Nothing serves the righteously indignant like a handy enemy, and where there’s no real enemy handy, the temptation to create one can be irresistible. That at any rate seems to me to explain the luridly indignant review of my book, The East, the West, and Sex, that appeared a few weeks ago in Slate. Normally I think book writers should take their lumps in silence, but the Slate review was so willfully uncomprehending, so brim-full of moralistic error and ad hominem falsehood, that it’s too hard not to reply.
Actually, the reviewer, Johann Hari, seems to agree with the basic premise of my book. It is what I call the dirty little secret of colonialism and post-colonialism: The West’s exploration and domination of the East, which is more a cultural than a geographic entity, brought with it a sexual advantage and also a kind of liberation from the sin-ridden constraints of the sexual culture of Christendom. Hari’s main complaint is that I fail to understand how dark and grim the story I tell in the book was and continues to be in its contemporary manifestations, how all the women involved were “beaten-down, deeply deprived,” forced by the colonialist masters to “spread their legs” for a few pennies.
“Any admission that this system was built on suppressing women seems to be wrung out of [me] in passing;” Hari writes. “Every experience of male liberation is described with approving ejaculations.” Moreover, he continues, it is “revolting” of me to “imply” that the exploited women involved in this world of exploitation “wanted it.”
“Approving ejaculations,” “revolting”—there’s a vocabulary here that would be overwrought even if Hari’s statements were accurate. But the demonstrable fact is that they’re utterly false, and what’s demonstrable is the abundant material in the book that Hari asserts to be missing from it, or, if not entirely missing, wrung out of me only in passing, material that graphically and unmistakably describes how the system often did suppress women, and brutally so. I could give many illustrations of this, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll cite just one of the more spectacular, the reminiscences of one Edward Sellen, a colonial-era British officer who tells how he spied a very young Indian woman in a schoolyard near where he lived and paid the headmistress a fee, in return for which the girl was brought to him, naked. When Sellen’s commander learned he had deflowered the girl without his permission, he had her brought to him, and he raped her.
Since I assume moral intelligence on the part of my readers, I don’t insult them by labeling this story as an illustration of the hideous side of colonial power. But that’s obviously what it is. Moreover, neither it nor the many other stories I tell along the same lines had to be “wrung out” of me, nor do I tell them only “in passing.” They are central to the whole endeavor. It’s amazing to me that a reviewer could so totally misrepresent this.
But that’s not the worst of it. Hari’s review reaches its lowest point when he attempts to illustrate that his vision of the situation is properly darker and grimmer than my blithe, ejaculation-ridden lighthearted one. He writes about a brothel in Bangladesh that he once visited, a degrading place whose workers were sold into sexual slavery when they were as young as 13 and where they remain imprisoned years, even decades, later. Having introduced this pit of iniquity, he then casually remarks that this is “one of the harems Bernstein turns moist and sweaty over.”
“Moist and sweaty”: more overwrought language on our reviewer’s part, the slanderous meaning of which is that I get off on the sexual enslavement of women, and that’s why I fail to understand the moral horror of my own subject. This demagogic bit of character assassination, and one other false statement by Hari (according to him, I wrote the book because I have a “guilty conscience” about my own past!), is to be deleted by Slate from Hari’s review, since he is unable to point to any evidence to justify his claims. But beyond the matter of personal defamation, his overall point is ridiculously wrong. He uses the single example of that Bangladeshi brothel to represent the entirety of the story I tell, a story that stretches over 500 years and includes half a dozen non-Western cultures. This may satisfy the righteous Mr. Hari’s yearning for moral absolutes, but it does violence to the complexity both of history and to human nature. I’d also, by the way, be curious to know how many Europeans or Americans our reviewer saw at that place in Bangladesh. I’m pretty sure he saw none, because brothels of that sort are usually local institutions serving local customers and, by definition, have very little to do with the themes of my book. Europeans and Americans today go to Bangkok and other destinations in Southeast and East Asia to avail themselves of the sexual opportunities there, and Hari holds these men in contempt. But whatever one might feel about it, Bangkok’s famous Patpong Road is very far from that Bangladeshi hellhole.
It’s so easy to preach, so hard to grapple with the moral messiness of real life. Were all the women pitiable victims? Some of them certainly were, and, as I say, there are plenty of examples of this in my book. But Hari’s implicit assumption is that any woman who served in a harem or works in a contemporary go-go bar was cruelly ripped away from some vastly preferable life which she would much rather be leading. Of course, it is true that any woman would rather be a university professor, or perhaps a book reviewer for Slate, than a go-go dancer or a Thai masseuse. But here’s where the moral ambiguity of real life comes in.
To be sure, the women of the East lived under patriarchal rule. And yet, many were the Chinese peasant girls who would much rather have been chosen to be in the imperial harem, or to be the concubine of a well-off foreign businessman, than to live their lives in villages that stank of the sty and the outhouse, where they were forced to marry crude, coarse men who beat them. Similarly, in Thailand today it would be wonderful if there were no rural poverty and the young women of the Issan, whence most of the Bangkok bar girls come, could be lawyers or soccer moms in Shaker Heights. But such is not the case, and these women play the cards they’ve been dealt. I don’t see them as fortunate, certainly. But I do ask if they would be better off as bathroom attendants, or workers in a textile sweatshop, where they would make one-tenth of what they make as bar girls? Apparently the ones that go into the sex trade don’t think so.
Do I ejaculate approvingly over the Western men who engage their services? I do not. But I also don’t condemn these men, as long as they are doing it with adults and as long as the women are willing (and there is just no question that the bargirls of Patpong would rather be making money off their condom-conscious foreign customers, whom they cynically call walking ATM’s, than getting parasites in night-soil rich rice paddies and being abused by their husbands). The hard truth is that in being able to work for foreign customers, these women are likely being spared having to work in someplace like Hari’s Bangladeshi brothel. Sadly, that is often the real choice they have, and Hari’s indignation over life’s bitter realities doesn’t make things any different.