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Rewriting the Rules of Valentine’s Day

Rewriting the Rules of Valentine’s Day

There’s an interview with me about Valentine’s Day over on The Sorority.

loveactually

What do you think about Valentines Day?

I think that the idea of having a day to celebrate love is a great one. What concerns me is the narrow range of love that is celebrated which both excludes those who don’t fit within it, and puts pressure on those who do. Single people can find Valentines Day very hard because it suggests that romantic love is so vitally important and reinforces the common view that those who don’t have it are lacking, or a failure. If you look at Valentine’s cards, gifts and movies you’ll also see an assumption that romantic love is heterosexual and married (with the bulk of cards ‘to my husband/wife’). Again this excludes those with same-sex relationships and those who are not married. Valentines restaurants are set up for couples, which means that people in openly non-monogamous relationships may struggle to feel accepted.

Do you think it’s a good or bad thing for relationships?

Like anniversaries, I think it is a good thing for relationships to have certain days set aside when we can reflect upon them, celebrate them, or reaffirm our commitments to each other. I just think it is a shame that we’re not encouraged to do the same thing for other important relationships in our lives such as friendships, relationships with important colleagues, family, etc. If we could see all our relationships as valuable then we wouldn’t feel so bad when we were not in a romantic relationship, or following a break-up.

Also the prioritising of romantic relationships over all other kinds puts a great deal of pressure on people in such relationships: we are expected to be with The One perfect person who will meet all of our needs. When Valentine’s Day comes around and we are not in such a good place in our relationship, or the other person doesn’t automatically do what we want them to do, or we aren’t feeling sexual, for example, this can put the relationship under even greater strain. If we could celebrate all our relationships, including our relationship with ourselves, then we might put romantic ones under less stress and be able to appreciate them as they are rather than pressuring them to be perfect.

Do you do anything for it yourself? Like last year for instance?

I try to follow my sister’s example: she sends cards to all of the important people in her life on Valentine’s Day, even though she does have a romantic partner. Ever since I heard of this I thought it was a great idea. Perhaps we could shift Valentine’s Day to be a celebration of all kinds of love.

I’m finding a lot of women do care but probably think they shouldn’t…does that resonate at all with you in your work?

There is certainly a big assumption that heterosexual women will want romance, flowers, gifts, etc., and that men should be the ones making the effort to provide a perfect romantic day even though they aren’t very interested in it themselves. I think those ideas are worth challenging as well. What about women who aren’t so focused on romance? What about men who are? A good starting point for couples would be to talk with each other about how they like their relationship to be celebrated and what makes them feel loved. Then perhaps they could arrange two evenings (around Valentine’s Day if they like) where they can each focus on the other one, instead of assuming that everyone wants the same thing.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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  1. Lisa

    8 February

    I think feminists should also take the chance on Valentine’s Day to talk about the function of romance in a patriarchy. Women obviously aren’t valued in this society, so we should turn our feminist suspicion on anything which is popularly endorsed which claims to value us. Chances are it has some other function, especially with events like Valentine’s Day which celebrate as historically recent an idea as “romance”. Shulamith Firestone certainly thought so, arguing that so-called “romantic” love is, among other things, a ritual form which allows a man to tolerate an individual woman’s devalued status without lowering his own:

    Because sexual inequality has remained a constant – however its degree may have varied – the corruption ‘romantic’ love became characteristic of love between the sexes…

    A man must idealize one woman over the rest in order to justify his descent to a lower [class]… This idealization process acts to equalize artificially the two parties, a minimum precondition for the development of an uncorrupted love… Thus ‘falling in love’ is no more than the process of alteration of male vision – through idealization, mystification, glorification – that renders void the woman’s class inferiority.

    – Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case For Feminist Revolution (The Women’s Press, 1979), pp. 124-6

    I think the patriarchal functions of ideas like romance and events like Valentine’s Day can be interwoven with positive meanings, because we make our positivity where we can. So I’m not suggesting completely denouncing it, or whatever. But just because it has, effectively, a “human shield” in the form of those additional positive meanings shouldn’t prevent feminists from pointing clearly to why patriarchy endorses it and what patriarchy is getting out of it…

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