What does the pandemic reveal about the private nuclear household?
by Sophie Lewis
At the time of writing, humankind has well and truly entered the time of corona. In the hopes of ‘flattening the curve’ of the pandemic, vast swathes of society have adopted contagion-slowing practices (be they mandatory, voluntary or semi-voluntary, depending on the local legislature) known as ‘social distancing’ and ‘sheltering in place.’ Media platforms are flooded with chronicles of these practices, many of them understandably anxious, shell-shocked and despairing, due to loss of income or fear for the ill-health of loved ones; yet many of them, on the contrary, humorous, horny, happy to be off work, and full of the comic creativity of the unexpectedly house-bound (genres here include: playing tic-tac-toe with your goldfish; DJ-ing with the hobs on your stove-top; and strap-hanging off your shower-rail on a simulated subway commute). Certainly, there have been eco-fascist sentiments, and calls for authoritarian state control over the situation, but mutual aid has also proliferated: grocery runs and disinfection supplies for the immunocompromised; childcare and safe injection kits for sex workers and substance users; co-pay waivers; eviction moratoriums; rent strikes; and efforts to secure shelter for the houseless. The latter, in particular, exposes the unspoken and mostly unquestioned crux of the prescribed response to the pandemic: private homes.
Nuclear households, it seems, are where we are all intuitively expected to retreat in order to prevent widespread ill-health. ‘Staying home’ is what is somehow self-evidently supposed to keep us well. But there are several problems with this, as anyone inclined to think about it critically (even for a moment) might figure out—problems one might summarize as the mystification of the couple-form; the romanticisation of kinship; and the sanitization of the fundamentally unsafe space that is private property. How can a zone defined by the power asymmetries of housework (reproductive labor being so gendered), of renting and mortgage debt, land and deed ownership, of patriarchal parenting and (often) the institution of marriage, benefit health? Such standard homes are where, after all, everyone secretly knows the majority of earthly violence goes down: the W.H.O. calls domestic violence “the most widespread, but among the least reported human rights abuses.” Queer and feminized people, especially very old and very young ones, are definitionally not safe there: their flourishing in the capitalist home is the exception, not the rule. It follows that, upon closer inspection, both terms—‘social distancing’ and ‘sheltering in place’—appear remarkable as much for what they don’t say (that is, what they presume and naturalize) as what they do. Sheltering in what place… and in whose? Distance from whom… or everyone but whom?
But the first and starkest problem with the directive to stay home is simply this: not everybody possesses access to a private dwelling. As the Oakland-based Moms 4 Housing put it: “how do you #ShelterInPlace when you don’t have a place?” In turns out there are at least a couple of different ways: sharing and occupying. In ethical defiance of state directives, relatively immune neighbors in many cities have been voluntarily opening their homes to the exposed and sick, judging the duty of neighborly solidarity with the unhoused more pressing than the imperative to avoid contagion. Meanwhile, by taking vacant properties without permission, and living in them (“self-quarantine in progress,” reads one mom’s window-sign), Moms 4 Housing is leading the way in beating back gentrification in California and enacting an understanding of comfortable housing as a basic human birthright. Unfortunately, there are still many other populations whose response to the pandemic could not be ‘stay home,’ even if they wanted it to be, besides the houseless: for instance, people warehoused in prisons, detention centers, refugee camps or factory dormitories, people stuck in overcrowded retirement homes, or those held against their will in medical and/or psychiatric facilities. If COVID-19 is incompatible with these institutions, in the sense that a humane response to the pandemic is impossible in such undemocratic spaces, then it will have demonstrated by the same token that they are incompatible with human dignity. In L.A., state officials are providing individual trailers and pop-up isolation cabins for the houseless. But a far more logical response might be: open all the hotels and private palaces on the basis of airy and light-filled, sanitary (uncommodified) housing for all. Free all prisoners and detainees now, remake the care facilities as spacious self-led villages, and dismiss all the workers with full pay so they can leave their bunks forever, move in with their friends, and pursue laziness for at least the next decade.Secondly, among those of us who do have private homes, a huge proportion are not safe there; and being unable to leave only multiplies the threat. A quarantine is, in effect, an abuser’s dream—a situation that hands near-infinite power to those with the upper hand over a home. Accordingly, early on in China’s epidemic, women’s rights NGOs published guides to surviving coronavirus-specific domestic abuse. Police stations throughout the country reportedly saw a threefold increase in cases of domestic violence; on March 21, 2020, The Guardian quoted the founder of a Chinese women’s not-for-profit as saying: “According to our statistics, 90% of the causes of violence are related to the Covid-19 epidemic.” And as the virus spreads through America, we would do well to heed this. Already, the CEO of the national domestic violence hotline in the United States has noted: “Perpetrators are threatening to throw their victims out on the street so they get sick… We’ve heard of some withholding financial resources or medical assistance.” In short, the pandemic is no time to forget about family abolition. In the words of feminist theorist and mother Madeline Lane-McKinley; “Households are capitalism’s pressure cookers. This crisis will see a surge in housework—cleaning, cooking, caretaking, but also child abuse, molestation, intimate partner rape, psychological torture, and more.” Far from a time to acquiesce to ‘family values’ ideology, then, the pandemic is an acutely important time to provision, evacuate and generally empower survivors of—and refugees from—the nuclear household.
And thirdly, even when the private nuclear household poses no direct physical or mental threat to one’s person—no spouse-battering, no child rape, and no queer-bashing—the private family qua mode of social reproduction still, frankly, sucks. It genders, nationalizes and races us. It norms us for productive work. It makes us believe we are ‘individuals.’ It minimizes costs for capital while maximizing human beings’ life-making labor (across billions of tiny boxes, each kitted out—absurdly—with its own kitchen, micro-crèche and laundry). It blackmails us into mistaking the only sources of love and care we have for the extent of what is possible.
We deserve better than the family. And the time of corona is an excellent time to practice abolishing it. In the always lucent words of Anne Boyer: “We must learn to do good for the good of the stranger now. We now have to live as daily evidence that we believe there is value in the lives of the cancer patient, the elderly person, the disabled one, the ones in unthinkable living conditions, crowded and at risk.” We do not know yet if we will be able to wrench something better than capitalism from the wreckage of this Plague and the coming Depression. I would only posit with some certainty that, in 2020, the dialectic of families against the family, of real homes against the home, shall intensify.
Sophie Lewis (@reproutopia) is the author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, and a free-lance writer interested in queer communism, based in Philadelphia. Due to the coronavirus, she has lost three months’ worth of income from speaking gigs. You can support her here: patreon.com/reproutopia.