Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Oddity of Privacy

On Wednesday, we really began laying the groundwork for my class "Love, Sex, and Marriage in Medieval Literature." If the students were hoping for porn, they were disappointed. The first two weeks of class are spent contextualizing the literature, which will begin in earnest on the third week.

Beginning Monday, we'll be looking at the writings of Augustine (the City of God one, not the one who converted Athelbert of Kent) and Jerome on marriage. Of course, they aren't really medieval, but they provide the intellectual foundation for medieval thinking on the subject. And so, in order to understand Augustine and Jerome, I made the students read from 1 Corinthians 6:12 - 7:40.

One subject we discussed was the issue of privacy. I wanted to make sure they didn't have unrealistic expectations about the role of privacy. So far as I can tell, privacy as a concept didn't really exist in the Middle Ages. The word privat already existed in Middle English, but it seems to have meant "private" in the way the Americans mean "private schools" -- that is to say, not of the state, rather than secret in some way. That secret side of privacy seems to have been found in a different form as modesty. Though modesty and privacy are arguably related, they aren't really the same thing. If there is any concept close to privacy in the medieval world, I think it must be privy (ME prive). One can see how the privy council idea, which seems to have originally been similar to the kitchen cabinet of American politics, developed into the idea of secret council. And (to get scatological for a moment), the use of the word "privy" for a toilet gets a lot closer to what we mean by "privacy" in the modern sexual context. Though we can cobble together a concept of privacy from various places, it seems anachronistic to me.

It would be wrong to say that the end of 1 Corinthians 6 refutes the idea of privacy; rather, privacy is completely alien to it. Paul talks about how God owns the body, how the body is part of Christ, and how the body becomes one with any sexual partner, including prostitutes. Paul assigns ownership of the body more to the spouse than to the self, and more to God than to the spouse. In other words, if we considered the body a kind of corporate entity, not only isn't it a sole proprietorship -- the self is the least of the major shareholders!

Flipping through television today, I saw some talking heads arguing about the "Right to Privacy," and it occurred to me that our concept of privacy is an oddity. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any society that even shared our concept of privacy, let alone enshrining it as a right. From our oldest literature, Gilgamesh, we have the idea of prima nocte, or the sovereign's right to sleep with a bride before her husband.

I wonder when the idea that we refer to as "privacy" really came into being. A quick Google and JSTOR search didn't yield anything about medieval privacy, though I'm certain if I dug deep enough I'd find that someone has researched it. The dearth of work on it, combined with my inability to think of any examples in world literature, is suggestive that it may not really have existed before the modern era.

So, where did it come from? Liberals might claim that it is an outgrowth of enlightenment about individual rights. Conservatives might claim that it is an outgrowth of the push for limited government. I think, though, that it is far more likely that the concept of privacy isn't particularly enlightened or virtuous; instead, it is probably a survival mechanism we have developed as the human population on Earth has grown. To give a rough sense of what this means, I've seen estimates that put the European population of 1000 AD at about 40 million (no citation ... I can't recall where I saw this). Today, the EU has roughly ten times that number. Think of it -- the average European today has one-tenth the space of his ancestors a millennium ago. Or, consider these figures on the global scale. When Paul was writing, the upper-end figures for global population was about 400 million, compared to about 6 billion today. In other words, we have, at best, one-fifteenth the space that someone at the Church at Corinth had.

Is privacy (sexual or otherwise) an innate human right? Or is it, as I'm beginning to suspect, a mechanism we have developed as we have grown more jealous of our space?


  1. A few thoughts strike me:

    1) It seems to me that Americans are more privacy oriented in the way you describe than are Europeans (and we have always had more space than the Europeans), which mitigates (at least somewhat) your hypothesis about population growth leading to a greater drive for privacy.

    Indeed, that leads to the next idea:

    2) It seems to me (and I have no research to back the argument) that as we have gotten wealthier in the US we have become more prone to seek privacy. Just think: in the contemporary era it is assumed that all the children in the family should have their own room. We build houses to accomodate this notion and we seek domiciles, when possible, to conform to that ideal.

    This also intersects with the specific issue of sexual privacy. It has occurred to me on numerous occassions people not that ago lived in tents and one-room cabins and so forth, yet had lots of children. It raised the question of the way we view privacy and sexual relations between spouses and homes already full of other people.

    However, in our wealthy era the idea tht the children should sleep in the parents' room, except perhaps when they are quite small, is anathema for the typical American family.

    Further, the linkage of privacy to contraception is fairly recent phenom as well.

  2. You're certainly right that this needs some mitigation, and a lot more thorough consideration. I think that when I say it is a survival mechanism, I need to clarify that it is not the only possible survival mechanism.

    Take South Korea for example. It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world -- somewhere of about 50 million people living in a space smaller than Alabama. Add to that the fact that the mountainous nature of the country leads to even denser populations in the valleys, and add to THAT the economic realities that cause young people to flood into the cities.

    Koreans seem to have responded by making daily life *more*, not less, intertwined with those about them. One of the reasons that Korea is most wired country in the world is this fear of ever being out of contact with others. In all the time I lived in Korea, I was in a place that I could not hear others talking only once, for less than thirty seconds, on a mountain top that I had climbed for that express purpose.

    Nevertheless, when I look at the specific example of America, I become more convinced that the issue of reproductive privacy is somehow connected with population density. The cultural differences between "red" and "blue" areas might only be coincidental with density, but I doubt it.

  3. Important note on your reading of 1 Cor 6:18-20...all of the "you"s there are in the plural. St Paul speaks not just to individuals but in terms of a united community. The whole way that he deals with the community in 1 Cor is as a group set apart, working from the same kind of mentality that you see in 1 Pet--the community as a temple in which the spirit of God dwells, built up by the various members of the community. Fornication, then, connects--by accident as it were--the impure into this holy construct. Clearly he wants to avoid this...

  4. Derek,

    Actually, I knew that it was plural y'all, bit I hadn't given any thought to how that changes the reading. I think you're right that it is really significant, since that also gives ownership of the body to the community. Privacy (as we are discussing it here) doesn't seem very compatible with this at all.

    Or, in other words, if one member of the body fornicates with prostitutes, the whole body becomes one with the prostitute ... yikes!

    Or do you have a different reading?

  5. Nope--that's exactly what Paul is warning against... It's helpful to realize that the body metaphor that Paul uses later in the letter when talking about spiritual gifts is operative the whole way through. It's very much a vision of an ogranic body infused with the Spirit of God and the imposition necessary strictures to ensure that it remains that way (i.e., the prevention of desacralization).

    I'm glad you caught the y'all bit...too many academic folk who ought to know better don't necessarily do so...