I was once on vacation with a friend in Belgium. One night out, after we had finished our cone of mayonnaise-bathed frites, we ran into a pack of good-looking youths. My friend approached them and asked for a cigarette. Seven beers and 40 strained American Pie references later (they loved American Pie and expected we did, too) the Ryan Gosling of the group and my friend drove back to the suburbs to have sex, and I brought another cone of frites up to my hotel room. At one point during their hookup, my friend said, “I like your dick.” He acted surprised, even embarrassed. “Thank you,” he said. Later, she asked if he could spank her, and he paused, then patted her ass once. “There?” He wasn’t sure how to proceed.
As is true of everything from breakfast philosophies to stances on the appropriateness of denim cut-offs, the act of sex is dynamic and shaped by socio-cultural context. While sketching sexuality along racial or ethnic lines is dangerous (stereotypes, always bad, are especially harmful here), the way we fuck and talk about fucking varies slightly to dramatically from country to country. Inundated with place-specific media and porn styles and weird laws, different countries breed different social norms—and different hookup protocol. Take the sex hotels that are common in South America, for example, a normal phenomenon there that seems somewhat seedy in the States. “Everyone uses sex hotels so they don’t have to bring people home to their parents’ house,” an American woman who recently traveled through Uruguay told me. “When I got to the sex hotel with my Uruguayan lover, we got a room for two hours with a round bed and a mirror on the ceiling.”
Some studies have tried to track sex global trends. A 2005 to 2009 Durex study, for example, found that people have intercourse for the first time at the youngest age in Iceland, with an average of 15.6 years old, and Greece topped the list of citizens having the most sex on a weekly basis—87 percent of Greeks got it on at least as often as you can get your grubby lil hands on an issue of The Economist. (As for sexual satisfaction, 67 percent of Nigerians polled said they were satisfied with their sex lives, compared with 15 percent of Japanese people.) Usually, though, sex research is more specific: According to a press release provided by Adult Empire, for example, which recently examined sex trends in Croatia, the country ranks 57th in porn consumption worldwide. Sunday is the most popular day for Croatians to watch porn, which they do for an average of four minutes and five seconds. (Their favorite category: “All Girl/Lesbian.”)
Statistics are nice, but they tend not to get at the nature of cultural differences when it comes to sex. Take my friend’s Belgian romp. I’m not going to say Belgian men are scared of spanking, but there’s some intel we can gather when we pool our stories: Belgian Ryan Gosling liked that she liked his dick, but he had never heard that out loud before. And my friend, who has sex in America the vast majority of the time (usually with “Massholes”), had never heard a guy be surprised by this. The best we can do is understand our intercultural sex stories for what they are: super-specific anecdotes that may or may not say something about the country in which they are set. But don’t get me wrong: When a man in a small Croatian village came on my face without asking, I didn’t blame Croatia or Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović’s moral leadership. I blamed my damn self for going home with a man who wore his hair in a tight ponytail, but most of all I blamed him, for being a monster.
Speaking with many men and women for this story, some themes emerged. When it comes to how sex is approached in wider society, as opposed to in individual encounters, Europeans seem to be more open. Anecdotally, Megan Wozniak, the director of marketing at Adult Empire, always says she sees massive differences on a country-to-country basis, even sometimes a continent-to-continent basis. “In my travels, Europeans seem to be much more promiscuous and open with sex,” she says. “I tend to see much more sex toy shops in shopping malls and out in the open in busy shopping districts. It’s far less taboo and hidden [than] is in the US. Also, nudity is acceptable and the norm, from beaches to television.”
At the same time, several straight American women told me that the sex they’ve had in Europe has been more restrained and conservative, following the script of man as instigator/dominant and woman as not that. I know this will get me in hot water with the random Italians who DM me, but I’m often met with surprise from EU men during hook-ups for taking initiative, even more so than in the US, where it can nevertheless also be surprising to them because masculinity, etc. What’s more, many women tell me that the men they’ve hooked up with abroad, in Europe and elsewhere, have been less likely to initiate oral, which mirrors my experience as well.
“This was the one unusual similarity I found: Neither of the guys had asked or offered oral sex or much foreplay in general,” a woman told me about hooking up with men from France and the UK. “I have one friend who told me that that’s a European norm—oral sex is seen as more intimate than regular sex and is therefore saved for more serious relationships. I don’t know how accurate this is, but I found it interesting that neither guy pushed for oral sex, and it was always very straightforward penetrative sex. [In the United States] it feels more like oral sex is usually the stepping stone to vaginal/anal sex.”
On the flip side, other women said it seemed that European men often expect blowjobs from American women—sometimes it’s one of the only English words they know. “The men in France had an unusual fluency with the terminology for dick-sucking,” an American woman who studied abroad in Paris told me. “But they couldn’t really communicate much else.”
A friend who just had sex with a man in the south of France (like, a few days ago) told me, “I feel like he was very shocked by the sex; he was just sort of like, ‘Woah.’ He said I was very unique, very exceptional, like he was not used to women taking initiative in bed.” And as in any situation abroad, the language barrier is a factor. “Also I think he said ‘I love you’ twice?” my friend continued. “But that could be a translation error on my part.”
A queer American woman who has spent years in Paris, on the other hand, says she’s witnessed a bit more fluidity, in terms of roles. “Queer female relationships here aren’t as gender differentiated as in the States,” she said. “You don’t see a lot of butch/femme or masculine-of-center/feminine couplings, as compared to the US.”
One phenomenon that’s relatively universal, at least according to the straight women I talked to? The reluctance of men to fetch or even have condoms. The smaller the town or village, the less likely, too. A few years ago, I lived in a tiny, crumbling medieval town on a mountain outside of Naples, Italy. Once when I was hooking up someone there, I asked if he had a condom. He looked confused. “I thought you would have one,” he said. “This is a small village. If I go to the pharmacy to buy condoms, everyone will know.” I sent him home.