When I was 5 years old I watched the movie French Kiss. Yes, that silly movie where Meg Ryan runs off to win back her husband and ends up living on a vineyard in France with an ex-con. At a certain point in the movie a French concierge informs an exasperated Meg Ryan that, “After all, unlike some countries, France is not a nation of puritanical hypocrites.” I never realized he meant the United States until I watched the movie again years later. And it wasn’t until I came to Barcelona that I understood what he meant.
Actually, my first inkling of what this might have meant came when I visited Greece at the age of 10. While on the beach my first day, I saw something that I usually covered my eyes for in America: nude men and women. This was a far cry from the public pool I visited in summers in Virginia.
I was disturbed and, of course, curious. I remember feeling ashamed of my curiosity and confused as to why these people weren’t embarrassed. I walked around the beach with my cheeks flaming and my head full of knowledge of the human body. In the hotel gift shop I saw racks of magazines featuring men and women in compromising positions as well. Greece seemed to be a circus of what I thought of as “dirty” images.
Well, now I’m in Barcelona at the less naïve and more “appropriate” age of 20. But as soon as I arrived this side of the Atlantic, I was surprised once again about the frankness with which Europeans treat sex and the human body.
In Barcelona there are no public nudity laws. I haven’t seen anyone actually enjoying that freedom but there is one famous man in Barcelona who never wears any clothes. I think shoes might still be mandatory, but I’m not sure. Consistent with my experience in Greece at the ripe age of 10, I have seen porn sold in shops at train stations and out in carts on the streets. I have also seen magazines without screens in conveniences that make Playboy look tame in comparison.
Obviously there is a huge difference between pornography and a more relaxed attitude towards exposing one’s body, but on both sides of that line Barcelona is much less conservative than the United States. I think that in Spain they would probably laugh at the idea of Northwestern students liberating themselves through Sex Week. I have to say I smirk a little when I get the Facebook invites as well.
An interesting comparison linguistically is that there is no word for “slutty” or “skanky” in Spanish. These are words that are used in the States in a manner to degrade someone (unfortunately, usually female) based on his or her clothing choices, but here in Spain they say, “So she decided to show a little skin? She’s not a nun, who cares? Let her do her thing.”
Another idea that exists on the beaches of Barcelona: nudism. So you want to be naked? Great! Pull out your beach towel and lie down anywhere you want. There’s no division between nude and clothed beach-goers. No one thinks, “Oh my god, what about the children!?” This was especially surprising because sex-related content (read: any skin exposure) in the U.S. is restricted by age.
This past Saturday I went to the beach to celebrate a friend’s birthday with a few rounds of beach volleyball and I saw a lot of women and men doing their own thing. On the beach I would say about 70% of the people were tanning minus some item of a swimsuit and many were naked. To be honest, I could have gone without seeing most of that, but surprisingly to me, there wasn’t really anyone staring at the naked people running around in the water Baywatch-style. No one batted a lash.
I don’t feel like running around naked and pronouncing myself “free” but I’ve gotten a glance at how one society’s norms and laws can differ drastically from another. In this case, the U.S. seems less like a Satan’s playground that some religious extremists claim it to be and more like an evangelist’s paradise.