Something I’ve noticed a lot, living in Europe, is the fact that as a people, we Americans are really quite conservative. After five months in France, I’d like to think that I’m mostly used to the freedom of sexual expression that is so different from the taboos and behavioral expectations back in the United States – but every once in a while I’m still caught off guard.
The first thing you notice in France is the pub, or advertising that is often blatantly sexual and is pretty much everywhere. From naked women on billboards, to a TV spot for instant coffee that borders on soft core pornography to the infamous egg billboard, sex is everywhere you look, with a hand in nearly everything you buy. You can turn on the TV at 16h and see naked people (which you definitely can not in the U.S.), sex in movies is more frequent and less of a deal, and posters advertising porn websites or hotlines fill the windows of most tabacs and presses.
Sex in France isn’t limited to the media – stroll across any bridge crossing the Seine, or wander through any park in the city and you’ll probably see enough action that you can save your money on those adult websites. It isn’t uncommon to see a couple making out horizontally in the grass, or feeling each other up as they lean against the wall of the Pont Neuf or Pont des Arts.
It’s surprising for me, a girl from a pretty liberal area of the United States, to witness all these public displays of affection, sexy billboards and intense TV ads, but for the French who see them day in and day out, the presence of sex in mainstream society is old hat. Sexuality is so integrated into everyday life here that Printemps, a major department store like Galaries Lafayette, Nordstrom, Sak’s or Macy’s features a plaisir section.
Even for someone who may not be versed in the French vocabulary for lovemaking, plaisir is pretty easy to figure out. Last Wednesday I was wandering through the sous-sol (basement) level of Printemps, checking out the soldes, when my attention was caught by a long counter with a sign reading simply Plaisir. I couldn’t see any of the items on the counter, as it was surrounded by a low wall to keep anything from falling off, so I walked over to check it out.
Apparently, the pleasure section is exactly what you’d imagine. There, sandwiched between the Christian Dior and Christian Lacroix lingerie departments was the sex toy section of Printemps. In addition to dildos, lubes, vibrators and furry handcuffs, the display also contained a book section. The Kama Sutra (in French) a “position playbook” (in English) and a French book about achieving female orgasms were among those featured.
Being an American and completely surprised to find such a section in the middle of a department store in the 9ème arondissement of Paris, my cheeks were burning as I examined the contents of the table. The French women hitting the sales however, were completely unsurprised, and either walked by without a second look, or walked over to the table to unashamedly handle the toys. While I feel like I’ve gotten quite used to the sexed-up culture over here, I was really not expecting to find plaisir during my casual browsing, and couldn’t help but imagine the reaction if Macy’s or JC Penney’s was ever to begin stocking vibrators alongside their make-up, shoes and towels.
The progressive attitude here isn’t limited to the explicitly sexual. For every erotic TV ad, there’ll be another billboard that features nude people but is completely un-erotic. For the French, it’s okay to be a sexual person – but it’s also okay to appreciate the human body for what it is, without a display of nudity having to be overtly sexual. Kids learn about their bodies at an early age, and there is no shame associated with nudity or sexuality – which seems to be the complete opposite of trends in the United States.
Check out this book on the human body for young children, for example. The nanny family owns two copies, one in French and one in English (so the kids learn the appropriate vocabulary in both languages). Notice anything bizarre? In the French version, you actually see the entire body, and learn the real word for each body part – including la sexe. In the version published for U.S. consumers, however, every single child wears a pair of white underpants – even the babies are covered up, and while there are arrows pointing to the stomach, the belly button, and the waist, there’s a big gap in the middle of the body before jumping down to the legs and the knees. Disturbing the difference, isn’t it?
The result of the openness here is that everybody is incredibly comfortable with themselves and sex in general. While everybody may have an inkling about Jacques Chirac’s sexual indiscretions, nobody cares – it’s his decision and his business and his sexuality has nothing to do with his ability (or perhaps lack thereof, based on more recent public opinion) to govern the country. If the U.S. adopted an attitude that was anything similar to that of France, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky would have been the last thing on anyone’s mind – and nobody would even know who Kenneth Starr was. The infamous Janet Jackson boob slip at the Superbowl would have been so insignificant that it would have been forgotten the next day. Looking back at the States with my new French goggles, we seem pretty ridiculous. Who protests a breast? It seems like a joke, but I guess we are the joke.
It’s rather invigorating to be living in a country that is so open about its sexuality. The whole atmosphere just seems so healthy – nobody’s growing up with shame or confusion about their bodies or feelings. It’s so much easier for people (particularly teenagers) to make decisions about their bodies and their sexuality when they have a plethora of information that nobody’s trying to stifle. Twenty years of growing up in a country with institutions like the FCC has apparently rendered me a bit more conservative than I’d like to admit. While I really admire the freedom of sexuality here, I still tend to blush when I find things that surprise me, which embarrasses me to no end. I don’t want to be the American who blushes at sexy commercials! Maybe after a full year of expatriotism, I’ll have trained a slightly cooler response – or at least have figured out how to keep the blushing to a minimum.
•••• This has nothing to do with sex, sexuality, nudity or conservatism, but the idea of a Che Guevara bellybutton ring really cracked me up. What better way to honor a symbol of revolution than to put him on a charm and stick him through your bellybutton?