Virgem II: How They Do It In France

This is the second part of a series that began here

I’ve lived in France for a bit. I’m going to try and explain what I’ve observed since I’ve been here1. In (metropolitan) France, at the level of ideas, there is the grand face-off between the left and the right, the “traditional” and the “modern”, the conservative and the liberal, the religious and the secular. Obviously the country is not cleanly divided into two opposite camps, with each individual belonging to one or the other. However, these are the major groups and ideologies that dictate the shaping of opinions. Since the beginning of the 20th century, when there was a significant breakaway from the authoritarian power of the Catholic Church, there has been an endless tug-of-war between the church and those who believe the church should have no say in social and political affairs. These are the laïque.

In my opinion, the church is currently losing this tug-of-war (actually the rope has been steadily slipping from their grip since May 1968) . The Catholic Church in France is viewed by many as an outdated institution full of old, white, intolerant men (and occasionally their slightly less odious female counterparts) who are at best out of touch with reality, and at worst delusional extremists. Catholic priests, bishops and cardinals are often quoted as speaking against sex outside of marriage, birth control, abortion and homosexuality. Yet, popular thinking is that sex happens (and should happen) outside of marriage, and that people engaging in sex should use protection, and when it fails, they should seek medical help (abortions included).

Generally speaking, people are neither secretive nor subtle about their sexual exploits – nearly every French film you watch will have a (gratuitous) sex scene; I have seen countless couples groping each other in public, and once in Paris I saw an advertisement in the metro station for a website that organizes extra-marital affairs. Sex as “just sex” i.e. just a thing that everyone does whenever they feel like it, is the dominant view here, but it is not shared by everyone. There are practising religious people in France, notably Christians, Muslims and Jews, who would not agree with this perspective. There are also immigrants from other countries and cultures who do not approve of this libertine attitude. And there are simply people who think that sex (outside of marriage) is not ok, though they may not be affiliated with any religion. Often, these people are older (though I suspect that there are younger people who share this perspective) and their views on sex are considered archaic.

The idea of sex is often associated with “love”, in its most superficial sense. When two people are infatuated with each other, they are said to “be in love”, which in this case means sexual attraction, and I think the word is used simply to garnish the whole affair. I imagine it would be too vulgar for some (though not for all) to admit that what they are seeking and receiving is physical, sexual satisfaction pure and simple. Hence all the allusions to amour. However, this attitude is not uniquely French.

I think that today’s metropolitan French perception of sex is part of a larger push-back against an old, tyrannical system that sought to put every person in their place (wherever that was) and dictate every single aspect of their lives. Sex was one of several ways of asserting this control. If the Catholic Church did not declare two people married, then they were not married and consequently had no right to have sex (though that did not stop many people). Sex was also used as a means to control women. But I feel that I need to go into a bit more historical detail.

Time for a history lesson

Historically, (Roman) Catholicism has been a dominant power in French politics and society. There were Christians in France (who weren’t all Catholics) by the 2nd century AD, but it wasn’t until King Clovis I became a Catholic in 496 that the church firmly established itself alongside the monarchy, an arrangement that was cemented in the year 800 when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne (Holy) Emperor of Rome. This was the launching pad for the lasting symbiotic relationship between the aristocracy and the clergy that prospered because they served to validate each other. The clergy claimed that the nobility, leadership capacity and general superiority of the aristocracy was bestowed on them by God, and as a result, questioning their position as leaders would be to question God Himself –blasphemy. In return for this “divine” legitimation bestowed on the rulers, the clergy received from their rich and powerful allies, gold, land, some degree of political power and protection when necessary. Together, the two classes dominated and dictated most of the social norms and religious rules between the 9th and 18th centuries.

Where does sex come into all of this? You may wonder. Well, French society in this era was stratified and feudalistic, and it ran on a system where each person belonged to one and only one rung on the ladder. Social mobility was possible, but highly discouraged, since those at the top didn’t want to share the wealth and privileges with too many people (which is often the case with any privileged group). The main factor that determined club membership was blood: your parentage could either make or break you in this society. This was particularly the case for those with a lot to lose – la noblesse, or the aristocrats. If you could not trace your ancestry back to several generations of titled, landed gentry, then you didn’t quite make the cut. Sure, some people got rich doing business, and managed to buy titles and land, while others somehow found favour with the reigning kings (or queens) and were given titles of nobility as rewards, but these newcomers were often snubbed by their older counterparts and many decades would pass before their grandchildren or great-grandchildren were finally accepted into the club. Now, here comes the important bit: for nobility to be inherited, the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on of these aristocrats had to be legitimate, i.e., their biological parents had to be married (which was a status that only the Catholic Church could confer). Any children born out of wedlock were considered illegitimate2, and were not allowed/expected to inherit anything from their parents, except on the rare occasion that the child’s father had a conscience and formally recognized the child as his own (I’m not quite sure how it worked for the mothers).

