The French are not as cool with infidelity as you think

In light of an uproar over an affair website, Salon talks to an expert about misconceptions about French sexuality

Published March 12, 2015 10:55PM (EDT)

A series of ads for an extramarital dating site has inspired a backlash in one of the last places you would expect it: France. The spots for Gleeden, which dubs itself “the first extramarital dating site
 made by women,” feature an apple with a bite taken out of it and were plastered on buses throughout the country. The negative reaction has been strong enough that the ads have been defaced and even challenged in court. As the New York Times reported this week, “Seven cities decided to withdraw the ads, and opponents have mobilized against them on social media.”

It’s not what one might expect. After all, France is no stranger to high-profile infidelity. Thanks to this year’s trial against the one-time presumptive president Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the country was flooded with details of his "bachelor pad" orgies. Just last year, there was the alleged affair of President François Hollande. Before him, there was former President François Mitterrand, whose longtime mistress famously appeared at his funeral with the daughter he fathered with her.

It isn’t just these high-profile cases that give the impression of France’s laissez-faire attitude toward affairs. Studies have shown that France is the least judgmental country in the world when it comes to infidelity. A survey by the Pew Research Center found that it was the only nation where fewer than half of respondents found extramarital affairs to be “unacceptable.” In fact, four in 10 said it wasn’t a moral issue at all. Those attitudes appear to have an influence on extramarital behavior, too: Polls have found that more than half of French men and a third of French women have cheated on their partners.

So, how to explain the reaction to these ads? It is at least in part a result of an “often overlooked ... strain of social conservatism in France,” as the Times put it. Indeed, one of the major opponents of the ads is France’s Catholic Family Associations. But it isn’t just conservative groups that betray more complicated feelings about infidelity in the country. Last year, for example, President Hollande’s girlfriend was reportedly hospitalized for “nervous fatigue” following the revelation of her beau’s infidelities -- a response that flew in the face of the world’s vision of relaxed and permissive French women. Does the world -- and we puritanical Americans in particular -- have a skewed vision of French sexuality? I spoke with Debra Ollivier, author of “What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind,” to find out.

How accurate is the perception that the French are extremely permissive about infidelity? Is there some nuance that is lost in our reverence for, you know, sexually libertine France?

Yeah, I think there's a lot of nuance that's lost. There's a misperception, shall we say? I think the fact that the French are more willing to accept the notion that long-term monogamy might be difficult, they're willing to talk about it, they have maybe more expansive notions about matrimony -- a lot of them cohabitate rather than get married -- they're very free sensually, but all that does not mean that they're all happily screwing around with their neighbors and having extramarital affairs and getting away with it. Infidelity is still the No. 1 cause of divorce in France.

The myth is sort of perpetuated by the fact that of the hundreds of films that are produced in France, maybe we see three in the United States. And in two of them, everyone's fucking everyone else, right? The reality is they depict the French people as all, you know, having affairs. It basically always seems to be an element in every French film that ends up here.

So you're keying in on the idea that the French are realistic about the challenges of long-term monogamy, not that infidelity isn't a concern.

Correct. When François Hollande had his big extramarital affair and his girlfriend freaked out and ended up in the hospital, everyone was so surprised, like, "Oh my god, she had a problem with that, she was so upset." Yeah, she's human. She's French, but she's also a human being and has a heart and it gets broken and it doesn't matter how expansive your notion is about love and all that, it still hurts, right? We're very categorical and black and white. So we look at the French that way -- like you said earlier, we miss these nuances.

I'm not surprised at all that there's backlash to these Gleeden ads.

Let's talk about that. What is it about the ads that is causing the backlash?

First of all, even if the French are more willing to accept that infidelity is part of the human experience, you do it secretly. It's a private thing you do. To suddenly trumpet it as a recreational, commercial opportunity for anybody who wants to do it, it's just vulgar. The French don't like it. They're not public, they're private. They're not confessional, they're discretional.

And even though most French people are sort of lapsed Catholics, it's still a Catholic country. Marriage and the sanctity of the family are still really important. If you're going to have a lover, it's probably because you want to keep your family intact. You'll have a lover and be satisfied and keep the family unit together.

