The Problem with Love Potions (and Spells)

[TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of sexual assault and denial of autonomy]

Oh, Valentine’s Day marketing! Look at you, being all pervasive and such! Whether Valentine’s Day is your thing or not, you absolutely can’t escape the aisles of red and pink currently inhabiting your local shopping places. While at one of the major discount stores last weekend, Boyfriend and I noticed a piece of seasonal decor that resulted in a mutual ick moment. The item in question was a set of labels to place over soda/liquor bottles or whatever liquid-containing vessel you desire. One of the labels was labeled “Love Potion.” At first, seeing only the labels but not actually reading any of them, I said “Cute idea,” to which Boyfriend replied with a shocked, “Aren’t those a little rapey?” I guess I should read things a little better, because yeah, that’s more than a little rapey. I was slightly embarrassed that I hadn’t noticed it, and quite proud that he had.

Ugh.Since that incident, I’ve noticed quite a few “love potion” and “love spell” themed Valentines items. I assume they’ve always been there, but I’ve never much paid attention, as I’ve never been the type to throw a Valentine’s party or even peruse the themed aisles past the candy section (gummy hearts!). The last time I remember actually looking at anything but the candy was probably in high school, so I’m not really keeping up with the trends. These “love potion” gifts and decor are extremely problematic, and I’ll tell you why. The whole idea behind a love potion or spell is to get someone to fall in love with you, correct? Correct, Elfity! So logically, with romantic love usually comes sexual attraction and sexual activities. Can you spot the glaring consent issue? If a person is under the influence of a mind-altering substance or being mind-controlled, they absolutely cannot give consent. There is nothing more mind-altering than a love potion, and using such a substance for the purpose of love, and therefore sex, is treacherous and disturbing. Supposedly, this substance is made, purchased, and used with the distinct purpose of controlling somebody, and is at its core manipulative and controlling.

Right now I’m sure somebody is going “Really, Elfity? Really? They don’t even exist!” That is true. Love potions, as we know them from popular culture and media, do not exist. However, this is important because it creates a social narrative that we become accustomed to. It becomes pervasive, sneaking into our subconscious. From the song “Love Potion #9” to books and movies depicting the use of love potions, it pops up a lot, especially around Valentine’s Day. Usually in these stories, little or no harm is done, and the results of the love potion or spell are written to be humorous and fun, if not a little embarrassing. I think that’s because they usually stop before something really drastic happens. They stop before somebody is raped, is what I’m saying here.

We tend to think of love potions as being harmless, mostly because of the context they are talked about in. Children’s stories and shows, romantic comedies, and old songs all depict love potions as being fun and harmless, just silly little ideas people have! Like I said, it’s because they stop there. But there is another reason that I can see, one which has to do with gender. Very often there’s a girl in love with the popular boy who would never, ever talk to her. She gives him a love potion or performs a love spell and BAM!, he’s all over her, or something similar. Love spells and potions are very often used by women on men. In a culture that fails to adequately recognize sexual assault against men, it isn’t any wonder that we automatically dismiss a love potion or spell. See, men always want sex! Except for when, you know, they don’t. And with love potions and spells, they don’t get a choice.

And of course, I can’t talk about love potions and spells without talking about witches! Yes, evil, scary witches. Witches who have the sole purpose of manipulating, scheming, and generally screwing people over. With the love spell and potion stories, you have two sorts of witches. You have the spooky old witch nobody wants to talk to, handing out love potions to the person brave enough to visit her. She’s old, wrinkled, and creepy. Then you have the young, usually beautiful and usually brunette witch who casts spells on unsuspecting men. Bonus points if the witch is a woman of color! There are major -isms at play here, and none of them are OK. Women have long been called witches for going against the norm, daring to speak out, or not bowing to Christian patriarchy.We can also add that those who practice witchcraft, Wicca, goddess worship, or general Paganism get really shitty names from stuff like this.

And last but not least, because Valentine’s Day is marketed very heavily towards children and teenagers, albeit for different reasons, guess who internalizes all of these messages? That’s right, the kids. Won’t somebody please think of the children?! No, really. It is a fact that we live in a rape culture, and messages like this seek to promote and normalize behaviors that suppress the importance of consent. We want our daughters and sons, nieces and nephews, and sisters and brothers to know that it is crucial to give and get consent, and that’s difficult to teach in an environment that desperately wants us to ignore it in the way of personal gratification or just good, clean Valentine’s Day fun. So everyone, please take note of what I’ve said. Even if you don’t celebrate, Valentine’s Day really should be a fun, silly holiday where we have an excuse to stick hearts on everything or stock up on clearance chocolate February 15th, not something that perpetuates the rape culture.

By Elfity

Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

10 replies on “The Problem with Love Potions (and Spells)”

I’ve felt this way about love potions/spells for a while, but it wasn’t until I read this article that I thought about how women’s supposed power to “seduce” men is talked about in the exact same way. Even with the same sort of words! (ex. “she put a spell on me”)

It all goes: woman tries to get what she wants, puts on the sexy, man loses all higher-brain power and does whatever she wants.

And that’s structured in the convenient language of compulsion, thus placing all the blame on the woman and exonerating the man from any wrongdoing.

Perhaps that’s why we talk about love potions/spells (and depicting women as if they’re obsessed with wanting them, whereas men are not…see Harry Potter Movies) like they’re so harmless. The construct is already alive and well within our culture.

(Of course there’s also rape culture with that. Can’t forget that, either)

My brother actually pointed out the whole “love potion=rape” issue in the Harry Potter books to me; I’d never really thought about them being anything beyond embarrassing. When put in that context, Hermione’s warning to Harry about Romilda Vane, to be careful since she is really “out to get him”, is extraordinarily creepy.

Great article. I’ve been very disturbed at the amount of rapey humor in pop culture lately, but I hadn’t even thought of this. I’m not a VDay fan. When I was younger, it was always a holiday to get together with single friends, drink vodka and watch horror movies in protest. Now, we buy candy in the AM on 2/15.

This reminded me of a movie I watched 100+ times in the early 90s, Teen Witch. I loved it as a kid, but like many other things, I didn’t have someone there to break it down for me. You know, the focus on physical appearance is bullshit, it’s never cool to coerce someone into liking you or vice versa, etc. This is a crucial aspect to feminist parenting, IMO. Because the bullshit is everywhere, it’s unavoidable, but we do have the power to hit pause, break it down and discuss our values with our children.

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