Aii of us sometimes gobble up the details of a famous couple’s divorce settlement, worry about whether certain children are suffering from their parents’ profligate spending, become indignant when someone close to us fails to meet important economic obligations, or complain about proposals to cut funding for day-care centers. When any of those things happens, we enter the territory in which economic activity and intimacy meet. In that territory, many people feel that two incompatible forces clash and wound each other: economic activity—especially the use of money—degrades intimate relationships, while interpersonal intimacy makes economic activity inefficient.
In these regards routine social life makes us all experts in the purchase of intimacy. Nevertheless, this book shows that the territory includes many a surprising corner. American law, for example, employs significantly different pictures of intimate social life from those that prevail in everyday American practices. One of this book’s major objectives, indeed, consists of analyzing the relationship between everyday practices and legal disputes when it comes to intimate economic interactions. More generally, The Purchase of Intimacy deals with how people and the law manage the mingling of what sometimes seem to be incompatible activities: the maintenance of intimate personal relations and the conduct of economic activity. Taboos against romantic affairs in the workplace and against sex for hire both rest on the twinned beliefs that intimacy corrupts the economy and the economy corrupts intimacy. Yet, as this book shows, people often mingle economic activity with intimacy. The two often sustain each other. You will find the coexistence of econ
omy and intimacy hard to understand if you think that economic self-interest determines all social relations, if you imagine that the world splits sharply into separate spheres of rationality and sentiment, or if you suppose that intimacy is a delicate plant that can only survive in a thick-windowed greenhouse. This book untangles those misunderstandings, replacing them with a clearer view of the conditions under which intimacy and economic activity complement each other.
Yet the book doesn’t simply dismiss people’s concerns about intimacy. A valuable by-product of this inquiry is fresh insight into how and why people worry so much about mixing intimacy and economic activity, for example, by fearing that introducing money into friendship, marriage, or parent-child relations will corrupt them. That is why The Purchase of Intimacy has a title with a double meaning: purchase in the sense of paying for intimacy, but also purchase in the sense of grasp—how the powerful grip of intimacy affects the ways we organize economic life. The book shows that people lead connected lives, and that plenty of economic activity goes into creating, defining, and sustaining social ties.
In 1994,1 published a book called The Social Meaning of Money. In some ways, that book set the stage for this new inquiry. It documented, for example, the widespread employment of money in a large number of interpersonal relations and posed the question of how people manage the conjunction. Yet if you had asked me to predict in 1994 the subject and contents of my next book, I never would have expected it to take its present form. The Social Meaning of Money explored changes in U. S. social practices resulting from the expansion of monetary transactions. It showed that monetization did indeed present Americans with new challenges. But it also documented that instead of turning away from money or letting their social relations wither in the headlong pursuit of lucre, Americans actually incorporated money into their construction of new social ties and transformed its meaning as they did so. While still drawing on historical knowledge, the present book, in contrast, concentrates on the processes by which people negotiate coherent connections between intimacy and economic activity. Here eco
nomic activity includes uses of money, but goes far beyond money into production, consumption, distribution, and transfers of nonmonetary assets.
That expansion of the problem leads to new understandings of the ways in which people actually construct viable interpersonal relations and ways of life. It provides unexpected insights into the moral discourse and practical distinctions that both ordinary people and legal specialists employ when dealing with disputed forms of interpersonal intimacy. So doing, it touches on a question that columnists, critics, philosophers, and politicians often ask: Does the penetration of an ever-expanding market threaten intimate social life? Many people have thought so. They have insisted that public policy must insulate household relations, personal care, and love itself from an invading, predatory, economic world. This book rejects such views. It analyzes how all of us use economic activity to create, maintain, and renegotiate important ties—especially intimate ties—to other people. It isn’t easy. In everyday life, people invest intense effort and constant worry in finding the right match between economic relations and intimate ties: shared responsibility for housework, spending of household income, care for children and old people, gifts that send the right message, provision of adequate housing for loved ones, and much more. Furthermore, when these matters become the subjects of legal disputes, new distinctions, new rules, and new definitions of proper behavior in different social relations come into play. The Purchase of Intimacy shows how these crucial processes work.
