The porn of the Western world is saturated with the belief that Eastern women are more sexy and sultry and slutty. The most googled brand in the porn world is "Asian Babes." The very phrase evokes legions of solitary sweaty teenage boys in basements across America and Europe. But this stereotype did not emerge with the World Wide Web. It originated with worldwide empires. Suppressed beneath these casual flicks of the wrist, there are five centuries of colonial exploitation screaming to be heard.
In his strange new book about how two different sexual worlds met—and transformed each other in ways that continue to this day—veteran journalist Richard Bernstein distills decades' worth of research into succinct stories. But only a hundred or so pages in, the scent of testosterone and spent semen soaked into its pages becomes bewildering.
The story is fascinating. In the 16th century, Portuguese seamen began leaving a Christian fundamentalist Europe to sail the seas in search of resources and spices to pillage. But as soon as they arrived in Goa, Malacca, Sumatra, and Japan, they also discovered an alternative sexual world where all their repressed longing could roam free. "On one side," Bernstein writes, "was Christian monogamy in which sex was shrouded in religious meaning and prohibition, and regarded as sinful when enjoyed out of marriage. On the other side was an Eastern culture wherein sex was strictly organized, especially when it came to women, but where it was disassociated from both sin and love."
Where the West tied sex to the marriage bed and felt ashamed when it broke free, the East unleashed its libido in the harem, the brothel, and a smorgasbord of sexual options. "In the East," as Bernstein puts it in gushing terms, "it was taken for granted there would always be a certain reserve of women, often supreme models of beauty, cultivation and charm, whose assigned role in life was to provide sexual pleasure for men." The Asian babe as dream-object was born. Rudyard Kipling wrote one of the first rhapsodies to her: "I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!/ On the road to Mandalay."
Since the 1970s—when Edward Said wrote his classic Orientalism, exposing the myriad ways in which the West had patronized and stereotyped the East—such fawning has been dismissed as exploitative, racist distortion. Western merchants depicted the East as a den of sin and depravity, according to Said, in order to justify colonizing the land and taking whatever else suited them, from spices to resources to women. But Bernstein argues that "the eroticized vision of the East carries a hard kernel of truth, which the followers of Said are loath to acknowledge."
In the East—a diffuse term that Bernstein uses to describe Africa, Asia, and the Middle East—Western colonists really did find a different sexual culture. Prostitution really was out in the open, stripped of the silence and shame that coated it in Europe. Political leaders really did have vast harems of young women to pluck from. Men really weren't expected to be monogamous. While Westerners could be condescending and racist in their descriptions of this culture, they were seeing something real.
The white colonists reacted to this discovery in two conflicting ways. Half stripped off and joined in, and half reached for their Bibles and began to call down the Lord. Bernstein is better at describing the first group, in long swooping paragraphs; I could have lived without the endless references to "plum-sized breasts" and "tiny hips." Europe became obsessed with the sultan's harems of nubile young virgins, buying "exposes" of this "filth" by the shipload. When you read excerpts now, they are comic Freudian projections of Europe's suppressed sexuality. Beneath the moral clucking, there is a frenzied longing in the descriptions of how teen virgins would turn to lesbianism as they waited for the sultan to pick them out. Europe indulged in a collective wet dream over free love in unfree lands.
Bernstein focuses on two examples of Western men who dived into this new freedom, believing it superior to the muffling back home: Gustave Flaubert, the extraordinary French novelist, and Richard Burton, the British explorer. They considered the East to be filled with sexual artists who had perfected one of life's great pleasures. Flaubert enjoyed this new freedom in private, while Burton became an evangelist. He wrote home about whole new sexual practices, reporting with awe that a female partner "can sit astraddle upon a man and can provoke the venereal orgasm, not by wriggling or moving but by tightening and loosening the male member with the muscles of her privities." Burton provided the British with the first English translation of the Kama Sutra and campaigned for sex education back home.
But Burton was unusual. Most of those who went east tried to keep their sexual exploration discreet—until, that is, the Americans joined in the European pastime as the 20th century approached. Their arrival was heralded in neon lights. The story of American penetration of the East was first captured—and stored—by Puccini in his opera Madame Butterfly. The story is stark. A typical American military officer named Pinkerton, stationed in Nagasaki in the late 19th century, arranges to buy the hand of Cio-Cio-San, a 15-year-old local girl. She gives birth to his child after he has left, and she pines for three terrible years. When he finally returns, his American wife at his side, he insists he will take his child. Cio-Cio-San cuts her own throat, leaving an American flag flapping silently in her baby's hand.
A million Pinkertons flooded into Vietnam, and few bothered with sham marriages. They were plunged from the Puritan heartlands into a place where sex was guilt-free, and American culture was transformed forever. Half the U.S. servicemen in Nam lost their virginity there, and half a million mixed-race babies were left behind, treated as outcasts. In a strange twist of history, the advance of free love may have owed as much to LBJ and Nixon's war as to the hippies and libertines.
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.