Far from being the puritanical place that everyone imagines the USA is actually the world’s capital of sex, says Catherine Townsend.
‘Show us your tits!’ The temperature was pushing one hundred degrees Fahrenheit, and my bum was sticking to the seat of my friend’s red Mustang convertible as we whizzed down the highway to Panama City Beach, Florida where I was about to lose my Spring Break virginity. I was 15. My girlfriend flashed her D-cup breasts at the guys in the car beside us. In return, they threw us a cold beer.
I was starting to realise how this place had gotten the nickname ‘the Redneck Riviera’. But we were drunk and horny teenagers, and despite what we’d heard in church, Interstate 75 felt less like the highway to hell and more like the Promised Land.
Arriving at the beach, we opened a can of aerosol shaving foam, and sprayed ‘Wanted: Alcohol and Men’ on the window of our room. It was only meant to be a joke, but within five minutes we had hordes of boys knocking on our door with kegs.
An hour later, eight of us were splayed out on the bed—everyone naked except for a lone sombrero and, in a scene reminiscent of a David Lynch film, a video camera.
For thousands of teenagers around the country, spring break is one big, drunken, weeklong orgy. Joe Francis documents the phenomenon in his Girls Gone Wild series, but instead of merely posing topless as UK Page Three girls do, Joe often convinces the girls to drop their pants and make out—all for a T-shirt.
Because while bawdy Brits can openly laugh about sex, America’s puritanical culture means that we have to find socially sanctioned ways to channel our inner slut.
So the same kids steaming up car windows on Saturday nights are sitting in the front row of church on Sunday. Americans are masters of hypocrisy.
A young Britney Spears was the perfect symbol of America’s attitude toward sex. She was hyper-sexualized, but it was okay to salivate over her because she was a ‘virgin’.
This ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach to sex starts early, often with abstinence only education. Instead of teaching us about birth control, my high school health class carried the helpful slogan ‘There’s no condom for the heart!’
We also had the silver ring campaign, which advocated saving yourself for marriage. Since a lot of girls didn’t consider oral or anal sex technically ‘losing it’, there were lots of Bible-beater girls at my school that were, as John Malkovich said in Dangerous Liaisons, ‘perform[ing] quite naturally services one would hesitate to request from a professional.’
I’m not sure what Jesus would do, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t anal. So, like many of my friends, I had my fair share of sex, including a crazy affair with my high school French teacher.
Never mind that the whole town seemed to be involved in erotic couplings that could rival any soap opera; everyone seemed much more concerned about protecting their ‘reputation’. But there were some people who were comfortable enough in their sexuality to not care.
By the time I graduated from high school and went from my small town to work as a journalist in New York, I realized that sex was everywhere, if you knew where to look.
My first assignment for the school newspaper was covering Betty Dodson, the self-described Mother of Masturbation who ran naked workshops for women to teach them how to have better orgasms. I started researching alternative sex and having adventures: One night I ended up at a meeting of ‘pony people’, where a woman wearing a bridle pranced around a ring and introduced everyone to her lover/handler.
I’d always known that my small town had secret swinger parties (ironically, just a few blocks down from the church with the billboard that read ‘Repent: The End is Near!’)
But these were huge, and there really is something for everyone. At ‘furry’ conventions like Midwest Furfest, hundreds of people gather in a hotel for to dress like plushie toys and rub up against each other.
Most Americans will never dress up like a giant squirrel, or admit to signing up for a sex party.
Yet university toga parties, immortalized in the film ‘Animal House’, are a rite of passage that allows you to get totally wasted and pull a complete stranger. But it’s not called an orgy—it’s just good, clean fun.
Americans also tend to be more direct about the dark side of sex. I was shocked when I asked my first UK boyfriend if he had ever been tested for STDs, and got the distinct impression that he thought chlamydia and gonorrhea were types of tropical storms. My friends in London tend to fall into bed after a drunken night out, and often skip the condom if the other person ‘looks clean’.
To be fair, this could be because there is an assumption of monogamy in the UK. Which brings me to the principle of American bed-hopping that has gotten me into trouble so many times since I moved here: Multi-dating. Basically, the idea is that until you have ‘The Talk’, in the US it’s assumed that you are dating, and possibly sleeping with, several other people. Internet dating makes this even easier, and a lot of my friends collect their online crushes like trading cards.
Arranging a date or a casual sex meetup online is faster than ordering a pizza.
Meanwhile in Britain if you so much as kiss someone you are branded his girlfriend. I love the idea that men here are so open about their feelings, but really, shouldn’t I have longer to decide how I feel about a potential life partner than I do to return a sweater at Topshop?
Even though I’ve had some of my wildest sexual experiences in the UK, I wouldn’t rule out America as a puritanical nation. Some of us are like the minister’s daughter who always wears shirts with the collar buttoned up to her neck—the one you just know has a black latex corset on underneath.
Like Oscar Wilde said, ‘America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.’ We may not always have the best seduction techniques, but once you remove the veneer of respectibility, we definitely know how to talk dirty.