European Flesh and the American Prude
Rick Steves: Exploring Europe, exploring travel as a political act
09.08.09 | 12:54 PM ET
Sex is one aspect of the cultural divide that titillates any American traveler to Europe who’s window-shopped a magazine kiosk, gone to a beach or park on a sunny day, or channel-surfed broadcast TV late at night.
Thinking through my recent travels, I recall many examples of Europe’s different attitudes about sexuality: My Dutch friends had, on their coffee table, a graphic government-produced magazine promoting safe sex. 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 learned that I can measure the romantic appeal of scenic pull-outs along the Amalfi Coast drive by how many used condoms litter the asphalt. Soap ads on huge billboards overlooking major city intersections in Belgium show lathered-up breasts. The logo of a German travel publisher is 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. Preschoolers 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 this. During a construction industry convention in Barcelona, locals laughed that they had to actually bus in extra prostitutes from France. I find the crude sexual postcards 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 three 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 channel 7 (and the hotelier looked at us like we were crazy).
You may not want to bring the more casual European approach to sex and the human body back home with you. And I’m not saying we should all run around naked. But I suspect that children raised in America, where sex is often considered “dirty,” are more likely to have an uncomfortable relationship with sex and their bodies than those in Europe. (I sense that there is more violence associated with sex here than there; in fact, Americans report at least double the incidence of rape as citizens of any European country.) And 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.