The XX Factor

White Men and Asian “Babes”

Over at Slate , Johann Hari has a fascinating essay on The East, the West, and Sex , the “strange new book”-Hari’s words-by journalist Richard Bernstein, which details the centuries-old history of Western men seeking out a little strange in the East.

I haven’t read the book yet myself, but have been avidly reading about it. (See here for fascinatingly varied takes from Salon , the New York Review of Books [subscription required], and the New York Times Book Review . ) The book apparently rests on the thesis that early Western travelers didn’t just imagine the East to be sexually permissive and fragrantly erotic, but that it actually was so. “While Westerners could be condescending and racist in their descriptions of this culture,” Hari summarizes, “they were seeing something real.”

Of all the reviews I’ve read, Hari comes down hardest on Bernstein for his (non?) treatment of the female side of the East-West dynamic:

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.

… 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.

Read the whole thing here .