Tuesday, June 7, 2011


(Unless, of course, you are French)

This blog post has been percolating for some time. As is usually the case with my posts, the subject is decided upon and then the material basically writes itself because my mind and energy become attuned to the topic and- much like when I plan to buy a new car- I begin to notice it all around town. However, not much conscious attuning is necessary when it comes to sexuality in Paris – to not take notice would be like taking a trip to the zoo and not noticing any animals there.

Sexuality is just about everywhere I look in Paris. The main difference is, there is a more balanced display of sexuality, nudity, and objectification across genders than there is in America. In Paris, I see advertisements of naked men almost as often as ones of naked women. One second I'm strolling along the boulevard and the next second- BAM!- there’s a life-size poster of a naked man right in front of us at the newsstand. There is a wide variety of nudity on these nearly life-size ads and it's quite a novel sight to see such a lack of censorship out on the streets. The Americanized parent in me had a knee-jerk reaction during our first few weeks in Paris. I eventually allowed myself to let go of my tendency to distract my daughters from these bold and prominent displays by calling attention to, "That something over there". I'm fairly certain that French parents don’t censor what their children see while walking down the street, so why should I?  Besides, it was becoming difficult for me to multitask; holding Raelyn's and Nola's attention via distraction while at the same time snapping photos of these sexy ads. So I gave up on distraction techniques altogether and instead invited my girls to gaze and gawk together with me; comparing, contrasting, and remarking, “We’d never see anything like these back home!” (I didn’t tell them they’re behind the counter and brown wrapper at our local 7-11).

Back in the U.S., I find my mommy self highly sensitized to potentially harmful, negative, and demeaning marketing, media, and role models for my daughters. America’s early sexualization of young girls is, in my opinion, becoming more omnipotent and our rigid cultural norms are ready to attach labels to those on either side of its fence. Take, for example, Miley Cyrus. She seems intent on distancing herself from her teeny-bopper Hanna Montana character and reestablishing herself as an over-sexualized wannabe adult. Taylor Swift?  With her sweetness and modesty, she represents the other end of America’s spectrum for women and girls. While Miley’s public persona is characterized as “The Slut”, Taylor’s is, “The Pure Girl”. My guess is, like for all of us females out there, much more is to be found underneath the labels ascribed to us by society.

More recently, Reese Witherspoon, during her acceptance speech for MTV’s Generation Award, stated that, “It’s possible to be a good girl and I’m going to try to make it cool,” after slamming her peers who have become more famous for their sex tapes and naked photos than for possessing any actual talent. While I applaud Reese for daring to challenge the new norm in show business, I can’t help but notice that she is doing so by clinging to the only other viable option for American women; by glamorizing the Good Girl. I detest that a ‘Virgin-Whore’ model of sexuality is the only one that is presented by American popular culture and I resent that it is the only perceived choice given to my daughters.

Living in the midst of Parisian sexuality allows me to examine the polarized sexual norms, behaviors, and double-standards that I grew up with in America. It is liberating, as a woman who is raising two future women, to recognize our time in Paris as an opportunity to expose my young daughters to different and more expansive possibilities rather than these limiting and stereotypical dichotomies that I grew up with:

He’s a charmer and a flirt if he’s sexually forward or suggestive; she’s a tease for the same behavior.
He’s a Casanova and a stud for having many sexual partners; she’s a slut for the same behavior.
He’s to be sexually experienced; she’s to be virginal.
He’s to be sexually aggressive, she’s to be sexually submissive.
He’s always interested in sex. She never is.

America tends to cling stubbornly to black and white where the French approach sexuality, in many ways, more honestly by allowing for shades of grey. The French have fewer sexual inhibitions and a more open attitude towards sex. The sexual double-standard between genders, while I lament that it will probably always exist to some extent in any culture, is at least less definitive here in France than it is in America.

For one thing, my observations show me that French culture allows young girls to be just that- girls. The early sexualization of young girls is not ubiquitous here like it is in the states. The majority of clothing that is available to young French girls is less adult and more youthful. Advertisements for sparkly cosmetics are not aimed their way. I see fifth-grade Parisian girls wearing Hello Kitty and other kid-oriented character backpacks that many of their U.S. counterparts have, by that age, deemed too babyish.

French public middle schools lack dress codes unlike the one back home that Raelyn will attend next year as an incoming sixth grader. She complains that she will not be allowed to wear the spaghetti strap tank tops that she finds so comfortable to wear on warm days. Raelyn wonders why her future school has such a rule. I wonder why the French don't. My guess is that without the early and unnatural sexualization of its girls, French boys can concentrate on their studies, French girls can concentrate on theirs, and walking down the halls in between classes is not fraught with hormones potentially going awry at the sight of some tween girl's nearly bare shoulder. In France, bare skin does not equal slut, which does not equal sex, which does not equal depravity. But in America, school administrators tend to clamp down on this cultural force of early sexualization and all the potential labels attached to it by oppressing girls even further with, in my opinion, silly dress code rules.

