What Can We Learn from the French (or the Italians!) about Sex?

by | May 22, 2020 | Uncategorized | 40 comments

What makes a culture good at sex?

Now that things are calmer and the book is in, I want to get back to highlighting a comment or two from the blog in the Friday post each week. (Okay, we had a close call with Rebecca and Connor’s yorkie Wednesday so… maybe not so calm? But anyway. We aren’t working 12-hour+ days anymore. Joanna and Rebecca are enjoying time with their little kiddos again. Etc.)

This week, I shared how I’m grieving and rejoicing simultaneously and we had a really fun discussion in the comments about different cultures and their views of sex.

First, Gemma shared:

I am passionate about people (and especially women) being given a healthy and true perspective on sex. I see a lot of the terrible teaching that is out there is the US and English speaking world. I live in France and I wonder what women here get taught about sex and what resources they have access to. I would love to see something like your blog for the French-speaking world.

 

Gemma

Then Natalie replied:

I agree, Gemma! And coming from an American/English speaker who’s spent a good amount of time in France and has many French friends (some of whom are married, so I’ve watched their relationship grow and change from dating to marriage to children), from my experience, I’d say the French view of sex is much more mutual pleasure focused, or really just pleasure focused in general. They don’t seem to be as offended by sexuality in general, but especially a woman owning her sexuality. (Same goes for many other non-English speaking European countries). There’s a reason French and Italian men are stereotypically known by English speaking women as good lovers: because they were raised more to pursue pleasure during sex and to view the whole process as all part of sex (foreplay, PIV sex, post-sex) and not with this idea that their wife owe’s them sex once married or that sex is purely about penetration, which seems to be pervasive at least here in the US. I’m sure as European and American cultures continue to merge, these differences will become weaker. But at least historically, I’d say that’s the case. America’s/Britain’s views on sex have always been very Puritanical historically speaking compared to elsewhere in Europe.

 

Natalie

And then I loved what Andrea pointed out:

I have friends in psychology that say you can tell how a man (or woman) will approach sex by how they approach the rest of life. For example, if he is selfish outside of the bedroom and considers his needs first, he’s going to be the same way inside the bedroom. I think the big difference between the US/UK and countries like Italy and France is not just sex, but the idea of pleasure more broadly. Compare food for example! The US is known for fast food, junk food, obesity, etc., the UK for bland food, while Italy and France are known for delicious food and people who enjoy it in a sensual way, don’t rush through dinner, but savor every bite…

 

Andrea

This got me thinking: what cultural values shape how things go in the bedroom? And what can we be doing as we shape the culture of our family, church, and community to support couples and set them up for success.

Here are my ideas:

1. Savor Life

One of the things about French, Italian, and Spanish culture that is so lovely is that they take the time to enjoy the good things and they take time and joy in cultivating beauty. I think here in North America, too often we settle for a twinkie instead of putting the work in to make a torte. What if we stopped and enjoyed the good things in life? And what impact would having a sense of savoring life do to our sex lives?

Savoring things means that you enjoy what is right in front of you. You savor the process, and not just the result (many knitters will tell you, for instance, that they are “process” knitters rather than project knitters). What would happen if we treated sex that way?

First, I think we’d be less goal-oriented. Instead of seeing sex like a pass/fail thing depending on whether or not she had an orgasm, you could enjoy pleasure which is more likely to get her there anyway, but you would also realize that the pleasure and the journey is good, in and of itself, even if you don’t get to the destination. And that can relieve a lot of pressure.

Second, savoring means stopping and smelling the flowers. It means that you’re able to let time stand still for a bit and give yourself permission to feel. That’s something that many women struggle with (and it’s why I think sex is God’s gift to women; to allow us to feel for a time and not be in our heads). We’ll be talking next month in our series on the toll that mental load takes on women’s brains, but when we savor, then we silence all the to-do lists in our heads and we give ourselves permission to be here, with our husbands, and relax.


