European Flesh and the American Prude

I find that Europeans are, compared to Americans, more comfortable with their bodies and with sex. (In fact, I imagine even bringing up this topic in my blog might offend some Americans.) Thinking through my recent travels, the examples are plentiful.

My Dutch friends had a copy of a graphic, government-produced magazine promoting safe sex on their coffee table. I was sitting on the toilet at an airport in Poland and the cleaning lady asked me to lift my legs so she could sweep. I’ve learned that I can measure the after-dark romantic appeal of scenic pull-outs along Italy’s Amalfi Coast drive by how many used condoms litter the asphalt. Soap ads on huge billboards overlooking major city intersections in Belgium come with lathered-up breasts. The logo of a German friend’s travel guidebook publishing company is a stick figure of a traveler on a tropical paradise islet leaning up against its only palm tree, hands behind his head, reading a book that’s supported by his erect penis. Children play naked in fountains in Norway. A busty porn star is elected to parliament in Italy. Coppertoned grandmothers in the south of France have no tan lines. The student tourist center in Copenhagen welcomes visitors with a bowl of free condoms at the info desk. Accountants in Munich fold their suits neatly on the grass as every inch of their body soaks up the sun while taking a lunch break in the park.

I’m not comfortable with all of it. In Barcelona during a construction industry convention, locals laughed that they had to actually bus in extra prostitutes from France for this gang. I find the crude sexual postcards sold on racks all over the Continent gross, the Benny Hill-style T&A that inundates TV throughout Mediterranean Europe boorish, and the topless models strewn across page two of so many British newspapers insulting to women. And I’ll never forget the time my wife and I had to physically remove the TV from our children’s hotel room in Austria after seeing a couple slamming away on the free channel 7 (and the hotelier looked at us like we were crazy).

Comparisons with America are striking. In our culture, a popular children’s TV host is routed into obscurity after being seen in an adult theater. A pop star dominates the news media for days after revealing a partially obscured breast for a fleeting moment during a football halftime show. During one particularly moralistic time, statues of classical goddesses gracing our nation’s Capitol were robed. And, because my travel show includes naked statues, it actually has to be shown only after 10 p.m. in some American towns.

I’m not saying we should all run around naked and have Playboys lying around in the doctor’s waiting room. But I have a hunch that children raised in America, where sex is “dirty,” are more likely to have problems with sex and their bodies than those in Europe. I suspect there is more violence associated with sex here than there. I have a hunch that the French, who have as many words for a kiss as Eskimos have for snow, enjoy making love more than we Americans do. I like a continent where sexual misconduct won’t doom a politician with anyone other than his family and friends, and where the human body is considered a divine work of art worth admiring openly.

An early edition of my art-for-travelers guidebook featured a camera-toting David— full frontal nudity, Michelangelo-style — on the cover. My publisher said sales reps complained that in more conservative parts of the USA, bookstores were uncomfortable stocking it. A fig leaf would help sales.

When it comes to great art, I don’t like fig leafs. But I proposed, just for fun, that we put a peel-able fig leaf on the cover so people could have the book cover the way they preferred. My publisher said that would be too expensive. I offered to pay half (10 cents per book times 10,000). He went for it, and I had the fun experience of writing “for fig leafs” on a $500 check. Perhaps that needless expense just adds to my wish that Americans were more European in their comfort level with nakedness.

Am I off-base? What’s behind all this, anyway?