Should that really be the question?
I can hear it already (because I have, many times) Ah! French people! Obsessed with sex! Now let me tell you, after living in France for 27 years and in America for 11, I’ll pick French society’s relationship with sex any day of the week. It’s just healthier.
Like almost everything in the US, sexuality is not spared by America’s unique ability to revel in the extremes like a baby elephant in a mud pond. The United States is a country that can go overnight from Obama to Trump, from racism-isn’t-really-a-problem to every-white-person-is-racist, from junk food galore to kale and gluten-free diet, or from this guy-has-power-and-money-so-we’re-just-gonna-close-our-eyes to every man is a sexual predator. For all the remarkable things I have found and experienced in my decade in the US, nuance is not one of them.
Sexuality follows a similar pattern: on the one end, America shall not see a woman’s nipple in public and on the other end, America can watch on HBO teenagers f***ing like they’re in some of the most graphic adult films I’ve ever seen. Don’t get me wrong, I think Euphoria is an absolute masterpiece of television, but it also made me do a double take when my wife and I discussed whether or not we would let our kids watch it when they’re teenagers. And that comes from a guy whose parents took him to see Pretty Woman in the theater at the age of 7.
Now sex is a sensitive topic — and it should be, it’s one of the most sensitive experiences there is. It’s built into our DNA, one of the most intense sensations our bodies can feel, the ultimate natural force of life against the terrifying force of death and it sells like nothing else. Consciously or subconsciously, top of mind or buried deep, for pleasure or for babies, sex is one of the most important aspects of the human experience — along with food, water and oxygen. Wherever anyone is on the wide spectrum of sexuality, it’s impossible to deny it’s one of the most basic parts of our mammalian existence, way before we decide if we like it, establish values and norms around it, or before we care about other things human care about like money or learning how to read.
Culture hides in the language. And sex culture is no different.
So why is America so weird about it? The first rule my mid-western spouse told me when I came to visit her here: don’t talk about sex, politics or religion— something pretty much every HR department and ounce of socially driven common sense has repeated to me ever since. At first I thought American prudishness came mostly from its deep judaeo-christian roots, and as we all know, religion doesn’t really like the idea of sex for pleasure. But it’s not like France doesn’t have deep religious roots either. And yet, in French culture, from songs to books to movies, from conversations with friends (of both genders) to jokes with colleagues (of both genders) at the coffee machine, we talk about sex in a much more casual, sensual, organic way.
So why is sex so mainstream-ly taboo in the land of free speech? Why is the topic such a source of discomfort almost every time it is brought up or avoided at all cost? Of course it’s deeply personal, but also of course this is something we can all share: we all do it, we all think about it, we’re all drawn to it one way or another.
Saying “to have sex” positions the sexual act as consumption, not as creation.
I’m not a therapist, I’m not a scientist or a doctor in any of the fields that study this. But I’m a writer, who for the past decade has been navigating the subtlety of two languages, going back and forth every day in my head and with my kids. And one thing has become absolutely crystal clear to me: there’s a tremendous amount of culture hiding in the language. And sex culture is no different. One day as I was thinking about sex (yes, I do think about sex sometimes) I realized something — the most common expression to talk about sexual intercourse in the English language (the one that won’t get bleeped on national TV) is to have sex, so it’s something the couple has. In French, the closest equivalent would be coucher ensemble (lay together) therefore something a couple does. No matter which of the hundreds of turns of phrase you can use to refer to sex, in French it is almost always an action and the verb “have” is never part of the equation. There is no “Ils ont eu du sexe” — just writing it makes me laugh. There is one exception, you can say “avoir un rapport sexuel” but that’s the equivalent of saying “ to have sexual intercourse — that’s not how it’s talked about in the real world. Nobody will ask their friend if they had “un rapport sexuel” with their partner yet.
So what could this apparently small difference do to a psyche? I’ll make the argument that to have sex makes it sound like sex is an object that lives outside of your relationship, that you decide to grab or not. The product is out there, available to you and everyone else. You can own it and throw it away when you’re done or when it’s broken. You don’t really have control over its production, you can just have it or not. You have sex like you have a Big Mac or a new car. It’s not a unique creation that only happens with a deliberate physical action and simply wouldn’t exist if you didn’t decide to do it. It places the act of sex as consumption, not as creation.
There is one other issue that arises when you linguistically place sex at the level of “have” and “have not”. As is the case with many things we want to own (something many philosophers throughout the ages have referred to as human’s vital desire for recognition) this exciting and unique experience in our routine-filled lives suddenly becomes an object of pride, that we want to show off to our peers. Add social media culture to the mix and you can see the recipe for disaster our teenagers now eat up every single day.
I have to admit, even though it is one of the most beautiful turns of phrases humanity ever came up with, to make love has now earned the status of “cheesy” on both sides of the Atlantic. And since sex doesn’t always have to involve love, I find it to be a fair evolution of the language. But until English evolves again to a point where sex is not something two (or more) people have, I will have no choice but to use a crude four letter word you hear mostly on HBO to refer to sexuality to my kids — because I don’t want them to feel it’s something they’re gonna have, it is something they’re gonna make. They are 6 and 2, so language has some time left — I’m not completely insane.
Although, by my family’s standard, my oldest one is almost ready to watch Pretty Woman.