No sex, please, we're French

It used to be the British who were considered the world's dunces of sex. Now everyone is picking up our bad habits. John Lichfield, Paris correspondent, reports on the globalisation of sexual ineptitude

A few years ago I was driving late at night through the Pigalle area of Paris, which has been known as the city's "naughty" quartier for more than a century. I was, of course, merely on my way home.

Out of the darkness, there loomed a tall, male figure: young, pasty-faced, badly-dressed, obviously drunk, obviously British.

"It's all a fucking con-trick," he screamed as I swerved to avoid him. "It's all a fucking con."

A young British male, aggressive, uptight, determined to be virile but not sure how or where to start, had just established contact with the French sex industry, which had offered much but delivered little, at a high price.

Similar scenes are doubtless acted out, with different national protagonists, in every large city in the world. Pigalle is, in any case, not especially naughty these days. But there was something elemental about my late-night vision of young, British manhood on the streets of Paris, the city of lovers. Britons have long been possessed by a suspicion that foreigners especially "the bloody French" are more sexually liberated and active than we are. To put it crudely, that foreigners especially "the bloody French" are getting it more and doing it better.

Similarly, there is a widespread foreign view that the British are erotically inept. Our men are clumsy and hurried and given to strange inclinations. Our women are prudish and cold. Our teenagers are at it like rabbits but in a joyless and brutal fashion, largely under the influence of drink and drugs.

How true are such stereotypes? Are they changing in the globalised world of contraception, liberated morals, the internet, and frenetic travel? Have national sexual characteristics been eroded in a world in which relationships are often international and where sexual imagery infests everyday life?

To try to answer some of these questions, I made an appointment with France's leading "sexologist", Dr Jacques Waynberg, medical doctor, lecturer, writer and sexual philosopher. Dr Waynberg has studied human sexuality from the Brazilian rain forests to Bucharest. He organises academic studies in the psychology of eroticism, and the treatment of sexual dysfunctions, at the Universities of Paris VI and VII. He is the founder of the Paris Institut de Sexologie. What he had to say was startling. He believes that globalisation and modern industrial society have eroded national sexual characteristics. Far from everyone becoming more sexually confident, the developed world has become more erotically clumsy, even autistic, he says. In other words, other nations, even the French, are becoming, sexually speaking, more like the British.

"The British problem with sexuality is not a question of coldness or clumsiness. The problem is that you Britons take sex too seriously, too ponderously, as something deeply personal and secret, to be hidden and discussed in whispers or, conversely, something smutty to be gossiped about," Dr Waynberg said. "Eroticism in Britain has always been a difficult subject, as, of course, in many ways it is.

"The French traditionally have treated sex and eroticism more lightly, as a game, something to be enjoyed. That, I am afraid, is changing. I see dozens of French people of all ages in this office and my impression is that many French people are no longer having much fun out there. The pressures of modern life, the isolation of the modern couple without a wider family structure, the high expectations of performance, have destroyed the lightness, the playfulness which were characteristic of the French Lover.

"Sexuality in France is, I fear, becoming anglicised."

Dr Waynberg blames a paradox of the modern world: the obsession with glorified, or exaggerated, or over-simplified sexuality simultaneously arouses and destroys the true erotic impulse, he argues. As Shakespeare said of drink: "It provokes the desire but takes away the performance".

Jacques-Alain Miller, France's most celebrated Freudian psychoanalyst, makes a similar argument. He points to the systematic media hypocrisy now spreading from Britain and the US to France which glorifies and cheapens sexuality while tut-tutting or sniggering at any manifestation of sexuality in politicians and celebrities.

The Max Mosley affair was much reported in France partly through the device of mocking the prurience of the British press while providing the salient details. M. Miller said that this was symptomatic of changing attitudes in France: "Globalisation is universalising some of the worst aspects of Anglo-American puritanism: a hypocritical fulmination [by the media] against the smut which it encourages and then uncovers," M. Miller said "It is as if orgasm is no longer acceptable in the public domain."

