The origin of white men’s sexualization of Asian women can be traced back to the 1800s, at the latest. The assumption of white supremacy combined with cultural sexual repression led white Western European men to hope and believe that sexual freedom was possible and promised in what they called the “Orient”.
Europe identified itself with masculinity, rationality, civilization, and superiority, in contrast with the perceived femininity, emotionality, primitivism, and inferiority of the Orient. As white Western European men both felt and thought themselves restrained compared to the more “primitive” Other, they reasoned that the Orient was, in comparison, both sexually liberating and sexually unrestrained.
In Orientalism, literary critic and post-colonial theorist Edward Said explains (p.190) this literary tradition that became ubiquitous starting from the 1800s in writings on the Orient by Europeans:
In all of his novels, Flaubert associates the Orient with the escapism of sexual fantasy. Emma Bovary and Frédéric Moreau pine for what in their drab (or harried) bourgeois lives they do not have, and what they realize they want comes easily to their daydreams packed inside Oriental clichés: harems, princesses, princes, slaves, veils, dancing girls and boys, sherbets, ointments, and so on. The repertoire is familiar, not so much because it reminds us of Flaubert’s own voyages in and obsession with the Orient, but because, once again, the association is made between the Orient and the freedom of licentious sex. We may as well recognize that for nineteenth-century Europe, with its increasing embourgeoisement, sex had been institutionalized to a very considerable degree. On the one hand, there was no such thing as “free” sex, and on the other, sex in society entailed a web of legal, moral, even political and economic obligations of a detailed and certainly encumbering sort. Just as the various colonial possessions—quite apart from their economic benefit to metropolitan Europe—were useful as places to send wayward sons, superfluous populations of delinquents, poor people, and other undesirables, so the Orient was a place where one could look for sexual experience unobtainable in Europe. Virtually no European writer who wrote on or traveled to the Orient in the period after 1800 exempted himself or herself from this quest: Flaubert, Nerval, “Dirty Dick” Burton, and Lane are only the most notable. In the twentieth century one thinks of Gide, Conrad, Maugham, and dozens of others. What they looked for often—correctly , I think—was a different type of sexuality, perhaps more libertine and less guilt-ridden; but even that quest, if repeated by enough people, could (and did) become as regulated and uniform as learning itself. In time “Oriental sex” was as standard a commodity as any other available in the mass culture, with the result that readers and writers could have it if they wished without necessarily going to the Orient.
Asia is not the promised land of sexual liberation, although wealthy white men who travel there may find what they are looking for by exploiting the vulnerable.
- Said, Edward W. 1994. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books