The Talk

L’Amour à la Française vs. American Romance

Do we seduce each other in the same ways on both sides of the Atlantic? Are Americans prudish? Are the French more unfaithful? And how easy is it to be in a binational relationship? For Valentine’s Day, these questions are all answered by Bérénice Boursier-Baudouin, a Florida-based French psychotherapist and expatriation expert who founded the My Private Coach app and leads regular group events in Miami.
© Myriam Wares

France-Amérique: Let’s start at the beginning. What happens on a first date in the United States?

Bérénice Boursier-Baudouin: The United States is a highly codified country. This applies to bureaucracy and daily life, but also to love. Habits and customs, language, and education all combine to ensure that dating is not spontaneous, but rather a chance to test the other person. There are strict protocols when it comes to flirting. A man will ask a woman out on a date, which will involve flirting and perhaps a kiss – but certainly not a French kiss, which Americans find disgusting! Next, if they both like each other, they will go on more dates, go out to eat, go bowling, or catch a movie. After a certain number of meetups, they sleep together. But before that happens, the man has to pay his way! It is entirely possible to have several dates with several different people, and flirt with all of them, before choosing the type of relationship you want. Once again, everything is based on rules. There are “friends with benefits,” casual dating, and the possibility of becoming an official couple. For this latter situation to occur, a “DTR” (“define the relationship”) talk has to happen, to decide that both partners are happy being exclusive. In a word, there is little room for romanticism!

How does it work in France, where the word “dating” doesn’t even exist?

There is far more freedom! People kiss during the flirting stage and sleep together if it feels right – even the first time they meet. Nothing is predefined. Men approach women without being scared, and two people can go out for a drink without worrying about what happens next. There is more of an attitude of “If we want to, we’ll do it,” unless someone’s lifestyle is guided by religion.

So does “love at first sight” not exist in America?

It can happen! Just look at the movie Notting Hill [in which American actress Julia Roberts falls in love with English bookstore owner Hugh Grant]. However, the other people in your life play a more important role in the United States. You have to find a partner who is accepted by your family, who went to the same university or who is of the same social standing, from a similar background, and with the same ambitions. Starting a conversation with someone in the street is frowned upon in the United States. Women are less frequently approached in coffee shops, and men fear being accused of sexual harassment. Spring Break is the only exception to this rule – students go have fun and allow themselves things they wouldn’t do the rest of the year.

Do the Americans and the French use dating apps in the same way?

Tinder, Bumble, and other apps are international companies. They are used in the same way in both countries, and enable users to immediately establish if they are meeting for a hookup or something more serious. Thanks to our current digital age, everyone has access to a whole catalogue of men or women, which offers a certain freedom of choice – and all from the comfort of your couch! However, there are certain differences, as shown by the backstory of Gleeden. This French dating network is headquartered in the United States, but was only made available to the U.S. market several years after launching in France. Why? Because it is a dating website for married people looking to have an affair (see textbox at the end).

Has American-style dating, with its codes, milestones, and rules, had an influence on French romance?

Dating is a totally different experience in both countries! The French have a far wider sexual vocabulary; they enjoy the game of seduction and have a rich romantic history stretching back through the ages. We had kings and courtesans in the past, and today we have unfaithful politicians and celebrities with passionate relationships. In the United States, it is trashier and less romantic, with sex tapes featuring Pamela Anderson and Kim Kardashian, or Bill Clinton’s scandals.

In the United States, is it true that suitors have to spend three months’ salary on an engagement ring?

What is true is that Americans have to demonstrate that they earn enough (even if they don’t, as credit cards are hugely popular) to show their love. This is a very primal aspect of relationships, and almost like a dowry. In France, this culture has already been and gone. Sovereigns, the nobility, and the bourgeoisie used to marry to acquire land, estates, titles, and companies. The French freed themselves from this system and now put love before the price of a ring. In the United States, couples are more interested in money. What’s more, a ring and an engagement offer informal permission to live together – which is more accepted when a relationship has been made official in this way. People therefore get engaged, whereas the French are happy to live together because it is more financially viable.

What role does money play in relationships?

Marriage agreements are very common in the United States, although they are still quite rare in France. A French couple will sign an agreement if one of them has a business, to limit the damage in case of bankruptcy, or in cases of a potentially large inheritance. Meanwhile, the U.S. is a capitalist country built on and for money. American couples therefore protect themselves, and focus on savings and safety. Especially as getting divorced is so expensive!

