Tuesday, January 1, 2013

French Love and the Question of Cultural Difference

My readers know that one of my favorite questions is how different different cultures really are from each other, especially about fundamental things like sexuality and family life. So, are the French really more erotic? This is from a good review of Marilyn Yalom's new book on French love:
An essential ingredient of l’amour à la française is the insistence on sexual pleasure. Yalom cites a recent statistic culled from a study in which a French and an American group were asked whether “true love can exist without a radiant sex life.” Of the American group, 83 percent agreed with this statement; only 34 percent of the French agreed, Yalom writes: “A 49 percent difference in opinion on the need for sex in love is a startling statistic! This French emphasis on carnal satisfaction strikes tighter-laced Americans as deliciously naughty.”

Another crucial ingredient of French love includes “the darker elements that Americans are reluctant to admit as normal: jealousy, suffering, extramarital sex, multiple lovers, crimes of passion, disillusion, even violence. Perhaps more than anything, the French accept the premise that sexual passion has its own justification. Love simply doesn’t have the same moral overlay that we Americans expect it to have.”
Certainly it seems that the public culture of France is more focused on sexuality, and more positive about it, than that of Britain or the U.S. Which is very interesting in itself. But does it really translate into more sexual passion or satisfaction? That is not so clear. I have seen a poll showing that the French and the British report having the same number of partners over the course of their lives, and the same degree of satisfaction. But these are not matters on which you can count on people to be honest; in fact that poll mainly showed that the French and British lie about their sex lives to the same degree, since straight men in both countries report having twice as many lovers as straight women. (This is a statistical impossibility.)  I used to have an Iranian acquaintance who insisted that sex is much more fun in Muslim countries where everyone has to act like a complete prude in public, and women are completely covered, making their private unveiling all the more exciting.

So I have to say that we don't really know if the French style really leads to the average Frenchman having a better sex life.

I also note that placing a high emphasis on passion as its own justification leads to "jealousy, suffering, extramarital sex, and crimes of passion." Combining passionate love with long-term monogamy, bourgeois orderliness, and mental health is a trick that nobody seems to have managed.

1 comment:

David said...

I remember during the Strauss-Kahn flap that, as stories of him attacking other women came out, the response of a couple of French celebrity women was, "Naturally, because he is very attractive to women." This and the fact that prostitution is apparently huge business in France have made me wonder if what the French mean by sexual pleasure, passion, attractiveness, and so forth, is simply not what Americans mean by it. Rates of single living are way up in France, and somehow I don't believe that that's because they're all having too much white-hot, boundaryless sex to bother with domesticity. But then again, maybe I'm just an American (or a "bubble person" as the French like to say).