Well this is awkward. Of course Valentine’s Day has always been awkward, it’s synonymous with, tongue-tied inept gestures and confused boundaries but this year, the rights and wrongs of romance are more opaque, confusing and dangerous than ever before. How can we know whether, when a date reaches out, they are mindful or a monster?
As populations grow, gene diversity widens. And, as potential mate selection becomes more complex so, it seems, proportionally, do our underlying courtship rituals and patterns; the taboos and to-dos of romance.
In pre-history, it’s thought, meet, greet, rape and mate was pretty much the order of the day; chocolates and flowers had little play with homo erectus. Even in the early civilizations of Greece and Rome, love poetry suggests there was more interest in ‘favourites’ than trying to beguile a mate to carry your genetic destiny. In Medieval Europe mating and marriage was strictly business and contracts. Romance itself didn’t actually appear until the 12th century and even then it came with a set of complicated and contradictory rules, (De Amore, Capellanus, Andreas, 1180), which has been baffling horny teenagers ever since.
Part of the difficulty of romance has always been that no one is ever sure that they’re doing the right thing. I urge you to read a fascinating history of this in Making Love – A Conspiracy of the Heart. (Brill, Marius, Doubleday 2001,)
So the course of true love never did run smooth, but now the #metoo and #timesup campaigns, while redefining sexual politics, are throwing the whole range of courtship behaviour into a maelstrom of complexity. Not just for lovers trying to learn new inoffensive ways to express sexual interest but for their objects who have to figure out intentions from ever more subtle signals.
Valentines Day’s most famous ritual has always been a little creepy. The line between sending an anonymous note declaring your passion, and stalking, has always been a thin one.
The line itself is reciprocation. You’re fine if the object of your passion wants it. But woe betide you if they don’t. And how are you to know, unless you’re willing to cross it?
Sometimes it’s pretty clear. If you’re convicted stalker Edward Vine, sending missives from your cell to newsreader Emily Maitlis (the clue’s in the name mate), then your attentions are likely to be unwelcome. On the other hand, if you’re 54-year-old Henry Bolton (leader of UKIP at time of press) being wooed by 25-year-old topless model Jo Marney, Christmas is definitely the best time to dump the wife, kids and any political credibility.
Most courtship signalling is less cut and dried. My own wife suffered 15 years of advances from a man she had no interest in before realising that the only way she might disillusion him was to marry him.
Much of the naming and shaming of the last year, which exploded with the Weinstein revelations, has been exposing not just rape, which is already on the criminal statutes, but other forms of sexual aggression which hitherto have inhabited the greyer area between slap’n’tickle and GBH. The vast majority of which seems to have something to do with what men do with their hands.
English does as much as a gender neutral language can to masculinise hands. They are manual, manipulate, manhandle, and so on. The French “main” has been conflated with the Germanic “mann” but something obvious is manifest and something you dare not refuse is mandatory. While you might get a handy man in to fix your boiler, a handy woman sounds more like a masseuse with a line in happy endings.
From the bragging “pussy” grabbing of the President, to the braying gropers of the President’s Club, right the way through to the horrific serial abuse of hundreds of children by the USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, what men do with their hands is no less invasive than what they do with their penises. Men’s hands are a menace. I’m not saying that men are not responsible for their hands, but what men find hard to consider is why they use them as they do. It’s not like there are any sexually stimulating arousal nerves in male fingers. So what possible satisfaction could a man get from grabbing an unwilling “pussy”, or for that matter any sexual anatomy or, indeed inserting their digits into anybody’s vagina?
The easy answer is power, it’s a way for disenfranchised men to show exactly who’s boss. It’s a way to feel strong and in a position of authority. You’re a king… or a President I guess. But maybe there is something else going on at a deeper level.
At one end of the hand-to-gland spectrum we have foreplay which, between consenting lovers, is the beginning of a path to mutual sexual satisfaction. At the other end is out-and-out assault. Between the two we have a host of words: stimulate – caress – touch – fondle – cop-a-feel – grope – molest. The correct verb for what might be exactly the same manual action relies completely on the receiver of this attention. The level of reciprocation defines everything and even if “no means no” is clear enough, “no” to intercourse and “no” to grope seem to occupy two different places in the male psyche.
Whether it’s down to too much testosterone, or the combination of X and Y chromosomes, or a genetic urgency, or because we wear our vaginas on the outside, or just the social expectation of gender dominance, men are never far from their own sexual needs. Gropers, fondlers, frotteurs, predominantly men, have all sorts of sociopathy but deep down, I have no doubt, there is also a misguided desperate expectation of reciprocation.
So here’s a simple secret that even men find hard to admit. When a man touches a woman or a lover it can mean all sorts of things as well, but it’s also a plea: “touch me”. It is a primeval do-as-I-do yearning for reciprocation, a desire to be touched right back. A longing to begin foreplay. Somewhere right at the back of Trump’s tiny mind there is the delusion that if he grabs a pussy, its owner might just sigh with delight, grab his tiny Donald Jr back and orgasms will follow. This almost psychotic delusion, ridiculous as it may be, may just lie at the very heart of every touch-feely, gropey, fingery man you ever met.
And as more and more #metoo stories emerge, it seems the male inability to gauge reciprocation, or their willingness to ignore the lack of it, is a delusion that creates monsters. Happy Valentines.
(Marius Brill is a London-based novelist, filmmaker and playwright)