No single holiday brings up more consternation and confusion than Valentine's Day. Whether you love or hate the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, one thing the film is doing by debuting on this romantic and commercial holiday is putting a punctuation mark on the dividing line that exists between women and men on what this day means and what's expected by each person participating in it.
One huge problem with Valentine's Day is that it means different things for women than it does for men.
Women think of romance as revolving around emotions and love. Their partners are often expected to understand this without any hints from the woman as to what she expects from him. The less developed your relationship, the trickier it gets.
For men, Valentine's Day equates to spending money they often do not have, but also the reality that even if they "deliver," they aren't guaranteed to get what they want in return for their efforts. Uncertainty pervades the day, especially with friends watching and judging from the sidelines.
"I don't do romance. My tastes are very singular... you wouldn't understand," Christian Grey says to Anastasia Steele. Translated, it means that Christian Grey wants sex, not the trappings of romance that don't deliver satisfaction to his "very singular" tastes.
Most know the basic story of Fifty Shades by now, so you also know that Anastasia Steele won't relinquish her desire for love and commitment and is willing to let go of Christian Grey to get what she wants.
It's not that she won't deliver beyond the "vanilla" sex that won't meet Christian's needs. It's that she also wants something in return -- her own emotional satisfaction.
What runs through Fifty Shades, even if you're not into the BDSM sexual adventurism, is a negotiation between two people. Once Anastasia Steele reveals she's open to hearing about Christian Grey's "tastes," it foreshadows the promise of wider possibilities, though it takes time and patience for them to navigate. What she's not willing to do is sacrifice love and commitment just because their connection is molten.
Debuting Fifty Shades of Grey on Valentine's Day is a challenge to traditional American cultural norms, because this is a story that openly admits, even confronts, that we are first glued to one another by physical attraction and lust. Fantasizing about the two main characters going through this ritual of first connection has riveted over 100 million readers readers across the globe, in innumerable languages. It dares to say sex and romance are not incompatible at all, but inextricably linked, and it does so by expanding the traditionally acceptable norms of intimate experience to a wider definition.
Women want romance and all the trappings on Valentine's Day.
What's always left out of the equation is what men want, which begins with making the woman happy, but also includes what they'd like in return if they deliver. Men don't want to spend a lot of money on one day's whimsy, especially when reciprocation isn't forthcoming. What men want in return for the romance they deliver is to be appreciated, and nothing says that better than sex.
When Christian Grey says Anastasia won't understand his sexual "tastes," this is something I heard a lot when I was talking to men in my job as relationship consultant, my actual title at the time. Whether it was in emails, on the phone or in other discussions, men said they looked to pornography, phone sex and other mediums, because they didn't think the woman in their life would appreciate their fantasies. They were also scared to be embarrassed or judged for their desires. Men often don't think women will understand their sexual proclivities, no matter how benign.
Even when a man is fully satisfied in his relationship, he still can have a secret sex life playing in his head.
The sales of Fifty Shades of Grey, as well as the romance industry and erotica women have always perused, prove women do, too. Women are as carnal as men about their sexual fantasies. This is nothing new; it's just that mainstream American culture isn't honest about it.
When Anastasia says "enlighten me," she challenges Christian to share his deepest secrets. Of course, at first it doesn't go well, which can happen when you surprise someone with sexual passions they've never considered.
Friendship has always been the gateway to solidifying a long-term relationship, and considered the most important part of a marriage.
Liberation blew this dynamic to smithereens.
Two people have to be great friends and communicate openly, but the one thing that separates long-term relationships or marriage from other interactions is the physical relationship and connection you enjoy, but also must continually nurture. It doesn't stop when you reach a certain age or a point of comfort -- that is, if you want to protect your partnership.
Fifty Shades of Grey on Valentine's Day dares to say that love and romance are fundamental and that sex matters equally. You can't be scared or worry about judgment when sharing, because "singular" desires won't disappear in order to please someone anymore than a desire for commitment and love will.
It's about taking a sexual leap of faith and trusting your partner will stay present and be willing to participate as your connection deepens.
Romance in full bloom is emotional and erotic, not just a commercial exercise on Valentine's Day that follows a script where only one of you gets what you want.
Taylor Marsh is an author and speaker living outside Washington, D.C. Her latest book, The Sexual Education of a Beauty Queen -- Relationship Secrets from the Trenches is on sale for the month of February for $1.99, with an audio introduction available on iTunes.