Three Observations About Sex And Culture In Europe

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I recently finished teaching a study abroad course on Sexuality and Culture in the Netherlands. After the course was over, I did some personal travel around Europe, with stops in Germany, the Czech Republic, and France. While the latter part of the trip was mostly a vacation, my sex researcher brain was in full gear the whole time (it always is!). At several points, I couldn’t help but be reminded of just how dramatically different sexual attitudes are in Europe compared to the United States. Here are just a few of the many things I noticed on this trip:

1.) Public nudity. While it’s widely known that Europeans are more comfortable with public nudity than Americans, it can be hard to appreciate just how different these views are until you see it for yourself. For example, during a stop in Berlin, we biked through a huge public garden in the middle of the city (Tiergarten). In several areas of the park, people were sunbathing, picnicking, and walking their dogs in the buff. This wasn’t a sexual thing—these people just happened to be enjoying the park in the nude. Keep in mind that this took place in the city center, so as an analogy, just imagine Central Park in New York City teeming with nudists. Seeing this, I couldn’t help but think about how different things are back home, where a lot of people aren’t even comfortable with the idea of a woman breastfeeding in public because someone might see a stray nipple.

2.) Legal prostitution. In Amsterdam’s Red Light District, walk-up prostitution windows (where sex is bought and sold in public view) exist on the first floor of many buildings—buildings that are right next to churches, daycare centers, cafes, and very expensive residences. It was truly fascinating to see the juxtaposition of sex work and everyday living. Sex work is legal in the Netherlands and, at least in Amsterdam, people are paying a premium to live in the Red Light District and many are choosing to raise their families there, too. In fact, we even saw kids playing ball in front of some of the windows at one point. In speaking with some of the locals, it sounded like they don’t really even notice the windows anymore—they’re just like any other local business. By contrast, in the States (where prostitution is almost universally illegal), areas where prostitution takes place generally aren’t considered to be desirable at all and are often quite dangerous. Americans aren't clamoring to raise their families in these areas. 

3.) Public sex rooms. In Prague, I visited a bar/club that seemed to be popular with the twenty-something crowd one evening. When I went to the restroom, there were only stalls—and when I opened one, I was initially surprised to find that it wasn’t a bathroom at all. Instead, it was a small room with a bench, which I quickly realized was meant as a sex room—a place where you could take someone you met in the club for some privacy. What’s that all about? Well, a setup like this makes sense when you think about the fact that almost half of all young adults (age 18-29) in Europe currently live with their parents. As you might imagine, not everyone wants to take a casual partner to their parents’ house for sex. Having a sex room at a bar or club might therefore be considered quite desirable. I should note that, while they're less likely to do it than Europeans, a large number of young American adults are living with their parents (in fact, about one-third are); however, I don’t see bars and clubs in the States stepping up to provide a sexual space for them due to more restrictive sexual attitudes. So where do young Americans have sex if they don’t have their own place? Oftentimes, in their car. That’s another big difference between Europeans and Americans: whereas most Americans have their own cars, most Europeans do not. This means that sex in automobiles is likely to be another way that sexuality differs cross-culturally.

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Image Credit: Justin Lehmiller

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