- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2000

The first Valentine's Day of the millennium confronts the same old conflicts in love: sex vs. power, autonomy vs. compatibility, narcissism vs. coupledom, anatomy vs. attitude. We haven't yet named it "Gender Day."

The current technology for courtship (as in cyberspace) may be different, but romantic words (as in "Cyrano de Bergerac") remain as important as ever. "You've got mail" or "Love at first fax" becomes the post-modern equivalent of "he called" or the sentiment captured in the primitive dialogue of "Me Tarzan, You Jane." Valentine's Day remains more sentimental than carnal, leaving behind certain Roman origins, which celebrated fertility, with boys dancing naked covered only by a small goatskin girdle, flaying their love objects with goatskin strips to get them pregnant. (So that's how they did it.)

If the sexual revolution changed some of the mores between men and women, some for better and a lot for worse, most women still want to marry, for better or for worse. But later. The average age for men marrying is 27 and for women 24. Conde Nast's Brides magazine for January weighed in at 4.8 pounds, mostly ads. Somebody's buying it. But changing codes of conduct have made courtship before the wedding more difficult than ever.

To this end Amy and Leo Kass, two University of Chicago professors, have written a wonderful anthology about courtship and marriage called "Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar." The title, taken from a sonnet by Robert Frost, suggests the crucial metaphor for marriage which suggests soaring together and pulling together, the vitality and hard work required for married life.

The excerpts include passages from the Old Testament, traditional marriage vows, classics in literature and philosophy, as well as a few things from Miss Manners. Many of the selections we've read before, but they're presented precisely for a fresh contemplation of love as in love and marriage: "Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments." (Shakespeare sonnet 116.)

How a culture defines marriage determines how a couple courts. That's elementary. "Courtship was and is therefore distinguishable from flirting and seducing, from trysting and having an affair, and to speak in modern idiom, from 'hooking up' or even from having or being in a 'relationship,' " write the Kasses. "These activities, whatever their merits, do not aim at marriage."

It's easy to respond to such a passage and say "Who doesn't know that?" But, alas, a lot of people don't. In working on a book about courtship I've met hundreds of women, who expect to extract marriage from sexual liaisons, and their male partners clearly don't. She might suppose, but he doth not propose. This happens at all ages, but particularly in couples where the woman is about 30, listening to her biological clock ticking, or in her late 40s, past child-bearing age, desperate to (re)marry as she feels her attractiveness waning.

While it's not fair to blame feminists for this sad observation, certain feminists must take responsibility for vulgarizing the sexual mystery and therefore the expectations between women and men. "The Vagina Monologues," a book and one-woman theater piece by Eve Ensler, is straight to that point. By repeating the title word over and over again, the author says, "the word is what propels us and sets us free."

Say what? You don't have to be a prude to think this is nonsense. Gloria Steinem, who has never married or had children (by choice), writes an introduction to Eve Ensler's book: "By the time feminists were putting ['expletive] POWER!['] on buttons and T-shirts as a way of reclaiming that devalued word, I could recognize the restoration of an ancient power."

After reading "The Vagina Monologues," I had no desire to attend a performance, but David Brooks, writing in The Weekly Standard, describes what it felt like to be a scarce male sitting in an audience of sophisticated middle-age to aging feminists, who went wild with repetitive recitations of the V-word as "a tasteless parody of lust."

Hillary Clinton, a straight-laced Methodist at heart, has invited Eve Ensler to the White House, though probably not to read from her work. On stage, the author excites women by drawing attention to Hillary's candidacy: We've got a [four-letter vulgar expletive] running for Senate! "Everybody cheers for the four-letter expletive that most offends women."

In ads, on theater banners and from box office answering machines, the show is referred to as "V. Monologues." Maybe somebody (with more taste than the author) thinks the "V" stands for Victory or Vanquished. Or even for Valentine. Be forewarned, it's not.

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