Orientalism unleashed

The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters

King Tutankhamun is back in town. For the first time in 30 years, the San Francisco de Young Museum is hosting the Pharaoh. Hordes of polo-shirted tourists will squeeze into the exhibit, a thin layer of bulletproof glass the only thing separating their sweaty palms from Tut’s preserved corpse. There, they will leave greasy imprints of foreheads as they stare longingly at the sarcophagus, dim visions of themselves as Nefertiti sparkling in their eyes. Hell, I’ll be there, too.

Those who question the Western fascination with Eastern mythologies need look no further than incidents like the above to dispel their doubts. Since the times of Marco Polo, Western explorers have been ferrying tales of sun-kissed skin, lush oases and exotic sensibilities back to their pearl-clutching peers. In The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters, Richard Bernstein portrays the historic basis for such a fixation and its ramifications in the modern Western world.

The East, the West, and Sex, which is organized both by time period and by country, examines the idea of masculine Western colonization creating an idealistic portrayal of Asian culture, particularly those aspects dealing with heterosexual eroticism. Bernstein begins with Friar Rubrick discovering the harems of Mongolia, which frequently appear in Western literature as the stereotypical pile of nubile ladies on an obese, fur-bedecked warlord. After some very explicit detail about Egypt cribbed from the letters of Gustave Flaubert, Bernstein concludes his historical analysis with a brief explanation of the adventures of Richard Burton, who translated The Arabian Nights.

Although Bernstein’s coverage is wide-ranging, he doesn’t provide enough detail to make the work exemplary to someone already familiar with these figures. But for your average layperson picking it up at Borders because of the naked lady reclining on the cover, the first half of the book is fun.

Unfortunately, the second half is a bit harder to swallow. It explores the American influence on Asian prostitution and exploitation, mostly in post-war Korea, Japan, China and Thailand. According to Bernstein, the combination of privileged Western assholery and Asian cultural attitudes concerning femininity created a thriving sex market in these countries which still blooms today. Fair enough.

The more problematic aspect is that Bernstein seems very intent on making sure readers don’t judge the Americans too harshly for partaking in a little female flesh during their foreign tours. He implies that sex workers have been saved from a life of poverty by the engorged Americans thinking with their crotches. Even as he presents the modern Orientalist complex as the dichotomy of innocent schoolgirl and mattress goddess, Bernstein seems to be buying into it himself, talking about poor, wide-eyed farmers’ daughters who quickly develop the cunning to seduce Western troglodytes out of their cash.

In addition, none of these “exotic foreigner” relations seem to happen on the flip side, genderwise. There is one nice interlude where he explores a Western woman’s experience in Singapore, but even then, her paradigm shift is rooted in her husband’s leaving her for a—you guessed it—hot young Asian vixen. Western women go abroad hunting for nooky, too, but Bernstein seems to think women of any nationality are only looking for love or for money—no meaningless sex for them. Frankly, it’s insulting.

Despite these setbacks, Bernstein’s work is well-organized and flows naturally. It blends comprehensive historical facts with cultural shout-outs; the South Pacific and Miss Saigon name checks in particular are excellent depictions of how the Orientalist mentality continues to emerge in literature. If you can look past the frequent narrative preaching, The East, the West, and Sex is an enjoyable, informative read.