The only thing that I like about Valentine’s Day is the fact that it comes along with my family’s tradition of making a chocolate torte that is basically nothing but butter, eggs, ground almonds, and sugar, which I eat for breakfast.
Growing up in Canada, Valentine’s was a flurry of gender-stereotyped cards, which young children were required to distribute to their little friends in schools, following the rules of psychologically damaging fifth-grade internal politics. It was storefronts blanketed in terrible shades of pink and red; and piles of cheap chocolate that was mostly paraffin wax (my family’s torte excepted). It seemed to me, as it does to an increasing number of people, one of the most blatant attempts by struggling shops to get people spending money on things they don’t need in the wasteland between Christmas and Easter. Valentine’s Day most certainly blends sex, love, and commerce.
Recently, this hodge-podge of meaning has come under more fervent attack, as bloggers and pundits allege that Valentine’s Day is–or has become–a form of prostitution. (Crudely put: I buy you a diamond/lingerie; you have sex with me). Of course, women have reason to feel deeply insulted by this allegation, which springs as much, if not more, from good old misogyny as it does from a moral or feminist critique. Indeed, a survey of the blogs that discuss Valentine’s-as-prostitution reveal shocking levels of woman-hatred and poor writing, neither of which I wish to promote by linking them.
Yet these allegations–that romantic love and sanctioned union is only a hair’s breadth away from prostitution–can be found in earlier periods, and with very different ideas underlying them. One of the most forcefully put arguments was first-wave feminist Cicely Hamiton’s polemic, Marriage as a Trade, published in 1909. In it, she argues that women have no choice but to see marriage and love as a compulsory trade, the only occupation open to them. Marriage, she writes, is ‘a trade on the part of woman – the exchange of her person for the means of subsistence’. Hamilton explicitly compares marriage to prostitution, even arguing that the prostitute is in a stronger occupational position than the wife, if not a stronger legal one: ‘This freedom of bargaining to the best advantage, permitted as a matter of course to every other worker, is denied to [the wife].’, she wrote. ‘It is, of course, claimed and exercised by the prostitute class – a class which has pushed to its logical conclusion the principle that woman exists by virtue of a wage paid her in return for the possession of her person.’ Women are, in fact, so aware of their commercial position in relationships, Hamilton argues, that they cannot be as engaged with the notion of romantic love as men are.
Historians have supported the claims of Cecily Hamilton. They have uncovered much evidence to suggest that our current conceptions of romantic love are very modern inventions and that marriages were, for much of human history, a trade in women. These histories–and further examinations of love in the growing field of the history of the emotions–seriously challenge any concept we have of essential, eternal, unchanging love and coupledom. Historians are such a drag on V-day.
Then we have histories that challenge our binary conception of prostitution and non-mercenary sex. An excellent example here is Elizabeth Clement’s Love for Sale: Courting, Treating and Prostitution in New York City, 1900-1945 (2006), in which she blurs the line between prostitution and romantic courtship by discussing the concept of ‘treating’, a practise in which women gave sexual favours in exchange for desired goods: dresses, lingerie, jewelry, nights out. There is no denying that ‘treating’ is part of our own sexual culture, and that it reaches its heights on Valentine’s Day.
But is this entanglement of sex and commerce a BAD thing? Maybe if we spend more time thinking about the historical and present-day connections and grey areas between love and commerce, between marriage and prostitution, between commercialized sex and romantic sex, between meaningful and meaningless sex, we might start having more respect for people on all ends of this fascinating and troublesome human spectrum, and be able to more clearly see the inequalities and even the empowerments that help to shape it. Viewed at one particular angle, Valentine’s Day invites us to do just that. Maybe there’s another reason to like it besides the torte.
 Cut down on the sugar if you make it. You are not obligated to use Hershey’s cocoa.
Julia Laite is a lecturer in modern British and gender history at Birkbeck, University of London. She is interested in the history of women, gender, sexuality, crime, migration, prostitution, and occasionally lorries. Her first book, Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens: Commercial Sex in London, 1885-1960 was published with Palgrave Macmillan in 2011. She is currently working on trafficking and women’s migration in the early twentieth century world.
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