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2. Slow the Pace

Here in North America we work a LOT. And working hard is a good thing! But sometimes we’re less productive because we’re expecting ourselves to be productive for so long. (Studies in Scandanavia actually show that working 4 days a week didn’t hamper productivity because workers were more efficient knowing that they had a 3 day weekend coming up.) The Spanish have an afternoon siesta every day, the French get 5 weeks off in the summers, and on and on.

While I know the pandemic has been hard for all of us, I’ve heard from a lot of people that they are enjoying the slower pace of life, having time to do things that they enjoy… just because they enjoy them. I have to guess that a slower pace leads to more time to enjoy sex, less pressure to be quick when it happens, and (for obvious reasons) more opportunities to be intimate.

Maybe we’re all learning what’s truly important in life right now, and what life’s really about.

(and please–don’t get political in the comments! Obviously some societies would benefit from learning to work harder, but that doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t also benefit from learning to slow down a little bit).

3. Keep Conversations Open

One thing that a lot of researchers point out is that sexual satisfaction is higher if people are able to ask questions of their teachers, doctors, and other important adults in their lives while they grow up. That’s part of why, for example, the dutch are believed to have such high sexual satisfaction. (That’s why The Whole Story is such a great course! It’s all about getting the ball rolling for conversations between parents and kids).

You’re telling me WHAT goes WHERE?!

Talking about sex with your kids doesn’t always go smoothly. 

That’s why we created The Whole Story, our online course that walks parents through the tough conversations and does the hard parts for you!

And in our survey for The Great Sex Rescue (coming out next year) we found one of the keys for great sex was women feeling comfortable talking to their husbands about what they want in bed.

Some cultures value sex and don’t see it as shameful, and that makes it easier to talk about. We need to find a way to talk about sex without the shame. I know it’s a delicate balance, but shame holds so many women back. If we can let those messages fall by the wayside, I believe that sex would be a lot better.


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Okay. Those are my three ideas. What do you think? What values would you cultivate to help make things better in the bedroom? And what are we in North America doing right? Let me know in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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40 Comments

  1. Jill Couch

    Such a great perspective Sheila. I never thought about it in this way.
    I’m thinking of the movie Eat Pray Love and in this, it shows how when she’s in Europe, she learns how to slow her life down and savour all of the wonderful things life has to offer.
    Our culture teaches, the busier you are, this is where your value lies.
    I know since being off work due to the pandemic, I really love this pace. I could certainly get used to this real fast… however I don’t think my clients would approve. Lol

    Reply
  2. Elise

    I had to chuckle this morning when I read the statement “maybe it’s not the best to always be goal-oriented when it comes to sex.” The timing of this article couldn’t have been better if it was planned! Last night the “goal” wasn’t met for me. I was pretty frustrated about it. Reading though this post this morning was a good reminder to enjoy the PROCESS of reaching fulfillment and pleasure in sex. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Joy

      Eliseo! Same here. And I decided to focus on how good it was for my husband and not on the fact that i didn’t “get all the way”. Perspective change.

      Reply
    • Anon Wife

      Hopefully this will get addressed at some point in a future course, but yes, I’m feeling pretty annoyed and angry lately that I have never had an orgasm. In Dr. Emily Nagoski’s book, she talks about changing what your goal is, so you can enjoy the ride and not get frustrated. I don’t really understand HOW to do that. It is so annoying that some 12yo boy is masturbating in his room to orgasm and here I am 5+ years married and can’t figure it out once.

      Reply
      • Anonymous

        I completely agree and totally understand. I won’t tell you how long I’ve been married because I don’t want to be discouraging, but it’s far too long to be satisfied with the journey without ever reaching the goal. I’ve begun to think that I will be one of those women who never orgasms, and I feel like a failure. The more books I read, the more frustrated I get. And, quite honestly, I get pretty angry at God because I am not experiencing His design for sex in marriage. Why does it seem as though every other woman, including those who are not believers and are engaging in all manner of ungodly sexual behaviors, is having orgasms while I am struggling and even grieving my inability to do so?

        Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        I hear you. I do. I’m going to address a lot of this in the course. It is really frustrating. I’m looking at all the blocks that we found that women often have to orgasm from our survey and focus groups, and I’ll be covering those, too. I am sorry!

        Reply
  3. Anon

    What a coincidence. I am learning French right now through the duolingo app:)
    But in all seriousness I needed to hear this. . I often feel bad when my wife doesn’t orgasm. She does often but when she doesn’t I don’t feel that the sex is that satisfying and I feel like I failed her.
    She tells me it’s ok and she enjoys it anyways but I guess that because sex without orgasm for me wouldn’t really be that satisfying it’s really hard to believe it would be for her. But I guess that it’s a little easier for women to enjoy the journey more than getting there, altough it’s great when one gets there.
    And taking it slow is amazing. The longer we have been married I do enjoy when things go slow. When we really get to “taste” each other and not have to stress. It makes the “arrival” much better. And while the covid crisis has been annoying I do enjoy that my wife have had time for us now that both are at home and have longer sex sessions.

    Reply
    • Kya

      Je apprends le français avec Duolingo! (I don’t know how to say “too” or “also” yet, though!)

      Reply
      • Anon

        Jejeje (i think that’s how you laugh in French)
        Je croix qui on di “aussi”. 🙂

        Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        My husband is addicted to Duolingo. He improved his French, learned Spanish, took Italian, and is now on Swahili I think (although he learned Swahili himself from a book and was pretty fluent when we were in Kenya).

        Reply
  4. Gayle

    I studied in Paris for a semester in grad school. My biggest non academic takeaway from those 6 months was: How to flirt.
    The French are masters at flirting. I found out very quickly that flirting is encouraged and expected. Especially at dinner parties with couples. Witty. Fun. Playful flirting. My husband says he loves how I flirt with him. I owe that to the French.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, isn’t that interesting? That would likely just liven up marriage a lot, wouldn’t it?

      Reply
      • Gayle

        It so totally lives things up. Its a great skill to have. My hubby isn’t very good at it. So I have to do more of the leading on this. Oh. And also. It helped me learn the value of flirting. As long as it’s *just* flirting. Attraction and desire are fun. I like making my husband feel wanted and desired.. Thank you France!

        Reply
        • Chris

          Gayle, SO TRUE!! North American women do not know how to flirt although there are differences between generations. Millennials? Forget it. They don’t even understand the concept.

          Reply
        • Hannah

          I think Gayle needs to guest post for you so we can all have flirting lessons 😉

          Reply
          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            🙂

          • SL

            Yes, please! I’d love to learn how to flirt with my husband…he’d love it too! Sheila, please interview this lady on your podcast!!

    • Madeline

      Gayle, that is so cute! It makes me want to step up my flirting game!

      Reply
  5. Anonymous

    It’s great to be able to enjoy the process, but it gets frustrating when it doesnt tend to go beyond the process… It would be nice to reach the goal once in a while.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Totally get it. And the goal is important. It’s a hard balance–enjoying the process without stressing the goal, but also trying for the goal (because women do deserve orgasm,too). I’m starting work on my orgasm course next week, so hopefully I’ll have some help for you soon!

