I was absolutely unaware of our reputation abroad until I started traveling. Then, I realized that the French were said to have this little je ne sais quoi. In plain language: French were libertine, were doing it all the time, routinely had several mistresses and lovers and had a god-given talent for romance.
Phew, really? Silly me, I hadn’t noticed!
It bothered me. Was I extremely naive or just blind to my own sex-appeal? At first glance, it seemed to be nothing more than a huge misunderstanding.
Now, when I go back to France, I can see why North Americans are a little bit puzzled with our attitude towards sex. Yes, there are nude statues in pretty much every city: we call that erotic art and yes, it is a popular subject to write a PHD on. Go buy cigarettes at your local bureau de tabac (which also sell magazines and newspapers) and you will see plenty of Playboy with very racy front pages. Couples kiss openly…Ah, French kisses! Don’t forget the three main French words anybody know: “ménage à trois“, “rendez-vous” “affaire” (say it with a French accent, it’s supposed to be sexy). Plus, on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, most people thought that they were really nothing wrong (nor surprising for that matters) with Bill Clinton fooling around with an intern.
Oh, and don’t even get me starting on topless sunbathing…! I had no idea it was seen as a “sexual” thing until… well, until I went to the beach outside of Europe. This is really weird to me. Yes, in France, it’s perfectly acceptable to be topless on the beach. It’s very normal and very common — I mean come on, my mother (and pretty much all the women in my family, come to think of it) take the top off! It’s just one of these non-spoken rules. Lie down on you towel and read a book or chat with friend equals to removing the top. Go swim or walk around, put it back. And believe it or not, men around don’t stare, unless they are from North America (or you have extremely unusual breast… I mean, men are still men!).
So that’s it, it is just a cultural misunderstanding?
Because for a lot of French (and Europeans in general), Americans are viewed as prudish on sexual matters. We always make fun of the general attitude of the Anglo-American legal system toward non-procreative eroticism. I mean come on people, isn’t what happen in the bedroom (or the laundry room, the living room etc.) a private matter? Apparently not. In Utah, “Adultery, oral and anal sex, masturbation are considered sodomy and can lead to imprisonment.” In 1999, Alabama made it “unlawful to produce, distribute or otherwise sell sexual devices that are marketed primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.” But then, what would you expect from a country that censors the word “fuck”?
France does not recognize religious law, nor does it recognize religious beliefs or morality as a motivation for the enactment of prohibitions. As a consequence, the country has long had neither blasphemy laws nor sodomy laws. These are seen are quite exotic in Europe!
But somehow, in North America, I found things pretty explicit at times. Although it by no means represent American TV, I still can’t find words to describe the Jerry Springer Show. Violence and sex is everywhere on TV… yet you will have to explain me why the movie Amélie is rated R for sexual content! Don’t ever go to the beach topless… unless you are on spring break. Then, it is totally fine to engage in binge-drinking, casual sex and to end up on a Girls Gone Wild camera. A lot of movies promote teenagers sexuality (American Pie, to quote just one ) yet the Bush administration expended abstinence programs. Teen “stars” become mothers at 16 years old but Miley Cyrus posing Lolita-style in Vanity Fair was very controversial. I just don’t get it!
Both sides of the Atlantic Ocean clearly have different views on what’s acceptable, what should be censored, and how to deal with sexual matters in general. There is no right or wrong, it’s just…cultural. And anything cultural is bound to have many paradoxes. I remember how surprised I was in Brazil last winter, where I learned topless sunbathing was not acceptable. Yet, it was perfect fine to wear the tiniest bikini ever, barely covering the nipples, and to walk around in the city wearing a teeshirt and a thong!
So be it. Europeans will probably always carry this “sexy” image while North America will be accused of puritanism.
Oh well. I guess I will have to live with the sexy image. Really, I’m flattered.