As another Valentine's Day passes, people ask themselves, "Why are relationships so complicated?" February brings a drama-go-round of romantic expectations, hopes, miscommunication and disappointment. If you are one of the lucky ones who've escaped its clutches, chances are you know someone else caught in its snare. There are as many ways for love to go wrong as there are hearts beating to experience it.
Perhaps by peeling away some of these illusions of romance, we can find new and more lasting ways of accepting ourselves and growing intimate with others. It's my hope that by making peace with our sexuality, both individually and as a culture, we can find the freedom to discover true love throughout our lives in delightfully unexpected places.
In past generations, marriage was often motivated by economic survival and husbands and wives simply made the best of it. When folks married at a younger age and birth control options weren't available, the taboo against sex before marriage held more power. Some religions still enforce premarital taboos; others surreptitiously do so by heaping guilt and shame onto the experience of human sexuality. Denial of one's sexuality may lead to unsafe or unhealthy behaviors that exploit oneself and others. At the extreme, predatory and irresponsible sexual practices develop.
Mixed messages carried forward from past generations and social forces that denounce contemporary practices, such as same-sex marriage, make it that much more difficult to find and retain Mr. or Ms. Right. It is a grim situation when adults feel like they must choose between debaucheries in dark, neon-lit bars and conformity-seeking singles groups in church basements to find a life partner.
To make matters worse, we are constantly bombarded with commercial images that sell sex with perfect, airbrushed bodies and unrealistic endings of "happily ever after," leaving many feeling impossibly inadequate and with an insatiable desire to be validated by others. Revelations about the dynamics of date rape and sexual assault make it clear that too often people fail to explore each other's emotions and boundaries, all while trapped within this contextual barrage of story lines that objectify and devalue the sacredness of loving sex.
Last, we have to look at gender stereotypes and binaries. What does it mean to be a man or a woman? Are we defined by our anatomy or by whom we love? Rigid definitions of these roles and identities add to our sense of isolation and feelings of falling short. The current wave of social justice inquiry delves deeply into these questions, and I believe will one day obliterate homophobia, heterosexism and transphobia in its wake.
In the meantime, it is only by becoming deeply aware of our bodies and pursuing physical and emotional health that we can cast off the shackles of commercial conformity and dogmatic demureness, embracing the humanity that makes each of us wholly sexual and unique living beings. ♦
Mariah McKay is a fourth-generation daughter of Spokane and a community organizer campaigning for racial, social and economic justice. She has worked in biotech and government and currently serves as a public health advocate.