Obscure Cultural Trivia Contest: The Demon
From the Annals of Divinely Inspired Languages: Volapük

Relativize That Cliche!

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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.

* While discussing this with a German woman recently, she proposed two theories for German womens' reluctance to polish the helmet (to quote Arnold Schwarzenegger). First of all, deficient personal hygiene among German men. Second, under 20% of German men are circumcized. Both valid points.

Comments

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Räuber Kneissl

Er ... the unspeakable Markus Lanz trying to convict ...

Räuber Kneissl

Everyone (often including the host = self-proclaimed prosecutor) turning on one guest, that's how German talk shows work. You may dislike some of the victims (e.g. the world-famous Mr. Sarrazin or Jürgen Fliege [Lutheran priest, businessman and former talk show host]) but I think nobody deserves such an unfair treatment. Remember the unspeakable Markus Lanz trying to convince Muhammad cartoonist Kurt Westergaard of islamophobia and eurocentrism - one of the many nadirs on German "public" TV.

Now to something completely different: Although born, raised and living in conservative, Roman Catholic Upper Bavaria, I've never heard or read of (nor experienced) German women's alleged fellatiophobia. Thank God not all stereotypes can be substantiated.

daniela

I haven't seen the show, but I read on Spiegel Online about it, and that, combined with what you @Andrew (brilliantly as usual) wrote about it, is pretty much enough to know that I didn't miss out on it. I haven't read Charlotte Roche's book either, but a friend of mine did, and she told me that she found the thirty-odd pages long description of a blowjob pretty boring (which in my opinion is rather defeating the purpose, because I don't know about you, but when I read something like this, I don't do it for the literary merit, I expect to be turned on by it - which also means that I'm not against pornography in general). Anyway, I guess I can't see what's so shocking about it anyway. But for a talk show host to act as though this constitutes the height of sexually deviant behaviour really makes me question the morality standards in this country, in this day and age. I think that in order to answer the question of whether Germany is oversexualized one might want to review the habit of advertizing almost every product on the market with the half-naked body of a woman (sometimes a man).

A word or two about the topic of "polishing the helmet". I think critics should disassociate the activity itself from the notion that it is "the height of female submission" because the female has to kneel before the man. It is anatomically perfectly possible to do it in a variety of other positions. Regarding the explanation of why German women famously object to the activity, I think the reluctance might be absolutely justified in many cases, but then again, I can always send the guy to the bathroom to wash.

I recently saw Dan Savage on both the Colbert Report and Bill Maher's Real Time, and I was very impressed wis his direct, funny and to-the-point approach. And I sort of agree with him on the point that some or even most (not all) people are not cut out to be monogamous. And that's not something that makes bad persons out of them.

Zaungast

Andrew, I like your word choice everywhere in this blog. Today, I learned another practical English term: "Pro-kink". I'm wondering when I will be able to apply it.

More to the point: I didn't watch that show, and your article hasn't really inspired regret in me about it. But I have two little remarks.
First, I'm not sure how such a panel discussion can be viewed as a mirror of society as a whole.
In other words: What do you think how representative a literary critic is (not to speak of the others)?


Second, and on a related note, the format affects the content. That is, people invited as intellectuals (in the widest possible sense) will mostly try to comply with standard expectations towards their group. This certainly doesn't include prudery, but disapproval of anything looking too banal, primitive, or predictable.

M. Möhling

Ferdinand, please bring yourself to have that job done, if only just once. You'll see it's not all that bad. Lest you do it with Mrs. Maischberger, presumably. If so, as a matter of courtesy, offer a barf bag when all is said and done.

> few man really return the pleasure
Again, it seems that we lack firsthand expertise:

government researchers fanned out across the nation in 2002, surveying 12,571 Americans ages 15 to 44. That included plenty of nonteenagers, of course, but it's the teens who provided the most provocative talking points. More than half the adolescents surveyed, for example, said they had engaged in oral sex (and their claims are fairly credible, since the questions were posed not face to face by an adult interviewer but through a specially designed computer program). That proportion was about the same among boys and girls. And although you may assume that girls mostly perform and boys receive, the numbers show the give and take is again about equal.

Dan Savage should compare to the likes of Lilo Wanders or Domian, though they are less on the fringe.

tilman

i'd agree with marcellina that the maischberger-savage-comparison is probably not too good. let's not forget that the average age of the ard-viewer is somewhere around 60 and that the ard is home to a lot of volksmusik, political limbo and other stuffy content in german tv. if you are part of, or relate to, the "well-educated group of financially-secure, tolerant, urban 20 and 30-somethings", you probably won't get aroused by florian silbereisen or guido westerwelle. you might want to watch maischberger at times, but for helmut schmidt interviews rather than for christian freaks.

i'd also agree with andrew, though, that "Germans are delightfully easy to shock". and while it may be that we're more "repressed" (again?!), i just think it's not so common to talk about den akt an sich. if you have questions or problems, talk to your friends or maybe family. but why go on tv with it? where's the use?

this, of course, leaves the question of what public discourse has to do with a society's sex coolness. i don't know - but, maybe, the greater openness of some of this discourse in the u.s. fulfills a function of counterbalancing, provoking or otherwise dealing with the overly uptight, well, silence on the topic along the bible belt?

Andrew

@Marcellina: But where's the German figure comparable to Dan Savage? In my experience, urban, educated Germans are delightfully easy to shock, because they're actually considerably stuffier and more repressed than urban, educated Americans.

@Kleist: First of all, under Savage's worldview, mutuality is always automatically required of both partners, so it's not a situation of denying something your partner won't do for you (which is 100% justifiable). Second of all, there's about a hundred different ways to polish the helmet, not all of which involve kneeling. But then again, come to think of it, almost any form of sex involves kneeling, doesn't it? And as for blowjobs=oppression, I suggest there's pretty much zero correlation there.

Ferdinand Kleist

Perhaps they realise that a blow job is a completely one sided sexual activity. It only brings sexual pleasure to the man and is the height of femal submission, who has to kneel to perform it and submit to being sprayed in the face by an overeager brain....

Even in porn-induced blow job socities like the US few man really return the pleasure by being prepared to go down on women, so fair deal....

Douglasaurus

What does circumcision have to do with getting blowjobs? I don't have one and it's never been a problem, hygiene or otherwise.

Marcellina

Eh, I don't know about the comparison. Dan Savage, even on national tv now and then, is still pretty fringe. Do any large mainstream city newspapers (not the free alt ones) carry his column?

Better to compare Maischberger with, say, The View. Would the participants on the view have been able to carry on the conversation without it descending into giggly jokes? The fact that they can talk about it at all without breaking out the humor leads me to believe they must be more comfortable about the topic in general.

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