This year will be a Valentine’s Day like no other. Sex with a stranger is no longer merely frowned upon by pearl-clutching conservatives, it’s illegal under lockdown regulations. Dating – even with a husband or wife – has been limited to a candlelit dinner in your front room. The spontaneity of chance encounters has been thwarted by masks, hand sanitisers and a kibosh on touching. In these strange times for lovers, the question of intimacy, and what it means in the twenty-first century, seems more important than ever.
Falling in love has always been a dangerous business. From the first flickering of romance to admitting you might be head over heels, allowing yourself to be vulnerable and open in a relationship is often frightening. Love is, as Charlotte Bronte put it 174 years ago, as dangerous as fire – a ‘pure, powerful flame’. But as with many other aspects of contemporary society, risk is now often frowned upon – especially when it comes to intimacy. Those concerned with formalising consent argue that a fetishisation of mystery and informality within relationships has often been an excuse for abuse.
Political movements from the feminist marches of the 1980s to the #MeToo movement in 2017 have influenced change in society’s attitude to courtship and intimacy. But some are concerned about how far measures to control and guarantee safety in interpersonal relationships will affect our ability to fall freely in love. The Domestic Abuse Bill, currently making its way through the House of Lords in the UK, has been praised for attempting to tackle serious assault, but criticised for the possibility of inviting unwanted scrutiny into people’s intimate relationships. In the US, Title IX legislation on campus has allowed a panic about consent to jeopardise sexual freedom, in which the very idea of risk or a lack of safety in intimate situations is viewed as tantamount to abuse or even rape.
On the other hand, some argue that intimacy had taken a bashing long before we were tweeting about the failure of relationships or romantic encounters. The sanitisation of night-life from pub closures to changing social habits has meant that being chatted up by a special someone on a sticky floor is about as likely as love at first sight. Critics argue that dating or hook-up apps like Tinder, Grindr or Bumble have dealt a further blow to the possibility of that frisson of flirtation as meetings are inevitably lacking in spontaneity. Indeed, several polls have showed that younger generations are more likely to send sexts to each other than get it on.
In short, what is it like to fall in love in today, when there seems to be so many more factors involved in intimacy than the feelings of two people? Is the isolation and atomisation of love (or lack of it) in lockdown new, or merely an extreme catalysing of a familiar trend in modern dating? How do we balance the desire to right the wrongs of the past, with an understanding that the intimate encounters we often cherish the most are the ones that took us by surprise? As John Fowles wrote in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, while it’s often futile to be nostalgic, was love and intimacy more hopeful when we were less concerned with controlling the outcome, when ‘strangers were strange, and sometimes with an exciting, beautiful strangeness’? Or are we stuck in an arcane view of how love works – should we be open to a new definition which ditches a reliance on uncontrollable feelings like butterflies in your stomach or sweat on your brow? How risky is it to fall in love today – and what does love and intimacy mean in an increasingly risk-averse society?
barrister; writer; regular contributor, BBC Woman’s Hour and Sky News; former president, Business and Human Rights Commission, Union Internationale des Avocats (UIA)
writer and journalist; recent dating columnist, The Sunday Times’ Style magazine; author, Bad Romance
writer; contributor, Areo, Unherd
journalist; author, What Women Want: fun, freedom and an end to feminism
Chair: Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; author, I STILL Find That Offensive!; former MEP, Brexit Party, member, House of Lords
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Picture: Rodin, The Kiss (1901-4)