European Flesh and the American Prude

Rick Steves: Exploring Europe, exploring travel as a political act

09.08.09 | 12:54 PM ET

Alexandra Beier/Reuters

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.

Rick Steves

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. He is the author of Travel as a Political Act.

8 Comments for European Flesh and the American Prude

Zach 09.08.09 | 2:56 PM ET

I love European flesh.

Atlantic City Powerboat Show 2009 09.08.09 | 3:47 PM ET

No women will be happy to be prostitute , but some become so ,because of the situation , once women enter into this field then off course their self esteem is loosed , and be not able to come to the normal life even after they come out of the flesh trade unless and until they are getting counseling,it will not be easy for them to be in the main stream of life
even they are facing hard situation in there own family also , so most probably they will go back to this profession again

Rebekah 09.08.09 | 5:55 PM ET

I was raised in a household where television and movies with explicit sex were watched without qualms, however programs and movies with excessive violence were not viewed. It was sort of a point of view of “make love, not war.” And I find it very very sad that as an American the way I was raised is considered taboo, whereas every other person I know was aloud to watch and semi partake(via video games), in extreme violence, and it was condoned. Personally, I think that sick, and sad… because it puts violence and war above beauty and love.

iulia 09.08.09 | 5:56 PM ET

I don’t think the author is acusing in any way nor blaming prostitution, at least not in this article. Not sure what side he is on either,..hmmm

Truth is in USA and anywhere as a matter of fact, restricitons lead to illegalities which lead to abuse and excess and other bad things. The mentality of people is simply different in USA. There is nothing worng with sex or display of sex or of anything related to it. It is how we react to it’s presence or the lack of it that can be damaging to ourselves or others.

What I don’t understand is the prudish or fake prudish attitudes of some people here in USA. There are sex conventions, there is porn, there is prostitution, by any other name, there is anything you want and you don’t want. The rapes and violence is not as much related to the prudish attitudes of our people but due to the malevolence of our people. Because I am an immigrant I dare say that a lot of the violence is brought in by the trash of the rest of the world which immigrates here and messes everything up. Kudos and appologies to all the good people which are also plenty, immigrants or not.
Nothing here will be as in Europe, because we don’t allow it to, we find a way, a rule, a shortcut, someone,... to ruin it for the rest of us.  Here is hard to appreciate the finesse of a good sensual anything, and is hard since we have been overexposed to hard core. I bet in some parallel universe things are backwards, :p,  and those freakin Europeans wish they lived here, let’s just hope, our author or myself or other wishfull readers exist there too.  Kisses, (on both cheeks, like those lucky pagans do it over there) :)

Jessica O. 09.08.09 | 6:01 PM ET

@ Atlantic City Powerboat Show

I had been a prostitute from my 22nd to my 27th. I had no mental problem with having (safe!) sex with numerous men per day. Back then I had a little son and all I wanted to do is make sure his future would be financially safe.

I am now in my 40’s and my son is going to college. I am a secretary at a phone company. My resumé states all my previous jobs, including me being a prostitute. My colleagues had never met an ex-prostitute before and had to get used to the idea and we talked a lot. Now, it’s no issue anymore at all.

They accepted the fact that I made my own decision when I was young. I did it for the money and I was quite happy with it.

If you are mentally against prostitution, don’t do it. But don’t think you know all about those sad prostitutes about which you only heard bad stories about. For many people it’s a voluntary decision.


Mari 09.09.09 | 12:54 AM ET

Jessy from Amsterdam,

Love you open minded attitude about SAFE sex.  Loved your city, and it’s openess about almost anything, going back for second time in a few weeks!  Very practical what I call the “pee pods” around the city, they are brilliant.  For the ones that wonder, it’s like a triple user portable bath, but specifically for standing males and completely open.  The only thing that cover the user it’s their own back!  What a more natural & necessary thing that going to the bathroom????? We laught our buds off thinking how a product like that will sit with Americans!  In the States the pee pod will cause a riot from conservative people, especially religious groups. 


I’m from the Caribean & lived in Europe for 4 yrs before meeting my American husband.  Before we visted Europe together I tried to explain him what a different view & attitute of the human body, bodily functions & sex European have.  I come from a very catholic & stiff family, where sex was so tabu that I still waiting for my parents to have the birds & bees talk with me (I’m 45).......So Wrong! Sometimes I wonder who is “right”, and I think Europe wins, by far.  They view the human body and sex, the way it should be, natural & normal, God given miracles.

I agree with Rick Stevens last paragraph, I think if America had a more natural view of sex & anatomy (after all we all came to the world thanks to sex) we will have less represed, twisted people & less sex related crimes. 

PD-Steve, had you ever stop to thinkt that maybe the British (and others) use topless womes in their add as a way to admire a woman’s breasts and not in a denigrating way?  It took me a while to at least attempt to see it from another point of view other than the American prude one. 
The hubby had an experience similar to Steve’s in a museum bathroom in Paris.  The cleaning lady actually mopped the floor in between his legs as he was using the urinal, all this as I watch since the bathroom door was propped open for all to see inside.  LOL, I thought it was hilarious!

Mari 09.09.09 | 12:58 AM ET

By the way I have a photo of the museum bath incident to prove it…...

Grizzly Bear Mom 10.03.09 | 11:28 AM ET

1.  I don’t understand why Rick Steves continues to refer to himself as a Lutheran (Christian) when he (and his daughter) advocate for non Christian values such as prostitution, nude pictures in newspapers, and legalization of the intoxicant marijuana.  Additionally I believe it is hateful to excuse sexual violence against women as a lack of available sex partners. 
    Researchers demonstrated that much abuse, neglect, incest, rape, etc are connected with intoxicants, which is one reason I don’t use them.  It seems loving and wise to abstain, hopefully encouraging others to think before they use substances that cause so much misery. 
    Furthermore, the U.S. is much more religious than Europe, and many Americans consider sex a sacred part of marriage and only to be expressed there, not as “dirty”.  To say the (Liberal) French enjoy sex more is mistaken.  American University researchers demonstrated that Conservative Protestant woman had the most orgasms with sex.  They concluded that because the women had no previous partners to compare their current ones to, and didn’t fear abandonment, sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy they could let go and really enjoy it.
    Additionally because Christianity teaches to have no association with the sexually immoral, Christians will judge politicians for that, and for betraying those to whom they had made vows.  Character counts.  After all, if a leader can’t behave with integrity toward their spouse, how can they do so to an office?

2.  Last week the travel channel published on the “graceful swanlike” ?beauty? of the Burmese long necked women, who had been mutilated by the metal band they wear around their necks that cause their collar bones to collapse.  This week rape.  Can we look forward to cliterectomies and foot binding next?  Does the Travel Channel fact check any of the articles submitted for publication and concern itself with offending cultures, religions, and women?

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