What is the deal with Western men's erotic obsession with the East?
In his history of the erotic obsession Western men have felt toward “the Orient,” Richard Bernstein begins with what must have been the most inflammatory example he could find: A blog titled “Sex in Shanghai: Western Scoundrel in Shanghai Tells All,” in which an individual referring to himself only as “ChinaBounder” boastfully recounted his many sexual trysts with Chinese women. A foreign teacher of English, the blogger mostly recruited his partners from among his former students, and they included at least one married woman, a doctor. ChinaBounder’s crowing provoked what Bernstein describes as a “murderously furious response” from Chinese men, who reviled him as a “white ape.” But they reserved the brunt of their anger for his lovers, accusing their countrywomen of behavior that “humiliates the hearts of Chinese men, as well as of the Chinese people.”
After a few disclaimers about the imperfect truthfulness of anonymous confessional blogs and offering his opinion that ChinaBounder’s successes would not be “easy to duplicate,” Bernstein observes that nevertheless, “there is something to what he said, something about an advantage that Western men have in the competition for the favors of young women there.” “The East, the West and Sex” is Bernstein’s history of how that advantage has played out since the days of Marco Polo. As a result of this edge, “the East” (which he defines broadly, ranging from North Africa, to India and the Middle East, to Southeast and East Asia) has for centuries represented “a domain of special erotic fascination and fulfillment for Western men.”
The subject is squirm-inducing, whether you are a Chinese man with a humiliated heart or a Western woman feeling obscurely spurned or, for that matter, even if you’re a Western man enthralled, as Bernstein himself seems to be, by the image of the quintessential Asian nymph, with her “long silky hair, smooth nut-brown skin, and a perfume of orange and spice on her breath” — and feeling kinda defensive about it. To write about the penchant of certain Western men for Asian women is to invite prurient speculation (Bernstein has a Chinese wife, in case you’re wondering — and you know you were) as well as incendiary condemnations from several fronts and on several grounds. The topic is mined with tripwires attached to a host of uncomfortable thoughts about race, power, sexuality, gender and history.
Bernstein (a columnist for the International Herald Tribune and former China correspondent for Time magazine) negotiates this territory with great delicacy and considerable historical knowledge — which makes this elegantly written book doubly frustrating, as it’s not always clear exactly what he’s trying to say. The rage of the men who objected to ChinaBounder is, as Bernstein readily admits, founded in resentment against Western colonialism, a history in which the handing over of Asian women’s bodies to Western men was merely the most intimate manifestation of a conquest that also demanded the surrender of Asian land, labor and wealth. No American, he astutely points out, would be so incensed if an Asian “bounder” wrote an online diary listing all the Iowan farm girls and Southern belles he seduced, “simply because,” Bernstein writes, “there is no particular interest in the topic.” OK, well maybe not no interest, but it wouldn’t unpack the same cultural baggage.
As far as I can boil it down, Bernstein wishes to argue that the history of liaisons between Eastern women and Western men should not be condemned out of hand. In spite of the undeniable backdrop of injustice and exploitation, some of these encounters have been a Good Thing, offering to the men a reprieve from the repressive sexual morality of the Christian West and to the women a chance at a less traditionally patriarchal relationship than they might have had with many of their countrymen. There may be manifest inequities between these couples, but their trysts have sometimes blossomed into real affection, tenderness and love.
There’s a complicated and fundamentally unsound historical algorithm at the heart of this argument, which may explain why Bernstein (no fool) tends to pussyfoot around it. It depends on a familiar villain — Christian sexual puritanism in the form of the insistence on monogamous marriage as the only virtuous context for sex. Nobody likes puritanism these days, and even if you’d prefer to think that monogamy is an achievable ideal for some couples, it’s hard to disagree with Bernstein’s argument that it’s not a particularly “realistic” institution in which to confine the sexuality of many people, particularly men. By contrast, he observes, Eastern religious traditions have not associated sexual transgression with sin and the corrosive guilt that attends upon it. Eastern cultures partake of “harem culture,” that is, they pragmatically tolerate institutions through which men can find sexual gratification with multiple women without suffering from the profound moral condemnation heaped on sinners in the West.
The Western erotic imagination has been piqued by the idea of harems since it began to receive travelers’ reports of the Ottoman sultan’s wives and concubines in the 1600s. Bernstein explores the various fantastic accounts and depictions of “the secrets of the harem” that titillated Europeans for centuries, though not, strangely enough, harem-themed pornography (possibly because the availability of erotica in Europe tends to undermine his picture of the West as sexually deprived). Polygamy, courtesans, concubinage and legal prostitution are all practices that Bernstein includes under the rubric of “harem culture,” a useful enough concept. Western men who traveled east in the early days of exploration and colonialism more often than not availed themselves of these institutions, obtaining native “wives” and patronizing brothels whether or not they had “real” wives back in Europe. Furthermore, their Eastern hosts often encouraged such activities, offering young women in trade for goods or as welcoming gifts.
