How to Have a Feminist Valentine’s Day

Heteronormative, Sexist, and Consumerist Traditions to Avoid

This year, about 62 percent of US adults will celebrate Valentine’s Day. When it’s all said and done, they will spend over $13 billion on the holiday, for an average of $116 each. 

Noted Yale sociologist Jeffrey Alexander points out that Valentine’s Day is so widely celebrated because rituals are important to social cohesion. Like gathering with family for a Thanksgiving feast, exchanging gifts for Christmas or Hanukkah, and celebrating birthdays with cake and song, rituals serve to reaffirm our shared values and beliefs, and in doing so, strengthen the social ties that bind us. Alexander explains that celebrating Valentine’s Day serves this same purpose by reaffirming the cultural and social importance of romantic love and coupling, and at least in theory, strengthening romantic relationships.

Unfortunately, the way Valentine’s Day is marketed to us, depicted in popular culture, and enacted by many of us has some seriously detrimental consequences: extreme heteronormativity, wildly stereotypical expectations of gendered behavior, disturbingly consumerist notions of love and romance, and all the negative environmental, labor, and human rights abuses that are required by this über-consumerist celebration are standard.

So, from me to you, here are some tips for having a feminist Valentine’s Day, no less full of love and pleasure, and likely more so.

What Matters is the Quality of Your Time, Not Quantity of Money Spent

More than half of women polled say they would end their relationship if they didn’t receive something for Valentine’s Day. My ladies (and to men who feel that way too), say what?! That is nuts. It is a sad state of affairs when we have come to believe that love must be expressed through consumer goods on an arbitrarily chosen day of the year.

Yes, as Alexander points out, participating in rituals on that day serves an important cultural and relational function, but there’s no rule of social life that states that that must be achieved through money spent. Studies have shown that money won’t buy your happiness anyway, and given the gross income inequality of our nation, this ideal makes it difficult for anybody to provide an adequate expression of love, and especially hard for men to achieve the ideal of masculinity–the provider–that is pegged to it. Let’s kick this tired notion to the curb and just enjoy each other.

Love in a Mutually Pleasing and Egalitarian Way

One of the serious downsides of the above-described problem is that when one person is expected to lavish gifts, the other is often expected to provide services in return. In our heteronormative context, this typically equates to women giving themselves as sexual objects for the pleasure of men, (In this context, it’s never the man who wears the lingerie, is it?), but this dynamic manifests in romantic couplings of all kinds. To put it bluntly, that ish is whack!

It’s whack because, as a ritual, it reaffirms the misguided notion that providing for someone means that person owes you sex, and as if that weren’t enough, it also reaffirms the notion–in the hetero-context–that men are sexual agents, while women are simply objects that exist for their pleasure and enjoyment. This is why there exists a huge orgasm gap in heterosexual pairings, wherein men climax three times more frequently than women. No thank you!

Romantic relationships premised on equality of needs, love, and pleasure are far more rewarding for all involved. Enough already with this garbage. We are better than this.

In sum, a fulfilling relationship is not going to come from a particular equation of how much money is spent when, where, and on what; and it won’t flow out of stereotypical notions of who owes the other what. It will come from honesty, trust, respect, and emotional openness, ritualized in whatever way works for you. For both of you.

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