alentine’s Day is one of those holidays that attracts as much controversy as it does celebration. Every year, people take sides in the great debate about the usefulness of a holiday whose only purpose is to celebrate romantic love with gifts, flowers and candy.
The obligation of celebration — or the amplification of exclusion for people who don’t have someone(s) to celebrate with — tells us a lot about who we are as a society and what we value. Is Valentine’s Day just harmless gift giving and extra appreciation for those we care about, or is it an indicator of our outdated views on love, sex, and romance? Can someone be sex-positive and still celebrate Valentine’s Day?
It’s hard to discuss Valentine’s Day without acknowledging the hierarchy of relationships that exist in society. Valentine’s Day celebrates straight, monogamous, romantic love, and it always has. That’s because in our society, straight relationships are valued more than queer ones, monogamy is valued more than polyamory, and romantic love is positioned as more important than other kinds of love. It’s not like there are billion-dollar annual holidays celebrating friendships, parent-child relationships or other kinds of relationships. Where they do exist, they’re dwarfed by the scale of Valentine’s Day. Monogamy is so common in our society that I’m sure my use of (s) in the context of special someone(s) above threw some of you off. As a note, I will use it at other points in this piece and do my best to remain neutral when it comes to discussing gender and number of romantic partners.
I think there are major issues with the way that Valentine’s Day is marketed and celebrated in our society. I don’t think it’s inherently bad to celebrate romantic love or its role in our world. With creative reframing, there are ways that Valentine’s Day can be beneficial to personal relationships and society at large. But in order to comprehend the phenomenon Valentine’s Day has become, we first have to to understand its roots.
The true origins of Valentine’s Day are not clear. What we do know is that the holiday most likely evolved from the Roman feast of Lupercalia, which took place between February 13th and 15th every year. During this time, priests of the Luperci order would sacrifice a goat and a dog for purification and fertility, strip their hides, dip them in sacrificial blood, and then run through the city slapping women with the bloody hides. The sacrificial blood was believed to make the women more fertile. The next portion of the celebration was for all of the young women to put their names in a big jar, and the single men of the area would draw names. The woman whose name they picked would be their boo for the rest of the year (and maybe forever if they liked each other enough).
In the 3rd century, Emperor Claudius II executed two different men named Valentine — both on February 14th of different years — and their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church: St. Valentine’s Day. It gets more complicated in the 5th century when Pope Gelasius combined St. Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia to undermine the paganism of the celebration. Through the centuries, the holiday gained popularity and eventually found its way to the United States. The industrial revolution spurred the creation of factory-made greeting cards in the 1800s, and Hallmark made the first mass-produced Valentines in 1913, the birth of the billion-dollar holiday we know today.
If Valentine’s Day is the descendant of a festival where women would embrace their fertility and potentially find a partner to spend their lives with, then the focus on sex, romance, and love is just continuing the tradition. But the modern world sees these concepts differently than our ancestors.
Reckoning with what Valentine’s Day was, could be, or should be is what creates conflict for so many people and gives it such a bad rep. Reevaluating our personal thinking around just two pieces of the Valentine’s Day puzzle can lead to major social shifts that completely change how we celebrate the day.
On Valentine’s Day, the pressure is on to give your loved one(s) the most expensive jewelry, the biggest bouquet of flowers, the fanciest chocolates. Companies that sell these items spend millions on marketing campaigns designed to convince people that their special someone(s) is/are worth the expense, and that expense translates directly to love.
The assumption that a romantic relationship is stronger because people spend more money on each other is flawed. In fact, the opposite might be true: the amount of money spent on an engagement ring and wedding ceremony is inversely correlated with marriage duration. In layman’s terms, couples who spend more on engagement rings and their wedding ceremony are more likely to get divorced. Spending a lot of money on a ring and a wedding isn’t a direct cause of divorce, but can contribute to marital stress.
Last week, I asked some of my friends about their their feelings towards Valentine’s Day. Some are single, some are in relationships, and some are just dating casually. All of them said that they felt the pressure to give gifts even if they haven’t been with the person very long, didn’t want to, or didn’t care about receiving gifts themselves. The knowledge that their partner’s feelings might be hurt is enough to motivate them into buying something.
Not simple gifts either, but extravagant ones that are instagram-worthy and will invoke jealousy in other people. One of my friends remarked that it can make the whole gesture of giving a gift feel empty because it’s being done out of a sense of obligation or to prove something to others. Removing this pressure within your relationship can be as simple as opening the lines of communication. Talk to your partner(s) about the expectations of gift giving on Valentine’s Day and be honest about your own feelings — it’s not helpful to anyone to keep up the charade if it’s not what you want.
But before you even broach the conversation with someone else, start undoing these expectations within yourself. I’ll share some personal perspective. My 5th anniversary with my partner is February 15th of this year, and I’ll admit that I had a twinge of disappointment when we agreed to forgo giving gifts for Valentine’s Day and our anniversary in order to save money for a trip to Hawaii this summer. I know that our relationship is valid without the expensive gifts, and saving money will pay off in the long run, but I already know I’m going to have to avoid social media on the 14th because I’ll feel left out. Even though I know I shouldn’t base the value of my relationship on how much I can show off on the internet, I’ll feel left out.
Even for those who are able to curb the desire to participate in gift-giving oneupmanship, the expectation of sex that comes with gift-giving adds an additional layer of pressure to celebrating Valentine’s Day. For women (and other marginalized genders) in particular, the idea of having sex as “thanks” for someone who has given you something is unfortunately normalized. If we believe that one of the core tenets of sex-positivity is consent, then I cannot in good conscience encourage people to buy gifts or shower others with affection on Valentine’s Day if it means expecting sex in return. That does not establish a healthy or completely-consensual sexual experience.
I’m NOT advocating for abstinent Valentine’s Day celebrations. But reconsidering the role of sex in your celebration might avoid undue pressure or crossed wires when it’s time to get down to business. Consider having sex or fooling around before going to dinner or whatever you do to celebrate. That way, everyone has gotten what they want AND it’ll prevent disappointment later if someone eats too much at dinner or gorges themselves on candy and isn’t feeling well afterward.
If the mood strikes again, by all means go for it — this concept is just an insurance policy in case “later” never comes for some reason or another. Feeling pressured to try something new in the bedroom since it’s a special occasion? Don’t do it if you’re not ready! Go at your own pace, regardless of what the calendar says.
Despite my issues with the way Valentine’s Day is celebrated, I don’t think it’s as insidious as some people make it out to be. The worst parts of celebrating Valentine’s Day can easily be turned into positives with reframing and creative thinking. For those in long-term relationships, Valentine’s Day can be a litmus test for your relationship and show you shortcomings in communication or misplaced priorities. For those in newer relationships or ‘situationships,’ Valentine’s Day can reveal things about your relationship that might not have made themselves evident for a while. For everyone, Valentine’s Day can help you get a good sense of what that special person (or people) values in your relationship, and whether that bodes well for your future.
No amount of disruption can change Valentine’s Day’s position as a capitalist behemoth — for the time being. Instead of digging in our heels and railing against people who want the gifts, jewelry, and candy, turn the lens inward. Use it as a day to share fantasies with your partner, try something new in the bedroom, or recommit to each other! If you don’t have a traditional, heteronormative partner, celebrate the other loves in your life.
Celebrating love on Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to mean embracing capitalist expectations. Finding a way to make the day work for you and your special someone(s) is valid. At the same time, you’re not a heartless monster for treating it as any other day. Sex positivity is about choice, and doing what is best for you and your partner(s) is the most romantic way to celebrate every day.