Usually, when France is positively called to mind, students envision socialized healthcare, liberal sexual relationships and a hotbed of culture. The stereotype of liberal sexual rules in France is more complicated than at first glance, but undeniably prevalent, especially in the classroom.
For example, in my French cinéma class, the students blush more often than they speak. The theme of the class is focused on the relationships between men and women. By exploring French cinema, it quickly became apparent that the there has never been the French equivalent to the American Hays Codes, which forbade nudity, bad language and interracial couples in movies. This early representation of the differences in sexual ideology was enhanced by our in-class discussion.
The professor, a professionally passionate critic of film, openly discusses sex, virginity, eroticism and oepidpus complexes in relation to classic French films which are rooted in the playfulness of linguistic innuendo. Nothing is ever straightforward, which is very difficult for second-language speakers. For example, I was staunchly corrected after telling a friend I wanted “to visit him”. He informed me that the correct way was to say I wanted to “pay him a visit”. This difference is subtle and small, but the first is sexual in meaning, the second platonic. In film class, the professor helps the bashful American students to uncover this complex layer of innuendo in relation to studying gender, even if that means prying our thoughts on sexual plot twists and tensions out through series of comprehension questions.
This kind of frankness is the most jarring in relation to being a student on a French campus whose sexual rules are gray. It is not bizarre or offensive to see students making out in front of administrative buildings or next to you on public transit. There are complicated rules for giving les bizes (cheek kisses as a form of greeting.) Three kisses in the South of France is the norm, and only women to women and men to women. A man will only give bizes to another man if they are close friends, another subtlety that can cause confusion, especially considering that public displays of affection are not taboo.
The fine and complicated line between openness in sexuality, but strict social rules regarding intention and innuendo become even more complicated when interacting with extremes, such as sexual violence and student prostitution.
In July of this year, a story on Le Monde broke revealing student prostitution in Montpellier through the website seekingarrangement.com. The website pairs women needing money with men willing to spend in exchange for a specific type of relationship. The outrage that followed was not in relation to sexual abuse, misconduct between students, or coercive relationships, but over students needing money. The focus of sexual problems is not on the act of sex, but on the inabilities of society to address the complex underlying issues that cause a woman or man to have sex for money to pay for her or his education. According to a 2012 Huffington Post article, compared with similar instances in the United States, there is worry of “luring women into the sex industry,” as opposed to dealing with the root cause of needing to pay skyrocketing tuition rates.
The complicated side of these differences is starkly illuminated by the recent mishandling of sexual misconduct cases at American universities. In addition, the UN reports that 240 women are raped in the United States for every seventeen women raped in France. In an article published by the French newspaper Le Monde, after the mishandling of an American student’s rape, French commentators struggled with understanding consent in the United States and the differences in ideas of what is healthy and what is a violation of human rights. One commentator summarized, “Rape is obviously an outrage, but when will Americans learn that sex is not dirty?”