Heterosexual marriage is under siege in our country, but it’s staging a comeback in France. Where the purr of passion quickly turned the sexually explicit into the seductively illicit, young men and women are linking love with marriage.
The young Frenchwoman who’s chased is likely to be chaste. Mais, oui so is the young man chasing her.
“It’s a new sexual revolution,” says Hugues Lagrange, a sociologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), who has just completed an extensive survey of 15- to 18-year-olds, the first one in over a quarter of a century.
“Twenty years ago people disassociated sex from feelings of love,” he told the London Daily Telegraph. “Today, girls almost always cite love of their partners as the No. 1 reason for losing their virginity, and, perhaps surprisingly so do the majority of boys.”
The average age for the first sexual relationship is 18, and among the bourgeoisie, men and women are waiting until they’re 20. They’re rebelling against the sexual excesses of their parents. At least 400,000 French couples will tie the nuptial knot in the first year of the new millennium, up from 280,000 last year.
“A whole generation rejected the institution of marriage, which it considered unfashionable and bourgeois,” says Martine Segalen, a sociologist. “Now it’s different. There’s no longer any ideological opposition to marriage.”
That spinning noise is from the grave of Simone de Beauvoir. The founding mother of French feminism described marriage as a cruel trap for both men and women. “He is taken in the snare set by nature,” she writes of the husband in “The Second Sex,” “and has to support a heavy matron or a desiccated hag for life.” Ms. de Beauvoir described marriage as the death of eroticism. Eroticism between Madame Beauvoir and her lover Jean Paul Sartre, died without any help from a marriage license. Neither was it restored between them when Sartre married a much younger mistress late in his life.
Sex in France today without love and marriage is considered a little bit nutty and a good bit slutty. Education about AIDS has depressed libidos, and commitment means white bridal gowns and the pealing of wedding bells.
The state of love in France contrasts dramatically with the situation in England. France has one of the lowest divorce rates in Europe almost half that of England and it’s still falling. The English are famous for their promiscuity but not for their lovemaking. Shakespeare was an Englishman, but he didn’t make Romeo one. England, in fact, is experiencing an astronomical rise in divorce, what one lawyer specializing in matrimonial law dubbed an “epidemic.”
By reattaching love and marriage, the French are far ahead of us, too. The age for Americans’ marrying has been rising. In New York City, for example, the number of marriages fell 30 percent between 1997 and 1999, from 9.1 per thousand in 1997 to 7.6 per thousand last year.
The pool of marriageable men and women has shrunk as cohabitation, or living together has become more socially acceptable. That doesn’t mean happier couples or better marriages. In fact, statistics tell the opposite story. Those who live together before marriage are more likely to divorce after they marry.
Despite these American trends, Leon and Amy Kass, two professors at the University of Chicago, are trying to bring back an appreciation for courtship that leads to long, stable marriages (like their own of nearly 40 years). They’ve edited a textbook for a seminar they teach on love, courtship and marriage. Students read and discuss selections from a wide range, including the Song of Solomon, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and passages from Plato, Aristotle and Jane Austen. The professors want to heighten intellectual reflections on romance to counter contemporary cynicism.
Mr. Kass describes the seminar as “a higher kind of sex education, which is to train the hearts and minds by means of noble examples for romance leading to loving marriage.” The Kasses find in their students, especially those who grew up in divorced families, a craving for lasting romance that endures in marriage.
In the new hip movie, “Magnolia,” Tom Cruise plays a crude and vulgar guru who preaches a grotesque message to assemblies of men: “Seduce and Destroy.” The character is satirical, a dramatic symbol for the dead end of the sexual revolution. In matters of amour, the French are once again in the avant-garde.