Issue 17 / Home

August 22, 2022
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Democracy From the Bedroom

Paolo Gerbaudo, Rahel Süß

Out of the streets and into your homes.

At first glance, the bedroom may look like the exact opposite of a political space. If we follow Hannah Arendt’s definition of politics, informed by Aristotle, as comprising any action that is performed in public, bedrooms are quintessentially apolitical. They are where we sleep, make love, tend to the needs of our children, recover when sick, and seek refuge from the outside world.

Yet in our era, this most private of places has been absorbed into the political realm: as a site of our online interactions, as the stage of our self-presentation, and even as a theme of many recent activist campaigns. Exploring this emerging “bedroom politics” stands to reveal something important about the shifting relationship between private and public, and how our political life is being transformed as a result.

These changes are affecting the content of contemporary politics. The transmogrification of the bedroom from a place of rest into a space in which people not only sleep but live and work—and, crucially, participate in political conversations online—goes a long way toward explaining both the form and content of contemporary politics. This turn brings both opportunities and risks. On the one hand, bedroom politics may offer an opportunity to re-embed causes that may seem lofty in everyday life. Making the political viscerally personal may help politicize more people. On the other hand, the convergence of the personal and the political may create a situation where we are no longer able to distinguish between the two. Regardless, there is no way to understand the logic of contemporary politics without thinking about the bedroom.

The Conquest of Bed

Traditionally, the places of politics have been squares, streets, conference halls, churches, meeting houses, and party offices. In his influential analysis of the bourgeois public sphere, Jürgen Habermas observes that such sites are the physical equivalents of the news media: they are where ideas circulate. The philosophers Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge argue for the existence of a proletarian public sphere, which coheres around humbler locations like factories, pubs, and working-class neighborhoods.

Whether bourgeois or proletarian, however, the public sphere historically excluded the home. This exclusion goes back to Aristotle and other classical philosophers, who believed that the bedroom in particular was the deepest and most protected recess of the oikos (household), far removed from the radical openness of the agora, where the democratic life of ancient Greece took place. Yet even in antiquity, some of the most important political conversations, especially within influential families, were conducted in the household. Further, the home was the only place where (aristocratic) women, otherwise barred from the public sphere, could participate, if indirectly, in political affairs. They could give advice, participate in private discussions, or, in the modern era, act as the patronesses of salons. The home has also played a central role in underground political organizing throughout history: as a venue for secret meetings, where one can escape police surveillance.

Still, these intrusions of politics into the household remained exceptions to the rule. It is only with the development of modern media—from the printing press in the fifteenth century to the first modern newspapers in the eighteenth century, to electronic media such as radio and television in the twentieth century—that the home became progressively incorporated into the public sphere, and the line between the private and the public began to break down. The first part of the home to be annexed was the kitchen, where the daily newspaper would be read at breakfast time, in what Hegel famously described as the “realist’s morning prayer.” Then came the living room, where, beginning in the 1950s, families would gather around the TV to watch the evening news, in what became a national ritual in many countries. But the bedroom remained intact as a realm of intimacy—a place where people could take refuge from the outside world.

Yet with the digital era, even this bastion of privateness seems to have fallen. The popularization of the internet and social media, and the fact that they are often accessed through portable devices like smartphones and laptops, has unanchored media consumption from specific sites. The bedroom is now as permeated by the public sphere as anywhere else, perhaps even more so—it has become, in the words of the scholar Zizi Papacharissi, “the mobile and connected enclosure of [our] private cocoon.” Indeed, research has shown how bedrooms have increasingly become one of the main sites of digital media use. A 2017 study published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that 75 percent of children and 70 percent of adults report viewing or interacting with screens in the bedroom. This situation has led to couples complaining about the fact that smartphone use negatively impacts their sex lives, as well as growing concern that “doom-scrolling” in bed negatively impacts our sleep patterns.

