One of the things my father, an American, used to tell me when I was a little boy was, “If ignorance is bliss, I want some.” Then he would laugh and laugh.
I never quite knew what he meant by that until I moved to Nova Scotia from the U.S. a few years ago.
The border between Canada and the U.S. can be as thin as a painted stripe in the middle of a road or as vast as a river, but either way there is a world of difference between the two countries. This is rarely more obvious than when it comes to the not-so-neat-and-tidy attitudes about sex.
A few months ago, a friend from New Jersey came to Nova Scotia for a visit. In addition to Peggy’s Cove, Lunenburg and the Public Gardens, my wife and I decided to give him a walking tour of downtown Halifax. We were strolling along Barrington Street, past the historic Old Burying Ground and Saint Matthew’s United Church when my friend, a staunch American with a fairly progressive outlook, stumbled into a rather nondescript little shop called Venus Envy.
To put it mildly, my friend was shocked, though not by the store’s existence or merchandise. I can venture to say he’d been inside a sex shop or two back in the States and could already reasonably tell the difference between a vibrator and a dildo. The problem was, according to my friend, things just weren’t seedy enough.
“It’s just that they’re so open about it all,” he sputtered. “A clerk actually asked me if I needed assistance. For cryin’ out loud, they even offer classes.”
One of the first things one noticed about Venus Envy is that it is not some shack stuffed away in a back alley somewhere selling nudie pictures to glassy-eyed trench-coated perverts. There it sits, proud as a peacock, right out in the open on Halifax’s main downtown drag serving everybody from 70-somethings looking to spice up their love life, to young successful professional types and college students hoping to add a new kink or two to their repertoire.
Despite my friend’s reaction, I found myself being kind of proud to be living in a city that has such a cool sex shop right in the middle of its downtown core. And while a sex-positive philosophy certainly reigns supreme at Venus Envy, I also like to believe that it does in Canada as a whole.
I grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. where the availability of anything of a sexual nature was limited. There was, of course, the lingerie section of the Sears catalogue, and there were a few dirty bookstores and magazine shops that sold Playboy and its imitators. Eventually, cable television came along and upped the ante with HBO, Cinemax, and the booberific Playboy Channel. Today, I am told, even the Internet has reached my old hometown where, despite scorn and repeated threats of censorship, it remains sexful.
The Puritan Ethic is still popular all over the U.S. and Americans like to apply it to more things than just work. This doesn’t hide the fact that the entire culture is obsessed with sex. Although they may not want to admit it, Americans like to be titillated (to use a dreadful pun) and they love to be sexually “cool and hip” (Sex and the City was also a hit in the U.S. and Dr. Ruth Westheimer had a successful radio show offering sex advice until the censors hounded her off the air).
But that’s really the crux of the matter. No matter how hard they may try to hide it, the American penchant for sexual cynicism eventually comes through. They love to gossip and snicker at anything remotely sexual, especially peek-a-boo politics, if only to say “tsk, tsk, tsk” and shake their heads in indignation at the licentiousness of it all. (Look at the recent edition of the Anthony Weiner scandal).
But here in Canada, we’re pretty much past all that. Perhaps we’re not so much “cool and hip.” Here we share an awareness and openness to sexuality and the intrinsic naturalness of the body. It goes beyond mere faddishness. In Canada, we are enlightened.
Just flipping through TV channels on any given night one is likely to come across bare posteriors or even—dare I say—bare breasts. On YTV, cartoon characters drop their towels. On Bravo, an attractive couple swirls together amongst the satin sheets, in extreme close-up. On one of the French networks, we see a host of admittedly overweight men and women prancing along a hilltop in the nude. This happens right on my little screen in my living room, without a single blur to hide bums or skinly frontispieces.
Of course, much of this can be attributable to Canadians’ acceptance of gay culture into the mainstream. That’s because accepting someone else’s sexuality also allows you to accept your own sexuality. Sex is not dirty (unless you want it to be). Sex is fun and life enhancing, not degrading (unless you want it to be).
Meanwhile, the culture barons in the U.S. are still grappling over whether or not homosexuality is a sin or if gays and lesbians should be granted the right to legally marry. We in Canada, for the most part, have long gotten past all that.
I’m still not quite a Canadian citizen, so perhaps I should keep my mouth shut. But I don’t think we Canadians are any better than the Americans. We’re just more blissful.