The Birth, and Death, of the Asian Babe

The sordid history of the sexually exotic East.

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.

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.)