time and particular to their situation and experiences. 

6) Intimate civility is humane. It can be situated in what Julia Kristeva refers to as the new humanism, emerging (and much needed) today. “This new humanism, interaction with others – all the others – socially marginalised, racially discriminated, politically, sexually, biologically or psychically persecuted others” (Kristeva, 2016: 64) is only possible if we immerse ourselves in the imaginary, in the experience of ‘the other’. Intimate civility takes on a global meaning when human rights action groups such as Amnesty International address the concerns of individuals to make a social difference. Such organisations develop globally-based digital platforms for interested individuals to become active about shared social concerns, understanding that the new humanism ethic works within and between individuals and can be harnessed for change.

7) Intimate civility is empathic. It invites us to create not-yet-said, not-yet-imagined relationships. The creative space for intimate civility is not bound by gender, race or sexuality – only by our imaginations. “The great instrument of moral good is the imagination,” wrote the poet Shelley in 1840. Moral imagination (Reid Boyd) helps us to create better ways of being. It is a form of empathy that encourages us to be kinder and more loving to ourselves and each other, when we imagine how others might feel. The use of empathic imagination for real world relational benefits is common in traditional therapeutic practices, such as mindfulness, that encourages those struggling with self compassion to imagine the presence of a kind friend or ally to support them at times of hardship. 

8) Intimate civility is respectful. Intimate civility is the foremost casualty in many relationships characterised by forms of abuse and intimate partner violence. “Respect”, wrote Simone Weil, “is due to the human being as such, and is not a matter of degree” (171). In the intimate civility ethic this quality of respect accorded as a right of beings is mutual, including ourselves with the other. When respect is eroded, much is lost. Respect arises from empathy through attuned listening. The RESPECT! Campaign originating from the Futures without Violence organisation assumes healthy relationships begin with listening between people. They promote the understanding that the core foundation of human wellbeing is relational, requiring inter-personal understanding and respect.

9) Intimate civility is a form of highest regard. When we regard another we truly see them. To hold someone in high regard is to esteem them, to hold them above others, not putting them on a pedestal, or insisting they are superior, but to value them for who they are. To be esteemed for our interior, for our character, rather than what we display or what we own. It connects with the humanistic psychological concept of unconditional positive regard. The highest regard holds each other in arms and in mind.  It is to see/look at, to have consideration for, and to pay attention to, recently epitomised by the campaign against human trafficking, “Can You See Me?” (Human Trafficking), whose purpose is to foster public awareness of the non-verbal signs and signals between individuals that indicate human trafficking may be taking place. In essence, teaching communal awareness towards the victimisation of individuals. 

10) Intimate civility is intergenerational. We can only develop qualities such as morality and empathy, crucial for intimate relationships, if we have experienced (or imagined) intimate relationships where these qualities exist. Individuals reared in homes devoid of intimate civility could be challenged to identify and promote the interest or wellbeing of their intimate counterparts; it is a learnt behaviour, both at an interpersonal and societal level. Childhood developmental trauma research (Spinazzola and Ford) reminds us that the interaction of experiences, relational interactions, contexts and even our genetic amkeup makes individuals both vulnerable to repeating the behaviour of past generations. However, treatment of the condition and surrounding individuals with people in their intimate world who have different life experiences and personal histories, i.e., those who have acquired respectful relationship habits, can have a positive impact on the individuals’  capacity to change their learned negative behaviours. 

In conclusion, the work on intimate civility as a potential concept to alleviate rage in human relationships has hardly begun. The decalogue provides a checklist that indicates the necessity of ‘intersectionality’ — where the concepts of intimate civility connect to many points within the public/private and personal/political domains. Any analysis of intimacy must reach further than prepositions tied to social construction and attachment theory (Fonagy), to include current understandings of trauma and inter-generational violence and the way these influence people’s ability to act in healthy and balanced interpersonal relationships. While not condoning violent acts, locating the challenges to intimate civility on both personal and societal levels may leverage a compassionate view of those caught up in interpersonal violence. The human condition demands that we continue the struggle to meet the challenges of intimate civility in our personal actions with others as well as the need to replicate civil behaviour throughout all societies. 


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Author Biographies

Elizabeth Reid Boyd, Edith Cowan University

Elizabeth Reid Boyd is a Senior Lecturer within the School of Arts and Humanities at Edith Cowan University. Research areas include gender studies and love studies. 


Madalena Grobbelaar, Edith Cowan University

Madalena Grobbelaar is a lecturer in the counselling & psychotherapy programs within the School of Arts and Humanities. She is a practising clinical psychologist in part-time private practice.

Eyal Gringart, Edith Cowan University

Eyal Gringart is a Senior Lecturer and the Discipline Leader, Psychology within the School of Arts and Humanities at Edith Cowan University. Research Areas include Social and Health Psychology and Human Rights.

Alise Bender, Edith Cowan University

Alise Bender is a fourth-year graduate in Psychology from Edith Cowan University. She completed her honours thesis on the concept intimate civility.

Rose Williams, Murdoch University

Dr Rose Williams is a Creative Arts Psychotherapist in private practice and works as a sessional academic specialist with Murdoch University within the School of Counselling in the Creative Arts Therapies program. Her research interests include therapeutic effects of drama and movement on mental health and gender dynamics in therapy with children and young people.