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Sex Is All Metaphors
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Sex Is All Metaphors

by Jean Roberta

Love and Romance


In the Northern Hemisphere, February is usually one of the bleakest months of the year, which is why no one complains that it is so short, even with an extra day tacked on in leap years. To compensate for being the tail-end of a long winter, February is dedicated to all sorts of good things including the entire histories of women and people of African descent.  And of course, Love. To be more precise, the feast day of St. Valentine is dedicated to romance, which used to signify fantasy or fiction, a story too fabulous to be true.

I can already hear the comments: everyone needs a little romance! Life would be so cold and boring without it! And besides, sexual love seems more widely available now than ever before. After all, same-sex couples, like their heterosexual friends, can now go into debt to finance big, splashy, legal weddings (in certain jurisdictions), and cougars (“older” women, past their mid-twenties) can openly stalk younger men, and even the polyamorous and BDSM crowds can celebrate their own distinct versions of Love – as long as these events aren’t really public and no one complains.

The variety of mass-produced greeting-cards that appear in February supposedly enables every lover to find one that expresses his/her personal feelings for the beloved. And in any case, Valentine’s Day is really the only holiday in February which can justify a night out (hopefully with sex included), now that the ancient seasonal holiday of Imbolc is more widely regarded as Groundhog Day – and no one parties to celebrate the emergence of groundhogs from hibernation.

I understand the desire for some excitement and some snuggling on a cold, dark winter night that is long past the December holidays. I really do. I just wish mainstream representations of romance (still widely symbolized by a little plastic couple atop a wedding cake: one in a tuxedo, the other in white lace) had changed even a little bit since the bygone era of my youth.

Despite the occasional exception, romance as a disguised power-struggle between an older, wealthier man and a younger, cuter woman, destined to result in marriage, still dominates the media.  Lovers from the cultural margins, where honesty, flexibility and mutual trust serve to strengthen couples against discrimination, are more influenced by mainstream values than one might think. No one can ignore that little plastic couple.

Heterosexual marriage, as the only respectable context for sex, was at one time the subject of many a sermon, article and advice column intended to lure the young and single into coupledom and prevent them from getting out. Much of that advice was appalling enough when applied only to bio-men and bio-women in one-to-one relationships, let alone as applied to “lovers” in general.

This was the deal, as explained to my very young self by my parents and other sources of “truth” about “life:”

  • Men and women are meant to be paired up like the animals in Noah’s Ark, and each person needs a counterpart of the “opposite sex.” However, everyone who finds a suitable mate in young adulthood, as predicted, is making a free personal choice.

  • Since finding a mate is crucial, whatever one can do to impress potential mates is justified. For women, this means always looking as attractive as possible (by current cultural standards) and downplaying one’s own will and past experience (especially if it includes sex). For men, this means exaggerating one’s strength, wealth, and social status while pretending to respect one’s date and even women in general.

  • Once a commitment has been made and mutual disillusionment sets in, the new couple needs to present a united front in public. By no means should either of them admit to anyone that he/she feels duped and exploited. And each of them needs to keep on “handling” the other as long as possible through lies, evasion, flattery, promises and threats.

  • When children come along, the gender-based roles need to be further polarized to preserve the family unit, that cornerstone of civilization. Children need parental role models to show them how to function as “men” and as “women.” Presumably, the cycle needs to continue forever if the human race is to last.

“Love,” based on this model, has been much critiqued since Mary Wollstonecraft tackled it in the 1790s. Despite some adjustments to traditional marriage as a legal and economic institution since then, it remains the standard model for long-term sexual relationships in general.

If you haven’t already learned this from experience, that little plastic bride and groom are unreal in several ways.  I can’t believe that most men really love women who seem almost devoid of human intelligence, and from what I’ve seen, women usually fall out of love with “Alpha males” as soon as they realize that the man’s behavior is meant primarily to get him what he wants; it’s not an expression of self-sacrificing heroism.