Here are some very general questions the book raises and tries to answer:
• What explains the fears and taboos that surround the mixing of economic activity and intimate social relations?
• Given the delicacy of mixing economic activity and intimacy, how do people manage it?
• How do people balance the short-term economic requirements of intimate relations (for example, a cohabiting couple’s food, rent, and transportation) with their long-term ac
cumulation of rights, obligations, and shared means of survival?
• What happens when the mixing becomes a matter of legal dispute, for example, in contested divorces and claims of undue influence over a will?
• How well do existing explanations of these matters hold up, and how must we change them?
• What implications do correct answers to these questions have for policy on such matters as professional ethics and payment for personal care?
The Purchase of Intimacy offers answers to all these questions. More specific problems arise from these general issues. Consider the following, for example:
• How do ordinary people and courts distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate transfers of money between sexual partners?
• Is paid care for children fundamentally inferior to unpaid care provided by family members?
• Under what conditions does a divorced parent have a legal obligation to pay for a child’s college education?
• When kin help each other with household responsibilities, what moral and legal claims do they acquire on each other’s estates?
• How do courts go about assigning value to such household services when they become matters of legal dispute?
In this book, I work out answers to these questions through stories of how intimate transactions actually play themselves out, notably in the realms of coupling, caring relations, and household life. I draw many of my stories from law and the courts, which must often deal with situations in which people’s intimate transactions degenerate. There we see clearly the gap between time-honored conventions and evolving social practices. The cases show both remarkable parallels and fascinating differences between everyday practices and the law. They also show how the law adjusts to evolving social rules and emerging social forms such as unmarried partnerships. Contests within the law lead to more general issues of public policy, such as obligations of divorced couples to their children, responsibility for care of the ill and the aged, rights of same-sex couples, and proper compensation for household caregiving. Although this book does not lay out a general program of social reform, it sheds light on why and how these issues matter.
The book draws especially on the work of social scientists, policy specialists, and legal scholars. But it also uses a wide range of other material, for example, reports on compensation to survivors of 9/11 victims, Web sites on financial management, and advice books for same-sex couples. It presents a number of legal cases in which plaintiffs, defendants, lawyers, judges, and juries fought over questions of intimacy. Despite their legal language, its case materials overflow with life. They also add up to a new story about intimate relations, one quite different from the idea of intimacy as a fragile flower that withers on contact with money and economic self-interest.
Although it analyzes extensive legal materials, this book is not, however, a legal treatise on intimate relations. As will soon become very clear, legal scholars energetically and fruitfully take up a number of issues that arise here, but from different perspectives than this study employs. My intention is not either to provide surveys of the history of law concerning intimacy and economic activity or to analyze the major competing schools of thought within contemporary legal scholarship, much less to resolve existing controversies in that contentious field. Nor do I say much about how and why legal treatments of intimacy have changed over time. Yet lawyers and legal scholars should find the book interesting simply because it looks hard at the relationship between everyday practices and legal proceedings. Any reader who has ever become involved in a legal wrangle over an inheritance, a broken engagement, a divorce, child care, obligations to aging parents, or compensation for loss of a loved one also has something to learn from looking at the legal arena in this book’s light.
As a result, you can choose between two different ways of reading the book. You can read it chapter by chapter as I have written it, starting with general questions about intimacy and economic activity, moving on to legal treatments of intimacy, then proceeding through closer inspections of intimate couples, of caring relationships, and of households to general conclusions, including policy implications. Or you can turn directly to the topics that interest you most, for example, by starting with the chapter on households, which looks hard at household production, consumption, distribution, transfers of assets, and their connections with intimate relations before analyzing how household relations become matters of legal dispute. Either way, I promise you fresh insights into topics on which we all imagine ourselves to be experts from our own repeated encounters with intimacy.