February 14, 2005

sex for roses

I hate Valentine's Day, but not as much as I should. It makes my sister completely miserable, because it's another reminder that she's single and makes her feel undesirable and sort of failed. She cares a lot more about cultural norms than I do. She's also had a less satisfying romantic life than I have, though not because mine is superlative.1

I've never spent Valentine's Day with someone I was dating. The one year I was dating someone on February 14, my little brother's bar mitzvah was that weekend. Bar mitzvot have to be scheduled nearly a year in advance, so when my mother asked how I felt about the second weekend in February I couldn't think of any problems. My euphemism2 was sort of disappointed: he's a bit more of a romantic than I am, and I think he wanted to actually do romantic things on Valentine's Day. I was perfectly happy to go out to fancy-dress dinner with him the next weekend, and in fact probably happier about it than I would have been if we'd gone on the 14th itself.

My dislike for Valentine's Day falls into two major categories: the political and cultural criticism category, strongly informed by my feminism; and a certain bemusement towards the actual practices by which people observe it. Flowers? Well, roses are nice, but I don't really care about them. Plus, what little energy I put to thinking about flowers focuses on wishing I could afford them regularly. Chocolates? I like chocolate, but chocolates are usually not too interesting. I'd rather have a bar of really good plain dark chocolate. Cards? I made a couple of nice valentines (one has a sort of artsy green butterfly; the other has red polka-dot trim and a purple heart and little blue spangles and a red fishnet wrapping), and I really enjoyed the process of making them. But I also made really pretty New Year's presents for my friends, and enjoyed that just as much. I like strawberries, but they're not any good right now; I don't eat steak or oysters. Even the whole needing to have a date thing is sliding off me right now, because I don't really mind being single.3 The only thing I really like that's associated with Valentine's Day is champagne. Man oh man do I like champagne. But since I can't afford it, and neither can most of the people I know, it's not really an issue. So I just sit there and look at the circus and go, huh.

The one thing about this feeling is that I really hate it when people assume that the way to make me happy on Valentine's Day is to give me culturally approved signifiers. Come on, now. There are lots of reasons to give people presents, but two of the primary ones are to give people things they will actually like, and to impress them by showing them how well you understand them and how thoughtful you are. But you know, it takes no creativity or thought whatsoever to get someone a dozen roses for Valentine's Day. And if that's what you get me, I will not be precisely annoyed - it's a nice gesture, after all, and it's kind of ungracious to be annoyed when someone gets you pretty flowers - but I will not be nearly as impressed as I would have been if you'd glued interesting pictures to a piece of cardboard and made me a card. Or written me a note about why you like me. Or made me a cd of songs I don't know but would like. Or baked me cookies. Or bought me warm socks or a bar of dark chocolate. All of those are things that are personal. All the standard stuff is just a way to express generic affection without bothering to learn anything about the person you claim to care about.

That kind of substitution of the generic for the personal is one of my big political problems with Valentine's Day. Another is the way all the approved actions are so strongly gendered, with women cast as the people who want reassurance, love, and romance, and men cast as the ones who provide it (by spending money, of course). Professor B links to a favorable article about online dating,4 which mentions that women are more sexually adventurous and men are more emotionally open online. I don't know why they're so surprised. The internet cuts people out of their usual social contexts, which can be scary, but can also free them from the kind of social coercion that makes men pretend to be emotionally dead and women pretend they're not interested in sex.

Valentine's Day is all about keeping all those roles in place. Women provide sex and want romance and money; men provide romance and money and want sex. Eew. I hate thinking of my relationships, romantic or not, in that transactional mode. The relational part of being human is really strong, and really wonderful, and I think it cheapens and sours it to talk about it like it's a widget exchange. Not to mention the way these enforced gender roles damage women, damage men, contribute to sexual violence, and completely fuck over anyone who's not straight.

One consequence of the heteronormativity of everything is that shows like the L Word (a guilty pleasure if ever I had one) usually make the characters take recognizably masculine and feminine roles, even when there's not a butch woman among them. There was this one episode in the ongoing struggles of the central couple to find an appropriate sperm donor in which they considered a threesome with some guy who was hitting on them.5 After it failed, Bette - the bigshot curator who's always really busy with work - asked Tina - her partner, who would have been the one getting pregnant - if Tina had been attracted to the guy. There was never any question of whether Bette would be attracted to him: after all, only the person in the "woman" role can possibly be attracted to a guy, even when there aren't any butch/femme dynamics going on. I'm betting that if they'd had a Valentine's Day episode (which, because of scheduling, they didn't) Bette would have bought Tina flowers and taken her out for dinner. These shows slot their characters into gender roles because without them, they don't know how to tell the story. There's no spot for the generic cultural signifiers, because those signifiers are totally dependent on gender for their meaning.

Come on, people. Live a little.

1. If you know a nice boy in the Boston area who wants to date a lovely, intelligent, practical, somewhat insecure, and totally inexperienced college junior, please let me know. But he has to be nice. And, you know, appropriate.
2. That's what I called him for a long time. I still dislike all the actual options.
3. Or, you know, whatever.
4. Which I have never tried and probably will never try, despite the minor kick I get out of writing profiles.
5. What a terrible idea. Unprotected sex with a complete stranger can have all sorts of nasty consequences, even aside from the ethics of specifically trying to conceive a kid with someone who may not want one.

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