Did the French really invent love? The Alliance Française certainly seems to think so. The institute, which promotes French language and culture, is revealing the secrets of the art of seduction à la française in a series of conferences entitled “Undressed, the Art of Sex and Seduction.” In case you can’t wait for them to reveal why the French are so very proficient in the ways of love, here’s a rundown of the country’s rich cultural history of sex.
The concept of l’amour courtois (courtly love) originates in France in the Middle Ages, when the legends of Lancelot and of Tristan and Isolde defined a love based on romance and sexual desire. Since marriage at the time was purely based on economics and procreation, such love could only flourish illicitly; thus, the quintessential French triangle – the husband, the wife and the lover – was born and persists to this day. Contemporary examples of high-profile cheaters (think: the well-publicized double lives of Mitterrand and Dominique Strauss-Kahn) contribute to the belief that extra-marital affairs are the normal state of affairs in French marriages. But, as Debra Ollivier, author of What French Women Know points out, statistics show that Americans are just as likely to stray. The big difference, according to a 2001 Franco-American study, is that French affairs last a long time – sometimes years – whereas Americans tend to keep their trysts short – often just one night. Perhaps Americans experience less guilt about a one-time dalliance, which can be quietly pushed under the rug of their uneasy conscience, while a long relationship cannot be denied or easily hidden.
It is in the 18th century court under the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV that things really begin to heat up. Literary salons, hosted by sophisticated noblewomen, were hotbeds of seduction, flirtation and marivaudage – a term coined after Marivaux, the playwright. The literary novels of the period refined and codified romantic courtship and introduced the characters of the libertin and libertine – amoral seducers of both genders who devote their lives to playing the game of love. Manon Lescaut (Abbé Prévost, 1731) introduced the femme fatale; Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Choderlos de Laclos, 1782), a wickedly erotic epistolary novel of seduction and revenge, burst onto the scene only to be periodically banned in certain countries (it is required reading in French high schools); Vivant Denon’s No Tomorrow and Crébillon Fils’ The Wayward Head and Heart explore the idea of younger men led astray by older women. The codes of seduction described over two hundred years ago are still the same in contemporary France: witty flirtation, the amorality of sexual liaisons, love as passion, and the appeal of the more experienced, older woman.
Libertinage, marivaudage or badinage – seduction in any form is a veritable game of chess, where lovers pit their wits against each other, all in the name of building up desire and pleasure. Catherine Cusset, author of The Story of Jane, explains that in La Nuit et le Moment (The opportunities of a night), Crébillon Fils analyses the moment in seduction which defines the point of no-return,. “The moment is a call to desire, the desire rises up in consciousness…” Crébillon writes. “for the libertin the point is to seize that instant to take hold of the sought-after woman. The woman, for her part, will do her utmost to hide it, while secretly wishing for it.” In other words, in America, “No means No.” But for the libertin, “no” can also mean “yes.”
In contrast with a puritanical, pragmatic and goal-oriented approach to love in the US (either hook-ups for sex or dating which should lead to a long-term relationship or marriage), French liaisons – extra-marital or not – are more ambiguous. They are not about the outcome, but about the experience – whether one amazing night of sex or a passionate affair that may not lead to a steady relationship. Amorality is sexy. Passion has its own raison d’être. It is the most intense experience you can have in life. But for all the verbal wit and sparring displayed by the French, there’s also a lot of non-dit – much that is left unsaid and secret. Where Americans praise communication and openness, the French favor subtlety and mystery to let the erotic imagination run wild.
Une grande amoureuse is not necessarily a “great lover,” but a woman who has the capacity to abandon herself to passion without holding back. The concept of surrendering or letting go is scary in American culture – a culture that values control above all. For the French, losing yourself in passion, absence of control, is the ultimate goal. Pauline Réage’s Story of O (1954) – the infamous novel of bondage and S&M – celebrates the S&M dance of one person’s surrender while the other holds on.
Of course, few French women follow O in her radical journey towards total surrender. But men and women of all ages flirt constantly in the street and in the stores, and many women remain sexual all their lives, sometimes taking younger lovers – a tradition borne out by older women writers, from Colette to Marguerite Duras, Annie Ernault to Camille Laurens. As Michele Fitoussi, the editor and writer, puts it, “French women are keenly aware of the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure.” Perhaps that is the reason French women are perceived by American men as so alluring : freer, more sensual, sexier, better lovers, and more comfortable with their bodies. We are not necessarily more beautiful, but possess the je ne sais quoi that is so impossible to define.
Next event of Undressed: The Art of Sex & Seduction at FIAF
-Vive La Fantaisie ! Inside the Erotic Mind:
Panel discussion with Esther Perel, Daniel Bergner, and Erica Lumière.
Monday, December 2, 2013, 7pm. More info