Here is a draft of a section of the fourth chapter of my dissertation. Any ideas or suggestions for parts to expand upon? Is there anything else I should say here? Your input is very valuable to me!
Relationship literacy refers to the reflexive, critical fluency with which people can understand, analyze, discuss, and reflect upon their own as well as others’ relationship styles, choices, practices, values, and ethics. Mononormativity—the misguided assumption that all people aim to be or should be monogamous is one of the negative results of a lack of knowledge about the possibilities for relating to others in a sexual, loving, and/or intimate manner. At base, relationship literacy supports a culture of care, where a diversity of approaches to intimacy and relationships are increasingly understood and supported, rather than immediately rejected on the basis of tradition, religious doctrine, or outdated the psychological model of deviance/pathology. Ways of relating must be allowed to be flexible and in service of the individual people involved. No one model will work for all.
Relationship literacy is a way of asking: What are our connections to each other? How do we forge bonds? What options are culturally condoned? What options for connection are taboo, illegal, or dismissed as unethical? As Alexander writes in Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy (2008), “Far from being a purely ‘personal’ or ‘natural’ phenomenon, what we know about sex/uality comes to us through a variety of discourses surrounding us and in which we frequently participate” (p. 61). Extending this notion to relationships, what we know about how to form and maintain bonds with others is not personal or natural or unremarkable, but rather heavily conditioned by cultural discourses, institutions, and values that are often unseen and unremarked upon. Romantic relationships—and its normative mode of dyadic monogamy—are by no means a natural state of being. As queer theorists such as Warner and Butler have pointed out, our monogamous-centric ideology of sexuality is one that does not just spontaneously erupt, but it takes careful maintenance and regulation. If monogamy were the natural state, no such policing would be required, because people would simply choose this way of life and no deviation or no temptation to deviate would occur.
Relationship Literacy—a practice, skill, and pedagogical focus—is a way of seeing that takes into account the agency inherent in human need and desire. Love will find a way. While it may be difficult, there are those who put their job, social status, relationship with their families of origin, and even sometimes risk tangles with the law, in order to forge alternative loving systems of care.
Also important is the notion that relationship literacy moves beyond mere content to be acquired and discussed by students, teachers, learners. A literacy of relationships means opening up a new way of seeing the world and being in the world, even if that seeing and being is still (for the learner) one of dyadic monogamy. In other words, one need not be “changed” to polyamory or some other queer or non-monogamous identity as a result of coming into contact with relationship literacy. The goal is not a missionary effort. Instead, coming to a more complex and nuanced understanding of what is possible for the human animal to achieve (or not achieve) aids discursive understanding of what rhetoric and writing is all about. Persuasion, communication, and listening take on new meaning, as relationship literacy helps to peel back the layers of silence around alternative options for living. There is more room to breathe. There is an added spark, suddenly.
Polyamory is not the only orientation that can be revealed through an attention to relationship literacy, however. As a way of seeing, a range of queer practices, queer communities, and queer relationships can be either revealed or further highlighted, as learners become more savvy in decoding the myriad cultural messages received from the sex-negative dominant culture—a culture that reviles ways of loving that threaten the status quo of late capitalism. Simply put, loving more than one, or loving a gender or body type or race or ethnicity (etc.) that is taboo puts in jeopardy the blinders that mass culture tries to enforce. When one begins to step out of the box and begins to queer love and relationships, one becomes more flexible to stretch other sorts of wings. The fear of public censure begins to fade a bit, and individuals begin to wonder: What else don’t I know? What else have I been told not to do? What else have I been told is wrong, evil, corrupt, unnatural? In sum, the possibilities for a social quest and social rebellion expand. Once a relational border has been crossed, other borders become more easily seen and crossing does not illicit quite as deep fears. For some, even, further questionings and crossings become a calling.