Sex, eroticism and the allure of the East

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.

The majority of the world's cultures were cultures of the harem. We Westerners tend to make the mistake, especially in the 19th and 20th century, of thinking that our way of organizing love and sex is universal. But for most of history, that has not been the case.

I find it surprising that this would be an Asia-only phenomenon.

It's not. What I mean by "the East" is the non-West, particularly the non-West that was explored, colonized, invaded or otherwise interfered with or dominated by the West during the centuries of colonialism and post-colonialism right up to the Vietnam War. These places are very different from each other. The one thing they do have in common, from the standpoint of the Western visitor, is the non-Christian attitude toward sex and sexuality.

Was the institution of slavery in America an exception to that?

Yes, in a way it was, but only in a way. Lots of white slave owners took sexual advantage of the women they owned, but the practice was regarded as sinful and illicit, indeed worse than sinful, it was seen as bad taste, because of the deep racism of whites with regards to blacks.

It is only in the culture of the harem that these temptations and these impulses created a fully recognized institution with rules, a bureaucracy, with a whole way of life that was not all considered sinful, was not disapproved of, it was just a way of life.

How does the "culture of the harem" operate today?

By the time we get to contemporary China or Vietnam or even contemporary Thailand, we are no longer operating in an official culture of the harem. The age of official polygamy is over.

But, I think that the culture of the harem has had a kind of afterlife in these countries where there is less of an expectation of monogamy, a little bit more of an understanding that men, but not women (except for prostitutes) are going to have multiple sexual partners. As one Thai anthropologist put it, "we are a culture of multiple sexual partners."

How is your book a challenge to the idea, expressed by Edward Said and others, that "the exotic orient" is, in large part, a Western fantasy?

There really was a very substantial difference in this regard, between East and the West. There may have been elements of fantasy involved, there always are, but that the experience, the opportunities that Western men had when they went East, were not fantasy. They really did encounter a culture that was different from the one back home. And it led to a way of life for Western colonialists and soldiers that was unimaginable back home. This was real, it wasn't a fantasy.

How much power do women have in the culture of the harem?

The harem was a sexist institution, there is no question. It was designed for men by men, and the women were left to cope as best they could. That said, women did find ways of coping. They had relations with each other — I'm thinking here of the Turkish Harem, it was the subject of hundreds of years of writing by both male and female scholars — and they formed relations with figures of power. Emperors and sultans fell in love with certain members of the harem. When they were able to have a son, in particular, they became involved in the political maneuvering within the palace to have their son inherit power.

So the women had power?

Some women of the harem achieved great power, but they were the exceptions. But let's not talk only about the harem. There are many relationships here and many of them took place outside the harem and the brothel. The bibi, the Indian mistress of a British official in India, was not a prostitute, but she was often a woman who in becoming a bibi often improved her own situation and the situation of her family. She acquired a type of secondary power, reflected power.

How does Asia's sex trade, in Bangkok and other places, play into these ideas?

Some of my critics accused me of glossing over the horror and virtual enslavement of the Thai women that are in the sex trade today. In those grim situations, and they exist all over the world, where women are sexually enslaved, I don't gloss over it. But I also don't accept a simple black and white, Manichean portrayal of the situation. There is a certain moralism that is so lofty, that the moral person is unable to see the ground of reality, where things are morally ambiguous, below him.

I certainly don't think that the women in the Thai sex-tourism trade are fortunate, or that they would choose this way of life if they had better alternatives. Their condition is one of rural poverty, and the choice they have is to live in poverty, often with men who abuse them back home, or perhaps to work in sweatshops for meager wages, or dance half-naked around a pole at some club and make money off of foreign tourists. They are agents of their condition in the sense that they do choose to be bargirls because they can earn a lot of money that way, and they use all their considerable charm to get foreign men to pay them for sex.

Several reviews criticized the language you used to describe women. What do you make of the critique?

Some critics seem to think I am making an apologia for the system. And that surprises me because in my mind and in my heart, I am not making an apologia for anything — I am describing a world that existed.

Where the writing might seem enthusiastic, I am trying to convey the excitement that the discovery of Eastern sexuality created in the minds of the discoverers. When I talk about slender, seductive Asian women, which I do, briefly, perhaps twice in more than 300 pages, I am trying to see these women through the eyes of the visitors, who do find them irresistibly seductive. But I am not trying to make a judgment of my own. Some of it these stories are ugly, some are not. I tell them without putting moral labels on them.

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