The Sultanette will never turn down a gooey evening of romance. Candlelight, moist eye contact, a brush of hand on knee, a glass of Bordeaux the size of a fish bowl haven’t lost their power to get me flailing by night’s end. Unlike their preferred approaches such as sexting, guys know the intimate dinner is the PC way to get between a woman’s legs, the more stars to the restaurant, the better the chances.
Romance, the bedrock of love American-style, has always looked to the French for inspiration: Doris Day’s head spinning in the 1952 film, April in Paris – the song originally written in 1932 for Broadway; Sartre and de Beauvoir chain-smoking at the Café de Flore. When the Good Ex and I announced to the New York advertising agency where we had been surreptitiously dating, that we were getting married and moving to Paris, we became instant poster children of the fantasy.
So quelle surprise when I learned upon moving there as a young bride that the City of Love was the City of Subsidized Lust. Hookers were stylishly dressed on the Rue St. Denis. Transvestites can-canned before roaming headlights in the Boise de Boulogne. Oral sex was a noontime nosh if you parked your car along ritzy Avenue Foch. There was a “couples” club down the street from our apartment in the bourgeois Eighth arrondissement. And naturally affairs were de rigueur.
I was reminded of that epiphany upon reading La Seduction: How The French Play The Game Of Life by Elaine Sciolino. A former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, Newsweek foreign correspondent in Paris and Rome, and chevalier of the Legion of Honor who now lives in Paris, Sciolino trains a steely eye on chestnuts in blossom. Her survey of the French prediliction for seduction in politics, art, society and fashion, including chapters on the French kiss, lingerie, and a class that teaches bourgeois women how to strip, are downright educational.
Relevant here, is a chapter on tits and ass, or the fesse, which translates less specifically than “buttock” to the overall curvature of the behind. According to a 2003 survey in the news weekly L’Express only 38% of French males were breast men while 50% preferred the fesse and legs.
Across the pond, a girl soon learns the American male’s fixation for mammaries of all types and sizes. I’ll never forget working in Chicago after college when news of a tit-sighting – a topless sunbather on a neighboring terrace – spread through the office like a California wildfire. Grown men in suits abandoned their PowerPoint’s to crowd the nearest window for a view like they hadn’t seen a set of jugs since they’d suckled at their mother’s breast.
Naturally Frenchmen take a more philosophical approach to ass appreciation. In Breve histoire des fesse, Jean-Luc Hennig traces the derrière’s influence in art and society from classical antiquity to the present. The Hidden Side of the Fesses, a documentary produced by Arte, the PBS of France, describes how the tush has contributed to the advance of civilization. When it was aired in Christmas 2009, the companion book sold out in bookstores – the perfect stocking stuffer.
Does the French male get this as a petit chou or is it in the DNA? One soggy grey afternoon in Paris, I was walking along the Boulevard Raspail when a kid approached in the opposite direction, walking his bike. I had barely noticed him or any premeditated behavior, so I was entirely caught off guard when, upon passing me, he copped a squeeze of my left cheek, jumped on his bike, and rode off.
My initial reaction was righteous indignation. Who did this impudent prepubescent think he was! But when I turned to offer a Franglais rebuke and watched his young fesse pedal off, I thought, “I’m a married woman who just got her ass grabbed by a boy on a bicyclette. Tant pis!” I now understand that he was fulfilling his inborn right for fesse appreciation.
But I’ve strayed from the original topic of romance and its best-selling sequel, true love. See how easy it is to get distracted when unadulterated lust comes into the picture? How can this preoccupation with body parts lead to the Holy Grail of sexual intimacy?
And what is sexual intimacy anyway? Is it feeling physically close? Erotically simpatico? You can get that on a one-night stand. The American translation as it relates to committed love seems to get all tangled up in emotional security. We’re intimate because it’s you-and-me-and-nobody-else and if I catch any hanky-panky I’ll have your balls in couples’ therapy before you can say, “Hi Honey, I have to work late at the office.” That’s the true of true love – no need to account for individual passions, provocations or inclinations.
Or is it time for another definition? Cultural critic Susan Sontag wrote in her diaries, “Part of the modern ideology of love is to assume that love and sex always go together. They can, I suppose, but I think rather to the detriment of either one or the other. And probably the greatest problem for human beings is that they just don’t.”
In La Seduction, Sciolino references a book on men and fidelity. Ben, a sociology professor, married with three children and “deceitful monogamist” lists a 17-point “honor code of the unfaithful but loyal husband.” Along with guidelines for covering your tracks (“Monitor the contents of your pockets, your mail, your e-mails, your cell phone.”) smart boundaries (“Never sleep or even flirt with the wife of a friend, colleague, neighbor or relative.”) major no-no’s (“It is unacceptable to frolic in the home of your wife and children”) and damn straight behavior (“Surround your wife with true, sincere, loyal love and genuine attention.”) honor code Number Eight is stunning: “Never fall in love. Know how to keep your heart if not your hormones under control. Affairs don’t count. With them, you relax. You don’t fall in love.”
Relax? What a concept! In a world suffocating in obligations to spouses, partners, children, in-laws, ex’s, employers and God if you have one, is the affair more necessity than luxury? A sexual rendezvous with a harem member is a blessed escape from my work, my worries, my lists of lists, myself.
In preparation, I pomade like Cleopatra, roll out the heavy artillery lingerie, review meaty topics for intellectual foreplay, and finally turn off all electronic devices to fully participate in the attentions of a smart, generous, sensual, worldly grownup. A man who, married or not, is here like me, to carve out a space of pure pleasure in a life he takes full responsibility for. We have sex. We make love. But we don’t fall in it.
But we all know that falling in love is easy. It’s tolerating someone else’s toe jam that gets icky. Borrowing from Thomas Hobbes’ description of the life of man, committed relationships can be solitary, nasty, brutish – and if you’re lucky – long. They’re also bound by mutual understanding, true affection and shared experiences. But why do we expect ourselves to run that lifetime gauntlet without an occasional shift in the conversation? Spark of unexpected attraction? Thrill of outside attention? Curve of another body?
With this delinquent attitude, how will The Sultanette ever find true love? Don’t know. But if it’s ever April in Paris again, I hope I’ll remember what sex has to do with it.