© Myriam Wares

You work with a lot of binational couples. What sets them apart?

We should remember that in 1958, only 4% of the U.S. population approved of binational couples. In 2022, 94% approved. One of the main challenges faced by French-American couples is obviously that one person has to leave behind their country and family to follow their partner. Language is another barrier; when we are in love, everything is easy and there are no borders. But communication is the key to every relationship, and when we emerge from the honeymoon period, we realize that words mean different things in different languages. This is why French people who have been expats for 20 years, who are married to Americans, and who work in English, still prefer to go to therapy in French. It is easier for couples who have the same education, the same values, and who have traveled extensively. Overall, binational couples have to compromise more. However, some of them do very well – Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis stayed together for 14 years, after all!

What about gay couples?

They are far more accepted in the United States, a younger country in which the LGBT movement really took off [particularly following the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which started in a bar in Greenwich Village, in New York City]. In American cities, there are whole neighborhoods where this community has made a home and is completely free to live its homosexuality, such as around Lincoln Road in Miami or the Castro in San Francisco. This is far more common than in France. The same goes for transgender people. In the United States, certain administrative forms provide more options than “male” and “female.” The same cannot be said for France.

Is holding hands and kissing in public accepted in both New York City and Paris?

While many in America are happy to have their breasts, mouths and buttocks done and show them off in public, a certain modesty still exists in cities in the United States. Women can be hypersexual and yet not kiss their boyfriends in the street. Religion and family also continue to exert a major influence. This even applies to Miami, which is the capital of pornography! Meanwhile, the French are less reserved and more demonstrative.

Do male-female friendships exist in the same way, and is jealousy ever a problem?

In the United States, friendships are made at school and at university, where fraternities and sororities are organized with men on one side and women on the other. Friendships between men and women are more common in France, where universities are completely coed. In general, Americans are less likely to mix, and tend to remain in their social groups. As for jealousy, the French are more expressive whereas the Americans are more inclined to maintain their image and keep their feelings to themselves.

The “French kiss” is said to have been discovered by U.S. soldiers during World War I. When they returned home, these veterans supposedly introduced it to their partners. Oral sex is also sometimes called the “French way.” Are there big differences in sexual practices between the French and the Americans?

In the United States, as Bill Clinton famously said, oral sex is not seen as a “sexual act.” Many young women have performed oral sex countless times in college without ever having experienced penetrative sex. Among my female patients who are in relationships with American men, many complain of a lack of physical warmth from their partners, and the fact that sex is highly codified – every other week, between two episodes of Netflix. They lack sufficient displays of affection. On the other hand, their partners feel that they are too demanding! In bed, Americans are more traditional, with a more predominant culture of oral sex for both men and women, yet less imagination and less focus on foreplay overall. Their sexual vocabulary is not as developed, while French couples will enjoy a whole range of sexual and seductive games.

A study from the Journal of the American Medical Association published in 2020 showed that young Americans were decreasingly interested in sex. These figures have been mirrored in France, where half of 15-24-year-olds claimed that they had not made love in 2021. Is there a reason for this lack of interest?

Today, it is easier to satisfy our sexual desires by watching porn on a smartphone and fantasizing alone. In the United States especially, the dating process is expensive and can end in disappointment. We are currently in an interval between the world before and after Covid. The pandemic reduced everyone’s libido almost everywhere, and made dating more difficult for single people. For those in relationships, being stuck at home with the kids did not help, and a general feeling of fear had a negative impact on sexual desire.

Many American women read manuals about la femme française to get advice on raising children, being healthy, losing weight, eating well, and even improving their sex lives. Why?

Because French women have been dieting and raising children for far longer! I have American patients who are delighted to work with a French psychotherapist because we are seen as a country with a longer history in which women are more emancipated. French women are seen as elegant, without being overly sophisticated. What can I say? France is the land of love, while the United States is all about careers!

The French Are Unfaithful – Myth or Fact?

The French certainly have a reputation for extramarital affairs, and 42% state that they have been unfaithful at one time or another (a figure currently on the rise). That is more than in America, where between 30% and 40% claim to have cheated. Be that as it may, both France and the United States have a strong preference for monogamy. On average, the French have 10.6 partners over their lifetimes, just as many in the U.S., although this number varies enormously between states. The two countries have another thing in common: They both share “doggy style” as their preferred position!

Interview published in the February 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.