Madame Butterfly’s Brothel

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Louvre, Paris/Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: The Turkish Bath, 1862

In a celebrated passage from his Carnets de Voyage, Gustave Flaubert recorded an erotic night he spent with an Egyptian courtesan. Pervaded by his characteristic conflation of the sordid with the refined, it is a complex account. In his fastidiously clinical prose, he seems to be watching himself having sex, reveling in its untroubled carnality, and indulging a night-long reverie around a woman whose speech and song he does not understand.

Edward Said, in his controversial classic Orientalism, wrote that by contrast with the schematic Orient of scholars, Flaubert’s East was “exploited aesthetically and imaginatively as a roomy place full of possibility.” The trouble for Said was that such personal approaches “inevitably retreated into a position equating the Orient with private fantasy, even if that fantasy was of a very high order.” And fantasies about sex, of course, were colored by delusion more than most.

For Richard Bernstein in his The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters, Flaubert and other travelers exemplify the Western investment in the East not only as a world of intensified sensuality, but as a flight from their own morally unforgiving culture. They are indulging the “messy splendor of desire,” he writes, in societies that he imagines more accessible, even receptive, to the West than Said might have granted. For Bernstein is less concerned with the dynamic of Orientalism in itself than with the test of worldly contact. His record of such encounters—in something of their multiplicity and variousness—resolves not into a sustained critique but into a survey whose range is almost stupefyingly wide.

This is, of course, dangerous territory. Alongside the issues of sexual chauvinism and colonial exploitation, Bernstein’s overview crosses a daunting spectrum of changing centuries and civilizations. To speak of “the East” or even of “Asia” is drastically to simplify. Syria resembles Japan as little as Canada does. Similarly, the Indian subcontinent viewed through the lens of the early East India Company seems a different place from that perceived by Victorian Britain two centuries later.

The East, the West, and Sex at first follows a roughly chronological trajectory, and moves west to east. From a reflection on medieval and Renaissance Europe, from which his early exemplars traveled eastward, Bernstein goes on to trace the West’s fascination with the Ottoman harem and to follow figures such as the sixteenth-century Bolognese Ludovico de Varthema and the Victorian explorer Richard Burton. Then his geography widens to the complex and changing spectacle of colonial India, and to prostitution in Algeria, Japan, Vietnam, and contemporary Thailand, interspersing these with brief personal interviews and encounters.

In all these countries the Western intruder brought with him the power of a dominant culture, if not of outright empire. Military and sexual colonialism went hand in hand. Often this promiscuity was a practical outcome of occupation. Large contingents of single men—soldiers and bureaucrats—sought solace and release with …

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