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Madame Butterfly’s Brothel

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 native women, and the more stringent laws prevailing in their homeland were frequently ignored in its colonies. Still today the postcolonial foreigner can carry an unearned aura of prestige, and the sensitivity of some nations, such as China, to liaisons with their women may be the aftermath of old humiliations.

For Said and his followers, empire figures as a masculine autocrat feminizing the East. Its foundational paradigm might be the ancient hero Aeneas, who seduces then abandons Dido, the Phoenician queen of Carthage, and goes on to found Rome. In Said’s critique, the corpus of European scholarship attendant on colonization, together with the collusive representations of writers and artists, ends in effacing its object. In its extreme form, this Orientalism, predicated on power, renders all contact between unequal cultures precarious, until no exchange is innocent.

Bernstein’s concern is that Said never attempted to see beyond the exoticizing projections of the West; that he overlooked the sexual practices of Asia and thus never tested his theories against reality (and Said himself acknowledged that this was not his purpose). To Said, writes Bernstein,

the Western vision of the Orient is a highly eroticized one that arose not from reality but from the need to find in the East what had been planted in the Western mind even before Westerners started going there…. His constant suggestion was that the “association” between the Orient and sex is imaginary….

Bernstein goes on to confront the charge of exploitation by maintaining that Westerners generally took advantage of a sexual culture that was already rooted in Eastern mores:

If the Western man became an erotic potentate in the East, he did so by grafting himself onto an Eastern erotic culture that had always been more frank and less morally fastidious about sexual needs than the Western Christian erotic culture, which valued exclusivity with a single lifetime partner and associated sex for pleasure with sin.

One of the ironies that Bernstein teases from this claim concerns the experienced relationship between foreign and native. Who precisely was—and is—exploiting whom? Westerners, in his terse phrase, “did what they were invited to.” At its mildest, a Chinese girlfriend might secure the cachet of a Western consort in exchange for offering him a sense of exotic adventure. At its most extreme, a Thai bar-girl may have made the hard decision to escape rural servitude into urban prostitution. (To refuse her agency in this, Bernstein infers, is to sentimentalize her.) With all her skilled seductiveness, she is in the business for her own advantage. The income she earns nightly is more than a peasant receives in a month. Western clients may misread her, imagining that her sweetness signifies affection, but the bar-girl slang for a foreign male is “Walking ATM”—or, as the local T-shirts have it: “No Money, No Honey.”

A salient leitmotif of Bernstein’s emotive book is the contrast between the Eastern and Western heritage of sexual morality. In the Christian West—with its legacy of original sin—love and sex are alike complicated by the sacred: they are haunted by the ideal of monogamy, and fraught with guilt. It was from this repression, notwithstanding whatever bawdiness and hypocrisy may have also existed in their homeland, that so many travelers found release in the East. The East, it seemed, had separated sex from both love and sin. Whether a colonial servant from Victorian England or an American GI fresh from a puritanical Midwest, foreign men felt they encountered in the East a shocking and liberating innocence. What Bernstein calls “the harem culture”—the widespread acceptance of concubinage and even the patronage of brothels—created a guilt-free zone less high-minded, but more indulgent to men’s needs, than the monogamous Western ideal.

Added to this Western liberation was the mystique of Oriental sexuality itself. Since the time of Marco Polo, legends abounded of regions whose women, in a spirit of hospitality, ushered travelers into their beds. At the height of the Victorian age the explorer Richard Burton popularized the idea of Egypt and East Africa as sites of erotic expertise. The vaginal muscles of Galla slave girls, he told his breathless readers, could bring a man to orgasm of their own volition. And in the European mind the seraglio of the Grand Turk in Istanbul became a locus of near-mythic license and promiscuity. Its denizens were literally the young women of the conquered. Over four centuries scarcely a foreigner even glimpsed it. Imaginings abounded. In fact it was Victorian women travelers—with an access denied to men—who identified the Turkish harem as less an orgiastic playground than a domestic sanctuary, often rather boring.

The boring and everyday make poor copy, of course, and the protagonists chosen by Bernstein to exemplify Western erotic attitudes—Flaubert, Burton, de Varthema—are more fascinating than typical. The observant de Varthema, whose supposed dalliance with a queen of Aden freed him from captivity, sometimes lapses into credulity (he claimed to have seen unicorns in Mecca). His episode with the sultana, whom he deceives and abandons, is as boastfully unlikely as the testimony of Edmund Backhouse (unmentioned by Bernstein, and still unpublished), which describes in detail the author’s lovemaking with the aged last empress of China. The eighteenth-century English traveler Aaron Hill is another doubtful character whom Bernstein uses. Hill even claimed to have discovered an underground tunnel in the Pyramid of Cheops, by which he emerged half a mile away in the head of the Great Sphinx. It is hard to deduce a norm from such disparate sources.