      Reply
  6. Madeline

    First of all, congratulations on getting the manuscript done!! I know it’ll probably be a while but I’m really looking forward to reading it 🙂
    This year I’ve been training (or at least attempting to train) myself to be in the moment, which goes along so well with your point about savoring life. I have terrible anxiety and sometimes when my mind is spiraling and I feel out of control of my own mind and emotions the only thing that can snap me out of it is to refocus on the ‘here and now.’ Sometimes I do this with a little mental exercise that involves looking around the room and naming five things that I can see, four things I can hear, three things I can feel, two I can smell, one I can taste. Forcing myself to focus on my surroundings brings me back to the present moment and takes my mind away from the future of unknowns, the “what ifs.”
    Recently my husband and I have become more interested in cooking and I found I have to apply the “enjoy the process” mentality in order to not rush through the steps. This isn’t at all to judge those who don’t have the time to spend an hour or more cooking; I’ve just had a surplus of time on my hands because of the pandemic lockdown. Anyway, my husband and I have been amazed at how much better even really simple meals turn out when we take the time to cook with fresher ingredients such as fresh garlic rather than opting for the powdered version. It may be easier to throw in garlic powder, but it really isn’t that hard to mince fresh garlic and it greatly improves the flavor. That probably sounds really obvious to you great cooks out there, but it’s been a new thing for me, ha.
    Again, I do get that not everyone has the time luxury that I do. But for those of us who do have time to “stop and smell the flowers,” it really is remarkable how this mental shift greatly improves our lives in numerous areas: sex, cooking, eating, maybe everything.

    Reply
    • Anon

      Not to detract from your point at all, which is an excellent one, but mini choppers are great for garlic. I buy it pre-peeled (in the refrigerated section of my produce department) and run it through the mini chopper. It’s freshly minced in seconds – full flavor without garlic peels making a mess.

      Reply
      • Madeline

        Thanks, Anon! I may have to look into that 🙂

        Reply
  7. Wild Honey

    Yes to “1. Savor Life!” I read “Anxious” by Amy Simpson a couple years ago, and my main takeaway was just a side comment in her book, that Americans are overly focused on efficiency.
    As a recovering perfectionist, this totally changed my perspective, especially in my parenting of two young children. Sure, there are times to be efficient. But the end goal is not whether I managed my day efficiently; the end goal is my relationship with my children, their relationship with God, and their ability to be functional adults. Letting go of efficiency has made me a less stressed parent (and spouse), is getting my children involved in the daily life of cooking (and then cleaning up together the ensuing mess that little hands make), taking breaks to read stories and blow bubbles, etc. I am a better parent for putting efficiency in its proper place, and I hope my children will end up better because of it, too.

    Reply
  8. EOF

    This makes me wish I’d grown up in one of those places!
    It’s so confusing growing up here. I was shamed if my mom thought I was *thinking* about sex, yet we always watched shows like Married With Children as a family, and as a preteen my mom gave me an explicit description of what it’s like to be raped. And as I’ve mentioned in other comments on the blog, porn was laughed about at family gatherings, plus my uncles would comment on my changing body.
    I was left wavering between thinking sex was either a joke or horrifying.

    Reply
    • Madeline

      Your uncles made comments about your changing body…ew!! I’m sorry you had to deal with all that!

      Reply
  9. Emmy

    This is a very interesting post.
    Curiously, you mentioned the dutch as a people with a high degree of sexual satisfaction. I wonder…
    I happen to be Dutch myself amd I can relate to that. The ordinary Dutch people are no-nonsense and open minded, sure! There are many sub cultures among them, however. There are the Catholic Dutch, the Evangelical Dutch…and then there are the Calvinistic Reformed Dutch that can be very Puritan. My husband is not Dutch Reformed but his parents and his grandparents were…and I can still feel it!
    It is hard to describe. Dutch Reformend view on sex is very peculiar. Sex is not seen as sinful. It is a part of human life. It is, however, something that one should not “overdo” or “exaggerate”. Goes without saying that sex belongs to marriage only, but even within marriage, sex “should be practised in strict moderation”.
    Yes, countries such as France have their own cultures, but there are also cultures within them which may be just significant. I believe that church background such as Catholicism or Calvinism or Lutheran or other may have a huge influence on the sex culture.

    Reply
    • Chris

      Ya, the modern catholic countries like france, spain, italy, and portugal, mexico etc. are the most sexual cultures. Anything with British roots tends to be more puritanical. Its funny because if you read shakespeare his writings were very earthy and full of sexual references. Its not until you get to victorian times that if gets more restrained.

      Reply
  10. Mary

    While I agree with this what instantly comes to mind from when we lived in Italy in the 90’s was that it was common for the men to have affairs.

