The Oh-So-Sexy French Myth

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Caution (Bad Language?)

I might be shooting myself in the foot, but you have to explain me something: where does the “French equal sexy” myth come from?

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.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. i sometimes hear of a “latin lover” myth. I of course am far from that. I’m actually just not much of a lover at all, or a fighter, so maybe the stereotype I adhere to is the lazy siesta loving Mexican.

  2. I was just discussing about the same thing with my (also Indonesian) friend who’d lived in US before. The thing about Scandinavian countries is that sex is regarded as “normal ordinary thing” that is not worth debating over. You could even see posters of naked boobs displayed on the public buses as advertisement for breast enlargement plastic surgery and you could find naked ladies in page 9 of an ordinary yellow paper that a kid could buy.

    Being an Indonesian, my friend thought that US was pretty liberal when it comes to their attitude to sex but she was even more in shock when she moved here and since I have lived here just a little bit longer than her, I realise that Americans are actually very conservative when it comes to sex matters compared to the Europeans.

    Just my two cents

  3. many of north america’s early settlers came here to avoid
    religious persecution in europe. puritanism is part of our history and heritage, even if it now seems oddly out of step with modern europe. but within america, there is still much disagreement on what is appropriate and what isn’t. california is different than kansas. kansas is different from massachusetts.
    so why is french sexy? it’s a romance language. it’s cosmopolitan. it’s ooh la la. it’s berets and art. it’s carla bruni. it’s coffee and a cold windy day on la tour eiffel. Voulez-vous danser avec moi?
    when one asks: your place or mine? it’s always your place.

  4. Moi non plus je ne sais pas qu’est-ce qu’il y a de sexy quand quelqu’un parle francais ou la personne vient de France. Peut-etre c’est votre accent…c’est tres unique et different compare au accent Quebecois. Lol.

    Je trouve que tu as raison a propos des North Americains…on veut etre libere mais en meme temps on a des pensees tres reservees. Alors, quand es tu part encore en voyage?

  5. OK, your uber-sexiness point taken:). US is a pretty diverse country to begin with and it never ceases to amaze me how conservative it can be as a society with some things.For example, abortion is a huge issue over there while in Europe I haven’t heard a single debate about it since it is considered a woman’s right to deal with her own body.

    Back to the issue of sex though… Greeks are also said to have some sort of uncanny libido overdrive or whatever, so when passing out borders I suggest to all interested parties to have an abundance of condoms at hand and take a lot of vitamins beforehand. The minute a foreign woman steps into our land she is practically impregnated by the “air”:). Oh well, I am going to go to the borders to stalk for “fresh female meat” now, so excuse my speedy exit ok?LOL! Ah, that famous greek lover sex overdrive doesn’t make exceptions in the greek male population I am afraid, it is practically a national duty of sorts to share our sex-awesomeness with the unsuspecting(?) tourists,LOL!

    On the other hand some nations are not so “lucky” in the sex stereotypes stakes, chinese anyone?

    By the way, now I see your picture in the avatar under a new light Zhu… it oozes with French sex appeal I have to shut… down… the PC… it is too much for my greek sex overdrive to handle…

    Take care gal and keep writing such fun posts!

  6. As an American, it’s always bothered me that Americans are so uptight about sex and the human form and willing to censor it in any way, but it’s ok to watch a movie where the main character becomes a one man army and uses over-the-top violence to get revenge or further their agenda. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I’ll take the French laissez-faire attitude any day.

  7. Pierre Trudeau (Prime Minister of Canada from April 1968 to June 1979 & from March 1980 to June 1984) once said, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”

    He was right but most of the nation lagged behind this belief (and still does). So too does most of North America.

    A lot of hypocrisy here – be proud of “your” reputation!

  8. I never understood the puritan approach to sex in the United States either. Coming from a Catholic country, and having a religious upbringing, I can understand where the puritan viewpoint stems from, but really? What’s wrong about it, when everyone is doing it? And yes, religion has something to do with it, especially if some people view sex as the original sin. But hello, orgasms are pretty pleasurable moments, why would that be a sin? It’s just like eating ice cream, or chocolate, or having a nice hot bath. In the brain, signals are all the same. Why single out sex as “bad” when it is all biological?