Not surprisingly, it was very important to the aristocrats to keep their bloodlines “pure”, by interbreeding only amongst themselves (which was one reason why cousins married cousins in those days). As DNA tests and contraception didn’t exist in that era, the only way to sort of ensure that the child that came out of a woman’s womb was in fact her husband’s was for said husband to marry a virgin (which is one reason why girls got married as early as age 13). Of course, this method wasn’t always airtight, but it mostly worked. This way, everyone could be sure (or at least tell themselves that they were sure) that their progeny belonged in the correct social class. And yes, the onus of virginity fell on women for obvious reasons. In any case, there was a socially recognized need to abstain from sex before marriage. Then sometime between the 12th and 13th centuries, there seemed to be a movement within the Catholic Church that was downright obsessed with staying the hell away from sex. Already the church had a very weird perspective regarding virginity and sex as evidenced by their unrelenting claim that Mary the mother of Jesus remained a virgin her whole life (even though she was married and it’s clearly stated in the Bible that Jesus had brothers and sisters, and nope, no repeat miracles of babies being put in her womb by the Holy Spirit are recorded). I personally don’t understand the mental gymnastics involved here, but I won’t dwell on it. Instead I’ll focus on the obsession with virginity captured in the Quest for the Holy Grail, which is in my opinion an adulterated version of Chretien de Troyes’ epic poem, The Quest for the Grail .

Chretien de Troyes was a monk from medieval France who is credited with writing the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. He most likely didn’t create the characters in these stories (they were characters who appeared frequently in oral tradition) but since he did write them down, he is frequently referred to as their author. In my opinion he did a decent job, and his stories were popular. However, he died before finishing his very last work, The Quest for the Grail. So some decades after he died, some other monks decided to re-write it as The Quest for the Holy Grail. Only… they infused their version with misogyny, racism and other forms of bigotry that were not present in any of Troyes’ other works. In addition, they took work which was largely secular and inundated it with religious symbolism, which is not a terrible thing in itself, but then they tried to justify their bigotry with the excuse that they were only following God’s orders.  Also included in the book was a shameless campaign to advance the status of clergymen by promoting the idea that only they were capable of hearing from God and interpreting His instructions. Already, this is a lot of thinking fodder, but what really disturbed me was how over and over again they would say that virginity and chastity were the principal ways to please God and enter Heaven (in addition to saying prayers, going to Mass every day and obeying everything that the monks and priests said). The book basically fetishises  virginity. So you could go around stabbing and slaughtering a bunch of people, some of whom weren’t even planning to attack you, being haughty and rude to your elders (including your parents), but as long as you were virginal (never had sex) and chaste (never even thought about sex), God would be so happy with you, He’d give you a first class ticket to Heaven. Seriously, I’ve just described the primary protagonist of the story.

Now, this book was a work of fiction, not a historical account, but I think it sufficiently captured the extreme ascetism3 that was supported and promoted by at least one sect within the Catholic Church. Also, as I mentioned earlier, the characters of King Arthur’s round table were very popular, so twisting their stories into some kind of jacked up religious agenda might actually have been effective to some degree. In any case, it is my posit that around this time in French history, virginity went from being a practical societal necessity with some moral implications to being THE determining factor for whether a person (read: woman) was morally righteous. This position lasted many centuries.

Back to the Present

You know when you watch a cartoon, say, Looney Tunes, and Elmer Fudd (or some other unfortunate character) is trying hopelessly to open a door that Bugs Bunny has locked from the inside, and after fumbling with the handle for a minute, he decides to take a running start and push the door down with his shoulder. Except he doesn’t realize that Bugs Bunny opens the door just before he reaches it, so with his excess of momentum he runs through the door and bangs into the wall on the opposite end of the room. That’s the image that comes to mind when I think about people’s ideas about sex in France. I think they went from one extreme (repression, villainizing sex and women) to the other extreme (no more boundaries around sex; let’s even consider teaching sex ed to children in primary schools, and be fine with the fact that our 13 year-old kids are experimenting with sex).

I’ll stop here because I’m done narrating and describing and all that’s left is judging, which I think I’ve done enough of in this post.

For more commentary on sex in contemporary and historical France, see here

*End of part two*

  1. I am not a sociologist, an anthropologist, or any other kind of accredited –ist, but I do have all my senses and a brain so I just thought I’d put my observations in writing. Still, I don’t recommend that any government policies be amended or proposed based on what I have to say.
  2. How exactly can a human being be born illegitimate? I mean, think about it. It’s like telling a child that their very existence is abhorrent, criminal even. What were these people thinking?
  3. Sex wasn’t the only thing they frowned upon, though it was numero uno on their list of things never to do. This particular group of monks also disapproved of eating meat, wearing fine clothing, drinking wine, sleeping on a comfortable bed, or playing music that was not part of the Latin Mass. According to the book that the ideal life of a Christian involves living as a hermit in the forest, wearing grey or white robes (preferably old ones), and eating bread and water.

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