The famous Westerners who took enthusiastic advantage of these opportunities included Richard Burton (a 19th-century explorer and translator of “The Arabian Nights” — an unexpurgated translation that furthered the image of the East as a sexual smorgasbord) and the French novelist Gustave Flaubert, who tore through the prostitutes of Egypt at an impressive pace, recording every detail of the experience, during a visit in his early 20s. Colonial officials in India, Japan, Southeast Asia and Algeria readily adopted the local custom of expecting female servants to service them sexually as well as domestically, and Bernstein repeats the story of a British army captain whose window overlooked a school for “half-caste” girls and who, upon seeing one he liked, simply ordered her up for 80 rupees (the price included a premium because she was a virgin) via the intermediary of his butler.
Needless to say, such options were not available to army captains back in England. Also, there was the “surrounding sensuousness” of India or the “gorgeous and refined demimonde” of Japan, and even the “fabulous, lubricious and grotesque” red light district of current-day Bangkok, whose colors, noises and excesses all testified to the fact that this was not home, and home’s rules did not apply here. People of all backgrounds do things abroad that they would never do in their own towns. In the East, what Western men found was, to use Bernstein’s term, “fulfillment,” a sexual freedom they were denied in their home countries, which he characterizes as “the domain of restriction and repression.”
However, sexual freedom, to a greater and more intimate degree than any other freedom, is a paradoxical thing. Unless you’re talking about masturbation, then someone else — a human being with his or her own desires and dislikes — is involved. If you define sexual freedom as being able to do whatever you want with whomever you please, then (except in very rare cases of perfect compatibility with one’s partner at every moment) one man’s freedom is another woman’s compulsion. Women in traditional harem cultures languished in a condition of de facto slavery, where they had no right to determine anything about their own lives, let alone their sexual partners and activities. Their very survival was predicated on pleasing men. They were treated for the most part as animate commodities, like livestock, to be bought, sold and discarded at will. And if Eastern men’s adulterous shenanigans were regarded as “natural,” in women such behavior was punishable by extreme social ostracism and frequently by death.
Bernstein is, as I mentioned, no fool, and so of course he knows and acknowledges this, but there is a sense in which it’s not entirely real to him; he is constantly asking the reader to temporarily set aside any objections regarding the utter powerlessness of the female participants in this “freedom” so that we can contemplate for a moment how liberating it must have been for the men. And he sets great store by the exceptions. Yes, it’s possible that genuinely warm feelings and even love sometimes arose between men and women in these situations, just as it’s possible that African-American slaves and their masters’ families sometimes felt fondness and loyalty toward each other, or that soldiers from an occupying army might befriend local residents. It’s in the nature of humanity that we can occasionally connect in spite of harsh circumstances. But that doesn’t really ameliorate the fundamental injustice of those circumstances.
The biggest problem with Bernstein’s formula by which Eastern women get more respect from Western men who in turn receive better sex is that, as Bernstein himself admits on more than one occasion, Eastern women didn’t enjoy substantially better treatment from Western men until fairly recently. If, as several of the Asian women Bernstein interviews seem to think, Western men treat women with more respect than Asian men do, it’s because Western women have demanded baseline changes in Western attitudes, customs and laws. One of those changes was a radical scaling back of the double standard (a phrase that, astonishingly enough, Bernstein never even mentions in “The East, the West and Sex”), with the result that premarital sex has become a widespread and completely unremarkable activity in America and Europe today.
So there was never really a historical moment in which Bernstein’s proposed trade-off actually worked. Western men happily treated Asian women as badly as Asian men did (and sometimes worse) until cultural changes in the West began to instill in them a greater regard for the human dignity of women and simultaneously removed much of the sexual repression that supposedly drove them away from the West to begin with. Bernstein’s cherished notion of a gentle, forgiving complementarity of need reached between the Western male and the Eastern female in the private sanctuary of the bedroom is a sentimental red herring that makes little sense in the age of ChinaBounder.
The most pervasive paradigm for the East-West erotic reverie, as even Bernstein is forced to realize as he roams the streets of Bangkok, interviewing 73-year-old American men with 22-year-old Thai “girlfriends,” is prostitution. The power and wealth of Westerners — officials of colonial Britain, American GIs stationed in Vietnam, European expats in Thailand — when introduced into poor Asian societies where women have few other options, makes commercial sex pretty much inevitable. For all the rhapsodies about silken hair, “surrounding sensuousness,” esoteric erotic arts and the ultrafemininity of Asian women, it is this economic imbalance that makes places like Bangkok so magnetic to Western men. A dollar goes much further there, whether you’re buying hours of someone’s labor at a sweatshop sewing machine or sexual services.
When Bernstein writes of Western men who’d never dream of visiting a prostitute back home but regularly do so in Asia, he says it’s because Asian prostitutes are “sweet, affectionate,” and “unmarred by the businesslike qualities of common sex-for-sale workers in the West,” who are supposed to be “sleazy, mercenary, cold, depraved, and vaguely intimidating” (though how the men would know this having never visited them is unclear — it seems to be the way they view all Western women). Of course, there are plenty of Western call girls who can and do behave sweetly and affectionately, it’s just that the men who flock to Bangkok’s red light districts can’t afford them. The difference is less cultural than economic: “Do the arithmetic,” a grizzled Vietnam vet who has settled in Thailand said to Bernstein, nodding toward his girlfriend. “She’s 51 years younger than me. Do you think I could have somebody like her in Pennsylvania?”
