Jul 12, 2011

The Raw Reality of Sex

People experience many aspects of their lives as undeniable and unalterable reality when, in point of fact,  those things are culturally constructed.  You think that it is normal (c’est normal)  that people have a Kaffeestunde at 4 p.m. or eat dinner at 9 p.m. or learn to swim at age 3 or start school at the age of 6 or respond passively to one thing and with aggression to another; you think it is just the way things are.  In the psychology of culture we say that this is the perception of “raw reality.”  Then, one day you move to another country or only visit one, and you find that what you thought was just how it is, is only just how it is at your house.  You should be able to anticipate this: you should enter a new country with the expectation that things are different, departures from raw reality.  Then, as we have seen, there is the problem of how to interpret the reality that you think you see. 

I was watching a film – I’ve now forgotten which – with my husband a couple of years ago.  It took place around the beginning of the 20th Century.  One of the stereotypes conveyed in the film was that American women are (sexually) loose.  This same stereotype receives a wink in the recent film “The King’s Speech” in the story of Edward, brother of George VI, who voluntarily renounced the throne in order to be with an American floozy (in the sense that she was twice-divorced).  Damn, those wild American women:  They make eye contact, they contaminate the royal family, and they show disregard for the bourgeois etiquette de table.  In the end, even these things come back somehow to sex.  After watching the above-mentioned film with my husband for a while I mused aloud, “How does this ‘American floozy’ cliché fit with the ‘Americans are all prudes’ one?”   As a German, he said, he had personally only been exposed to the “prude” cliché.

I thought about this again the other day when I went to dinner with three women, American girlfriends of mine.  One of them was coming by to get me so that we could walk together to the restaurant, where we planned to eat Mexican food and drink margaritas.  I was wondering where she was when a text message beeped.  The screen of my cell read: “Sorry, am late.  Forgot undies.” When she finally arrived, I was waiting outside.  “Can I borrow some?” she whispered.  “Borrow what?” I asked.  “Some undies,” she giggled.  “Oh, I thought you were late because you went back for the undies,” I giggled back. “No,” she said, “Both.  Late and no undies.”  We went inside where I rummaged around in my drawer and fished out a red thong. I handed it off and she disappeared into the bathroom.  While she added this important piece of clothing, given that she was wearing a skirt, I texted our friend, Julie.

When we arrived at the restaurant Julie was waiting, feigning innocence.  “What story could I possibly tell you after this one?” she blinked, doe eyed.  “I mean, is there anything left to say tonight?”  And then we fell all over ourselves laughing and by the time the fourth musketeer arrived and sat down, we were ready to wipe our eyes and start all over again.  “I am so reassured to hear this,” said the last girlfriend to hear the story, “Because it has happened to me at least twice.  At work.”  Huge hoots of laughter from our table as people looked over at us darkly.  And then the restaurant owner, who loves us dearly, served the first round of margaritas…

In college, my best friend PJ and I talked about our sex lives all the time, and tried to keep the conversation private by speaking in German.   One day in the student union, a person at an adjoining table corrected me by reordering the string of verbs I had piled up at the end of a sentence, and we realized, mortified, that way too many students who drank beer in the Ratskeller and the Stiftskeller of the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union actually spoke German.  We went back to English during Super Bowl parties where we shamelessly analyzed the physiques of the quarterbacks, declaring eternal lust to whichever one was the most deserving.

Since coming to France, I have learned about the “Bible Belt” of the United States because the Americans I have met here mostly come from the South.  My friend Clarrette, originally from Mississippi, has told me all about it.  And some of us from the North of the United States have read those books on Oprah’s reading list, like The Rapture, that take place in bible-thumping places and recount stories involving big religion-and-sex-conflicts. I think I get it now, but I read those books the way you read books about the Middle Ages or about a day from the perspective of a sea otter.  From great distance.  

The Bible Belt is light years away from Hyde Park, Chicago in the 1970s.  And “prudish” was not the word I would use to describe the people and the times around me, although perhaps it was perceived as different from the Sweden lack of prudishness of the time.  Chicago was all about Playboy’s Hugh Hefner, free love, and the sexy new television series, “Love, American Style.”   When my brother, Simon, and I discovered my father’s large stash of Playboy magazines in his closet, a whole new world opened up to us.  We read them and never looked at our father the same way again.  Who was he kidding when he told us that, “they run good articles”?  Once Simon and I stole some of the Playboys and took them up to the 17th floor of our apartment building, where we had access to an open balcony looking toward Lake Shore Drive and lake Michigan.  We folded the centerfolds and other pictures into paper airplanes and let them fly down in every direction.

I know that those airplanes didn’t land in every corner of the US.  Europeans have told me for years now how silly it was for anyone to care about Bill Clinton’s encounters with Monica Lewinsky.  I had just moved to France when that story broke, and so at the end of my first year I read Lewinsky's autobiographical book in French, only because I figured I already knew the story, so the reading would be easy.  The translation into a romance language did nothing, by the way, to enhance a fabulously dull and empty story.  Now the "Americans-are-prudes" discussion has resurfaced in the wake of whatever happened between Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the cleaning lady in a New York City hotel.  But it still remains a cliché.  When Bill Clinton left office he had a greater than 60% approval rating.  From Thomas Jefferson to JFK through Newt Gringrich, the problem of politicians’ sexuality has been complex, only made simple because the media could make it so.  And of course this is not only in the US (although according to some, the compulsion to know about the private lives of the rich and famous, and to judge their professional lives on this basis, is uniquely American).  Italy has had to deal with Berlusconi, and the reactions cannot be boiled down to a simple cliché either.  While some Italians, men mostly, have been impressed by the machismo of Bunga Bunga and show girls, others are frankly appalled or ashamed.  I do not think this is a simple matter and go see my post, C’est le Pouvoir for more thoughts on that. 

What is interesting about sex clichés, from a psychological standpoint, is how encompassing and often off the mark they are.  France, for instance, is associated with a sex and love cliché.  Oh là là and all of that.  Even children’s cartoons in the US contain French-accented male animals (see my photo) that exude sexuality and try to seduce unsuspecting females of other animal species.  Just where should we go with this cliché?  From this should we make the leap to assume that French women are OK with their men having affairs (when they do)?  Is Anne Sinclair (wife of DSK) thinking that "men will be men?"  Of course she isn't.

And I have noticed that Americans believe that “since” the French are the world's authority on love and sex, then they must use their bodies, comfortable as they are and all, in the ways that Americans think it is good to use bodies.  Take the act of having a baby.  From an American standpoint, being comfortable with sex and bodies should translate into a preference for natural childbirth and breastfeeding.  But statistically nothing could be farther from the truth.  Epidurals are the norm in France, just as bottle-feeding is.  I was one of the only mothers on my maternity floor, at the birth of both sons, to breast-feed.  Data that I collected on another topic also showed that the norm was not to breast-feed, and that when breast-feeding did occur, three months was quite enough.  Instead, in France, to the extent that sex is viewed more naturally than somewhere else, this is associated with bottle-feeding because such a solution allows the couple to go back to their previous couple’s life: Bottle-fed babies can be left with alone with their grandparents or babysitters, for instance.

What's the conclusion here?  It's that, like religion, sex and bodies are open to some of the biggest cliché and misunderstandings internationally.  The next thing I might write about is money.  Whew.  I only wish I knew more about it!

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