For centuries, the birthday of St. Valentine has been celebrated
as the day for lovers. As the story goes, the third century
Roman Emperor, Claudius II, outlawed wedlock, believing that
unmarried men made better soldiers. Valentine, a Catholic
priest, refused to abide by the law. Eventually, caught secretly
performing marriages, he was beheaded, becoming both a Christian
martyr and the patron Saint of Lovers. In the 1500s, young
people in Western Europe would gather on Feb. 14 for a festival.
The unmarried women would toss their names into a bowl and
each young man would draw the name of a girl who was to be
his companion for the celebration; hence the origin of ''Be
But times have changed and, alas, poor Valentine has been
stripped of his sainthood. In 1969, the Catholic church erased
his name from the calendar of special feast days. While this
event went unnoticed, overshadowed by the sale of cards, flowers
and chocolates, it was a harbinger of things to come -- a
sign of foreboding for innocent lovers of all ages. Little
did we know then that schoolyard romances would become the
subject of lawsuits and crime stories. Never did we imagine
that young lovers would shelve flirting and dating, for ''hanging
out'' in groups, discussing sanitized forms of ''safe sex.''
None of us who can recall the vibrancy of flower power and
the exuberance of free love would have anticipated the demise
of passion. We had no idea that mature love would become the
domain of sex therapists, with their how-to manuals, videos,
and endless cautions.
I still recall, as a little girl, cutting out paper Valentines
for my friends. And I remember especially the mushy ones I
was too shy to sign; being a secret admirer was part of the
thrill. But no more! Gone are the playful crushes of childhood
-- the giggling, the teasing and the blushing. Puppy love
is no longer safe. A little boy who steals a kiss risks more
than embarrassment. Many of us were stunned, a few years back,
when an eight year old was charged with assault for doing
just that. And recently, in Gimli, Man., an elementary school
outlawed hugging. Because hugging may lead to inappropriate
touching or encourage sexual harassment, the students are
being asked to greet each other with a ''high five'' salute
So that no child will have his or her self-esteem damaged,
some school districts enforce an all-or-none rule. If a child
wants to send Valentines to just special friends, that's not
allowed; every classmate must receive a card. Puppy love,
it seems, can't be discriminating. Gone, too, is the romantic
swooning of young love, the torturous ''guy-calls-girl'' dating
ritual, the elitism of going steady, the erotic hesitancy
of ''petting,'' the fleeting declarations of adoration.
Now teenagers and those of the X generation hang out in groups
where they can mix and match, while avoiding any hint of commitment.
As columnist Rebecca Eckler notes in her observations about
''the new dating game,'' dating is less formal and sex, detached
from love, is more acceptable.
A 1999 international survey of 5,000 teens indicates that
Canadian youth have the lowest average age for sex -- 15 years
old for both boys and girls. Young sex is in! Young love is
out! Sadly, even for people who are grown-up and married,
the joys and the eternal enigma of mature love have become
an orchestrated, technical matter. Magazines at the check-out
counters offer working couples the 10 steps to get ''the sizzle''
back into their sex lives.
While annoying television infomercials promote how-to videos
guaranteed to rekindle the flame for older folks. If that
isn't discouraging enough, former presidential candidate Bob
Dole reminds older men that ''erectile dysfunction'' strikes
millions of Americans each year. And a recent study out of
the University of Washington states that up to 40 per cent
of women suffer from some form of sexual dysfunction. Research
is under way for a female version, probably pink in colour,
of the now famous ''Little Blue,'' that has brought Pfizer
Pharmaceuticals, the makers of Viagra, record profits with
5.8 million prescriptions written in 1998, the most ever for
a new drug. Lost in all of this concern about correct behaviour,
safety and sexual performance is St. Valentine's love, a love
that defies the law. Perhaps the church could do something
constructive and put the Day for Lovers back on the calendar.
For, as Sophocles remarked long ago, ''A word frees us all
of the weight and pain of life: that word is love.''