I’ve seen empathy and crackling desire (a combination sometimes called “chemistry”) between a woman and a man, and more power to them. With careful tending, I believe this feeling can survive the stress of always having at least one job apiece, paid or unpaid. Any two people who can honestly claim to be each other’s best friends seem like exceptions to the “Love” model described above. The best heterosexual relationships I’ve seen have a certain same-sex flavor, since neither person can afford to be a walking stereotype, and each one is strong enough to support the other in whatever way seems necessary at the moment.

But apparently, honest communication and shared interests are not the stuff of romance. While distressed couples on “reality” TV are encouraged to improve their communication skills, misunderstandings abound in novels and movies that show the essence of “Love” as a breathless obsession with someone who is completely and unchangeably different from oneself.

Feminists of the 1970s, in the tradition of Mary Wollstonecraft, analyzed the oppression of women in the kind of marriages described in fairy tales as the basis of lives lived “happily ever after.” One such feminist (whom few seem to remember any more) claimed that women who yearn for fulfillment in a conventional marriage are focused on a mirage in the desert, “the life-giving oasis that is not there.”*

Since then, some critics have blamed most 21st-century social problems on a general drift away from that source of psychological and social stability, the timeless “Love” represented by a plastic couple dressed in Victorian style for their wedding day. Like the pre-Raphaelites, artists of the Victorian Age who painted idealized visions of life in the Middle Ages, too many romantics are nostalgic for what never was.

Why do archaic conceptions of committed love still hold so much appeal for so many people? Probably because mainstream culture doesn’t offer anything better. To a large extent, characters on the page and the screen are presented as singles looking for mates, as already coupled-up, or as lonely grinches in mountain caves. Human beings are social animals, and few look forward to dying alone.

The appearance of a few same-sex couples in the media, shown to be as much as possible like more conventional husbands and wives, can be interpreted as a sign of the assimilation of former sexual outlaws into the mainstream, or it can be interpreted to mean that sexual diversity is becoming the new norm. That would be a good thing. 

There is hard-won knowledge in the sexual margins which could benefit the desert wanderers of our time who are still searching for the oasis of “Love” that their parents and grandparents failed to find. Obviously not all same-sex, polyamorous, age-divergent or BDSM relationships qualify as safe, sane and satisfying either. What they show is that sexual and emotional tastes vary enormously among people in general, and that relatively long-term happiness (as distinct from or along with momentary thrills) can be found in unexpected places.

It is even possible to enjoy the company of different people for different reasons: love doesn’t need to be sexual, and sex doesn’t need to feel degrading if it is never going to involve a promise (easily made and easily broken) of monogamy. Looking back at the periods of my own life that felt loneliest, I am amazed to remember the opportunities for companionship that I ignored at the time because I didn’t recognize a potential friend or lover until that person had left my orbit, or vice versa.

Much can be blamed on the little plastic figures that stand atop elaborate wedding cakes in climactic episodes of soap operas. Like the toys given to children, they don’t adequately represent  adult dreams that can come true.

*from The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution by Shulamith Firestone (Morrow, 1970).

Jean Roberta
February 2010

If you have comments or questions about this column, please send them to Jean Roberta

Follow Jean Roberta's trail to Sex Is All Metaphors in 2010 ERWA Archive.

"Sex Is All Metaphors" © 2010 Jean Roberta. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written

About the Author:†Jean Roberta is the thin-disguise pen name of a writer who teaches mandatory first-year English classes in a Canadian prairie university and who writes fiction (erotic and otherwise), research-based articles, opinion pieces and reviews. She joined ERWA in December 1998, and has never looked back. Several of her stories can be found in the "Treasure Chest" gallery. Over sixty of her erotic stories have been published in print anthologies, and Eternal Press has released her single-author e-collection of erotic stories in various genres and flavors, Obsession (2008).
Jean is a staff reviewer for the monthly reviews site, Erotica Revealed (edited by D.L. King). She blogs on Livejournal as "Lizardlez" and at Her website ( is a work in progress.
Read Jean's full bio at Erotica Readers & Writers Association.

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