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Sex, eroticism and the allure of the East

It's nothing new, according to a new book.

Two look at the window display of an adult novelty shop in Singapore, Oct. 24, 2008. The sign reads: "Sex Life, Sex Hobby." (Edgar Su/Reuters)

HONG KONG — Veteran reporter Richard Bernstein opens his latest book with an anecdote about a young man known as "ChinaBounder" who, in 2006, kept a blog called "Sex in Shanghai: Western Scoundrel in Shanghai Tells All."

The man, now believed to be an English teacher from Britain, claimed to be sleeping with a bevy of Chinese women, including a married doctor and a coterie of former students. He recounted his exploits with great detail and his boastful blogging struck a nerve. Netizens denounced him, calling him a "white ape" and labelled his partners "bitches" bent on mocking Chinese manhood.

To the extent that ChinaBounder's story raises uncomfortable questions of history, gender, sex and power, it is a fitting introduction to "The East, The West and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters," Bernstein's provocative account of how, since the days of European colonial conquest, the East has held a particular erotic lure for Western men.

Where some authors, most notably Edward Said, have dismissed tales of the "exotic East" as racist fantasy, Bernstein sees kernels of truth in these stories. The sexual culture of the East, he argues, is — or was — different from the Christian West. And centuries worth of soldiers, seamen and teachers have used their wealth and power to take full advantage of the erotic possibilities the exotic East could provide.

Emily Rauhala spoke to Richard Bernstein about the book and the backlash. Here are the highlights:

You identify a common thread in non-Western cultures that you call "the culture of the harem." What do you mean by that?

Unlike in what I call "Christendom," male pleasure [in the East] was not associated with sinfulness. This doesn't mean that these cultures practiced 1960s-like free love or that they were sexually permissive. Actually, they were very conservative, especially when it came to the sexuality of women.

When it came to the sexuality of men, these cultures found it perfectly normal and expected that more than one woman would serve their sexual needs — the women of the harem, the seraglio, the inner palace, whatever it was called. There was no particular requirement of monogamy, no sense that you would suffer eternal perdition if you did the wrong thing.