National Post

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Saturday, January 08, 2000

L'amour need not be libertine
Promiscuity becomes 'tacky' as French youth lead the way to a new sexual revolution
Patrick Bishop
The Daily Telegraph


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Lovers in Paris: Marriage is more popular in France than at any time since the 1970s.

PARIS - A quiet revolution in social behaviour is undermining some cherished beliefs about the habits of the French.

The notion that France is a hotbed of libertinism and carefree sexual attitudes is crumbling as commitment and continence become increasingly a la mode.

A recent survey revealed that the sons and daughters of the soixante-huitards, who revolted against French traditional values, have grown into young adults who consider their wariness of AIDS and the relatively late age at which they lose their virginity as the two factors that most mark them apart from their libertine parents.

The institution of marriage is more popular than at any time since the 1970s. At the same time, the age at which young people lose their virginity is going against trends elsewhere in Europe, while promiscuous behaviour is regarded by privileged teenagers as "tacky."

The sexual conservatism of the young is in such sharp contrast with the loose behaviour of their parents' generation that sociologists have been keen to come up with an explanation that uncovers more than a simple reverse swing of the moral pendulum.

"It appears that we're in a period of enormous social change," said Hugues Lagrange, a sociologist with the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), who has conducted a survey of 15- to 18-year-olds, the first of its kind since 1973.

"Twenty years ago, young people disassociated sex from feelings of love. Today, girls almost always cite love of their partners as the number one reason for losing their virginity, and, perhaps surprisingly, so do the majority of boys. It's a new sexual revolution."

The average age at which young French people have their first sexual relationship is now heading toward 18, with middle-class men and women often waiting until they are 20 or more before they succumb. By comparison, a 1998 Statistics Canada study found nearly half of teenagers, aged 15 to 19, who were surveyed had had sex in the previous year. Teens are also more promiscuous in Britain.

Delphine, 19, who was brought up in Paris and is now studying at Edinburgh University in Scotland, said: "In France, the longer you stay a virgin, the better. In Britain, everyone just expects you to have sex immediately.

"When a couple make love, it should be a romantic thing. I don't think I would like to make love to a boy without loving him, like some girls. Some of my friends would call girls like that sluts. I don't think of them in that way, but a lot of people I know do."

Such judgments cross the gender line. "If you rack up too many conquests, you are seen as a creep -- cynical and selfish," said Olivier, a 19-year-old architecture student.

For teenagers, sexual relations have been replaced to a great extent by flirting. In fact, a special inquiry team, the "lycee tease," has been established to study the phenomenon.

"This generation has associated sex with risk and death since kindergarten, so sentimental attachment is more important than sex," said Patrice Huerre, director of a medical centre for students.

The reluctance to indulge is leading to a wave of ignorance in young men and women in France. "Today's youth has never been more alone, in front of their screens and Game Boys," said Benoit Felix, the director of an AIDS prevention centre.

To combat this, the government is launching a nationwide sex education campaign. "Young people don't know the difference between a condom and the Pill," explained Brigitte Le Cheer, a school nurse.

The anecdotal evidence of a yearning for stability is backed up by the upsurge in popularity of marriage, with 400,000 weddings expected in France this year -- against 280,000 in 1999. As well, the number of divorces is falling for the first time in 30 years.

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