Let me say up front that I’m all for questioning cultural norms around gender and sexuality. I’m certainly not going to have a “normal” Valentine’s Day. My sex-positive film series here in Chicago always happens on the second Tuesday of the month, and this month that happens to be V-Day—so on the 14th, I’ll be screening a documentary called “The Happy Hooker” and leading an awesome discussion group afterwards.
I’m feminist, for one thing. For another, I write primarily about my experiences with S&M and, in recent years, I’ve decided to practice polyamory—a form of consensual non-monogamy in which people have multiple lovers, and are honest with each other about doing so. I think there are lots of damaging stereotypes about alternative sexualities, women’s desires, couples, and so on. Working toward fixing those is a major goal for me.
So sure, Valentine’s Day is a good time to be thinking about this stuff—and taking it apart, too. The writer Samhita at major feminist blog Feministing recently created Occupy Valentine’s Day “to collect our re-imaginings of love,” and she encourages everyone to participate:
Here are some suggestions for ways you can OVD. You could…
* Blog about how traditional ideas of romance perpetuate gender inequalities and hurt people of all genders
* Share statistics about the growing majority of singles
* Raise awareness about domestic violence and sexual assault like others have
* Not be that douche-y couple on Valentine’s Day—maybe hang out with your best friends, single and otherwise
* Shout about the lack of queer visibility in sexual rights politics
* Have a sexy conversation by candlelight with your partner about structural inequity
* Make a commitment to have fulfilling, accountable, and loving relationships in all parts of your life
* Commit to never settling for anyone that is not good enough for you just because you are afraid to spend another Valentine’s Day alone
Occupy is a concept and action that has a tremendous currency right now and reflects the important protests that continue in cities all across the world. The language of occupying gives us a critical moment to radically re-envision the kind of world we want, romantic and otherwise.
Laudable ideas, to be sure. Although I’m not actually sure about the note in the middle about “that douche-y couple.” If a couple wants to spend Valentine’s Day together, where’s the harm?
Another feminist blogger, Meghan Murphy, has a lot to say about it herself, including:
There have been times in my life when I’ve wanted those big, material displays of affection. Diamond rings, expensive dinners, proposals at sporting events (I used to date jocks, ok?)—these things are thrown in our faces so often as examples of romance and as representative of what real love looks like. It’s easy to fall for it. I never even wanted to get married and these fantasies would still weasel their way in.
I agree with a lot of what Meghan’s saying here, and in the rest of her post. But at some points, I get the same feeling as I did when Samhita talked about “that douche-y couple.” I get this feeling a lot in feminism, and in alternative sexual subcultures for that matter: that sometimes, in the zeal to question the dominant paradigms, there’s unnecessary anger at people who like doing things the “mainstream” way.
I recently had some pretty serious surgery. A guy I was seeing at the time emailed to ask what he could send to the hospital, because he was out of town. I asked for vegan chocolate and red roses, and he wrote: “You may be the first woman I’ve ever seriously dated who doesn’t spurn flowers as a clichéd metaphor. Flowers and vegan chocolate it is.”
I wrote back: “I used to spurn them, but it was almost entirely out of insecurity and the feeling that I had to ‘prove’ I was some kind of easygoing badass girl-next-door who Does Not Care About That Girly Stuff ™. Then I realized that I can be an easygoing badass girl-next-door who still gets to enjoy red roses.”
I don’t want to be unreflective about this. I don’t actually think that the whole world boils down to, “I choose my choice!” Social norms have a huge effect on human behavior. It’s very much worth questioning them, and it’s very much worth protesting them when they hurt people.
But it’s not worth doing that to the extent that we shame couples who decide to spend time together on Valentine’s Day—or feel ashamed ourselves. When I was younger, I always told my boyfriends not to buy me flowers, and it really was partly because I felt awful for wanting flowers. I felt as though liking flowers made me “high-maintenance,” or “vain.” And I felt like I didn’t deserve that kind of attention. And, besides, it was oh-so-stereotypical: I wasn’t one of “those girls,” was I?
This was not a mental reflex that came from open-minded questioning of oppressive institutions. It was a mental reflex that came from feeling unworthy of love. It was the same mental reflex that, for example, made it hard for me to accept oral sex for a long time: on this topic, I once wrote that I couldn’t believe that the boyfriends who were willing to go down on me were actually enthusiastic about it. I always stopped them long before I stopped enjoying the act, because I was so scared that they hated it, and hated me for wanting it. My fear crept up my spine and twisted around my heart until I had to make them stop.
So, despite the fact that I’m literally a pro at encouraging non-normative approaches to V-Day, I’d like to offer a plea for a little more empathy in our activism. There are enough people out there—not just women, but people of all genders—who struggle with feeling unworthy and unloved. If some douche-y couple wants to spend Valentine’s Day together, let them be douche-y. If a nerdy young girl likes roses, cut her some slack. Maybe in a way it really is “falling for it,” or being co-opted by nastiness in our culture. But maybe having popular symbols for expressing romantic love isn’t a bad thing in itself. And maybe this is also part of being open to love, and expressions of love, in all their forms.
Clarisse Thorn is Role/Reboot’s Sex + Relationships Editor.