It's ironic, because we talk about family values in the United States, but we don't do anything to underwrite it. We have no social infrastructure, whereas there they do. The family structure is important. It doesn't easily fall apart, and when it does, it's really traumatic. If you're going to promote extramarital affairs on buses you're not only challenging this long-standing cultural bias to be private, you're also saying, "Fuck the family."

What about the fact that the ads were for a site targeting French women in search of extramarital affairs. Is that part of the negative reaction? How is women’s infidelity viewed in France?

I don't think it's that big of a gender thing as it is in the U.S. The word "gender," there's not a real equivalent in the vocabulary. If you translate it, it sounds very clinical and academic. Until recently, there weren't even gender studies. So, I don't think it matters -- although France is a very sexist country, at least by our standards. It's more overtly sexist. If the ad was targeted for men, it would be far more explosive, without a doubt. You'd have all the feminist organizations in France defacing all the bus ads and protesting.

The French are supposedly pretty relaxed about politicians’ extramarital dalliances -- but it sure seems these affairs are reported on a bunch in the country. What do you attribute that to?

They really don't care the way we do. There was a lot of media attention on this last one, because France is in such an economically problematic place. On so many levels, there are so many problems politically that the French people I spoke to felt that this is not the time to get caught messing around with your mistress. It was like, "How do you have time to mess around with your mistress when the country's falling apart?"

During the Clinton era and the whole Monica Lewinsky thing, it was very funny when the French would say, like, "What's going on in your country? We expect our presidents to have active sex lives. It means they're healthy!"

Beyond just the topic of infidelity, how would you define French sexuality in comparison to American sexuality?

They are generally more open and more relaxed than we are. Let's not forget, we do have a puritan heritage, and that baggage still plays out in our culture in many ways. The French don't have that, that's not part of their cultural heritage. Their relationship to the physical body is also very different, as a result. They are more relaxed, they're much less uptight. I don't know if you saw John Oliver poking fun at the French rating of "Fifty Shades of Grey" [which allows anyone over age 12 to see it, compared to the U.S.' R-rating]. The point is, they are more relaxed, but again, they get their hearts broken like anyone else.

I could give you so many examples. You know when you go to a gynecologist here, you go into a separate room and take off your clothes and put something over you. In France, you just go and the doctor's there and you disrobe in front of the doctor and they don't put a robe over you. Historically, they just don't have the puritan culture bearing down on them. It's so pervasive, the way they raise their children, the relationship to the body. All you have to do is go around France and there are sculptures of the naked body, it's everywhere.

They don't have the extremes. We think the French are highly sexualized; it's not true, we are. They just have a very bon vivant, very open sense of sensuality. We are highly sexualized; we have either this puritanical virgin thing or the slutty, porny thing.

You touched on how it impacts the way they raise kids. How do the French talk to their kids about sex?

My friend's 18-year-old son had a girlfriend, they were having a sexual relationship, and he wanted to have her spend the night at the parents' house. My friend talked to her American friends, who were like, "No way, you can't let him do that. Not under my roof!" Then she talked to her French friends and they were like, "Oh, that's great! He has a sex life! Does he love her? That's really wonderful!"

When I was living in France, we had all these kids books about how the body works. One was called "Les Birds et les Bees," which was published by the French publisher Gallimard; it was for 8-year-olds to learn how the body functions and it had a little boy and a little girl and they were naked. You saw their genitals. An American friend of mine came to visit and saw it and said, "Jesus, you'd never see this book in the United States." For a piece I wrote for Salon, I actually called Gallimard and the truth was that book was distributed to many, many countries and the only countries that requested that the genitals be covered was the United States and I think two or three Islamic countries. In France, kids can look at naked bodies, you can breast-feed in public, it's a non-issue.

If there were one characteristically French piece of sex advice, what would it be?

Relax and have fun, probably. Seriously. Enjoy yourself and embrace your body. The 16th century French writer Rabelais, his whole thing was making fun of sex. He wrote about it very eloquently, but he joked about it a lot. The French have a kind of raunchy sense of humor, actually. For centuries they've been poking fun at sex. "Fifty Shades of Grey"? I'm sorry, go read "Emmanuelle" and "The Story of O." They were writing this shit when America was still in bobby socks.

But, yeah, one thing I think they would say is: "Get over it and have fun."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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Debra Ollivier Extramarital Affairs France French Infidelity Love And Sex Sex Sexuality