Editorial: The media’s unconscionable portrayal of sex as a transaction

Reclining on a bed clad in a black sequin dress, a woman pulls black stockings over her feet as the camera gives an ample shot of her brown thigh. Giving a sultry look to the camera, she lets her jet-black, long, silky hair down as she saunters to a mirror, applying crimson lipstick to luscious lips and allowing the camera a shot of her exposed back. As a deep, heavy percussion-driven music is played, a female vocalist sighs and groans. The woman turns to the camera, leans in and murmurs in a light Latin accent, “Give, and you shall receive.”

This is a flower commercial.

Yet this Valentine’s Day advertisement is definitely selling more than flowers. When Teleflora created this commercial to sell a product, they needed to spur a desire in the consumer to spend his paycheck on their wares. So they also created something else: an idea. This idea isn’t exactly subtle—it’s said outright by the model Teleflora hired to move their product. ”Give, and you shall receive.”

What is to be given? Teleflora’s bouquets of red and white roses. In turn, what will be received? If there is any doubt, the commercial ends by wishing the viewer “Happy Valentine’s” before the word “night” is added in a feminine, cursive hand.

This 2012 commercial that aired during the Superbowl is not the only one of its kind. An ad for Victoria’s Secret during the 2013 Superbowl features numerous women wearing revealing lingerie amid pink-cushioned sofas and billowing drapes set to a chorus of “Love Me.” According to Pajamagram, all one has to do to “bring out her wild side” is buy her pajamas, and the company thoughtfully provides a free do-not-disturb sign just for the occasion. Purchasing a “Hunka Love Bear” from Vermont Teddy Bear for your significant other is “sure to pay off for you.” The same company has also produced a short clip entitled, “Give Bear, Get Love,” featuring a large teddy bear that steadily finds itself covered in women’s clothing before giving a knowing wink.

Some retailers are more than explicit about their motives. Kay Jewelers’ ubiquitous slogan is one of the worst offenders. “Every kiss begins with Kay” outright states that the purchase of a diamond ring is a necessary prerequisite to romance.

These commercials are only a cursory glance at the deluge of advertisements that all spout the same message throughout February: Valentine’s Day is nothing more than an exchange of goods. The man gives the woman one thing, be it flowers, teddy bears or jewelry. In exchange, it is expected that she give him another—sex.

This media portrayal of sex as a good that can be bartered is destructive to the values Valentine’s Day supposedly stands for: recognizing and rejoicing in love for one another. Sex becomes nothing else but a transaction in this view, with the guy expecting his woman to have sex and the girl acquiescing to the man’s request because it is expected of her.

These advertisements lamentably succeed in prostituting women by perpetuating the societal stereotype that every woman has her price. In this case, the currency used for the transaction is an expensive box of chocolates or a diamond necklace. Once that price is met, she will happily reward the “purchaser” with his request of sex.

Men are maligned as well. By broadcasting these commercials, men are characterized as being driven solely by sex. After all, according to the advertisement’s logic, what’s the purpose of hauling an impractically oversized teddy bear through the bedroom door if it doesn’t “pay off” for him later?

Apparently, these companies and the advertising agencies they hire aren’t aware of two simple facts fundamental to a romantic relationship: sex is not something that men purchase, and sex is not something that women give out. Sex is an experience that is shared. Both people in a relationship together decide when to make love. It is not thrust by one person onto another—that’s rape.

There is no relationship rulebook which states that sex is a requirement on Valentine’s Day. If a couple decides to not engage in sex, that’s their prerogative. Neither partner in a healthy relationship should be pressured to have sex with the other, regardless of whether that’s through violent intimidation or simply the social pressure associated with giving a gift on Valentine’s Day.

If both people share the desire to express their feelings for one another in a sexual manner, that’s fine. But if a woman has a bad day at work and doesn’t feel like having sex, she shouldn’t be pressured to. And men should not be buying gifts for their partners because they want sex out of it.

This is because the gifts given on Valentine’s Day do not symbolize sex. They symbolize the relationship itself. The act of sex can serve as an affirmation of this relationship, just as a present of earrings or a music box can, but not if it is expected as a reward for good behavior. At that point, it becomes representative of an imbalance of power between the couple that is to the detriment of a healthy relationship.

The commercials presenting Valentine’s Day sex as a commodity to be traded, bartered for and given away only serve to devalue and defile the act and the holiday. Valentine’s Day means much more than just sex. It is the celebration of the relationship of human beings with one another. It is rejoicing in the time that two people are able to spend together. It is sharing a unparalleled bond with another person.

All of these Valentine’s Day commercials fail to recognize that basic premise in their attempt to increase their profit margins. Even though relationships are not things that can be bought and sold, the media unfailingly presents them as such every Valentine’s Day. This portrayal only succeeds in perpetuating negative stereotypes of both men and women, and turning a day of jubilation into a commercial convention.

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