The French View of Sex: 7 Interesting Differences

The French may be reputed for their cultural norms about sex, but all is not always as it seems. From sex and nudity to fidelity, let's explore the French view of sex.
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There are a lot of preconceptions about the French and sex, not all of them inaccurate. With steamy movies and a sexy French accent muttering sweet nothings, all set against the backdrop of romantic Paris, who can blame them?

But while some French cultural norms about sex may be well known, others are quite exaggerated. So let’s explore the French view of sex, shall we? Allons-y!

1. Sex on the 1st date

The idea of remaining a virgin until marriage, as encouraged in some parts of the United States, is a concept that has long disappeared amongst French teens and their parents. You will not see things like promise rings in France.

And, unlike many Anglo-Saxon countries, in France, it is not necessary to “hold out to the 3rd date” to have sex with someone.

There is no stigma attached to sex on a 1st date. It isn’t considered a hookup or something sleazy, but just another aspect of getting to know each other. The couple can choose to or not, either way, it is their individual choice as well as as a couple.

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2. No French word for dating

Part of the reason that sex on a 1st date is not a big deal is that there is actually no French word for “dating”. French couples tend to go rather fast from seeing each other a few times to being “a couple”.

After a few kisses and a “sleepover”, and both parties usually consider themselves to be in a relationship. There is no big discussion as to whether they are together.

This can lead to a bit of awkwardness between foreigners their French dates, as one of the two might be waiting for someone to bring up the topic. The key sign in France to know where the relationship is going is if your French date starts introducing you to his/her friends and family.

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Marianne with naked breast - Eugène Delacroix's Liberty leading the way
Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty leading the way ¹

3. Nudity

Nudity is not as big a deal in France as in some other countries, since one of the main symbols of France is Marianne, who is usually portrayed with with her top falling off. (A woman with a red bonnet, and every French person knows who is being referred to.)

The symbol of Marianne and this famous painting, Liberty leading the way, is widely displayed in French government buildings and other public spaces. It is so common to see partially-naked Marianne on a statue or a painting, that no one considers it out-of-place.

On the other hand, other famous paintings that were exhibited after later, did raise a lot of eyebrows in France. Painted in 1893, the “Luncheon on the Grass” by Edouard Manet is a large scale painting that measures 81.9 inches x 104 inches.

Luncheon on the Grass by Edouard Manet
Edouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe

It depicts a nude female woman, sitting casually at a picnic with an assortment of food next to her, along with two fully dressed men. She is looking straight at the viewer while the two men seem to be in full discussion, ignoring her.

Edouard Manet was already a prominent figure in France when the painting was put on display, and this there were many negative reviews when it was first displayed. Even famous writer and philosopher Emile Zola commented on the “obscene intent” of the juxtaposition of this woman painted in white, while the men are in dark colors.

Inspired by this painting, many other famous contemporaries of Manet like Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, James Tissot, Paul Gaugin and Pablo Picasso produced paintings of picnics with various levels of nudity.

Even more scandelous, is Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World. It is a painting that has remained controversial ever since it was created in 1866. To put it in brief, it is a close-up view of the nether region of a naked woman, lying on a bed with legs spread.

Unlike other paintings where the nudity is almost sterile and hairless, the graphic nature of this painting is always going to provoke a reaction. Since the painting is definitely rated NC-17, I have not included a photo of the painting but you can find one here.

Putting it all together, it should be said that casual nudity like in the films of the 1960s beaches in France, is on the decline. You will not see as many women going topless on the beach as was once the case, due to changing beauty and skincare standards.

And most of the women you will see will likely be older than 50. Younger French women have absorbed the message that sun rays are bad for the skin.

4. No rush to the alter

Since there is no need to wait to have sex, or even children to get married, French couples tend to put off getting married for a long time. In the case of children (or property acquisition together), couples sometimes opt to sign on to a legal status known as the PACS which provides certain legal protections.

The union of PACS which is almost like common-law, is easy to get into and easier to dissolve than marriage, tends to be the first step for couples after a long relationship. I know plenty of French couples who have lived together and PACS’ed for years before tying the knot.

In some instances, couples getting married in France will even be asked for proof by their local Mairie (town hall), that they live together and have a real relationship to prove that it is not a “white marriage” (fake marriage), before the Mairie accepts that they will marry the couple.

French marriages may only legally be officiated by the Mayor or his/her Deputy. You can read more about French weddings traditions here.

5. Fidelity: French word for Mistress’s apartment

There may not be a French word for dating, but there is a French word for “small apartment used by a married man to keep his mistress”, otherwise known in French as a garçonnière.

There are plenty of anecdotes of high-powered French men (it is usually the men, isn’t it?) who have a small apartment on the side that they reserve for their mistress.

That being said, we’ve seen plenty of stories of American and French politicians doing all sorts of stuff to know that this is not exclusively a French or an Anglo-Saxon predilection.

In addition, habits and cultural norms can be quite different from the rich enclaves of Paris to the rest of the French countryside, so the stories that you hear about Paris are not necessarily what you will encounter in other regions of France.

6. French Politicians and Sex

And speaking of French politicians, one big difference between North American and French voters is their likelyhood to ignore the sex lives of their elected officials.

Famously, French President François Mitterrand, when he died in 1996, had his wife and children on one side of the aisle at his state funeral while his mistress and daughter were on the other side.

Other Presidents like François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy both had messy love lives and changed partners during their presidencies.

François Hollande was not married to the mother of his adult children, Ségolène Royale (herself a presidential candidate). He cheated on her during her own presidential run, and then cheated on the new girlfriend with an actress during his presidency. If you are confused, I don’t blame you, so were the French!

President Sarkozy, on the other hand, was left by his wife for her lover during his presidency. (So you can see this is not purely a male habit.) Sarkozy then rebounded and married famous French singer Carla Bruni, becoming one of the first presidents to get married while in office.

Neither Hollande nor Sarkozy got elected to a 2nd term, but that was due to their social policies, not their love lives. (Most French presidents tend not to get elected to a 2nd term, so this in itself is not unusual.)

But the most famous scandal of all has to be President Felix Faure who died February 16, 1899 at the Elysée Palace during a brief “sieste” he had with his mistress, in between two political meetings.

7. Sex and Privacy

As I mentioned above, President François Hollande may not have been chastised by the electorate for changing partners, but when his ex-girlfriend Valérie Trierweiler came out with a book about their love life and getting him to leave Mme Royale, it caused an uproar amongst the French public.

With stories of how Hollande was sneaking out of Palais de l’Elysée on the back of his bodyguard’s motorcycle, the book was written in the style of a teenage romance gone very wrong.

However, it was not the fact that he was now with another woman (still unmarried) that caused the uproar, but that his ex-girlfriend had dared to air all their dirty laundry in public.

The book did hit the French bestseller list, but no one really wanted to know that his pet name was “flamby”. I think we can all agree that some things are simply better left unsaid!


Any other funny anecdotes you have heard about sex in France? If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read some French quotes about love that may give you even more insight into the French psyche. A bientôt!

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