I’m no lover (if you will) of romantic love narratives. I hear the word “love” thrown around without much critical analysis about what it means and used to obscure and mystify real-world power dynamics and the specificities of desire and affection.
The word scares me. Not because of the depth of feeling it is supposed to represent, but because of its vagueness. I imagine erotic and romantic relationships like a prism with eroticism, passion, power, affection, caring, desire, intensity, intimacy, and attachment (to name just a few) as facets. One word couldn’t begin to describe the shape, weight, and lustre of the prism, and I for one wouldn’t want it to. I am far more interested in perceiving the specifics of a relationship than in matching it to an archetype.
And that’s what the romantic love narrative is to me: an archetype. A generalization, and often an idealized, sanitized imagining of what relationships look like. I see the idea of love gloss over and obscure the realities of intimacy and power, and its erasures often feel dangerous.
The other night, I read an erotic story. In the 9-5 world, the two parties were employer and employee. When they met in a club by accident, they found their roles somewhat reversed. As I read, I was acutely conscious of the ways power and consent were playing out between the parties. I waited for the author to address the vulnerability of the employee’s position, or the sinister audacity of the employer’s advances. Instead, the author resolved the tension with a reveal that was both deeply familiar and utterly unsatisfying: each party had been in love with the other the whole time; the employee’s initial refusals had come only from the fear that the employer did not feel the same way.
What strikes me about this resolution is first how typical it is to the genre—so often the resolution to a romantic comedy is that unacknowledged love is the source of everybody’s confusing behavior and that acknowledging that love leads simply and easily to a happily ever after. The reveal also undercut the story’s erotic tension. What was compelling about the story came from the specificities of the two parties’ shifting power dynamic; the “love reveal” replaced those specificities with a common and boring trope. Notably, the two parties’ being in love did not actually resolve most of the numerous questions about power and consent that arose from the setup. And yet its being offered as a resolution suggests that their being in love was supposed to have been both justification and roadmap enough.
The romantic love narrative also glosses over the particulars of sex. Partly because romantic sex gets assumed to be gentle and power-neutral, while D/s and s/m are assumed incompatible with or incapable of expressing the kind of deep feeling and caring that gentle, power-neutral sex is supposed to. But also because the converse of the idea that you should only have sex with someone you love is that a kind of deep emotional attachment is all one needs to make sex okay.
My eroticism is rooted in specifics; my trauma is rooted in elisions. [Trigger warning for the next 2 paragraphs, which describe sexual coercion and unwanted sex.]
As a teenager, I believed in the romantic love narrative. I entered a relationship and believed, because the signs were there (kissing, interdependency, a swelling in my chest when I thought of her), that our relationship measured up to the archetype, and so I used the idea of love to guide my decisions. She was in love with me, so of course she asked (and asked and asked) for sex. I was in love with her, so of course it would be beautiful and transcendent. I said yes because she pressured me, but I also said yes because the romantic love narrative told me I was supposed to.
No one told me what would happen to my cunt. No one told me what do to with my hands while I lay there, naked, willing my body not to betray me with sounds and motions I did not wish to share. I’d searched myself for weeks before agreeing to have sex, wanting to be sure it was love I felt. It had never occurred to me to consider my body, to imagine the realities of hair and fingers and sweat and smells. We were in love. We were supposed to transcend all that.
[End trigger warning.]
On a day devoted to celebrating romantic love, and to hawking the most genericized tokens of affection in every drugstore, flower stand, and pink-bannered storefront, I feel profoundly uneasy. I know there are many in my life who have reclaimed the idea of love or found ways of suiting it to their own complex purposes. Myself, I still find the word both dangerous and unnecessary. Rather than use that one fraught word as a shorthand for my feelings, I choose to celebrate those who are important to me in words and gestures that reflect the specificities of who we are to each other and why that matters. And rather than imagine that romantic relationships are always to be celebrated, I choose to recognize intimacy and vulnerability as potential sites of danger. A swell of feeling between us is not enough; tell me how we navigate power, consent, desire, and our bodies, and I’ll tell you—in detail—what you mean to me.