Each year Valentine’s Day encourages a whole season of love, whatever that means in American culture. At least it means that the new year begins with stores overflowing with candy, flowers, cards, stuffed animals, jewelry, and other paraphernalia needed to show how buying proves we’re in love.
Valentine’s Day is a patterned American written and oral exam testing whether you really do love someone, and whether you’re really loved by someone. If they truly love you, they’ll show it through the Day’s products.
It’s not all bad. If it is a reminder to take the time in a busy life to express love, how can that in itself hurt?
Yes, yes, someone shouldn’t need a special day to do this, but the commercialism that defines the Day also highlights feelings of how seldom we get the space to lavishly celebrate love.
The problem is that instead of celebrating love between two people just as they are as human beings, the Day is more a celebration of culturally defined patterns that are not only meant to sell products and services but to define for us how and what love should be.
There are even religious people who claim that the Model of perfect love in the universe includes allowing the children whom this Divine Model is supposed to love to suffer eternal child abuse, lovingly teaching that his children actually deserve the most despicable and endless suffering this Model can come up with unless they follow some formula the religion prescribes to save them from it. All along, their claim preaches that that should be seen as real love.
As a part of all our culture’s confusion, a lot of other words that could relate to love have been usurped by our society to instead mean sex, because sex sells even better than patterned love. We’d expect that - we’re a society that’s very sick about both.
For example, we use words that do not mean sex but could designate more, to mean sex: Are you two intimate? Have you slept together? Are you two close? Have you made love? Are you two lovers? What do you think of polyamory? All societies fall when they practice immorality? Did you hear that she lost her virtue?
Though none of the above words means sex, we’ve been conditioned to spontaneously take them to refer to it. And that too reflects this cultural confusion over sex as well as love, intimacy, closeness, immorality, and virtue.
Then in our confused discussions of “love,” we talk about different kinds of it. One’s love for one’s children “is not the same” as one’s love for one’s lover or one’s love for one’s pet or country as if we are clear about what the nature of love is and as if we are not talking about whether or not we are having sex with someone or something.
It was actually among a bunch of progressive theologians years ago before the Supreme Court allowed marriage equality that I suggested that the government should have no business telling an adult who or what they can or cannot love.
“Oh,” the response came back, “then it would be okay for someone to fall in love with their horse.”
I frankly don’t care whether someone loves their pets, but that response expressed the problem. They had assumed that “love” equaled performing a sexual act.
And imagine if we actually spoke of someone “sleeping with their horse” as cowpokes did in the old West why someone would jump to the conclusion that that meant sexual activity was involved?
Yet, that’s the kind of leaps we make when we haven’t reconciled ourselves either to love or sex culturally. Sometimes that’s done for the best of reasons and sometimes not.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, David and Jonathan have a close, intimate, same-sex relationship. It even involves a same-sex covenant between them. And when Jonathan dies, David publicly mourns, saying: “Oh, Jonathan, my love for you was more wonderful than for women.”
Now, there’s nothing in all that that clarifies that their close same-sex friendship involved sexual activity. The fact is, we just don’t know either way. And in a less homophobic culture than ours, such same-sex friendships were almost expected and could have involved sexual activity to express them.
But to argue either that they must have been sexual or that they couldn’t have been sexual, as people also do over the same-sex love of Ruth and Naomi, represents a confusion about intimacy and sex that was depicted in another form in the 1989 classic romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally.
Harry’s thoroughly culturally patterned claim was that a man and woman can’t have a close friendship without sexual activity being involved. And the film concluded that Harry was right.
But was he? Or is this just the confusion of being brought up in a culture that says sex is the means to express close, intimate love.
If that is so, then Will could not have loved Grace in that old TV series. Then we will not be able to understand the intimate bonds that can exist between a gay man and a heterosexual woman (who we might even demean with the words “fag hag” and all that that connotes), or between a lesbian and a gay man.
If love is really understood as an unconditional relationship, then sex cannot be made necessary for it. That would add a condition, just as any statement such as “If you love me, then…” indicates that there are really conditions and expectations attached to what we are calling love.
If love is a commitment to the best of another, and a decision to stand by and with that other in life, then that love is as true for a father and his son, a mother and her daughter, friends, or any other mutually agreed upon human relationship.
But, even more, unconditional love cannot have as a condition the requirement that the other will love one back. And that’s an emotionally difficult idea to live while protecting oneself, deciding what such a relationship will look like, and setting one’s own boundaries.
And how that love is expressed will differ in any loving relationship for that very reason. Sex, then, can become one of the ways to express love that does so if mutually agreed upon. But it can also be a means of communicating something else for better or worse.
But, let’s remember that there are hundreds of other ways to express love, closeness, and intimacy. And all of them are choices human beings can make.
And to do so, we need to address the hang-ups we’ve been conditioned to attach to both words, hang-ups that are often taken out on those who don’t love the way or the people we think they should.
Robert N. Minor, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas, is author of When Religion Is an Addiction; Scared Straight: Why It’s So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It’s So Hard to Be Human and Gay & Healthy in a Sick Society. Contact him at www.FairnessProject.org.
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