A Handy Guide to post #metoo Valentines

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.


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Love Nuts?

O the hateful, grateful, fateful, dateful day has arrived once more. The shops are full of heart shaped balloons and pink fluffy handcuffs, the restaurants are hiking their prices and it’s all coming up roses for florists. The ides of February are upon us. The saint responsible for our October birthday bonanza is having his day. Love is in the air; try not to choke.

‘Love’ is one of the two ultimate life memes (‘religion’ being the other); an idea passed down through the generations, slowly mutating, and stubbornly surviving as effectively as genetic material. An idea so ingrained that it seems completely natural.

But if love’s so natural, why does it need a special day? I mean flatulence, haemorrhoids, and the making of fatuous comparisons to undermine the importance of a subject also come quite naturally, but none are honoured with a patron saint or a day of appreciation. The bells of St Piles don’t ring and despite the invention of the vindaloo we don’t go out dining once a year to purposefully inspire the methane missives.MAD-LOVE-black-and-white

Falling in love, we learn from an early age, is the most natural thing in the world, we all do it, even educated fleas do it. Except, of course, they don’t (I’d say they simply hop about until they die, but maybe that’s jumping to conclusions). Birds don’t do it, bees don’t do it, not even the beans in Boston do it. It is a distinctly human trait and there is a growing trend in academic studies to treat the symptoms and causes of being ‘in’ love as ‘unnatural’ to the human condition. They have, after all, no discernible biological cause or zoological analogue. It’s not like we have to fall in love to procreate, just check Tinder. No don’t. Really. DON’T. Our species could get on just fine without being confused by courtship rituals or weathering the visceral silences as we disappoint each other’s parents at that first awkward meeting.

Although there are ways we love which are undeniably innate, instincts that guide us to care for, and about, our mates and progenies, being ‘in’ love is a different matter. The emotions of being ‘in’ love simply seem a delusional loss of sanity caused by trying to resolve two completely incompatible impulses: our ‘natural’ sexual instinct, our urge to procreate and continue our genetic line; and our ‘cultural’ sense of social responsibility, to live un-raped, in a civilised manner by a set of codes which protect all of us from each other.

And trying to balance the two, we all go a little crazy.  Psychologists have even coined a distinct term for this delusional state: ‘Limerence’.

Then there are sociologists who have amassed evidence that the symptoms of ‘limerence’ are predominately ‘learnt’ from social influences and that ‘romance’ is the way we try to establish rules in our attempt to rationalise the madness.

And finally there are the historians and cultural academics, including CS Lewis, who have pointed to a distinct period in European history when ‘love’ was invented.  A ‘cult of love’ sprang from the medieval courts of 12th Century France, in the era of the crusades when, for the first time in European history, women were left nominal heads of the states as the kings and menfolk went to kick off 900 years of resentment in the Middle East. Somehow, as the power of the queens ascended (this was also the time when the Queen was introduced to the chess board) the European feudal system changed from Lord-Fearing into Love-Fearing.  To be in love is to always be aware of the possibility of rejection, a much more economical fear than all the beatings and beheadings medieval kings were always having to organise.

So, could ‘romance’, our interpretation of the confusion between the urge to mate and the need to date, been codified as a form of statecraft? A way to control the filthy masses through their own dirty urges?

Today, a cultural production line of romances, ads, dramas, pop-songs, poetry, bombards us every second, all telling us that love is the most fantastic experience possible, that it is something we must have.  Is it really a reflection of human nature or is it propaganda?

If falling in love is unnatural, delusional, something perhaps designed to keep the masses in the thrall of the state; if it is subject to a mass of negative symptoms, anxiety, stress and insecurity; if it doesn’t help our sense of self-worth or sanity; why do we still feel compelled to use it to choose our mates? Why do we keep falling for it?

Lovers of the world unite. Put down your Special Valentines Menus, save your stamps and your SWALKs and your boxes of Milk Tray. Waste no more time with this ‘pretty little thing’, tell each other exactly what you want. Do the maths then go forth and multiply… that’s when everything really gets tricky.


Discover the secrets of unnatural love in Making Love: A Conspiracy of the Heart by Marius Brill, available on Amazon and through all good bookshops.

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