While it is central to how some people experience love, it leaves other people cold.
Valentine’s Day is upon us. Stores are awash in pink and red hearts, naughty lingerie and expensive gifts.
This year, I would like to use Valentine’s Day as a time to talk about the concept behind it: romance.
On one hand, there is an unspoken and unquestioned belief that romance is the fuel of every heterosexual relationship. But there is also a cadre of people, like me, who see romance as either a waste of money or a relic of patriarchy.
I believe it is time that we see romance for what it is: a socially acceptable and socially mandated kink.
But first, let me explain what I mean by “romance” and “kink.”
When I talk about romance, I am not talking about the occasional dinner out or sending your partner flowers. I am talking about people who need to be romanced on a semi-regular basis.
And when I talk about kink, I am not talking about specific sexual acts, and I am certainly not including the couple who enjoys spanking each other occasionally. I am talking about kink as a sexual orientation.
In a brilliant essay published last summer, Jillian Keenan describes how kink is “an orienting force.”
“[K]ink is so much more than merely physical. Our orientation is so deeply rooted that many of us feel we were born with it. For us, kink mixes language, ritual, trust, power, pleasure, pain, and identity in a way that can’t be captured by a stereotype.
You know what else mixes language, ritual, trust, power, pleasure, pain, and identity? Love. Every kind of love.”
One final caveat before we proceed: I want to be clear that I have no judgments about either kink or romance. Neither is bad or shameful. Both are legitimate forms of emotional and/or sexual connection and gratification. Each allows people to step into a role that they do not inhabit in their daily lives. As such, both foster creativity and intimacy. Best of all, both allow adults to devote themselves to play and even gives them permission to bring in everything from props to costumes. Given how sadly devoid of play most adults’ lives are, it would behoove us to honor and even privilege kink and romance.
Viewing romance as a kink allows us to drop all judgment about it—both positive and negative. A big problem with how we view romance is that we portray it as a natural expression of love, and therefore something that everyone should want and be able to do or to receive well.
But like every kink, romance is not for everyone. While it is central to how some people experience love, it leaves other people cold. Not everyone is going to be into it, and we should give up the idea that every well-rounded person is supposed to be into it.
And not everyone is naturally gifted at it. Romance has earned a bad reputation with some men who see it as a test that they can never pass. They aren’t good at romance, and that needs to be OK. It does not mean that the person has a character flaw or that their relationship is broken.
If you want to understand how oppressive our society’s demand for romance can be, imagine that instead of requesting that a partner “be romantic,” a lover asks to be dominated. Even if it is something that the partner is comfortable with, there is no guarantee that the person will be even passably competent at it.
Being a romantic is like being a dominant in at least one respect: You need to have enough comfort and proficiency in the role to be convincing.
I think that giving romance the status of a kink would actually give romantics both the permission and the language to prioritize their own needs. Keenan, whose article I quoted earlier, describes kink as something both “natural and necessary.” It is a non-negotiable part of her love life, and she would not be comfortable dating or marrying someone who could not or would not fulfill that need.
Romantics need acts of romance and to be in a relationship with a person capable of being romantic. Unfortunately, our society has trivialized romance through its ubiquity. If every man is meant to be a romancer, then romance is not something that a woman should necessary privilege when seeking a partner.
But if we understand that romance, like kink, is not bound by gender, men can be romantics as much as women.
We should also acknowledge that romance is an exchange of power that happens in time-limited episodes. In kink, this time is called a “scene,” while in romance it is called a date. The more romantic the date, the more the person being romanced places himself or herself in the hands of the romancer. To be romanced is to have things done to or for you.
But like other forms of kink, the person with all the power is the person who appears to have none. Yes, the person being romanced allows the other person to make the plans and decisions. But romance is ultimately about being the center of another person’s attention, and that is a power that few of us get to enjoy in our daily lives.
Personally, I have found this understanding of the power dynamic very helpful in navigating my relationship with my romantic husband. It bothered me that he wanted to do things for me but demurred when I wanted to return the favor. Then I realized that he is a romancer, and that the role gives him the same kind of satisfaction that someone else might get out of being a dominant.
But where romance could especially benefit from being thought of as kink is in the area of communication. Many people think that asking for what you want in a romantic encounter will kill the spirit of romance.
The truth, however, is that like any other kink, both parties become very vulnerable to each other in a romantic interlude. A romancer is someone who demonstrates adoration for another person. And the romanced is someone who can acknowledge a desire for adoration. Both of those tap into our most primitive and vulnerable selves.
That is why romantics absolutely must begin using the kind of communication that the kink community has been using for decades now.
Kink communities place a very high value on communication. As I understand it, partners generally begin by doing desire inventories with each other. Some people have an actual list of various acts that they talk about to find out what the other person likes, what leaves them disinterested, and what’s completely off limits. Then they agree when and where and how long a session will last, and what each person would like to get out of it.
One of the most important parts of kink communication is the debriefing afterward. Not only does it help them to make the next experience better, it allows partners to process the emotions that arise in such encounters.
The best romantic encounters elicit very powerful emotions and they can leave a person feeling both raw and reborn. Romance done well can be beautifully soul-shaking. Done poorly or without the proper care, and it can be soul-shattering.
The kink community has spent decades figuring out how to keep people safe and respected. I believe that we owe it to ourselves to take romance away from the flower peddlers and the candy-pushers and treat it like a kink—a powerful, transformative, and orienting force.
Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.