In music videos, young French female pop stars look their age, they wear clothing that is not revealing, and there is an absence of footage that glamorizes sex.

Iselym is a 16 year old French singer who is not Britney-fied in any way in her video.

However, by the time they reach their mid-late teens, many French girls are both sexually assertive and sexually active. While the same has increasingly been the case in America for the past couple of decades (thanks Madonna), the French teen girl does not have to worry about incurring a negative reputation for such behavior. I recently learned of a nineteen year old French girl who had sex with a guy and then had sex with their mutual male friend that same month. Having heard about this directly from one of the guys she slept with, I was surprisingly shocked to hear him say, "She's a friend of mine, and my buddy is a friend of hers too. It's no big deal that she had sex with both of us. She knows what she wants, she's a friend to us both, and it's cool. She's still our friend."

Conversely, I know a guy who, back when we were in high school, learned that a girl with whom he had been sexual had gotten together with another guy. So this guy and his buddies hiked up into the nearby hills where they proceeded to write on a hillside in huge chalky white letters, "(FEMALE'S FIRST AND LAST NAME) IS A SLUT". This shaming message was prominently displayed for days on the hillside for all motorists driving on the highway below to see. Now, this example is nearly twenty-five years old, so it makes me wonder if today's American teens' sexual attitudes have changed since then? I'd be surprised if they have.

French children grow up in a culture that embraces sex and sexuality as a natural expression of human beings. They are exposed to sensual PDAs, sexy adult models posing partially and sometimes fully naked in both print and television ads, and films that would be restricted to adult viewers in the U.S. with an R rating are viewed much more leniently in France. Yet, despite this exposure, France's youth fare far better, statistically, as sexually active teens than their American peers. America's teen pregnancy rate is almost three times that of France's. America's teen birth rate is over five times higher than France's. And, not surprisingly, researchers found that French youth were significantly more likely to have used contraception during their most recent sexual encounter than were their U.S. peers.  I can't help but wonder about the correlation between cultural norms and attitudes and these statistics.

A few months ago, I visited the home of French friends who have male and female teenage children. Upon saying our au revoirs, I reached for my coat that I had hung on their coat rack, noticing that it had fallen to the floor. While bending down to retrieve my coat, I saw, on the floor underneath the family's coats, a condom in its wrapper, presumably one that had fallen out of one of their coat's pockets. Though I'll never know who the owner of the fallen condom is, I'm guessing it belonged to one of the teens.

By now, I am beginning to see more clearly how these puzzle pieces of French sexual culture fit nicely together. There is a protective piece that allows French youth to naturally embrace their sexual latency and an interlocking piece which is exposure to and an embracing of, the natural teen emergence of, and eventual full-blown adult sexuality. Somehow, their culture manages to fit these two pieces nicely together to create a more balanced whole rather than the incomplete and limiting portrait of sexuality in America.

This helps me to relax a bit and embrace the sexual images that my daughters see on a regular basis. We are a music loving family and one of the things we have enjoyed is familiarizing ourselves with French pop by watching NRG, one of France's music television stations. Below is one of their promotional ads by Lady Gaga which is not at all shocking, unless, of course, you are American:

I think NRG should change their tagline to "Tit Music Only!".

Here's another sight for our eyes at, of all places, a kid-friendly carnival:

They don't call this the Fun House for nothin'!

A visit to a neighborhood restaurant would be incomplete without at least a little something more than good food to peak our interest:

"I'll have the breast of chicken or duck, whatever, just give me some breast!"

I now realize that there is a reason the chorus in the song Moulin Rouge is, "Voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir?" ("Will you sleep with me tonight?") French women are sexually assertive and asking somebody if they will sleep with her tonight is not considered to be trampy. French women, beginning in their teens, are free to claim their own sexuality, be in touch with their desires, and remain unencumbered by, and unafraid of being slapped with a negative, hypocritical label for doing so. What a novel concept! The label, 'slut', based on my inquiries, does not gain the same traction in France as it does in the U.S. How could it, when, in France, sexuality is embraced for what it is: a natural drive and expression of the human brain and body, regardless of gender.

It was in this spirit of embracing what is natural that Soren and I decided to take Raelyn and Nola to a Parisian cultural institution. The back story is that a French relative invited us to join him and his eleven year old daughter at a vintage brocante (flea market) and variety show. He told us that he had seen an advertisement in one of the freebie Metro newspapers. He scanned this ad and e-mailed it to me so that I would have the location information. Upon receiving his e-mail, I copied and pasted the ad's text into Google Translate and read this:

An event Sunday in paris with:
- a beautiful vintage antique
- an open stage for striptease burlesque pinups
- A review with the New Burlesque Cabaret Daughters of Joy
- a live band rock-n-roll 60's
- a contest of dance (s)
- a dance rock until midnight

A good fifteen of world-class artists
singers and strippers, good humor, and rock-n-roll

