Kim Carney / msnbc.com
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/14/2008 8:41:27 AM ET 2008-02-14T13:41:27

As we hold the baby doll nightie or red silk boxers up to our bodies, smile our frozen smiles and wonder if the person with whom we have shared our most intimate moments is blind to our actual size, or is just hinting that we could stand to join a gym, we might be tempted to question the whole rationale behind Valentine’s Day: Does this socially accepted version of love’s expression mean anything to us today?

I ask because of a comment I received recently at a talk I gave for my book "America Unzipped" about the growing popularity of sexual experimentation. During my speech, I showed an image of a young woman, a bondage aficionado, handcuffed and gagged. A man in the audience raised his hand and gently scolded me.

Maybe this is becoming more mainstream, he said, but “I don’t hear you saying that these people are sick.”

He meant this sincerely. He was genuinely concerned. But she wasn’t sick, she was in love. It’s just that her expression of love looked nothing like a Hallmark card.

The disconnect, say experts, comes from the way our culture has been steeped in an iconography telling us what love is supposed to look like. But the love it depicts is more fantasy than reality and, they say, we’ve been misguided.

Stephanie Coontz, author of "Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage," and a history professor at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., points out that the ancient Greeks talked a fair amount about love, but in real life marriage was about property and heirs. Prostitutes provided enjoyable sex, and the purest ideal of love was often that between two equal men.

During the early Middle Ages, says Susan Strehle, a professor of English at Binghamton University in New York and co-editor of "Double Plots: Romance and History," the most passionate expressions of love were for the divine.

But as the religious and secular worlds began to separate, Strehle explains, those same expressions came to be used for “the beloved who will be worshipped in ways that were once connected with the church.” Today, she says, “commercial sales exploit those sorts of impulses. Valentine's Day is big business with flowers, candy, cards, getaway weekends. Those are all drawing on that same historical, deep impulse in human life to find the beloved and make that person the center of a person’s life” the way early Medieval church-goers wanted God to be the center of theirs.

The problem is that it is easier to worship the incorporeal than the person with whom you share a mortgage.

Giving love a bad name
Yet so many of us keep thinking it’s all supposed to be so “romantic.” The truth, though, is that while knights may have sworn vows of chaste love to their ladies, in real life they often went around raping the village girls. Even the stories of courtly love, like most love stories, are tragedies.

“For thousands of years marriage has not been about love at all, not friendship, and not sexual desire,” Coontz says. “In the original version of courtly love, the only pure love is adulterous love,” the story of Lancelot and Guinevere being the most famous example. “Marriage is pure convenience. Love stories were tragedies that had that element of danger, that element of unrequited love or frustrated love, two lovers torn apart, and I think this created a sort of expectation of love associated with these extremes of feeling.”

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Strehle agrees: “That’s how we imagine what we are supposed to be looking for in love.” 

Most of us do experience these extreme feelings, usually early on in a new love, but the wise of old used to refer to this as “love sickness.” They literally saw the first intense fire of passion as an illness that needed treatment because they knew that such feelings fade, that we’re a little addled and unfit to make decisions.

Nobody is saying that every bit of passion has to disappear or that finding a life partner who is also a romantic is impossible. A little romance is one of the things that makes life worth living. It’s just that in our desire to keep the hot feelings forever, we can overlook the slow, eroding drip of everyday life. We set ourselves up for disappointment.


Associating love with the period of new courtship and infatuation "makes it difficult to get a well rounded view of love,” Coontz says.

This is why sex gets boring and leads to discontent, suggests Virginia Rutter, a professor of sociology at Framingham State College, near Boston, who studies sex and gender.

“There is either the big romantic sex at beginning [of a relationship] or the big, dirty sex in movies, then, when what you do at home does not happen magically,” we wind up disappointed, Rutter says. “That’s true with both sex and love, the Hallmark card idea, the Middle Ages love stories all about this idealized love. But there is nothing in there getting us very far today.”

Another problem is that romance is often equated with the "scary-exciting feeling of not knowing if you are equally loved," says Coontz. “People get hooked on the insecurity. It’s a huge emotion. That does not bode well for developing a long-lasting relationship.”

Anxiety about whether we are loved in return is "almost completely the opposite of friendship," Coontz says. "In the modern world, we ought to be figuring out how to make friendship sexy.”

Working it
No doubt, relationships take work. “I know that sounds dour,” Rutter says, but if we can learn to work at love and romance and sex just a little more, to develop the kind of friendship Coontz advocates, we might find even deeper, and longer-lasting, fulfillment. “If you’re in bed, you appreciate if he’s in there working it, right? You enjoy it more if you are working it, too? No? You want to throw yourself into it. Well, it’s that way with all different levels of your sex life and your love life.” She calls this being “mindful.”

This is exactly the word many people participating in bondage and domination use when they talk about the way they create a theatrically intense experience, ultimately shooting for a deeper connection, but it is also what other, more vanilla people often have in mind when they decide to try something new.

As I traveled the country for my book, I learned just how varied love can appear. I ran into couples at a seminar on Love, Marriage and Sex from a conservative Biblical perspective who had made a conscious choice to expand their sexual horizons and felt practically giddy (and a little naughty) doing it. I had a lot of funny experiences selling sex toys and lube to my suburban customers in an adult store who all were making a conscious effort to add “novelty” to their lives. And I’ll never forget the elderly couple at a fetish party: married for many years, he strapped down in his buttless chaps, she standing over him in her PVC French maid costume, a pair of reading glasses perched on the end of her nose as she used a static electricity toy to send sparks shooting from her kitchen whisk to his bald pate and exposed bottom.

“Whether it’s sex with leather whips and chains, or you are doing it with him on top and just a pleasant smile and looking forward to chocolate after you’re done,” Rutter says, “it is really, I think, that mindfulness, that concern for staying connected that preserves the relationship.”

Perhaps, in an atomized, multi-national, disconnected, digitized, niche-marketed world, just paying attention can be a romantic act of chivalry. Try giving that for Valentine’s Day.

Brian Alexander is the author of the new book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction."

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