  9. It’s funny that you say that you never knew. I had the hardest time trying to convince my French friends of they myth when I first arrived. It really is a world-wide accepted view, I believe.

  10. @sir jorge – Come to think of it, I heard of this “myth” too. I guess it’s like the French myth, quite overrated… no offense of course! 😆

    @the writer – They are! In Europe, Scandinavians are quite famous for their very casual attitude to nudity and sex, but in a goo way. French still have taboos, but much less than in the US.

    @Seraphine – I can see that states and very different. When I researched the matter to write this article, I noticed a lot of differences from one state to another! The federal system I guess.

    @Bluefish – Oui, l’accent est assez différent, mais pas si sexy que ça! Je pense que les Québécois sont un peu plus libérés, même si l’influence de l’église reste un peu. Ton Français écrit est bon, t’inquiète!

    Back to answer in 30 min… gotta eat dinner!

  11. @Deadpoolite – Funny you mention abortion… this is indeed the perfect example of a touchy issue and the USA, and something quite accepted in Europe.

    I had never realized the North America paradox until I moved to Canada.

    I’m not sure about the Greek myth, but to me, you are a myth yourself! 😆

    @Kirsten – It’s interesting to hear an American’s point of view! The paradox is quite strange when you think of it, isn’t it.

    @Beth – I quite agree with Trudeau! I read his quote a while ago, couldn’t find it again. Thanks, your are officially my Canadian history consultant!

    @Tulsa Gentleman – I meant to write this post a while ago to be honest, and for some reason, I was thinking about it yesterday. I guess I do like debates 😆

    @Linguist-in-Waiting – I quite don’t get it either. I think it’s fine to just let people do whatever they want, but I don’t like when the society is too uptight. I can understand some cultural taboos though, but the paradox of the North America society makes me wonder.

    @angelaineurope – Most of us really don’t know about it until we go abroad! Funny, isn’t it!

  12. You’ve made some good points here and I (as a Norwegian) have experienced some of this differences sine I’m married to an American. The first time I was visiting and we went on a beach, I just used my towel when changing (and noticed that it was a big ‘mistake’). I was also shocked to see that small children had clothes on when playing in the water.

    I’ve also noticed that in American movies, if there is a ‘sex seen’, they are ‘fully clothed’, where as in violent seen, you see everything in details – the more blood and shooting, the better.

    But by all means, it’s cultural differences – nothing is right or wrong.

  13. I think maybe because people have always regarded France (Paris) as the most romantic place on earth and hence people are sexy too 😉

    Puritans or otherwise, it all depends on our upbringing. I can be very extreme too and yes I think you are as sexy as can be Zhu 😀 In our own special way.

  14. Salut Zhu,
    I guess there could be worse reputations than being considered like this 😉
    Just Tuesday around the table with the ladies that one came up & my friend & I( both expats) couldn’t name a single couple we knew that actually had a “ménage à trois”.
    You saw where I live; it is very working class ; not too many people have the means to have a mistress in style here !

    See you soon; I’ll be starting my posts today ( I’ve been very busy !)

  15. @Seraphine – Mmmm… go meet a guy who was starting a backpacking trip in Mexico city and was planning to go all the way to Brazil. I was 18 years old and I flew to Mexico. The guy was Feng and well, we did make it to Brazil and then to many other places! 😆

    @RennyBA – Oh yeah, I had the towel experience too! It is a very different way to deal with nudity (or even just partial nudity!).

    @Tanya – I know, it could be worse 😆

    @shionge – It does depends on each person’s upbringing. But as a whole, society is more conservative in the USA on that matter I think.

    @barbara – I don’t know any ménage à trois either! 😆 Maybe you have to dig into politicians’ private life for a good example…

  16. @BrightenedBoy – Hi and thanks for commenting!

    I totally agree with you. Some myths about Americans are just as annoying. Unfortunately, a lot of foreigners and outsiders only judge the U.S.A on what they have seen on TV, or on the country’s foreign policy. And this is not the USA!

    @Final_Transit – Sorry, sorry, sorry! I’ll take a French accent just for you 😆

  17. I don’t think the government should be making moral decisions for us, especially in such areas as sex where no one is being hurt. I mean, is seeing boobs going to lead one to commit crimes and become a depraved maniac? The media sure make it seem that way sometimes.

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