What can the French teach Americans about sex?
From a 1923 French advertisement
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.
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 DavisSecrets of The Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith ThurmanClaudine at School by ColetteHow the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance by Marilyn YalomThe Story of O by Pauline RéageManon Lescaut by the Abbé PrévostDangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de LaclosMating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence by Esther PerelWhat French Women Know: About Love and Sex and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind by Debra OllivierWhat Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Sexual Desire by Daniel BergnerShe Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman by Ian Kerner
Susannah Hunnewell is the magazine’s Paris editor.
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