Long before the sonnets and sweets of Valentine’s Day, there was a mid-February festival that ran with the wolves. The ancient Roman rite of Lupercalia prepared for spring’s new life by having male priests, who were smeared in blood and dressed in skins, run amok on Rome’s Palatine Hill in a ceremony of purification (lustratio). Women would throw themselves in front of the men in order to be struck with a goatskin thong (februa) thought to promote fertility. What a heady time it was!
Lupercalia disappeared with the rise of the Christians. When a priest named Valentine was declared a martyr for presiding at the secret marriages of Roman soldiers whom the emperor wanted to remain single, his day became associated with romance and being “in love.” In the 19th century the Victorians added the lacy trimmings that we know so well, and the holiday was transformed from a celebration of sensual love to one of sentimental love without any clear acknowledgement of the ecstatic feeling of mutual erotic pleasure.
Today, Valentine’s Day includes the pagan god Cupid and his arrow, but women wait for men to wine and dine them and give them roses — a far cry from Lupercalia, when women actively indulged their undulating, tempestuous desires! The only holiday devoted to romantic love (Sweetest Day isn’t on my calendar), Valentine”s Day symbolizes our current approach to courtship and marriage. We base marriage almost entirely on romance. We’d be better off basing intimate relationships on loving friendship and delightful lust. We can still enjoy romance, but why make it the sole basis for a sexual relationship? Passion is what most of us want, and equal portions of lust and love inspire unbridled passion.
In his book The American Sexual Tragedy, Dr. Albert Ellis points out that in cultures where romance is the rule (namely the U.S.), sex is virtually never enjoyed for itself. Instead, sex must be couched in an irrational, out-of-control “in love” state — that over-the-cliff feeling that almost never lasts. Ellis concludes that the emphasis on romance and the sex tease of courtship play up talk and more talk about sex and love while discouraging uninhibited sexual enjoyment for its own sake.
The romantic lover is basically antisexual. He is volatile — often changing lovers when one infatuation fades. He is intensely possessive and jealous of his lover. Rather than accepting her as his equal, he puts her on a pedestal — an awkward position to get into when you want to make love!
It’s hard to bring back pagan lust in a society that fails to separate church and state, proclaims some sexual acts between consenting adults illegal, and regulates the availability of erotic videotapes and toys. But for those of us who are sexually adventurous, “Be My Valentine” can again mean “Be My Playmate.” We can return to the original meaning of Valentine’s Day. We can celebrate sexual enthusiasm and women initiating a date — and sometimes succulent sex on a date. We can update a delicious pagan orgy by honoring consensual sex as an expression of erotic love.
Lust and love (including some romance) are compatible. To be balanced, we just have to give them equal time! Will someone please tell Hallmark about all of this?
*An earlier version appeared in Playboy Online.