What can the French teach Americans about sex?
Last month, as the New York Post went into paroxysms over the latest French presidential love triangle, we found a more academic comment on French habits of the heart, thanks to our attendance at a panel on “The Art of Sex and Seduction,” sponsored by the Alliance Française. On the first of its three nights, entitled “Did the French invent love?”, Catherine Cusset, a former professor of French literature at Yale, told a story:
A countess invites a young man to her house after running into him at the opera. After a stiff meal with her husband, who retires to his private apartments, the countess leads her guest down a secret passageway into a bedroom. The walls and ceiling are covered with gilded mirrors. Sexual frenzy ensues. At daybreak, the giddy, exhausted young man emerges from the den and runs into a marquis who has just arrived. The marquis thanks him profusely. The young man realizes that he has served merely as a decoy to distract the count from his wife’s true lover. The husband appears for breakfast and greets the marquis cordially. The last line of this story—Vivant Denon’s No Tomorrow, first published in 1777—reads, “I looked for some moral to this adventure and … I could find none.”
“There is no moral lesson,” Cusset said pointedly, and a communal gasp could be heard in Florence Gould Hall. Throughout the series, the audience was susceptible to gasps, audible stirring, and sudden eruptions of laughter. The French and American panelists, who included historians, scientists, sex therapists, and journalists, spoke about vaginas and orgasms in that purposefully blunt way one always expects and yet can seldom prepare for. Here’s what we learned about the difference between French and American sexual customs and attitudes, with a few startling facts about tout le monde.
- “Love, for the French, is tied up with adultery,” explained Marilyn Yalom, a feminist scholar at Stanford. Marriage in the Middle Ages, as least in the upper classes, was a contract related to the exchange of rank and property. Love was, therefore, to be found outside the marriage, leading to the mythic French threesome: the husband, the wife, the mistress.
- Studies show that Americans and French have similar rates of infidelity, but the French, “marathoners,” have longer, and therefore fewer, affairs. Americans are “sprinters,” with more frequent but shorter trysts.
- Older French women are considered sexual beings. A nonagenarian is to be respected as a repository of sexual history. When Colette was nearing fifty, pointed out her biographer Judith Thurman, she had an affair with her sixteen-year-old stepson, among other men-children.
- Cusset once assigned Woman Destroyed, the novella by Simone de Beauvoir, in a class at Yale. The diary of a woman who discovers her husband of twenty years has been unfaithful, it records a gradual nervous breakdown. Cusset was surprised by her American students’ reaction. “They thought she whined too much. They didn’t understand that you can be broken by love.” Love as the loss of control—whether it brings ecstasy or devastation, within or without marriage—is a French ideal. Total surrender is too much for an American. We prefer to check boxes for the ideal mate.
- More casually accepted notions in France: When a woman has married and produced the heir and a spare, she is free to live her own sexual life. A lover outside the marriage can save a marriage.
- Marie de Bonaparte, a great-niece of the emperor and a student of Freud’s, was convinced that her frigidity was the result of an anatomical defect. After measuring the distance from the clitoris to the vagina in a group of women, she found that those with a shorter distance were more orgasmic. She had surgery to shorten hers. It didn’t work. She did it again, with no better luck.
- Forty million Americans describe themselves as sex-starved. According to Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers and chief scientific consultant to the dating site chemistry.com, it is often a question of mismatched libidos—an adventurer paired with a traditionalist, for example.
- Studies show single Americans are having sex especially rarely. An audience member blamed Internet porn; the American sex therapist Ian Kerner theorized that everyone was too tired.
- Women who had their cervixes wired for signs of stimulation were shown images of heterosexual, gay, and lesbian porn, and one image of bonobo chimpanzees having sex. The women claimed not to be excited by anything but “appropriate” images, but the instruments showed otherwise. The women were turned on by all the images, including the monkeys. Men, subjected to the same study, were excited by the predictable, and mostly said so. None of them reacted to the monkeys.
- In a survey of five thousand Americans, 70 percent said they experienced sexual boredom in their relationship, but eighty percent of married couples said they would remarry the same person.
- Women get bored sexually with the same partner much sooner than men. According to one study, women experience “a catastrophic decline of interest” after three years whereas men show a much more gradual erosion.
- Studies and anecdotal accounts show rape fantasies to be ubiquitous among women.
- In France, “flirting is a civic duty.” Flirting is playing with le fleuret, the tip of the sword.
- There is a point of no return in the process of seduction, wrote the French eighteenth-century erotic writer Crebillon Fils, which is when the woman signals that she won’t say no.
- As human animals, we have our own observable sexual cues. Females tend to tip their buttocks up during courting. There is also the “copulatory gaze,” during which the pupils dilate.
- Manon Lescaut and Dangerous Liaisons were named the sexiest works of literature. Also, The Story of O still stands as a minor erotic masterpiece.
- Why the French are not as morally conflicted about sex as Americans: “The French are keenly aware of the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure.”
- For the French, love is “embedded in the flesh.” Americans “prefer to imagine love without the body.”
- According to a French audience member in her twenties, there is no French translation for a date, as in the official dinner/movie outing, which she clearly thought sounded deadly.
- A French therapist would not necessarily encourage, as would an American one, more “communication in bed.” Mystery, or what the French call le non-dit (“the unspoken”), is a better aphrodisiac.
- An eager young woman had a question “from some friends.” Her “friends,” a new couple, were in love and very attracted to each other, but the man wouldn’t “release his inner wild man.” “What should she do?” the woman inquired, almost desperately. “She is ready for anything!” “When a man gets to know a woman, “ said the expert, “sometimes he becomes self-conscious about objectifying her that way. He thinks it’s wrong.” There was a silence as we considered the sensitivity of this hypothetical male. Then the American science writer suggested talking dirty to break the ice.
On all three nights, the audience was about fifty percent male, which surprised us. The third night, entitled “Behind the Boudoir: The Secrets of Sex Appeal,” attracted an especially attentive group, most of whom appeared in their seventies. The French audience members, whom we might assume to be appealingly jaded, were just as riveted as everyone else. Throughout the series, the ubiquitous French affirmation c’est normal (“that’s normal,” or “we are only human”) hung in the air as we delved into the often bizarre complexities of sex, and for a moment, we felt a uniquely Gallic pleasure: exulting in the complexity of a problem rather than searching for its solution.
Someone asked what Americans could teach the French about sex and seduction. There was a puzzled silence. Finally, the cultural historian suggested that French men could be encouraged to help out more with household tasks, with an important caveat: “Egalitarianism is wonderful in the kitchen but boring in the bedroom.”
No Tomorrow by Vivant Denon, translated by Lydia Davis
Secrets of The Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman
Claudine at School by Colette
How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance by Marilyn Yalom
The Story of O by Pauline Réage
Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost
Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence by Esther Perel
What French Women Know: About Love and Sex and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind by Debra Ollivier
What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Sexual Desire by Daniel Bergner
She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman by Ian Kerner
Susannah Hunnewell is the magazine’s Paris editor.