The Slate review is actually pretty good. It points out Bernstein’s troubling view of women, and “Eastern” women in particular — with “East” apparently meaning Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Bernstein basically argues that, sure, colonialism was kinda bad and racist, but the sexual interactions between colonizers and the colonized weren’t always exploitative; additionally, when European men commented on the sexual depravity of th “East,” they weren’t totally wrong. From the review:
Bernstein deserves credit for raising a tortured subject from which it is easy to avert our gaze. And yet, and yet … there is something deeply uncomfortable about a book that seems at times so complicit in the very exploitation it aims to scrutinize. It’s not just the tone, though Bernstein’s oblique confession to having his first sexual experiences in an Asian brothel is creepy. It is the fetid attitude toward women.
Bernstein’s view of the role of women in his story of cultural and sexual collision is nuanced to the point of being myopic. He is describing men who went to foreign places, toppled their leaders, stole their resources, and then tossed their women a few pennies to spread their legs. Yet he writes: “From the standpoint of the currently fashionable political morality, [this behavior] appears very bad, an illustration of the unfairness of colonial rule. … But let’s try to see the erotic history of the West and the East as part of a great human pageant, one in which the women, the girls and the boys involved were not necessarily passive.”
Wait, why should we try? Bernstein’s own attempts to claim that the women were involved in choosing their fate are extraordinarily feeble. He tells a story about an Arab queen choosing to have sex with a Western traveler, but how typical was she? He concedes that “much of the sexual opportunity presented by the East has always been, and still is, based on exploitation and injustice.” But he goes on to defend the men who took part in that exploitation. Of Burton and Flaubert, he says, “They used no force; they abused no children; they did what they were invited to.”
…right. As the reviewer points out, Bernstein’s own book is loaded with information about the “harems” of young women who were actually slaves. Colonists certainly did abuse children and women. Were some sexual relationships entered into voluntarily? Of course they were. Were many entered into without explicit force but without consent? Probably. And did many more rely on force, coercion and extreme power imbalances? Yes. But I suppose when you’re writing a sweaty psuedo-academic justification for your “Asian babes” fetish, it’s easy to overlook that fact.
The reviewer compares Bernstein’s take on sex in the “East” with his own experiences as a reporter investigating brothels in Bangladesh. While the comparison is certainly powerful and a necessary counterpoint, especially in the context of challenging the “harem” mythology, it also obscures the complex realities that women live, and reduces “Eastern” women to the other side of a tired dichotomy: Whores or victims; tempting or exploited; Asian babes or broken chinadolls.
I’ve met and seen men like Richard Bernstein. I’ve seen them walking down the street in places like Cambodia and Thailand, sometimes alone and scoping, sometimes negotiating with another man on the age and price of a woman or girl or boy, sometimes with an Asian woman trailing a few feet behind him. I’ve read their views when perusing books in various airports on how to marry a Thai woman, or how to find the best sex workers in Singapore. I’ve seen them online, talking about how Asian women are superior to “Western” women, because Asian women know their place and are so submissive and feminine. I have a feeling we’ll see some of them on this thread. They’re almost always white, either European or American. They almost always justify their exoticization and dehumanization of Asian women, and their participation in sexual exploitation, with the argument that the women like it and want it. I’m sure they’ll write off this post as me being jealous. I find them repellent — not just because they exploit women and justify it by casting their racial fetishization as admiration, but because, as far as I can tell, the exploitation is part of the titillation. It’s just easier to mask exploitation when you can convince yourself that this “other culture” is so sexually liberated that it’s acceptable to pay a man $15 to have sex with a 14-year-old girl. It’s easier to mask exploitation –even to yourself — when you see the person you’re exploiting or fetishizing and a little less human than yourself. Again, I haven’t read the book and I don’t plan to, but I would bet that the author focuses primarily on the experiences of men. I’ll bet that his descriptions of the sexual culture of “the East” are based on male interpretations, reports and writings. I’ll bet that female voices factor in very, very little, if at all; I’ll bet that they’re usually filtered through male writers and speakers.
I haven’t spent enough time in “the East” to say much of anything about anyone else’s sexual culture. But a small period of time in South East Asia was enough to make some basic observations about the behavior of many white male tourists. It’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for the past year, but can never quite work up to doing. I’m not going to do it in full now, because it’s too depressing; the very little bit of sexual colonialism that I saw was enough to make me feel physically ill when I recall it (I don’t feel all that well writing about it now). It’s a few scenes: A white man, hands jammed in his pockets, walking quickly with an furrow-browed, frowning Asian woman following five feet behind him. Me stepping away from my male travel companion for a few minutes, and having a Cambodian man approach him to ask, “What do you want? How young? 15? 14? Girl or boy?” Spending the day in a genocide museum where the impact of colonialism and the West was illustrated in disturbing detail, then going out at night to see so many white men alone or in pairs, more than you usually see traveling, and feeling like — and this is not a description I use lightly — I was in this beautiful, sad little country that had been repeatedly raped. Walking through the killing fields, where there are still bones sticking out of the ground from the genocide, and watching as a little boy offered male tourists oral sex through a hole in the fence.
I didn’t go into brothels. I wasn’t able to speak to most of the local people or solo male travelers, and nor did I want to approach strangers to ask about sex. I’m nowhere near an expert on any of this. I won’t claim to have some sort of deeper — or even basic — understanding about anything. I only saw what I saw. There was also incredible beauty and human innovation and goodness. I was shown incredible kindess by the people I met. Like anywhere else, realities were complex and varied, and the sliver that I witnessed was colored by my own experiences, assumptions and background. But there are a few things, small things which I realize have a greater context, which I saw that made me despise other human beings. And at the risk of being quoted on an anti-feminist website or sounding like a caricature, they made me despise male human beings in particular. Not forever, and not all men, and of course the feeling faded, but for a few minutes there…
The idea that Asian women are just culturally or naturally more sexually tempting or submissive or open, or whatever happens to be the justification du jour, has real-life effects for the women fetishists claim to value so much (I use the word “value” intentionally). It’s not just about what kind of porn you like, or what your “type” of woman may be. The fact that this book was published — that there’s almost certainly an audience for it — makes me sick. I hope it’s roundly rejected. I have a feeling, though, that it will sell quite well.
- The East, the West and Sex: Author Richard Bernstein responds by Jill July 8, 2009
- Teacher Binds Students in Lesson on Slavery by Cara December 11, 2008
- White Boy Seeks to Own Brown Girl by Jill March 8, 2006
- Outsourcing Porn by Jill September 12, 2011
- Why Buy the Cow? by Jill September 14, 2005