To perceive Eastern societies as more sexually liberated than Western societies is to perceive the world from a position of extreme white Western male egocentricity. This alleged sexual “liberation” is extracted by filtering the world through both the white Western lens and the male lens.
When white Western men participate in sex tourism in Asia, this so-called sexual “freedom” is purchased through the colonization of the bodies of Asian women. White Western men gain sexual choices they would not have had otherwise, because the sexual choices of economically-disadvantaged Asian women are being severely limited.
In other words, white Western male egocentricity—not the imagined licentiousness of Asian culture and Asian women—is the source of the West’s Orientalist perception that the East is sexually liberated.
In White male seeking sexy Asian women: What is the deal with Western men’s erotic obsession with the East? (Salon), Laura Miller writes:
Bernstein is, as I mentioned, no fool, and so of course he knows and acknowledges this, but there is a sense in which it’s not entirely real to him; he is constantly asking the reader to temporarily set aside any objections regarding the utter powerlessness of the female participants in this “freedom” so that we can contemplate for a moment how liberating it must have been for the men. And he sets great store by the exceptions. Yes, it’s possible that genuinely warm feelings and even love sometimes arose between men and women in these situations, just as it’s possible that African-American slaves and their masters’ families sometimes felt fondness and loyalty toward each other, or that soldiers from an occupying army might befriend local residents. It’s in the nature of humanity that we can occasionally connect in spite of harsh circumstances. But that doesn’t really ameliorate the fundamental injustice of those circumstances.
The most pervasive paradigm for the East-West erotic reverie, as even Bernstein is forced to realize as he roams the streets of Bangkok, interviewing 73-year-old American men with 22-year-old Thai “girlfriends,” is prostitution. The power and wealth of Westerners — officials of colonial Britain, American GIs stationed in Vietnam, European expats in Thailand — when introduced into poor Asian societies where women have few other options, makes commercial sex pretty much inevitable. For all the rhapsodies about silken hair, “surrounding sensuousness,” esoteric erotic arts and the ultrafemininity of Asian women, it is this economic imbalance that makes places like Bangkok so magnetic to Western men. A dollar goes much further there, whether you’re buying hours of someone’s labor at a sweatshop sewing machine or sexual services.
When Bernstein writes of Western men who’d never dream of visiting a prostitute back home but regularly do so in Asia, he says it’s because Asian prostitutes are “sweet, affectionate,” and “unmarred by the businesslike qualities of common sex-for-sale workers in the West,” who are supposed to be “sleazy, mercenary, cold, depraved, and vaguely intimidating” (though how the men would know this having never visited them is unclear — it seems to be the way they view all Western women). Of course, there are plenty of Western call girls who can and do behave sweetly and affectionately, it’s just that the men who flock to Bangkok’s red light districts can’t afford them. The difference is less cultural than economic: “Do the arithmetic,” a grizzled Vietnam vet who has settled in Thailand said to Bernstein, nodding toward his girlfriend. “She’s 51 years younger than me. Do you think I could have somebody like her in Pennsylvania?”
It seems to be particularly difficult for Bernstein to conceive of prostitution as a trade or profession rather than as a condition or identity. As he writes several times in “The East, the West and Sex,” Western men would discover that Eastern cultures tended to “accept that there would be a certain class of women whose role in the world was to satisfy male sexual desire and that the satisfaction of male sexual desire was natural and moral.” This statement is disingenuous, since there is no culture in which prostitutes are not stigmatized to some degree, even when prostitution itself is not regarded as sinful. That’s why a “class” of women needed to be relegated to doing it. If there were truly, as Bernstein weakly tries to claim of India, “no opprobrium” attached to the work of a prostitute, courtesan or mistress, then no man would mind his daughter becoming one or his son marrying one. Instead, even when the men hiring prostitutes are permitted to feel “natural and moral,” the women hired are expected to be ashamed.
Given the personal incompatibilities that exist even in relatively sexually free societies, there will always be a market for sexual services, and the women (and men) who provide them would be best served by removing the social stigma attached to the work so that they can pursue it in safety as the skilled trade it is. Do they have ample, decent employment alternatives to prostitution, so that if they choose it, they do so freely? Do they get to keep most of their own earnings? Do they have access to adequate healthcare? Are they able to dictate the conditions of their work, such as insisting on condoms, ruling out certain activities, rejecting certain clients, taking time off? Can they count on the police to protect them from violence and abuse? Do they earn enough to enable them to save for a future when they will age out of the profession?
Although no nation’s prostitutes enjoy all of these conditions, Thailand’s sex workers have proven to be particularly smart at utilizing the few advantages accorded them. “The East, the West and Sex” recounts a typical story of a young bar girl who persuaded a besotted, much older Austrian client to marry her and build her a house. Since by law houses and land can only be owned by Thai citizens, the deed was in her name, giving her the economic clout to commandeer the house and move in her real boyfriend (Thai, her own age). The husband’s plight illustrates a phenomenon that could be called the John’s Dilemma: If you go into a relationship expecting to get everything you want exactly how you want it regardless of what the other person might herself desire, don’t expect her to take your feelings into much account should the tables be turned. You get no more than you pay for; compliance is not love.
[…] (The real gauge of the sexual freedom of a society isn’t the liberty accorded to its men, after all, but the liberty accorded to its women.) […]
News flash: Given their druthers, most women, Eastern or Western, would really rather not be locked into relationships designed primarily to cater to the other person’s needs. Show them an out, and they will take it. However, some of the Western men Bernstein describes — the ones who favor Asian women because they consider them less “demanding” than their Western counterparts — shouldn’t let themselves get too comfortable, either. Demands and the expectations that drive them are, like marketplaces, highly subject to change, as ChinaBounder’s Chinese rivals have learned to their dismay. The girl you could never have in Pennsylvania may someday be the girl you can’t have in Bangkok, either. It seems the price — genuine love founded in true equality and respect– is more than you’re willing to pay.