The Birth, and Death, of the Asian Babe
The sordid history of the sexually exotic East.
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."
But this is not true, even on the evidence he offers. They could act as they did only because their governments had terrorized the population into acquiescence with massive violence. Flaubert talked about "the terror" that "everyone displays" in the presence of white men, and when a prepubescent boy offered him his mother "to fuck" for a fee, Flaubert assessed the situation as "excellent." Burton described the sexual habits of slave girls, almost certainly from personal experience. How is having sex with slaves or people who are terrorized by your countrymen, or who are sunk in poverty created by a long colonial rape, simply doing "what they were invited to"? How could these women have said no?
This newfound sexual freedom was freedom for men alone. The women involved were often literally enslaved or imprisoned against their will in harems and brothels or kept down by systematic violence if they tried to reject their role as sex toys for men. When I reported on sex trafficking in Bangladesh, I went to visit a modern-day "harem." The brothel on the border with India was a mess of rusty tin huts with sticky mattresses. The women there had mostly been stolen from their families as young teenagers and imprisoned ever since, drugged, and forced to pleasure men for a pittance. The woman who is most deeply scarred onto my memory is Beauty, then a 34-year-old. Sold to the brothel at 13, she is still there now; she will die there.
I found that the voices of women like Beauty were faint in Bernstein's book. Every admission that this system was built on suppressing women seems to be wrung out of him in passing; every experience of male liberation is described with approving ejaculations. *
This is, in the end, a darker and bleaker story than the one Bernstein wants to tell. European and American men really did find sexual liberation in the East. Some returned home and helped to sexually liberate their own countries in ways we all benefit from today. But the freedom came at the cost of exploiting an extreme form of patriarchy in the countries they went to, and to imply that the beaten-down, deeply deprived women wanted it is revolting.
Bernstein's story—and ours—ends with a strange irony. With the sole and ongoing exception of Southeast Asia, in this sexual conflict East and West have swapped sides—suddenly and definitively. "The very places where Western men in the past sought pleasures and excitements are today amongst the most sexually conservative places on the planet." Burton saw the Arab Middle East as a font of sexual freedom; today, he would be beheaded there for acting as he did.
In most of the East—in Africa, China, India, and the Middle East—this flip happened very fast. In the mid-19th century, "most of the world still subscribed to the harem culture, and in only the few small countries of the West, the small peninsular domain of Christendom, did a different attitude prevail." By the end of the century, it was the other way around.
How did this happen? Frustratingly, Bernstein doesn't offer many convincing explanations, but he does note that the colonial East attracted more missionaries than Burtons in the end. In Somerset Maugham's novel Rain, a missionary complains, "I think [it] was the most difficult part of my work, to instill in the natives a sense of sin." But they did. They succeeded. They soaked the East in a Western sense of sin, and saw it freeze up into a new frigidity.
So the Whore of Babylon has long since hitched up her skirts and moved to Amsterdam. The long colonial dream of the Eastern girl who won't—or can't—say no is losing its remaining links to reality, one country at a time. Somebody needs to tell the world's masturbators: The days of the Asian babe splayed on the road to Mandalay are over.
Correction, Aug. 6, 2009: This review originally included two phrases that could have given the incorrect impression that Richard Bernstein has attended, or approves of, brothels where women are coerced. (The piece called a brothel in Bangladesh "one of the harems Bernstein gets moist and sweaty over" and suggested that Bernstein seemed to have written the book to "stem a guilty conscience about his own past.") This was not Johann Hari's intention, or Slate's. We have amended these sentences to clarify that Bernstein does not approve of forced prostitution. (Return to the corrected paragraph.)