France vs. America: The sex front

A cross-cultural study finds that Americans go more for one-night stands, the French favor long-term affairs -- and French women over 50 have a lot more sex.

Published June 20, 2003 7:32PM (EDT)

Frenchwomen have always had a singular allure about them. It's not so much their total lack of body fat or those pert little breasts that can fit into the rim of a champagne glass. It's their infuriating poise and inscrutable sensuality that has captivated us for centuries. "A comparison of Amazons to Angels," is how Thomas Jefferson characterized the difference between the liberated Frenchwomen (he was scandalized by them) and the virtuous American maidens of his time. A century later, those "Amazons" would teach American GIs a few tricks about "Frenching and the French way." Since then, Americans have rushed to France in search of intellectual freedom, good food and good sex (not necessarily in that order).

But the land of oo-la-la and voulez-vous coucher avec moi is not exactly what you think it is. In 2001, the Journal of Sex Research published the results of a Franco-American research project titled "A Comparative Study of the Couple in the Social Organization of Sexuality in France and the United States." The study both reaffirms and busts open many of our long-standing myths about the French with compelling sociocultural data that, in light of the current chilling of Franco-American relations, merits a double take.

The study reveals that the French have fewer partners overall than Americans, maintain more long-term committed relationships, are more likely to be monogamous (surprise!), and enjoy more frequent sex. (Sixty-nine percent of single Frenchmen and 85 percent of single Frenchwomen report fidelity to one single sexual partner, compared to 48 percent of American men and 66 percent of American women.) But one of the most striking differences was between older French- and American women. The study reports that after the age of 50, American women are 10 percent less likely than Frenchwomen to be living in a couple.

These differences are even more dramatic with age. "While 79 percent of the 50 to 54 year olds (in France) are living in a couple, only 60 percent of the 55 to 59 year olds (in the U.S.) are in the same situation." (The study was based on 3,432 American adults ages 18 to 59 surveyed in the National Health and Social Life Survey, and 4,580 French adults between the ages of 18 and 59 from the Analysis of Sexual Behavior in France survey.)

What's this all about -- and are there implicit lessons here from the land that brought us the French lover? We caught up with Alain Giami, director of research at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (and co-director of the study with John Gagnon, at the State University of New York, Stony Brook), to help us out.

You've referred to "the eroticization of social relations in France." Could you comment on what you mean by this?

The eroticization of social relations has to do with the fact that it seems that the French do not consider "flirtation" and seduction and romance as a direct sexual approach, and that flirtation does not lead necessarily to sexual intercourse. The notion of "complicité" [complicity] is very important both for Frenchmen and -women. The language of seduction is not an explicit language of sex. In fact, the eroticization is grounded on nonsexual attributes and more on classical gender roles.

Can you elaborate on these "nonsexual attributes"?

Eroticization has more to do with the double meaning in words and situations. Most French words, and especially most verbs such as "to make" [faire], "to take" [prendre] and "to put" [mettre], are all metaphors for the genital act - which is now called the "penile-vaginal act" in the States. So you can imagine the possible range of understatements and "malentendus" [misunderstandings] which can create "complicité" between potential partners in France.

By "classical gender roles" are you suggesting that in France, men are men and women are women -- that they fully assume their sexuality (and "traditional gender identities") without apology, without fear of being politically incorrect or sexist?

Yes. There is also less contradiction between being sexy and being a professional. Moreover, the Antioch code of negotiation [a student code of sexual conduct on the Antioch college campus intended to "prevent sexual offenses" and legislate "specific verbal consent ... obtained with each new level of physical and/or sexual conduct/contact in any given interaction"] is almost unthinkable in France. People are more able to negotiate by eye contact -- but to explicitly negotiate the acts of sex is perceived as being a kind of pornography when you don't know the other person.

Your study suggests that the French are actually more monogamous than us. But that flies in the face of a very long-standing image we Americans have of French people as promiscuous, as all having mistresses and lovers. Mitterrand did a lot to perpetuate that notion. So is it mostly a myth?

Yes. Of course there is adultery in France, but the difference between France and the States is that in France, the extramarital partner lasts a long time, whereas in the States it's often a one-night stand. In France, when you have an extramarital affair you often have it for a long time. We've noticed that Americans, men and women, have more of them, in shorter duration (one-night stands, for example), than the French. Fidelity is a strong value in France, but it has more to do with love than sex. The major difference between Frenchwomen and American women can be summarized as follows: The French are marathoners and the Americans are sprinters.

To what do you attribute this difference?

I think it comes from the roots of Puritanism. When it exploded, like it did in the '60s in the States, the result was a greater diversity of sexual lifestyles. What's striking is that in the U.S. there's a much greater diversity of sex lifestyles, and in more extreme forms, than in France. Take S/M, for example, which seems much more present and visible in the States, with more of a community.

Our culture is much more Balkanized than France's.

Yes, and different kinds of sexual groups want public expression in America. Whereas in France, the French would never want that. It's a totally private thing. Why make sex a public thing?

We're a very confessional culture. The French are very private. What are your views of the American obsession with the Clinton affair in this light?

Roosevelt, Kennedy and Clinton all gave the same impression of "the most powerful man in the world." You should read Philip Roth's "The Human Stain" for views on American common sense.