Flea: 9h-19h / 2 Euros
Review and Bal: 17h - midnight / 4 euros / free for children

Yes, I was thinking what you are thinking, "A strip show! Free for children?!" I promptly contacted our friend who had extended the invitation as well as our French babysitter to get a reality check. I just had to gain a better understanding of what, exactly, our family was going to be exposing ourselves to. Both sources had the same reply, "Oh it's really quite tame, no full nudity, perhaps hot pants and pasties. Burlesque is really fun to see." The casual and blase nature of their responses made me check my assumption that as a parent, I would be exposing my children to lewd and indecent behavior. After some thought, I came to the following conclusions: 1) Attaching the words 'lewd' and 'indecent' to non-predatory sexual behavior and expression is a social construction of reality, 2) Burlesque as a cultural experience in Paris is to France what a rodeo in Wyoming is to America and, 3) We currently reside outside of the jurisdiction of U.S. Child Protective Services

It was with this new perspective that our family went to our first burlesque show. I can attest to the fact that it felt odd to sit in a 2-drink minimum cabaret environment while the sun was still shining and while surrounded by many other families with young children. Then the show started and instead of feeling odd, I felt rather exhilarated by what I saw. But not for the reasons you'll think. 

Several burlesque performers took to the stage. All dancers followed the same format, beginning with a tease, like this:

 And ending their routines by stripping, like this:

And for the grande finale, audience participation, like this:

What was exhilarating for me, an American female, was the fact that all sizes and shapes of the female form were displayed- all natural too, I might add- and there was a male burlesque performer as well, masquerading as a matador. As interested as I was in the show itself, I was even more keen in observing my daughters reactions to the live action onstage. They loved it! Nola even wondered when and if we were going to be able to see another one. I am pleased that my daughters were able to witness the actual art and gift of the 'tease' free and clear of it being labeled negatively.

I got to thinking about this after the show: Much female power is in the tease- keep em' guessing, keep em' interested, keep em' from seeking out the cave woman next door. For if man has an innate drive to procreate with as many females as possible thereby increasing his chances for viable offspring, then woman, I argue, has an innate drive to tease her sexual partner so as to keep him intrigued and coming back for more. The better teasing skills a woman has, the more likely that she'll be experienced as more alluring than her cave woman neighbor and thus secure ongoing food, shelter, and sustenance for her offspring. So, I say, if teasing is natural and biologically necessary for the continuation of the species, why does America have such a problematic relationship with it and the women who do it? (I am not about to get into the topic of religion here...)

Speaking of problematic, we know all too well the dicey relationship America has with its politicians and their private lives. The French expect their politicians to have a sex life; they even believe that their politicians can  have extra-marital affairs, and- get this- still do their jobs effectively. In other words, cheating on one's spouse does not equal cheating on one's country. In fact, Carla Bruni, wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, was quoted in a French magazine article, "I am a tamer [of men], a cat, an Italian- monogamy bores me terribly. I am faithful, to myself! I am monogamous from time to time, but I prefer polygamy and polyandry [its female equivalent]."

Can you imagine if Michele Obama revealed the same attitude towards sex and relationships? As soon as the story broke, the First Lady's lovers would sell their exclusive stories and photos to tabloid magazines and television shows, the religious right would have a field day, no doubt a sex tape would surface, and Obama would begin to openly chain smoke causing his country to wonder if he was still fit to lead as a cuckolded president.

As illustrated, in France there is a more equal playing field upon which both men and women can express their sexual needs, desires, and behaviors. In fact, this equality came up in a recent conversation with a French friend regarding the act of kissing. In France, one does not give a kiss. To say, "I'll give you a kiss," is to be presumptuous simply because, from the French perspective, a kiss is not given, it is made, as the language demonstrates. Faire un bisou literally, to make a kiss. One that is ours to share, not yours to give. 

In light of the recent and shocking headlines concerning France's DSK (Dominique Strauss-Kahn), I can't help but wonder if, had he remembered this cultural norm, he wouldn't find himself on house arrest, unemployed, no longer a presidental hopeful, and in a whole heap of trouble. Perhaps, had he visited Paris's Musée de l'Erotisme like I recently did with Soren, he would have been further reminded of the natural order of things as was I, by reading this:

Shared Pleasure
In love the two sexes are equal and pleasure should be shared equally. If the partners do not feel the same satisfaction once the act is accomplished it is not fair to pretend that they have made love. Love should be a shared reward and neither an egotistic satisfaction nor a duty.
Ovid- The Art of Love, penned around 2 CE

If my daughters can begin to internalize this valuable message during their time spent living in Paris, I will be one satisfied American mama.


  1. Bravo! Fabulous! You really need to print all of your experiences and wisdom when you return home. You have a talent here that you must share! Love them and can't wait to see you in just a couple of short months!! Love you!

  2. so interesting! i love that the girls are being exposed to so many different experiences, you are a great fam!

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