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Updating Valentine's Day Traditions for an Egalitarian Era

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I've always been told Valentine's Day is a holiday that celebrates love -- a couple's love for each other, not just a man's love for a woman. Or her love of him, for that matter. It's supposed to be about them. Yet everything I've learned about how to act on Valentine's day tells me that it's really about his love for her.

As a teen and throughout college, it was very clear to me that guys with girlfriends were supposed to go out of their way to do something special, something romantic, for their partner. It could be a gift, fancy dinner or something else. Whatever the activity was, he was supposed to do something to make her feel special.

The commercialization of Valentine's day sends this message quite clearly: He buys her something nice, like jewelry, and she shows how happy she is with sex (or a kiss, at least). Commercials from Kay Jewelers are a prime example. Over and over, they show me a man who gives his wife/girlfriend a piece of jewelry; in return, he gets a deep kiss and, presumably sex. You can see it as cute. Or romantic. Or traditional. But for me, it's regressive and reinforces sex roles I thought we'd gotten away from. And I'm not talking about the trading-sex-for-jewelry theme.

Ads like these, and the TV shows that show him going to great lengths to create the Best Date Ever, make Valentine's day all about her. She gets taken someplace special. They do something she likes; he may or may not like it. She receives gifts.

What does he get? Laid, presumably. There's a cliché about guys buying lingerie as gifts. Let's assume she's part of that sexual encounter and enjoys it, in much the same way that he's part of that nice dinner and probably enjoys it.

What else does he get? Any gifts? Special treatment from his sweetie? It doesn't seem like it. Every now and again, I'll see a commercial where he gets a watch, but I don't see that commercial every year and even when I see it, it appears maybe one-tenth as much as the commercials where he buys her something.

This image of Valentine's day doesn't really fit my conception of equality. I'll admit that I may be more egalitarian than average, but the average has become quite egalitarian over the years. One study revealed that from the early 1970s through the mid-1990s, undergraduate men became notably more egalitarian over the years. If we're that into equality, why such a one-sided celebration of love and romance?

Stereotypes about boys and men are part of the answer. As a culture, we've convinced ourselves that guys are only interested in sex and want to avoid any kind of relational commitment. They don't want romance and they don't want to talk about or say the word "love."

Multiple studies have demonstrated that teenage boys and young men enjoy relationships because of the person they're dating. But that doesn't fit our stereotype of boys as sex-driven and relationship-phobic, so we ignore their feelings or see that particular guy as the exception. His feelings don't really seem to be a major part of Valentine's Day.

On this holiday for couples, I think we should start recognizing and celebrating men's contributions to romance and their love for their partners. Doing this will help affirm that he's an important part of the couple and not just an accessory to her romantic life. If he's going to go to all that effort and spend all that money to show how much he loves her, shouldn't he get something more than a smile and possibly sex? If it's just about sex, why not get a prostitute? That would take less time, effort and money.

Changing our habits to recognize his feelings would also help combat the stereotype of men as unemotional and sex-driven. After all, there are very few guys who only sleep around and never have a partner, and the vast majority of guys report two or fewer sexual partners in any given year.

Doing Valentine's Day differently will take some work and in most cases, that'll mean some conversation before the holiday arrives. After all, you wouldn't both want to make elaborate plans for the same day. If you know a same-sex couple, you might ask them for some help. Without the guidance of gender stereotypes, they've had to talk it through.

The easiest thing might be to celebrate Valentine's day twice, once for her and once for him, so to speak. I'm sure the business community will like that. Who goes first or gets February 14 can either rotate from one year to the next or can go to the person who seems more invested in the holiday.

Another possibility is to find an activity that both members of the couple like and feel is sufficiently romantic. A nice dinner out is the obvious choice, but it could also be something reminiscent of their first date, an evening out dancing, or some other shared activity.

Or they could just take turns; one year Valentine's Day is for her and the next year, it's for him. This makes more sense for couples that are clearly committed to a long-term relationship. It might also add some variety, because it won't necessarily be the same thing every year and it can be quite different than what happens on their anniversary.

One more thing. Guys? If she buys you a sexy pair of underwear, remember to act excited about the gift and make sure you wear them.