What do you think about the current interest in the "mysterious" Clinton marriage?

I don't want to comment on American politics since I am not an expert in political science. But the Clinton marriage has nothing mysterious: It is a political alliance.

You mention that love and sex are not necessarily the same thing.

For centuries marriage had nothing to do with love and sex. It was about economics and procreation. Those who had nothing -- no houses, no money -- did not marry. It's only since the 19th century that the Catholic Church indulged love between partners as part of a marriage.

But you've also had a culture of courtly love, with codes of seduction, that has existed for centuries. That changes the playing field a lot.

That's true. In the 18th century, we had a culture of literary salons that was cultivated and maintained by Frenchwomen. Frenchwomen weren't excluded from intellectual commerce with men. This wasn't the case in England, where men and women were separated socially. That's a very important historical element that distinguishes Anglo-Saxon culture and French culture. You have much more "homo-sociality" in your culture. That's changing now, of course, with your culture of absolute equality for all: You have American women who are soldiers, policemen, etc. That's not as developed in France. Men and women generally can't coexist in your culture unless the differences between the sexes are strongly diminished.

Historically again: There is the prevailing notion in the States that American GIs went to France and picked up, in part, the seeds of a sexual revolution from their experiences with Frenchwomen. In his book "The Century of Sex," author James R. Petersen writes about how American officers were also very vocal about Frenchwomen and their "degenerate idea lessening powers of moral restraint" among GIs. The contemporary myth of the wanton and sexy Frenchwoman is tied up in this historical image.

We have the opposite perception. Your American GIs came to France and brought your nylon hose, your lipstick, your chewing gum, your cigarettes, your jazz, your chocolate, your condoms. They had all this to offer Frenchwomen. You brought it to us. In our collective imagination, it was the America GI who made the Frenchwoman feel sexy again after so many years of deprivation of these goods.

Getting back to your study, what are the key social forces that underscore your findings?

Globally we found that the French have a more deeply grounded conception and value of the couple. The French are also less attached than Americans to marriage as the unique option for living together. The French have more "premarital cohabitation," "nonmarital cohabitation" and even "noncohabiting long-term relations." This seems to make it easier for men and women age 40 or older to have companionship after having experienced the burden of marriage and cohabitation.

Moreover, one of the major aspects of the "sexual liberation" between the '70s and the '90s is that in 1970 in France about 36 percent of men and 66 percent of women over the age of 50 did not have sexual intercourse during the last year. In 1990, only 11 percent of men and 28 percent of women over 50 did not have sexual intercourse during the last year. The sexual life of the people beyond 50 is something new in Western history.

I think we tend to forget that sex after age 40 or 50 is a fairly recent phenomenon, historically speaking.

Up until the 1960s, contraception was done via coitus interruptus. Contraception as we know it was used in extramarital relationships and with prostitutes. In the mid-'60s, two things changed that: the pill, and the orgasm documented by Masters and Johnson -- two American inventions. The two go hand in hand. When contraception was legitimized in the context of marriage, the erotic life entered the conjugal bed. Or, as the saying goes, the bordello entered the bedroom. We see that with the practice of fellatio, for example, which was considered a "specialty" of prostitutes and something a "reasonable" woman would not do. So that's the big change: the legitimacy of pleasure and erotic life in the context of marriage. Before the '60s, there was a lot of guilt associated with that, at least in Catholic cultures. You had pleasure with a prostitute and babies with your wife.

And of course now we're living longer. Along with our libidos.

Of course. So now post-menopausal women can have sex. That's a major change. When nonreproductive sex was legitimized, it was OK for post-menopausal women to have sex. But paradoxically, that's mostly the case in France. In the States, women are excluded from the sexual market after a certain age.

Why is that?

We don't really know. Our study shows that the possibility of having sex after 50 is strongly dependent on the capacity to be in a relationship. If one is not in a relationship, there is no sex. Again, the fact that in the States marriage is the exclusive option for couples makes it difficult for men and women of this [older] age - especially if they have already built a family in a previous relationship - to get so strongly involved again. Men of this age get married again with younger women, to build a new family. And older women who are not willing or biologically able to procreate again remain excluded from this process. In France, the diversity of options for living in a couple seems to facilitate the bonding of older men and women.

What might we Americans learn from the French in this regard?

Marriage is not the only honest and responsible way of bonding.

Do Frenchmen appreciate older women more than their American counterparts?

We can look at that in two ways: We could say that Frenchmen are attracted to older women and to women of their same age. But we could also ask the question: Do American women remove themselves from the sexual market because they're not interested in sex anymore? They may continue to be sexy, with cosmetic surgery and so forth, but to look sexy is not enough to sustain a sexual relationship. So perhaps they don't want to have as much sex.

Is that quantified?

No. But we do know that the consumption of cosmetic surgery is much more prevalent in the States than in France.

I can vouch for that. I lived in France for 10 years. Now I live in Los Angeles, in a place where an extraordinary number of older women have been completely reengineered.

Yes, but do they have men in their lives? Are they having sex?

I don't know. That's a very good question.

By Debra Ollivier

Debra Ollivier, a contributor to Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real Life Parenting, is the author of "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl." Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Harper's, Playboy, Le Monde and Les Inrockuptibles.

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