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Canadians come unbuttoned as global sex pioneers

By LEAH McLAREN

The Globe and Mail Saturday, Nov. 22, 2003

Chris Gudgeon was shocked -- shocked! -- when he read a poll last year that ranked Canadians one of the sexiest peoples on earth.

But according to a survey sponsored by Durex condoms, Canadians start having sex younger and have more partners (11.1) than the global average (8.2), and we make love longer than anyone else on the planet (24.4 minutes). (Americans are a close second at 23.5 minutes.)

Surely, Gudgeon thought, these numbers did not reflect the climatically frigid and morally staid nation of his birth, a country far better known more for it's politesse than promiscuity.

Apologetic, buttoned-down Canadians as global sex pioneers? How could it be?

But on second assessment, Gudgeon realized that Canadians, in his words, "have been secretly having sex for years." How else to explain the Dionne quintuplets, the Raelians, zippers, Harlequin Romance novels, Porkies and the Barenaked Ladies?

And so, with smut on the brain, Gudgeon set out to write The Naked Truth: The Untold History of Sex in Canada.

The result, published recently by Greystone, is a lively and exhaustive cultural history of sex and sexuality in Canada. In it, Gudgeon uncovers and explores our inherent cultural "neurotica," which he describes as "our neurotic attraction and repulsion to sex."

And Gudgeon is not the only Canadian author going into the country's bedrooms. Also on the printing press this season is The Politics of Lust, a book by West Coast lawyer and activist John Ince that explores the political foundations and ramifications of sexual repression in Canadian society and elsewhere.

Add to that list The Lover's Tongue: A Merry Romp Through the Language of Love and Sex by University of Winnipeg professor Mark Morton and Temptress: From the Original Bad Girls to Women on Top by Saskatchewan's Jane Billinghurst, and it seems clear that Canadians are thinking about sex a whole lot.

Gudgeon believes that Canadians are neurotic about sex because of our Victorian cultural roots.

"We think of the Victorian era as the golden age of sexual repression, but what it really was, was the golden era of sexual hypocrisy," he says. "It was an era when people -- read, men -- said one thing and behaved in another way. That sense has hung around in this country."

Ince expresses a similar vision of our deeply engrained cultural ambivalence toward sex. He believes that Canada (as well as most of the Western world) is stricken with "erotophobia," a scientifically recognized syndrome classified as an irrational fear of sex and genitals. Ince knows his argument is a tough sell -- particularly in a world overrun with mediated sexual imagery and sex-oriented commerce. But Ince argues that our cultural obsession with sex actually indicates a deeper fear of our own sexuality.

"People think, 'I like sex, so I couldn't possibly be frightened of it.' But it's not that simple," he says. "After all, anti-Semites have been known to say, 'Some of my best friends are Jews.' Our negativity toward sex is much more subtle, but I would argue that it has much more impact than we admit. When something has a lot of negative charge for you it occupies a lot of importance in your psyche."

While Ince takes a dry, academic look into the issue, Gudgeon is overtly jokey and experiential.

In the course of his research Gudgeon visited nude beaches in Halifax and Vancouver, a PEI swing club, a Toronto gay bar and an Edmonton porno theatre. His book includes many descriptions of overweight, middle-aged people in negligees and tight pants.

Although Gudgeon agrees with Ince that Canadians regard sex with suspicious ambivalence, he also argues that in the past several years the historically repressive strictures in the country have relaxed significantly.

"Our attitudes toward sex have changed dramatically," he says. "Seven years ago 70 per cent of people were against same sex marriages whereas today 70 per cent of people are for them."

So are Canadians becoming more open about sex -- or just more obsessed? If you believe the latest wave of sexperts, its a bit of both. But one thing is for sure: love it or hate it, erotophobic and sexually neurotic, we're doing it.

As Ince says: "Even when sex is the subject of a stigma, it doesn't stop people from having sex."

lmclaren@globeandmail.ca