Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Somewhere Between Two Hypocrisies Lies the Truth



I recently came across, through a YouTube video, a rather unique French public service announcement. It encouraged heterosexual men to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS by using a condom before engaging in sexual contact. Predictable enough subject for a PSA, one might think, but the video's concept was both amusing and novel. While the American mind would likely appreciate the humor, it would also deem it too graphic to be aired on network television and probably cable as well. American liberalism has, I realize, a long standing Francophone tradition, just as American conservative thought has an equally lengthy history of criticizing it, so my point is not to cater directly to either camp. Somewhere between the two is something close to the truth and as such I seek to find it.



To get to my point, in France, sex is everywhere, and yet attitudes towards sexuality in one's personal life are often more traditional than in the United States. While on the continent, one often encounters nudity on billboards, street signs, and shop windows while out and about, but the attitude of most residents is that the body is a natural entity, as are public depictions of it without the benefit of clothes to disguise the objectionable parts. To us, of course, the only truly socially acceptable manner of presentation regarding the unveiled human body is in the art gallery and even then some people have been known to register their visible discomfort. Furthermore, we deem nudity or frank depictions of nudity in any form to often only be granted as a privilege based on reaching a certain age and with it some perceived degree of maturity, believing that children and minors ought not to be exposed to its supposedly corrupting influences until the age where they can make an informed decision whether or not to partake. Put that way, it sounds almost as though nudity is some health hazard, like smoking or consuming too much alcohol. Still, for all the energy we expend spinning out cautionary tales and guilt-laden commandments, one would think we ought to expect more for our efforts.

The hookup culture of unashamed and relatively guilt-free casual sex encounters is far less pronounced in France than here. If anything, their conception of sex and sexuality is often more traditional, more cautious, and less driven towards the impulsive or the immediate. Americans often seek to shame those who engage in sexual contact before marriage, particularly young women, and frequently deems women of any age who do not apologize for being openly sexual beings as sluts and whores. Still, despite all the lip service, Americans break these taboos constantly in their own lives, regardless of age, race, or class identification. Whether it's Bristol Palin or the woman who lives one apartment over, this peculiar brand of public condemnation and private repudiation could not be more typically American or more typically worthless. One could even argue that the frequency of sexual encounters in one's life is often directly proportional to the amount of contradictory scare tactics one hears and then promptly ignores wholesale.

Here in the United States, sex is also everywhere, but ours is a kind of teasing, taunting kind of constant peep show. Unlike the French and other cultures, we have confused sensuality with sexuality, so that every inch of exposed skin one encounters must obviously mean one thing and one thing only. We can't appreciate the body in any kind of cerebral sense without our minds taking us towards one inevitable, ultimate conclusion. In America, depictions of sexuality are a constant strip-tease, where with the passage of time and the passage of years, one sees a bit more skin or a bit more obvious suggestion than before. True nudity, of course, is still very much off-limits, but this doesn't mean that the psychological impact is any less pronounced. This might explain why we hold this hypocritical discrepancy that forces us to adopt a double life of sorts---an on-the-record scripted and diplomatic personage and an off-the-record real self that is unguarded, occasionally bawdy, and completely authentic. While it is true that boundaries and moral convictions exist for a very good reason, it doesn't seem to me that they serve much of a purpose in this context. Prohibition, after all, was also based on these same principles, and was totally ignored by many who felt no shame in flaunting the fact that they were more than willing to quite visibly break the law.

Lest some miss my greater intent, the point is not to glorify French culture without taking into account its shortcomings, too. Every person and group of persons has good qualities and bad qualities, of course. I recall that during Bill Clinton's impeachment trial, the French were openly contemptuous and uncomprehending of Ken Starr and the Republican lawmakers who sought to use Clinton's adulterous affair with Monica Lewinsky as a means to remove Clinton from office. The French way of looking at the proceedings was an incredulous kind of response---all politicians cheat on their wives or partners, so why was this proceeding anything particularly special or worthy of scorn? Theirs is often a much more cynical country regarding the sanctity of marriage vows, because it is believed by many that any man will stray given half the chance. Indeed, some believe it to be purely a matter of course. Politicians are corrupt, men cheat, marriage often fails, sexuality isn't that big of a deal, and that is that.

Though Americans do at times consider themselves to be a skeptical, if not cynical people, I do not believe we have reached this same point quite yet. While the French might expect the worst as some kind of fatalistic inevitability, we, however, hold those in the public eye and ourselves to impossibly high standards approaching perfection itself. Therein lies the problem. Here, women are held to an exacting measure of complete purity in their personal conduct and especially in their sexual behavior and sexual lives. Politicians can only pass muster if they measure up to a series of microscopic litmus tests regarding a maddeningly wide variety of different interlocking factors. Marriage is a virtue, even though fully fifty percent of them fail---even though adultery is widespread, and even when many people have been married multiple times because many don't think lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders ought to despoil this sacred institution and solemn lifetime commitment even further. While we may be king hypocrites, they are supreme pessimists, assuming nothing so much in the way of good outcomes, so as not to never be disappointed when anything other than the worst case scenario comes to pass. Between these two extremes is the understanding that both triumph and failure are inevitable and that the only thing ever granted us is the ability to accept them as they are and to live life as it comes.

So one would hope that French attitudes towards sexuality, at least, might merit contemplation with us, though I recognize that so long as we chase this impossible ideal of perfection, few will give it more than cursory consideration. We are too rough on ourselves and on others and we haven't adjusted our sights or tempered our expectations in tune with reality. We work ourselves to death and expend too much time and effort in lashing out at those who seem to be overstepping the rigid boundaries we've demanded that no one dare to cross for any reason. We are in love with being the gatekeeper. We are masters at "do as I say, not as I do", and if the latest person who advances this notion happens to be important, famous, or politician, he or she expects that those who discover their real selves ought to cover up or agree to hide these facts from public knowledge for the sake of propriety. We do not suffer fools especially well in this country, and while a part of us never forgives those who transgress or fall short for any reason, there's another part of us who loves the idea of the reinvention or the comeback. In short, we are Americans, and as such we are some cross between hypocrisy and paradox. Mixed messages and schizophrenic cultural expectations just seem to go along with the territory. Even so, one would hope that eventually we can simplify or at least make less complicated our national character. If we wanted to really move towards progress, this might be a good first step.

1 comment:

alarob said...

That ad is very funny, but I thought it also toyed with the feeling that sex, or sexual desire, is disgusting. The story was set in a public bathroom, where the cartoon penis falls into a toilet, slinks along some of the most noisome parts of the restroom (behind the toilet, at the base of the wall, etc.) while some of the cartoon vaginas scurry away like bugs. It's about as far as you can get from the meticulously staged, make-believe bedroom ecstasy that is such a staple of Hollywood productions. The French video is also absurdly funny and delivers a matter-of-fact message. American film treats sex either as deadly serious (often a motive for violence, or no less often, the pinnacle of what it supposedly means to be human) or a teen-age romp, with its own brand of pathetic earnestness. Maybe that contrast (between the French vid and American film) helps get at some of the difference in our two cultures' attitudes toward sexuality.