One of the reasons “The East, the West and Sex” is so intellectually muddled is that Bernstein’s understanding of prostitution and sex work in general is not only clouded by sentimentality but mired in the past. “The standard, morally correct view of the Western exploitation of the East for sexual purpose,” he writes, “is that it was mostly a form of prostitution and prostitution is always unjust and degrading.” This may be true if your grasp of the issue derives entirely from a Yale women’s studies course taken in 1980, but times — and feminism — have changed. A lot.
It seems to be particularly difficult for Bernstein to conceive of prostitution as a trade or profession rather than as a condition or identity. As he writes several times in “The East, the West and Sex,” Western men would discover that Eastern cultures tended to “accept that there would be a certain class of women whose role in the world was to satisfy male sexual desire and that the satisfaction of male sexual desire was natural and moral.” This statement is disingenuous, since there is no culture in which prostitutes are not stigmatized to some degree, even when prostitution itself is not regarded as sinful. That’s why a “class” of women needed to be relegated to doing it. If there were truly, as Bernstein weakly tries to claim of India, “no opprobrium” attached to the work of a prostitute, courtesan or mistress, then no man would mind his daughter becoming one or his son marrying one. Instead, even when the men hiring prostitutes are permitted to feel “natural and moral,” the women hired are expected to be ashamed.
Given the personal incompatibilities that exist even in relatively sexually free societies, there will always be a market for sexual services, and the women (and men) who provide them would be best served by removing the social stigma attached to the work so that they can pursue it in safety as the skilled trade it is. Do they have ample, decent employment alternatives to prostitution, so that if they choose it, they do so freely? Do they get to keep most of their own earnings? Do they have access to adequate healthcare? Are they able to dictate the conditions of their work, such as insisting on condoms, ruling out certain activities, rejecting certain clients, taking time off? Can they count on the police to protect them from violence and abuse? Do they earn enough to enable them to save for a future when they will age out of the profession?
Although no nation’s prostitutes enjoy all of these conditions, Thailand’s sex workers have proven to be particularly smart at utilizing the few advantages accorded them. “The East, the West and Sex” recounts a typical story of a young bar girl who persuaded a besotted, much older Austrian client to marry her and build her a house. Since by law houses and land can only be owned by Thai citizens, the deed was in her name, giving her the economic clout to commandeer the house and move in her real boyfriend (Thai, her own age). The husband’s plight illustrates a phenomenon that could be called the John’s Dilemma: If you go into a relationship expecting to get everything you want exactly how you want it regardless of what the other person might herself desire, don’t expect her to take your feelings into much account should the tables be turned. You get no more than you pay for; compliance is not love.
Of course, the vast majority of Asian women who choose Western men as partners aren’t prostitutes; ChinaBounder was not, after all, paying his middle-class girlfriends to sleep with him, even if he was taking advantage of the aura of glamor and wealth surrounding foreigners in China. What’s strangely missing from the ChinaBounder kerfuffle is any consideration of what the women got out of it, although Bernstein managed to ask some of their cohort what’s so attractive about Western men. Some told him that Asian men insisted on traditional feminine deference and self-sacrifice, while others copped to viewing Western men as, um, sexually exotic. It’s unclear whether ChinaBounder’s partners took their trysts with him as lightly as he did; perhaps they simply found the sex pleasurable and exciting, and to judge by an e-mail he sent to the married doctor (“How beautiful you are, how sexy, how perfect!”) he certainly knows how to woo a girl.
At any rate, women like ChinaBounder’s partners are finally in a position to choose for themselves, a position that all too few women around the world enjoy even today. (The real gauge of the sexual freedom of a society isn’t the liberty accorded to its men, after all, but the liberty accorded to its women.) Meanwhile, the Chinese men who denounce them as “worse than prostitutes,” indignant at being evaluated according to the sort of superficial criteria they’ve applied to women for millennia, are undergoing an awakening nearly as rude as the one suffered by that elderly Austrian cuckold in Thailand. Turnabout is indeed a bitch.
News flash: Given their druthers, most women, Eastern or Western, would really rather not be locked into relationships designed primarily to cater to the other person’s needs. Show them an out, and they will take it. However, some of the Western men Bernstein describes — the ones who favor Asian women because they consider them less “demanding” than their Western counterparts — shouldn’t let themselves get too comfortable, either. Demands and the expectations that drive them are, like marketplaces, highly subject to change, as ChinaBounder’s Chinese rivals have learned to their dismay. The girl you could never have in Pennsylvania may someday be the girl you can’t have in Bangkok, either. It seems the price — genuine love founded in true equality and respect– is more than you’re willing to pay.
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