But for Bernstein these men’s tales are eloquent less for their intrinsic truth than for their Western cast of mind. De Varthema’s story, in particular, anticipates a whole genre of unhappy narratives in which the foreign protagonist induces the love of an Asian beauty and then deserts her. To his European readers, Bernstein writes, what mattered

was not the sultana’s broken heart but the safety of our hero- adventurer. And in this there is a kind of inversion of the usual notions of morality, an acceptance of the fact that in the East, which, in any case, was seen to be full of artifice, superstition, and deceit, it was all right to lie…. And so it might also be said that for the Asian women centuries later who defied parental or societal requirements of virginity by giving themselves to a young Western man, a student perhaps, a young businessman, a soldier…. Those women, too, should have known what they were doing….

In a rather coy vignette in which Bernstein seems to be describing himself, he records the rapture of a young American for a Taiwanese girl, Miss Lu. For him theirs could be only a temporary liaison, but for her it would be a social disaster unless consummated by marriage. After a single passionate lapse, they separate. So Miss Lu, he reflects sardonically, was perhaps wiser than the queen of Aden or Madame Butterfly.

Above all, Miss Lu was a “nice girl.” And in this the divide between domestic life and the “harem culture” becomes starkly apparent. However condoned prostitution might be, civic society in Asia remains more conservative and prudish than that in the West. Obedience to parents is more readily enforced, public displays of affection discouraged, virginity prized. A man may take a concubine or visit a brothel, but his wife and daughters stay sacrosanct. This is the Asia not only of Islam, but of Japan and India, Thailand and Cambodia.

The dichotomy between public prudery and private license is easy for Westerners to misunderstand. The harem was officially rejected by most Asian countries during the last century, but the practice proved subtly resilient, and the shift toward monogamy erratic. In China the luxury of concubines had existed for over two millennia alongside the austere rubrics of Confucius. The prescriptive Book of Rites stated that “marriage is a bond of affection between two surnames, so as to serve the ancestral temple on the one hand and to continue the family line on the other.”1 But the induction into the household of a mistress or two was accepted, and even prestigious. Their status was lowly—they were excluded from the family’s ancestral rites—but in common lore a special site in hell was reserved for wives who were jealous of them.

Although Confucian dogma forbade a wife and husband even to touch one another publicly, this sobriety was from the start undermined by a lively subculture of erotic art and literature, and brothels abounded. Bernstein cites a modern Chinese doctor whose researches in a closed library unearthed early manuals celebrating sexual aberrations ranging from necrophilia to rape. Western experience of Chinese permissiveness climaxed notoriously in the Shanghai of the 1930s, whose British, French, and American settlements were immune to local law. Shanghai became “the whore of Asia,” and was epitomized sexually by its dance palaces, whose singsong girls—artistes or whores—were famous for their heart-melting Suzhou accents and cheongsam gowns split to the armpit.

The Communist period was the first in the country’s history to banish prostitution, but now, it seems, the nation is relapsing into its old customs. Again it has become common for officials and businessmen to own or use concubines, and even to bestow them on colleagues as one-night gifts. And foreigners, once again, are regaled by prostitutes in streets and hotels.

Rather different has been the Western experience in India. Since its inception in the early seventeenth century, the English East India Company tolerated an easy intercourse with the native culture. Sometimes the company nabobs took on the trappings—together with the sexual privileges—of minor sultans, and in great cities like Calcutta or Bombay, most Europeans found bibi mistresses, who were accepted far into the nineteenth century. A local magistrate in the 1830s wrote:

I have observed that those who have lived with a native woman for any length of time never marry a European…so amusingly playful, so anxious to oblige and please, that a person after being accustomed to their society shrinks from the idea of encountering the whims or yielding to the fancies of an Englishwoman.2

But as the nineteenth century wore on, with its train of missionaries, teachers, and social reformers, Victorian values began to affect India’s educated classes; and after direct imperial rule took hold in 1858, the erotic culture of India’s past became further transformed. (The same trajectory, from license to censure, characterized the contemporary Levant Company in the Middle East.) It is ironic that today, as the West shakes off its inherited inhibitions, India retains them. Bernstein writes with patent affection for the earlier culture’s swan song in the hedonistic courts of nineteenth-century Lucknow. Here the city’s last Mughal rulers, softened by courtesans and catamites, created a world at once dissolute and refined, listening to Urdu poetry and purring over the nautch dance of cultivated and beautiful women.

This world faded after the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857. British soldiers were stationed in Lucknow in the thousands. Brothels were set up, and lock hospitals for the courtesans-turned-prostitutes who contracted venereal disease. It was a wartime rupture that was to be repeated in the next century from Southeast Asia to Algeria.

