Spanish actor Javier Bardem poses during
Loic Venance  /  AFP/Getty Images
With his smoldering looks, Spanish actor Javier Bardem plays up the image of the sexy Latin lover.
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/7/2011 9:05:44 AM ET 2011-01-07T14:05:44

Quelle horreur! The French, of all people, seem to be having troubles in the bedroom.

According to a recent survey (conducted by the makers of the erection-enhancing drug Levitra, so grain of salt and all that) 76 percent of the French sometimes suffer from lack of sexual response. They cited reasons any harried American couple might cite: the kids, the job stress, the Blackberry-iPhone-Droid triumvirate of desire-killers. We may think of the French, with their cafes and all those weeks of vacation, as being less-frazzled than the rest of us, but they aren’t, necessarily — and it’s dinging their reputation as lovers.

But was that reputation ever justified? Do the British deserve their image as cold, if polite, fish in the bedroom? Are Latin lovers really more passionate? And are Americans boringly vanilla lovers?

National sex stereotypes matter. We felt their effects in all those “man up” comments aimed at male politicians from Tea Party females during the last campaign.

But it turns out the stereotypes we all know and love, like the “French lover” and "the icy Brit," were mostly created by literature.

The modern idea of an international publishing industry started around the mid-1660s and, as books spread, so did stereotypes, explained Pamela Cheek a professor of languages at the University of New Mexico and author of “Sexual Antipodes: Enlightenment Globalization and the Placing of Sex.”

Books became an important, if often infrequently acknowledged, part of the Enlightenment revolution, the same revolution that inspired America’s founding fathers.

Partly because of such “dirty books,” and partly due to French PR, France got the reputation of being sexually free.

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Not to be outdone, the British began publishing their own explicit books like “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure,” more popularly known as Fanny Hill, in 1748. It did wonders for creating the stereotype of British men as conflicted spanking fetishists.

Likewise, the fact that Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the writer of the sado-maschochistic novel “Venus in Furs” (and the man who gave his name to masochism) was an Austrian, helped propel the idea that Germanic men liked disciplinary Helgas.

Warm hands, warm heart?
Climate also spurred stereotypes. One theory had it that warm climates fostered passionate appetites, while cold climates led to more reserved sexual lives. The warmth, and the fact that natives didn’t wear lots of clothes, helped lead European sailors to believe that Polynesian women were uniformly sexually willing.

Today, it’s become smart business, and sometimes smart politics, to reinforce sexual stereotypes even if they’re bone-headed. Porn sites, adult movies, and sex tourism industries all play up the idea of national, racial, ethnic difference. “We have become very adept at using media to feed our sexual practices and notions of stereotypes,” Cheek said.

The reality, of course, is much more mundane. A survey sponsored by Pfizer (maker of Viagra, naturally) showed that similar percentages of people all over the world thought sex was “important” to leading a fulfilling life.

Similar percentages of “hot blooded” Spanish men and women, and “puritanical” U.S. men and women reported being sexually satisfied. (Mexicans reported the highest percentage of countries surveyed; 78 percent of men and 71 percent of women said they were very satisfied.) In general, people in poorer countries say they are more sexually satisfied than people in richer countries, which probably tells us more about the expectations of consumer cultures than it does bed skills.

Sexual lives in different countries do differ, of course, and some stereotypes may start out with a kernel of fact. But as the recent French survey, and political debates in our own country have shown, they aren’t very good at telling us much about the other guy.

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