This post was written as part of the Berkley Center’s Junior Year Abroad Network, which connects Hoyas all over the world and encourages conversation about religion, culture, politics, and society in different countries.
A few weekends ago, my friends and I saw Jeune & Jolie (in English, Young & Beautiful). The film received plenty of praise (including a Palme d’Or nod) when it premiered at film festivals, and the three of us agreed that it was well-deserved. We also agreed that, despite the fact that anyone over the age of twelve would have been allowed to watch it in the theater, it would probably never be shown in any major American theater.
The problem is not simply that it tells the story of a 17-year-old girl and her decision to become a prostitute—although that in and of itself would cause some pearl-clutching—but that it shows… well, sex. Unabashed, uncensored sex that would get it slapped with at least an R rating in the States.
Jeune & Jolie is not totally unusual as far as French cinema is concerned. Before the film began, we saw a trailer for La Vie d’Adèle, which recently caused a stir in the US when the filmmaker refused to cut graphic sex scenes in order to avoid an NC-17 rating. Once again, the local theater lists the film as “inderdit aux – de 12 ans”: prohibited for those under twelve years.
Out of the realm of art, French students also receive sex ed in middle and high school. The government considers it to be “one of the core social and civil competencies to be acquired in the course of mandatory education.”
Of course, this is a stark contrast to the US, where many state and local governments do almost the opposite, barring public schools from everything but abstinence-only programs. Right this moment, the government is shut down in part because of a conflict over funding for contraception. We as a society have a habit of pretending that if we don’t talk to teens about sex—or if we make it hard for them to have safe sex—they just won’t do it. (Spoiler alert: they do.)
So why is it that in France sex is nothing to fuss about, but in the US we simply act as though it doesn’t exist? There are probably many reasons, of course, but let’s focus on the one big one: religion.
First, there’s the basic religious makeup of the two countries. While both have a Christian majority, France is rather less religious than the US: in France, roughly 1 in 3 people identify with no religion, compared to only 1 in 6 in the US. Those Americans who are religious are more active in their faiths, with about 40% attending church services almost every week—something that is true of less than 15% of French citizens. Americans are also more than twice as likely to consider their faith to be important in their life as those in France.
Tied to each country’s religiosity, though, is the way in which that religiosity manifests itself in the public arena. In the US, politicians wear their faith proudly: they attend church services regularly, and even Democratic candidates reference God often in some Manifest Destiny-esque proclamation of divine blessing.
In France, though, religion is a private matter, not a public one—even if the recent debates about the burqa and niqab might suggest otherwise. It is only recently that presidential candidates have been asked their religion by the media, and while some right-wing candidates have recently been emphasizing the role of religion in society, they’re certainly not a majority and their power is limited in the government. On the whole, the French place a high value on laïcité: separation of church and state.
When religion doesn’t factor into political decisions, then, lawmakers have an opportunity to run the country based on facts and science rather than on knee-jerk reactions to the thought of unmarried heathens playing hide the salami. Sex is treated like a fact of life instead of being relegated to stories told in hushed tones at sleepovers.
And then we’re back where we began. Instead of a country where sex is hidden behind content ratings and lectures on abstinence, you get one where anyone can go see a movie in which a 17-year-old has consensual sex with older men on screen.
As long as the viewer is at least 12, of course. Let’s not be too crazy now.