In France, Switching Sexual Roles
French men have long enjoyed a reputation the world over as legendary lovers, while French women are generally held to be mysterious, alluring and rather aloof. But all that could well be changing.
Respected French weekly magazine 'Le Nouvel Observateur' has just published one of the most comprehensive pieces of research into the nation's sexual habits. And one of its startling findings is that French women are catching up with men in terms of how many sexual partners they have, while young men seem to be losing interest.
"It's upheaval wherever you look: the practices of women are more and more like those of men, those of the young are not so different from those of the old, sex life is lasting longer and longer," the magazine wrote in March in its lead article on "the new sexuality of the French".
It is far from being a victory for women's liberation and equal rights. Women still found it more difficult than men to dissociate sex from feelings and believed men had greater sexual needs than they did, according to the survey.
"There is a big division in that for women sex is linked with emotions and for men it is linked with need," said Nathalie Bajos of France's National Institute of Health and Medical Research, who was one the leaders of the study instigated by France's national AIDS research agency. "Women work more, study more and have more access to contraception ... and live a more diverse sexual life. At the same time, the inequalities in society remain. There are inequalities of salary, women carry out more domestic tasks... These social inequalities are replicated in sexual life," she added.
Anticipating the 40th anniversary of the social unrest of May 1968 in Paris, widely regarded as the beginning of a new era of more liberal values, 'Le Nouvel Observateur' had exclusive access to a 600-page report based on more than 12,000 interviews.
Previous surveys on a comparable scale in France were carried out in 1972 to mark the advent of the mass use of contraception and, in 1992, when concern about AIDS was at its height. According to the latest research carried out between September 2005 and March 2006, the number of sexual partners experienced by women aged between 30 and 49 years has leapt from an average of 1.9 in 1970 to 4.0 in 1992 to 5.1 in 2006.
For men the figures were virtually stable at 12.8 in 1970, 12.6 in 1992 and 12.9 in 2006. Moreover, men aged less than 30 were found to be increasingly cautious. A fifth of those aged between 18 and 24 years showed no interest in sexual relations and between 18 and 25 years, the proportion abstaining was twice as high for men as for women.
The overall picture painted by the magazine was one of confusion. It said sex therapists were in great demand, with an estimated half-a-million patients seeking treatment from them per year. It cited the example of one general practitioner, who decided instead to specialize in sex therapy because so many of his patients were requesting help.
Bajos said she had no data to back up the impression that an increasing number of people, at least in France, were seeking sexual advice, but she said relationships were under great strain. "In society, there is a perception that if you are to succeed in life, you have to succeed sexually. That puts a lot of pressure on people," she said.
Arguably, across the Channel, in Britain, the national mood is less anguished and men and women have no reputation as great lovers to live up to. Relate, a British charity that provides relationship counseling, is nevertheless busy, but at a steady rate. "The numbers of people coming to Relate for sex therapy or counseling related to their sex lives remains constant. We helped 150,000 people in total last year and sex was an issue, or one of the issues which had become divisive within their relationship," said spokeswoman Catherine Allen.
The latest survey carried out by Bajos and her team pertains only to France. Comparisons across the world are difficult because cultures are extremely diverse, although it is possible to find similarities across industrialized countries and in turn across the non-industrialized world.
Medical journal 'The Lancet' in 2006 carried a survey entitled 'Sexual Behavior in Context: A Global Perspective'. It reported a "huge regional variation" in behavior, which suggested that sexual behavior is determined mainly by social and economic factors.
Overall, it found the historic norms were still in place, with most people still monogamous and men for the most part taking the sexual initiative. A major divide was between women who still marry at a young age in the developing world and those in the developed world, who are marrying later, if at all, and engaging more and more in premarital sex.
The most obvious gap, however, was between men and women, with men far more sexually active than women - a phenomenon explained only in part by the tendency of men to exaggerate their sexual conquests and women's more diffident approach. The French could be at the vanguard of a role reversal.
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