When the French blogger Sophie Fontanel declared her embrace of celibacy in her book L’Envie, published in France in 2011, readers didn’t know what to make of her. Progressive or reactionary? Visionary or prude? In a culture synonymous with sex and romance, whose public figures are hardly renowned for restraint (one Australian paper has called Fontanel “the anti–Dominique Strauss-Kahn”), her declaration proved polarizing.
Many readers celebrated her honesty, confessing their own sexual indifference as they would a shameful fetish. One long-married reader told a French publication that Fontanel’s book elicited a sense of relief not just in her but in her friends, most of whom “saw themselves in this lack of desire.” Others have labeled Fontanel backwards and regressive. An Italian journalist accused her of resurrecting “the Catholic morals of another century,” while a writer in Le Figaro predicted the onset of a “new chastity” trend and, with it, the return of “vanilla sex.”
Booming sales of the book—which will hit U.S. stores this summer as The Art of Sleeping Alone, a counterintuitive twist on the best-selling live-like-a-glamorous-French-lady genre (see: Bringing Up Bébé and French Women Don’t Get Fat)—have even prompted some to wonder whether France’s libidinous reputation is entirely deserved. In Elle France, one writer suggested that perhaps the French are in on the ruse, embellishing their sex lives to maintain their national hegemony on lust: “In short, do we not tell everything when it comes to sex?”
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