This coarsening of old and delicate erotic traditions under imperial intrusion is a refrain of Bernstein’s book. To Westerners the guilt-free cultivation of erotic pleasure held a liberating allure, and such traditions became the stuff of romance. Marco Polo wrote with wonder of the scented serving girls in the hot baths of Hangzhou—foreigners, he said, were addicted to them, as to a foretaste of heaven. Similarly the dreamworld of Japan’s “water trade”—with its doll-like geishas, lacquered beds, and silken sheets—presented visitors with a universe of such refined artifice as to occlude any other world at all.

Bernstein’s tone of voice, whether describing the courts of Lucknow or foreign punters in Vientiane, is one of incipient empathy, even nostalgia. This empathy informs his understanding of the sensory life of both harem and sex trade, and although he constantly acknowledges the moral arguments against them, his book comes close to apologia.

But of course the fact remains: he is looking not at two cultures but at three. All Asia (and often the West) is riven by the same double standard. Whether exemplified by the harem or the massage parlor, a pampered mia noi or a go-go girl, this is a world created by men, for men. Even if a woman has the resources to exploit it, as Bernstein entertains, it remains inalienably his; she is its commodity. And its mirror image in Asia is the fiercely guarded wife and daughter. Women are made for men, and for family—one half of humankind confined to a monogamy from which the other half routinely excuses itself. Bernstein writes:

Nor, of course, would any man you are likely to know, including the Thai and Western men who frequent Bangkok brothels, tolerate the thought of any daughter of theirs doing for other men what they are perfectly ready to do with other men’s daughters.

It is women’s voices, significantly, that are missing. Bernstein’s men have plenty to say, especially the expatriates he meets in Thailand: men who submitted for a moment to “contact with an exquisite perfumed creature free from the judgment of an unsympathetic God” and never went home. But the perfumed creature herself remains mute, like Flaubert’s concubine.

Bernstein, in several passages, lends her his own voice:

What would have been more moral for a pretty young woman from a war-torn village in Vietnam or Laos, where, as a matter of fact, every village had its brothel: to labor in the rice fields, married to a rough peasant who beat her, got drunk, gambled, and visited the aforementioned brothel, or to have sex for money with men in the city who treated her decently, even giving her money to replace the family’s dead water buffalo or to pay her kid brother’s school fees?

This roseate scenario exculpates both prostitute and client. But what happens, one wonders, when the woman’s time is up? A little despised, probably childless, perhaps diseased, does she go home or stay to grow old in the city? One of the reasons that Bernstein may be sanguine about prostitution here is his focus on contemporary Thailand, where prostitutes, for cultural reasons still unsure, apparently return to their community with less stigma than elsewhere. They stay in touch with their home villages, send money back. They refuse to be seen as victims. Bernstein found European men (typically Germans) in rural Thailand living out their retirement married to women half their age. But most sex workers—not only in the Islamic world but in the Indian subcontinent—enter a kind of exile.

Prostitution, in Asia, is overwhelmingly the result of poverty, sometimes fed by wartime desperation. In countries like Vietnam, modern Thailand, or postwar Japan, it exploded out of its more reticent past into a circus of mass vulgarity. Sometimes, of course, it incorporates slavery. Slavery has nourished the brothel since antiquity, and it filled the harems from Istanbul to Beijing. Although its legacy criminally continues, alongside the trafficking of children, there is only passing mention of this in The East, the West, and Sex, and little exploration of homosexual contact with the East (besides a piece on Henry de Montherlant), which has its own rich and continuing history. Rather Bernstein’s book—prey as it is to the lure of the East—introduces the complexity of everyday reality into a world about which it is easy to preach.

This modern reality is mostly unlovely. In fact, under the impact of sex tourism and the Internet, you might imagine the erotic mystique of the Other to have been globalized out of existence, taking Orientalism with it. The geisha’s teahouse long ago shrank into insignificance before the Tokyo hostess bar, and the Korean gisaeng have transmuted into common prostitutes or sanitized folk singers. Even in the seraglio of the Grand Turk, open to any tourist, the bedchambers of the odalisques are exposed merely as dim, narrow dormitories, where they slept among eunuchs.

Edward Said himself separated the constellation of images and fantasies that composed Orientalism from the “mere being” (in Wallace Stevens’s phrase) of Asia itself. But now the mere being of the sex trade glamorizes itself for its customers in a kind of refracted Orientalism, surrounding its traffic with gilt emporia and fantasy Web sites.

Much, after all, is an act of theater—including, perhaps, the willing female of the eroticized East. The original of Puccini’s heroine Madame Butterfly, who kills herself onstage for love and honor, was in fact a widow’s daughter given to the first US consul in Japan. But in real life she did not wait faithfully for her lover’s return, nor commit suicide in a cottage above Nagasaki Bay. She became the keeper of a local brothel, then went bankrupt, contracted syphilis, and drowned in a nearby river.

  1. 1

    Raymond Dawson, The Chinese Experience (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978), p. 141.

  2. 2

    Ronald Hyams, Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience (Manchester University Press, 1990), p. 117.

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