    Reply
  11. Jane Eyre

    “First, I think we’d be less goal-oriented. Instead of seeing sex like a pass/fail thing depending on whether or not she had an orgasm, you could enjoy pleasure which is more likely to get her there anyway, but you would also realize that the pleasure and the journey is good, in and of itself, even if you don’t get to the destination. And that can relieve a lot of pressure.”
    I get what you’re saying, but that thought process itself is also problematic. At least in America, it’s a massive cop-out. Even if she doesn’t climax, sex is still great and fun, right? And she enjoys the closeness, right? So insert penis into vagina, and even if she doesn’t orgasm, “intimacy” and “good enough pleasure” result.
    It makes it our fault when we find sex to be a lousy experience, because we’re not “enjoying the closeness” enough or are brats for wanting the same level of pleasure our husbands experience.
    Maybe instead of putting the onus on women to be satisfied with what their husbands would never tolerate, we could set a different expectation. But then again, maybe I’m biased, because that thinking is why I gave up on sex. It wasn’t just that it sucks; it’s that I’m supposed to enjoy the crappiness.

    Reply
    • unmowngrass

      I’m so sorry you feel that way, Jane Eyre. I hope and pray you’re able to feel more appreciated soon <3

      Reply
  12. Hannah

    Love this! I normally work evenings, but my schedule has shifted these last few months, and I’ve been taking the time to cook like the French lately. Slower meals, several small courses. We love it! It’s easier to eat healthy, and we savor the time together. I’ve noticed the mentality seeping into other areas of my life too.
    On the topic of busyness in general, I recommend the book Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte. There aren’t too many books I can say changed my life, but that’s one of them. It’s really hard, in the US, to go against culture and admit that you’re not busy. I used to get so many snarky comments when I said I took Sundays off (still do, but fewer comments these days). Our culture is just so messed up when it comes to time and savoring life. It’s like if you’re morally less of a human if you’re not go, go, go all the time and constantly exhausted. Sometimes there are seasons where that’s unfortunately required for various reasons, but it’s hardly a goal to strive for. What good is life if you can’t enjoy living it?

    Reply
  13. Lydia purple

    Maybe it is that the cultures that savor life are actually overall more relationship oriented and not goal oriented. I used to score as goal oriented in personality tests but at some point I made relationships my „goal“. I used to savor food all my life, but practicing hospitality a lot and cooking for people made me enjoy it even more. When I shop for produce I choose like an artist buying all the yummy colors for a painting.
    This savoring mindset is also reflected in my faith. God created all the world full of endless colors, sounds, flavors… fascinating animals, plants, fruits, weather, seasons, mountains, oceans all for us to enjoy. He delights in his creation and so should we. It is wise to take time pondering the wonders of creation, it teaches us about the creator.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I love that, Lydia!

      Reply
  14. Jin

    we know that the spouses are linked to each other until death.
    do you think earthly couples will remain married in eternity?
    and in the first resurrection of the saints in the millennium?
    Thank you

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      No, couples aren’t married in eternity. In heaven, love is so great and overwhelming that we don’t have marriage in the same way. The Bible is very clear about that–Matthew 22:22-33

      Reply
  15. Elize

    I’m getting married this fall and the way society presents sex overwhelms me and makes me apprehensive. It’s ridiculous how many words combinations I have had to try to find honest conversations about sex, and not cosmopolitan’s latest issues. I’m glad there are a few blogs like these that talk honestly but aren’t crude.
    Thank you

    Reply
  16. Bonnie

    Thank you, Sheila, and all who contributed their comments. For me, sex has been a downward spiral, as far as enjoyment goes. Healthy levels of desire initially, but as hubby’s mental and emotional health declined, my role became that of a caretaker…more like a mother than a wife. He feels angry and unloved because of this. Porn has been part of the picture, and that has influenced my “yucky” feelings towards sex also. I feel stuck…

    Reply

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