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Grin and Bare It… Topless Culture Change

Topless - summer beach conceptIt was hands-down one of the funniest things I had ever seen on a beach.  I was with a friend in Nice, on the French Riviera, surrounded by locals and tourists in various stages of undress.  Not far from me were a couple of topless girls and local etiquette stipulated that everyone had to act like everything was normal.  And, for a French beach in the summer, everything basically was.  Well, at least it was until a group of American teenagers, in predictable khaki shorts and baseball caps, came over and struck up conversation with the topless ones.

The guys’ intent was clear: they wanted a picture with the women.  Amused at the ballsy request, the women obliged the horn dogs and posed with their newfound American friends.  The guys were delighted but conversation quickly dried up because of the language barrier and they took off.  The best part was when one of the guys hollered, “Y’all keep it up now!” over his shoulder.  Beautiful.

The young guys’ break with etiquette was amusing.  If they had been locals or at least somewhat accustomed to Mediterranean protocol, they would have been considerably less eager with their photo requests.  Everyone came out of this one well – the nervous kids, the nonchalant boob models and the amused onlookers.  Observing the whole incident made me think about the huge role of cultural rules in the day-to-day – right down to beach attire and how to acknowledge topless strangers.  It also made me think of what allows us to bend the rules of culture (in this case, approaching topless women) and test the boundaries society decides are appropriate.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book “The Tipping Point” identifies the drivers of societal change as Connectors (social magnets that are master networkers and love nothing more than working a crowd), Mavens (information specialists, people that have the information society needs) and Salesmen (Charismatic, persuasive people that can get people to agree with them).  When all three kinds of personalities come together and benefit from a strong message and favorable circumstances, you get enough traction to affect major societal shifts.

Watching the kids I saw each of the personality-based change agents.  There was the Connector – the kid in the group that probably was the reason they were all on the beach, skipping the assigned lecture on Franco-Spanish relations. Then there was the Maven – the pervy nerd who’d worked out what stretch of beach would yield the best topless odds. And finally, there was the Salesman who talked both his friends and the busty French into posing for the camera.

So there you have it:  a little example of how cultural change, however insignificant, can be achieved. Whenever cultural rules feel rigid and overbearing, remember that with some clever planning, some key leadership and a little luck, rules can bend and boundaries can shift.  And there’s nothing that some teenage spunk and some multicultural levity can’t fix.

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Bjorn Karlman

Global Blue Balls, Mapping Sexual Frustration

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It’s official: the most sexually frustrated people on earth are the Japanese.  In a global survey on sexual well-being by condom maker, Durex, only 15% of the Japanese reported feeling sexually satisfied in life. Nigeria led the way for highest sex life satisfaction with 67% of respondents reporting positively and Mexico came second with 63%.


A little bit of healthy skepticism about these results would not be out of place. Chinadaily.com.cn, takes on the Durex research in an article titled “LET’S (NOT) TALK ABOUT SEX, BABY.”  In the article a Chinese sexologist disputes Durex findings in China saying that they mainly surveyed people in economically developed, coastal areas that could afford internet access.  He argues that because of this, Durex’s survey is not representational of the overall Chinese population. Despite this caveat however, the article seems to think there is truth to the survey: “..the Chinese have sex much more often than the global average but are still too shy to talk about it with their partners… That may explain why only about 24 percent said they often experience orgasm, half the global level.”


Is this Chinese reserve reflected by other Asian countries?  In a study headed by University of Chicago academic, Edward O. Laumann, the idea of sexual dissatisfaction in Asia is reinforced, again with Japanese sexual dissatisfaction leading the pack.


An NPR article commenting on Laumann’s findings summarized them by stating that “couples in Western countries are the most sexually satisfied, while countries in the East appear to be less satisfied.”  Also: “Asian countries all reported low levels of sexual satisfaction and moderate to low levels of satisfaction with their relationships and the importance of sex.”


Sound like Western libido imperialism?  Maybe I’m just being defensive because I grew up in Asia but I really feel uncomfortable with these findings.  What do you conclude from them?  It’s easy to pontificate on possible reasons for low Asian libido.  Some would go the route of Chinadaily.com.cn and say that cultural reserve in communication is responsible.  Cultural taboos about discussing sex and individual needs and preferences may be blamed.  Others may claim that the sex score cards are lowered by lopsided gender relations in these countries, that male dominance negatively affects sexual satisfaction.


It looks like nothing conclusive can be said right now.  Laumann’s original article states “Given the substantial, and observed differences in sexual attitudes, practices, and sexual well-being between “East” and “West”, we suggest that future research could fruitfully investigate cultural and structural causes of this variation.” Until then, an extended Nigerian trip and a stint in Mexico may be advisable.


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BJORN KARLMAN


Grinding: The New “Can I buy you a drink?”

disco queenHere’s the Wikipedia definition for grinding: “Grinding is a type of close partner dance where two or more dancers rub their bodies (especially the genitalia) against each other in a sexually suggestive manner. It has gained popularity at high school and middle school dances especially in the United States where there have been cases of administrators attempting to ban it due to its explicit nature and incidence involving injury.”

Grinding or “freaking” on the dance floor is completely divisive in the reaction it elicits. People under the age of 40 are well accustomed to it and accept it as a fairly normal variety of club dance. Older generations are horrified and find it grotesque and inappropriate. It’s classic culture clash. Siri Agrell in Canada’s The Globe and Mail (November 22, 2007)  says that, “a growing body of research has found that sexually explicit styles of dancing do not lead to casual sex. To those who study human sexuality, modern dance club culture is actually more indicative of an evolution in courtship.”

Agrell quotes Columbia University socio-medical sciences professor, Dr. Munoz-Laboy who says, “Participants in these dances are actually bound by “an elaborate set of cultural rules – a veritable etiquette of gendered scripts for appropriate male and female conduct.” In a study published this month in the journal Culture, Health & Sexuality, Dr. Munoz-Laboy wrote that, “young women are the gatekeepers of dancing boundaries in the hip-hop scene. Even though most dances in hip-hop clubs involve grinding … there are levels of physical closeness that men cannot cross.” This seems to accurately reflect your average club etiquette where grinding is OK but overly tactile (male or female) dancers often end up shunned, nursing a lonely beer outside.

Agrell notes that Kingston physician Jonathan Huber, 32, published a report called “Sexually Overt Approaches in Singles Bars” in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. In it, he states that grinding is simply part of a new script for twentysomething flirting and picking up.  “It’s the new ‘Can I buy you a drink?'”

Some would cite this as indisputable evidence that cultural norms since the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s have grown increasingly base and animalistic and that the answer to it all is a cultural clampdown of fundamentalist fervor. Others, like Huber, take a more anthropological approach to grinding and see this as a neutral evolution in social interaction.

“This is a complete reversal,” he said of the behaviour he observed in bars in Ottawa and Guelph, Ont., while doing his research. “The touching happens at the beginning and only do the other things flow after that. It’s sexually overt on paper, but the intent is not sexually overt.” (The Globe and Mail)

All of this said, it is hard to discount the views of cultural conservatives that are quick to claim that this kind of social interaction, whether or not it leads to sex, is not helpful if what you want is to find a quality romantic partner. Just because grinding is acceptable club behavior and may even be part of modern courtship doesn’t make it a substitute for coffee and conversation.  Fair point.  But understanding the ‘ins and outs’ of grinding will at least make you a savvier and perhaps less pervy addition to the dating marketplace.

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Bjorn Karlman