International sex surveys suggest that Dr Waynberg and M. Miller are wrong (but also right). Such studies suggest that there are still great disparities between sexual activity and enjoyment in different parts of the word. A survey for Durex last year of 26,000 people in 26 countries claimed that the Greeks were the world's randiest people. Eighty-seven per cent of Greek adults said that they had sex at least once a week, compared with 34 per cent of the Japanese. The "Anglo-Saxons" came out badly. Only 55 per cent of Britons said they had sex weekly and 53 per cent of Americans.

Seventy per cent of French people made the same claim, which is not bad, but they were less active than such unheralded lovers as the Swiss and Chinese. And only one in four French men and women said that they were sexually satisfied. This compared with 40 per cent of satisfied Britons and 67 per cent of Nigerians.

Like most Africans, Nigerians score low in sexual activity rates but high in sexual satisfaction. Perhaps they are more honest; or perhaps quality of love-making is more important to them than quantity. This tends to support Dr Waynberg's belief that the developed world's obsession with cheap eroticism cloaks, or causes, an impoverished capacity for real sexuality.

Dr Waynberg dismisses all such surveys as "piffle". It is impossible, he says, to adjust the data for varying national tendencies to lie and brag.

The disparity between French activity rates and French contentment rates is, none the less, striking. On the surface, French people remain more relaxed about sexuality than the British. French men still flirt more convincingly, and obsessively, than British men. French women still appear to be more comfortable with their femininity, capable of dressing sexily while wearing relatively conservative clothes.

French advertising still puts tits and bums with almost everything. Almost every French film has a sex-scene, often involving an adventurous position. Paris has more than 60 "clubs libertines" wife-swapping clubs where respectable couples are encouraged to arrive in their best clothes before, in theory, removing them. Is all this, I asked Dr Waynberg, not evidence that France remains a relatively open and healthy sexual society?

"Wife-swapping clubs?" he snorted. "Ha. Have you ever been to one of those places? They are very sad. Often, nothing much happens. Middle-class, middle aged people sit around waiting to be entertained or aroused. They usually find that no one is willing to do anything much and then go home. From what I have heard, if you really want to have fun, you have to go to Belgium." Dr Waynberg says that the reputation of the "French Lover" is in any case misleading or class-based. The French peasant and working classes were never wealthy or well-fed enough to join in the energetic "libertine" behaviour of the nobles or part of the bourgoisie. From the 1920s to the 1950s, France became a relatively strait-laced country. The 1968 May students' revolution began as a demand for young men and women to be allowed to sleep together in university dorms. Free love and flower power had swept the US the year before.

"All the same, France's reputation is partly deserved," Dr Waynberg said. "Even now, some French people are still able to take a relaxed, balanced and healthy view of sex, as mutual enjoyment, rather than an obligation, duty or performance. That is changing, however. The pressures of modern living mean that couples feel isolated. You see them sitting in restaurants not talking to each other. I want to go up and shout at them: 'What kind of sex are you going to have at home if you have nothing to say to one another here?'"

"At the same time, men and women are bombarded with images which suggest that they should be having great sex, that they should have perfect bodies. The modern woman, having paid for her contraception, wants value for her money and she wants her man to perform to a very high level. In truth, most men, even French men, are not very good in bed, and the higher level of women's expectations does not help."

Even French teenagers, Dr Waynberg suggests, are becoming more like British teenagers. "Drink and drugs and sex go together and make their sexual acts more bestial nothing that can help young people to explore properly their sexuality and help them in their more adult relationships later on."

As I left Dr Waynberg's institute, one of his patients was waiting in the court-yard. I was pruriently curious to see what kind of French person would consult an eminent sexologist. A failing middle-aged man? A dissatisfied wife?

The patient was a good-looking, well-dressed young man with a neat, trendy beard. He was about 21 or 22 roughly the same age as my frustrated British apparition in Pigalle. So much for the sexual prowess of the "bloody French". Quel dommage.

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