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Friday, August 24, 2012

Blowjobs: Why Can't Americans Be More Like the French?

"What is it about Americans and la pipe?" asked my Parisian friend Anne in between puffs of Marlboro. I stopped and looked at her, perplexed. La pipe is French slang for "fellatio."

"You're going to have to be a little more specific," I said.

Anne, who was born and raised in Paris, went on to ask why it is that so many young Americans don't consider oral sex to be "real" sex. "It's like a stop gap measure on the way to intercourse," she observed, "and people in America don't think it's intimate the way we do in France. But it's so intimate!

Anne, who observed this phenomenon during her study abroad at a large Midwestern university a few years ago, was right, of course. In American culture, we don't count oral sex as "real" sex.

Among young people in France, on the other hand, oral sex counts as real sex. While every individual is different –- and that applies in the US as much as in France -– the sense I get when I talk to French people about sex is that to them, oral sex and intercourse are by and large equal. "For us, it's really the same thing, which is to say, it's a sexual act of the same seriousness as penetration. Maybe even more intimate," says Johanna Luyssen, assistant editor of the French feminist magazine Causette. "When you go to bed with a guy for the first time, you don't necessarily give him a blow job. That can even often come later, after intercourse."

I'll be the first to say that in many respects, the French attitude to sex is far from perfect. But in this regard, I think Americans could benefit by taking a page out of the French book. If America could work toward a new sexual framework, a way of thinking about sex that doesn't treat intercourse as the be all and end all, we'd be a healthier, more equitable, and I dare say more sexually satisfied people.

For one thing, it all but ignores gay and lesbian sex. Under the current framework, it's impossible for a lesbian, no matter how many same-sex hook ups she has, to really truly lose her virginity. The same goes for gay men: if the only real way to have sex in America is to stick your penis in a vagina, then there are lots of very sexually active gay men out there who are still technically virgins. The privileging of heterosexuality, and of vaginal intercourse above all other kinds of sex, shuts them out and invalidates the sex that they have.

There's the public health argument. A new sexual framework, one in which oral sex "counts," would make it easier to prevent the spread of STIs in America.

However, when it comes to public health, the case for that new framework is complicated. Given the shoddy quality of sex education in this country, and the comparatively poor availability of contraception, the oral sex-real sex distinction might serve a purpose.

In other words, we're looking at a huge overhaul here. We're looking at a radical re-thinking of sex, not just a re-classification of the blow job. But I think the French have got this one right. Oral sex is real sex, and here in America it ought to be thought of as such. We need to do away with the idea that intercourse is the most superior form of sex, the "home run," the ultimate way to score. Done right, it's the kind of shift that could make America a healthier place. It would certainly make it a more equitable place. We already French kiss: why shouldn't the rest of our sex lives be à la française?

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