Here’s some shit about relationships. I named this section of the syllabus “Some Shit About Relationships” well before reading any of the chapters, and I assumed I’d title the blog post something less flippant. After all, relationships (sexual, romantic and otherwise) are the foundations of human society— heck, they’re the building blocks of humanity itself!— and they deserve serious consideration. Alas, these chapters (Patricia Hill Collins, as always, excluded) are not considerate. They are exactly what I had intuited: some shit.
Specifically, they are devotional texts to the sanctity of blissful, lifelong, sexual, monogamous relationships (BLLSMR, pronounced ball-smear, because why not?) This is the 21st Century and these are liberal texts, so BLLSMR aren’t just for cisgender heterosexuals: LGBT people can and should and, like, probably must have them, too. What a wonderful world, where LGBT people can kill for US imperialism and have their relationship issues medicalized in the same ways as cisgender heteros.
The medicalization— if not pathologization— of everything that isn’t blissful, lifelong, sexual, monogamous relationships is what disturbed me while reading these texts. It’s one thing to hold up BLLSMR as the only functional option; it’s another to assert that those who don’t meet the standards of BLLSMR must choose between dysfunction and treatment of the medical variety; if you need counseling, well, other than religious counseling, medical counseling is your only option. I’m sure I’ve known that for quite some time, but it hasn’t really bothered me until now: you’re supposed to see a medical professional to address infidelity!
The chapter on infidelity in Principles and Practice begins by stating that, “Infidelity is not a sexual dysfunction. In fact, it is not a mental disorder” (399). In fucking fact?! And yet, it is being treated by a medical professional, with a medicalized approach to therapy, and this medical approach feels like fingernails on a chalkboard. There are two researched and recommended medical treatment models for infidelity: “the intersystems approach, [which] asserts that infidelity is a relationship issue: partners suffer together and must heal together,” and “the integrated approach, [which] describes three phases of recovery: 1) dealing with the initial impact 2) developing a shared understanding of the contributing factors and 3) reaching an informed decision as to how to move on— separately or together” (italics mine) (405) . For a profession that values neutrality to the point of upholding white supremacy, it’s pretty striking that there isn’t even an attempt at considering infidelity in a value-neutral way. The word ‘infidelity’ itself has been selected over ‘nonnegotiated non-monogamy’ because “it is easier to employ” (408). There is zero explanation offered for this choice, so forgive me for speculating: it’s easier to employ a word with negative connotations when you mean to impose the medical value of healing or recovering from suffering.
I might be willing to grit my teeth and shrug this off if the healing options were useful. But, again, they elevate blissful, lifelong, sexual, monogamous relationships as the gold standard, from which the major deviation is being miserable and/ or alone. There is little discussion of non-sexual romantic relationships (not just a Tumblr thing!; actually quite common among older, long-term partners), casual romantic relationships, multiple relationships, poly communities, serial monogamy, and various kinds of non-romantic relationships. There isn’t even an attempt to clarify what the values of BLLSMR are, let alone to help the individuals in such a relationship identify what their own values are and whether these values conflict with those of BLLSMR. Other questions that remain unanswered: what if an individual has internally dissonant values that are causing distress— can they be resolved? If the partners have conflicting values, might they be mediated in a way that could result in a compromise, and could that compromise open up other options in the relationship like consensual non-monogamy? Silence. The only discussions are of healing or relationship death. No possibilities open up after death; it is implied that the subsequent events are limited to another BLLSMR or eternal loneliness.
The advice to heal or to kill a relationship purports to be supported by research, which should clue us in that there are some experiences— say, alternative lifestyles or particular intimate arrangements— that academic and clinical knowledge production can’t approximate the wisdom of. Instead, the conventional wisdom is confirmed through bias in the construction, implementation, and interpretation of academic and clinical studies. This false wisdom is passed down from one accredited professional to another and from all to their peon patients. It is certified with the seal of approval from an endless chain of doctors who don’t have one single relevant personal experience among them to know that you can be something other than alone or in a BLLSMR.
Knowing better isn’t limited to relationship options. There are some things you’d think any sexuality professional— and certainly a psychiatric doctor— would know better than to do— like, say, surprise his clients with a guided visualization of a sexual fantasy of child gang rape. (!?!?!!???!!!) But this is exactly what David Treadway, Ph.D. does to a couple in a sexless marriage in the New Directions chapter, “Hearts’ Desires.” He is attempting to get the couple to talk about taboo fantasies. Instead, he triggers one half of the couple into silence and then sobbing. The poor man eventually reveals he’s a survivor of child sexual abuse and— of course!— this leads to a breakthrough for everyone. Lessons are learned! How any therapist could learn that child sexual abuse survivors exist through triggering one and not express any shame about his dangerous ignorance, I don’t know. Is there anything that shitty old white people with doctorates won’t pretend to know best about?
No, there isn’t. However! This is slightly less infuriating when their knowledge is accurate. Only about half of the official information on sexual relationships is incorrect conventional wisdom; the other half appears to be the sort of accurate wisdom most of us possess but can’t always identify or articulate on our own. To whit: the importance of communication and the various kinds of love. These were the major take-aways of Janell Carroll’s two chapters this week, and if we ignore her intimations that love and communication occur mostly in BLLSMRs, we can actually learn to articulate a few things we may already know. I break down these lessons about communication, love, and intimacy in the notes, where I also detail Patricia Hill Collins’ sociological discussion of Black love relationships, the DSM‘s bizarre categorizations of issues affecting relationships, Principles and Practice’s surprisingly insightful chapter on body image and sexual relationships, and New Directions strange model of ‘good enough’ sex in long-term relationships.
First I want to end this summary on this point, about wisdom we learn from living versus wisdom that is received. Ultimately, helping people identify and articulate what they’ve learned from relationships and sex is one major purpose of radical sex education. Its underlying principle is that people are the experts of their own lives, and from this same principle we draw a second purpose: sharing the wisdom from our unique experiences with other people who haven’t experienced the same things. This is especially important where the commonly received wisdom about the experience diverges sharply from the lived reality, and doubly so where the reality is oppressed and criminalized: for sex workers, for queer people, for transgender people, even for Black people in ‘opposite’-gender BLLSM relationships, who, in Collins’s words, are resisting white supremacist notions of gender and sexuality by “loving the unlovable and affirming their humanity” (250). These are the things we so often cannot learn from professionals.
There is a third and final purpose of radical sex education: taking what we can learn from professionals and de-professionalizing it. We should widely disseminate medical facts about things like genital function and appearance, puberty, menopause, safer sex, pregnancy, abortion, birth and STIs. These are common sexual or sex-related physical experiences we may not understand without better access to information that has been unfairly tucked away in medical textbooks and hidden in ivory towers. Medical professionals obviously have incredible value— I have not gone full ‘anarcho-primitive’ here— but when they extend their professional realm past their expertise and hoard the knowledge they do have, their dominance should be resisted.
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