The use of digital media in the bedroom is a reflection of the portability of such media in the era of the smartphone. But it is also a reflection of worrying socioeconomic trends. Rising housing costs and the difficulty to get on the housing ladder means that a growing number of young adults are now living with their parents. According to a 2020 Pew report, 52 percent of US citizens ages 18–29 lived with their parents, up from 47 percent before the pandemic. In the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics, around 42 percent of 15–34 year-olds did the same, compared to 35 percent in 1998. Further, the number of people flat-sharing with friends and strangers has grown, with some reports of a fourfold increase in the 2010s, particularly pronounced among those ages 45–54. This means that, especially in big cities, bedrooms have become mini-apartments: multifunction places where people do not just sleep, rest, and “disconnect,” but where they work, study, and use the internet. For teenagers, meanwhile, bedrooms are the only place in the household where they can engage in online conversations without their parents meddling.

Movement Homes

The places where politics take place have important consequences for both its form and its content. So what are the implications of the bedroom becoming a place of politics?

At the level of form, we see bedrooms everywhere in online life. They have become the contemporary equivalent of the speaker’s podium. Bedrooms appear as the backdrop in political TikTok and YouTube videos, as well as in political meetings and talks conducted over Zoom. A widely read 2019 report on the climate movement carried a picture of Paul Campion, a Sunrise Movement activist, in his bedroom in a small apartment in Washington, DC with the caption “the organization’s ‘movement home.’”

At the level of content, politics from the bedroom has to some extent become a politics about the bedroom. Issues that are associated with the bedroom—from sickness to sexuality, housing, and mental health—have become more prominent in political debates. In the era of social media, it has become easier to make the issues contained in the bedroom visible, by representing them though pictures, videos, and other multimedia material recorded there.

Bedrooms and beds have appeared in many recent campaigns. They appear in the campaigns of feminist and LGTBQI+ groups as a means to discuss issues of sexual and reproductive rights, as in #MeToo activist Alyssa Milano’s call for a sex strike, a form of protest that by its very nature is located in the bedroom. Similarly, housing campaigns such as Generation Rent and #VentYourRent launched in London in 2016, as well as the Deutsche Wohnen & Co. enteignen referendum in Berlin in 2021, often featured images of beds and bedrooms, and saw people complaining about unhealthy housing conditions and difficulty sleeping. Some scholars have even coined the expression “bed activism” to describe the various campaigns where bedrooms and the act of sleeping are a key theme.

This politicization of beds and bedrooms is not altogether new. Famously, John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged a “bed-in,” spending days on end in their bed to protest the Vietnam War. But at the time, their protest was widely criticized as illegible: it was not clear why they would do it in the bedroom. These days, the bedroom is clearly a space where politics takes place.

Beyond the Bedroom

What are the broader democratic implications of bedroom politics? What possible opportunities are opened by it and what potential risks may it involve?

Bedroom politics are an attempt to re-embed politics in everyday life. They present an opportunity to politicize issues having to do with sickness, sexuality, housing, and vulnerability that deserve to be part of our political conversations. In our hypermediated world, bedroom politics not only highlight that “the personal is political” as feminist and queer movements have already argued, but also that the political has become deeply personal. Further, bedroom politics gives us a new way to do politics together. In her essay “Sick Woman Theory,” the writer and artist Johanna Hedva claims the bed and the internet as parallel sites of resistance. She pushes back on traditional take-to-the-streets constructions of political activism as able-bodied: “If being present in public is what is required to be political, then whole swathes of the population can be deemed a-political—simply because they are not physically able to get their bodies into the street.”

However, bedroom politics can also function as a catalyst of individualized politics. A politics of the individual asks what the individual, as opposed to the community, should do. People sharing stories and demands from their bedroom may be inclined to act in ways that are solitary rather than solidaristic. Bedroom politics can thus also be read as an example of the broader turn toward narcissism that has been denounced ever since Christopher Lasch’s famous The Culture of Narcissism came out in 1979: a politics that places personal experience above all else.

Paolo Gerbaudo is a sociologist and political theorist at Scuola Normale Superiore and King’s College London.

Rahel Süß is a postdoctoral researcher at Humboldt-University of Berlin and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science who works on digital democracy, governance, and resistance.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 17, "Home". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.