Ex-priest packs homes in Quebec with a series of slides and lectures on sex
Buffo at the box-office
Ex-priest packs homes in Quebec with a series of slides and lectures on sex
Like some sprawling brick-covered magnet, the CEGEP seemed to be drawing people out of the rain and up to its sheltered plate-glass front doors. Two by two, 652 solid citizens of Shawinigan, Que., scurried through the junior college’s glistening parking lot, down straight, well-lit paths and across tidy lawns in orderly right angles to the portico. Inside they shook out raincoats, primped and chattered, before bustling enthusiastically to well-upholstered seats in the auditorium, waiting for the lights to dim.
The attraction? A pot-bellied 50year-old ex-priest who would talk to them about how fantasy could enrich their sex lives. In measured, reassuring phrases, Jean-Yves Desjardins told them it was okay to have sexual fantasies about people other than your spouse; that romantic novels distort sexual perceptions as badly as girlie magazines; and illustrated his points with lurid pornographic pictures. The crowd watched and listened respectfully, applauding warmly when it was over. “Wasn’t that interesting?” asked a well-dressed middle-aged woman.Her husband nodded. “Especially the part about the fantasies,” he agreed. “And he handled it all with such good taste,” sighed the woman, slipping into her raincoat and out the door.
Fifteen, maybe even 10 years ago, Shawinigan might have run Desjardins out of town. At the very least, his lecture would have been the cause for grave concern in the councils of the church, the local newspaper and city hall. A question might even have been tabled in Quebec’s national assembly concerning the propriety of this sort of thing being held in a school auditorium. But in 1981 there’s not a whisper of controversy. Controversy is the constitution, and the role that local MP Jean Chrétien is playing in bringing it home. Controversy is the rising price of gasoline, or a drive to unionize the local outlet of McDonald’s. Sex isn’t controversial anymore. Sex is as safe as gourmet cooking and macramé. “People are more
secure about sex,” says the burly, unprepossessing Desjardins, leaning way back in the swivel chair behind the desk in his sparsely furnished office in Montreal. “After a century of what I call ‘moral terrorism,’ they’re learning that sexual pleasure is something nice in our lives, something that can make us better husbands and wives, better human beings.”
His message is one that Quebeckers seem eager to hear. In less than two years, 190,000 people have paid as much as $6 a ticket in centres as small as Roberval and as big as Montreal to be told how to better their sex lives. “I was astonished by the reaction,” he admits. “My feeling was that people are bombarded with talk about sex and love day in, day out. Why would they want to go to a lecture about it?” “Because it’s an area that’s not particularly well served by the media. The media either skim the surface or exploit this topic,” answers François Prévost, the impresario who approached Desjardins with the idea for his five-part lecture series on human sexuality. Prévost is the co-founder of Spectamundo Corp., an organization that offers a range of lectures in its université populaire series. In a sense, Desjardins and Prévost are tapping the envy of a generation of Quebeckers who feel they missed out on the sex education available to their children. Says Prévost: “There’s a strong demand for solid information out there. We’ve done best in the areas of Quebec that are the most conservative, where traditional institutions are the strongest.”
Prévost could hardly have found a more suitable supplier of information than Jean-Yves Desjardins. Looking like the rumpled owner of the local hardware store, he suits middle Quebec down to the ground.
There’s no show-biz flash, no stage-prowling evangelism, no hippydippy “sharing the experience.” His rich and soothing baritone is the very voice of reason and common sense. Slowly, gracefully, Desjardins guides his listeners along a continuum: when to touch, how to touch, reading body language, the importance of cuddling and foreplay, the role of masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, fantasies, deviations and perversions. Even as he explains and encourages sexual experimentation, he’s reassuringly conventional. The heterosexual couple is the norm: the male proposes (though he’s encouraged to slow down and take time to be tender), while the female (encouraged
to be more “genital” and less romantic) disposes. The odd nervous giggle betrays some discomfort in the audience, a collective intake of breath may greet some of the more exuberant variations, but few people walk out. “He doesn’t treat it like a biology lecturer,” says Prévost. “He deals with it in the way people know it from their daily life. He speaks from the heart.”
Until he decided to make a career out of the study of sex, Desjardins’ own life
looked pretty conventional. The 13th of 17 children, Desjardins became a priest, then completed a master’s degree in psychology at the Université de Montréal. He wished to continue his academic studies in human sexuality, but had trouble finding a niche. As a discipline, sexology didn’t exist, and certainly not at the conservative and church-influenced Université de Montréal of 1963. On the condition that he do some work on deviant sexual behavior, the department of criminology
agreed to sponsor his research, and in 1971 granted him a doctorate.
The more he learned, however, the more he came into conflict with the teachings of the church. “Because I wore a clerical collar, I was supposed to be the bearer of one message, which went against what I knew as a psychologist,” explains Desjardins. “For example: according to the church, masturbation is intrinsically bad, yet as a psychologist and sexologist, I knew that on the contrary, masturbation could be an asset in the human sexual apprenticeship. The church asked me to consider homosexuality a moral failing when I knew homosexuality to be an erotic variation over which the individual has little control. The church asked me to consider a couple to be indivisible when I knew full well, as a psychologist and sexologist, that incompatibility exists.”
Unable to resolve the contradictions, Desjardins took off his cleric’s collar and donned an academic’s gown. In 1969 he founded the department of sexology at the Université du Québec à Montréal where he still teaches. Now married and the father of two children, Desjardins took a year’s sabbatical in 1980 and invested $160,000 in films and audiovisual aids to mount his lecture series. Despite the overwhelming turnouts, he says he lost money in his first year. Total expenses came to $233,000 and his share of the revenue to only $203,000. “University professors aren’t always good administrators,” he admits with a chuckle. Now that the start-up costs are behind him, the 90 lectures he will be giving this year ought to put him in the black.
Twenty-two months on the lecture circuit has convinced Desjardins that there’s a great need to air questions of sexuality and eroticism. “There’s a crisis of communication among couples in the Western world today,” he explains, leaning earnestly across the corner of his desk. “I had no idea to what extent our consumer society was working to destroy the eroticism of a couple . . . not to destroy procreation, but to destroy the erotic communication of a couple, which is based on so many other things. Eroticism depends on our capacity to express, as best we can, our feelings for one another.” A lecture hall may seem like a strange place to be furthering the “erotic communication of a couple,” but the lineups at the ticket window prove the handicap can be overcome.
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