As so many think they know, Germans are cool and relaxed about sex (Bodycheck! Nude bathing! Breasts on network television! Page One Girls! Bordellos!) while Americans are puritan moralizers, ludicrously uptight, laboring under an insidious double standard.
Now I'm no implacable enemy of all cultural stereotypes -- they came from somewhere, after all, and they're real time-savers. No amount of pointing to exceptions can counteract the fact that national cliches, dammit, are a pretty reliable thumbnail guide to what to expect from people. After all, 95% of all humans are not stereotype-defying mavericks; they're meek conformists whose main goal in life is not to stand out.
Yet you've always got to be on the lookout for stereotypes that have outlived their usefulness. And I propose the dichotomy between earthy Germans and uptight Americans needs a re-think. Case in point -- last night's Maischberger show (g). This woman with the squishy mouthful of a name hosted a discussion on whether German society was 'oversexualized,' the title of the show being 'No Decency -- No Taboos?' She invited an authoress of dirty novels, a Christian journalist, a couple of feminists, and a literary critic. The upshot was that almost everyone turned on (g) Charlotte Roche, the author of the dirty books. And just to clarify, that's 'turned on' in the sense of attacking.
The feminists objected to the idea that women should 'sexually serve' their men, most of the people condemned porn, prostitution, and blowjobs, and the Christian defiantly stated that he actually had not had sex before marriage. In her introduction of Roche, Maischberger announced breathlessly that Roche had actually described, in one of her books, 'how to satisfy a man orally', as if this were a shockingly bizarre kink. Millions of German women, internationally renowned for their curious aversion to this activity*, doubtless recoiled in horror from their television sets. It was like watching an American debate show from the early 1980s.
Now let's turn to the United States, that coldbed of uptight puritans. One of the most popular advice columnists, if not the most popular, is Dan Savage, an openly gay man who lives with his partner and adopted son. Savage thinks monogamy is impossible for many people, and describes his own relationship as 'monogamish.' His readers -- overwhelmingly young urbanites, it must be noted -- send in questions about various sexual kinks they have, and he gives them all sorts of extremely frank advice.
And that advice is unrelentingly pro-kink! Just read a couple of his most recent columns. Savage confidently states, without fear of contradiction, that oral sex is a mandatory part of all relationships, and that anyone who doesn't provide it for their partner should be considered damaged goods and 'returned to the lot'. As for unusual sexual practices, he's all in favor of them as long as they're safe and consensual, and scolds people for not being 'game' to entertain their partners' fantasies about feet, cages, candles, rubber gloves, diapers, or whatever else (within reason) turns them on. Savage's only rules are about safety and hygiene. If you want to visit a sex worker, says Savage, go right ahead. Just visit someone who does their job professionally and safely, and don't bring anything home but memories. And perhaps a few consensually-inflicted bruises.
Because Savage is gay and America is a Third Wave feminist society, there's none of this outdated tosh about women being 'sexually objectified' by men or marriage being rape, etc. That's all so 1988. Women are just as entitled to active sexual desire as men without being judged for it. They can also be lying bitches and shallow gold-diggers, just as men can be emotional 13-year-olds and cheating bastards. Women themselves write in to Savage, their best gay e-friend with whom they can talk about anything, and describe what they do for their boyfriends/husbands/girlfriends and what they demand being done for them, all without whining about oppression. Pornography is, to Savage, not just an inevitable but a welcome and life-affirming aspect of human sexual expression.
Granted, Savage started out as a somewhat fringy figure in alternative local newspapers, and you won't find his gleefully profane column in mainstream newspapers. But he appears constantly on national television, has authored several popular books (including The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant) and has been profiled by innumerable publications, including the New York Times.
Now, this is not to say that America is now officially a Sexier Society™ than Germany. Dan Savage writes for a small, well-educated group of financially-secure, tolerant, urban 20 and 30-somethings, not for Arkansas Baptists. And it will still be a long time before bare female breasts are shown on normal television in the U.S. But the simple Germany relaxed/America prudish distinction, whatever weight it may once have carried, just doesn't work anymore. It needs, to use the German term for it, to be relativized.