Eastern societies are not more sexually liberated than Western societies.

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.

(via Racialicious)

7 Responses to “Eastern societies are not more sexually liberated than Western societies.”

  1. DaisyDeadhead Says:

    This is really fascinating… even white men I have admired have been (as the nasty slang goes) “into the bamboo”… even John Lennon was.

    One Asian friend of mine who is BIG AND TALL says she is totally exempt, and that this exoticizing/fetishism applies mostly to the stereotypically “diminutive” Asian woman, and that white men didn’t seem attracted to her. She believes her (unexpected) size as an Asian woman is the reason why.

  2. Kathy Says:

    Well, first of all, white ethnocentric beliefs tying guilt, shame, sin and morality to christianity and sexual behaviour probably contributes to this idea that eastern culture is more sexualy liberated, all the while, most white western people don’t really know enough about eastern culture to make this sort of comparison.

    i think the history of the western united states, where chinese women were excluded from citizenship or entry, and the way that chinese women were cast as the “other” is a part of the colonizing objective in united states history.
    daisydead head, hmm, i think that it is more to do with the western perception of sexual liberation and the successful attempts by for example, the politics of immigration in the united states that contributed to this idea, rather than actual physical appearance.

  3. Restructure! Says:


    Yes, sexual restraint has roots in Christian asceticism, but like you said, most Western people don’t really know enough about Eastern culture to make this sort of comparison. This is another reason why I despise Macon D’s restrain themselves thread. White people perceive black people and Asian people as hypersexual, but there is a huge difference between white symbolism and reality.

    In fact, I actually think that people of colour on average are generally more sexually restrained (or rather those I know). It seems to me that PoC (or those who I know) perceive white people to be more open about sex and different sexual acts, sex toys, BDSM, gay and lesbian sex, etc. I’m not trying to create a new stereotype about PoC being sexually conservative, but I’m just saying that how white people perceive PoC is not the same as how PoC perceives whites, with regards to sex.

    Renee of Womanist Musings mentioned something about that on her blog, that the assumption that the purity myth only applied to white women and not black women was actually a white perspective. Also, Latoya pointed out that with respect to a particular black man, “The grand mystique of white girls boils down to passenger seat blow jobs and a girl who will shut up on command”.

    The article by Laura Miller is interesting, because page 1 made me angry, but page 2 made me think it was awesome. The two pages of the same article were different and had different narratives, like two different acts of the same play. One part of page 1 that bothered me was this:

    Eastern cultures partake of “harem culture,” that is, they pragmatically tolerate institutions through which men can find sexual gratification with multiple women without suffering from the profound moral condemnation heaped on sinners in the West.

    This is an oversimplification, because only some subcultures (I’m thinking of class divisions, not ethnic subgroups) partake in a “harem culture”. Again, I think it comes to class (and severe economic inequity), not culture. In societies where most people are very poor, rich people are allowed to do whatever they want; the poor are not going to fight for ethics at the expense of their financial security.

    (Also, many portrayals of Asian sexuality in movies really bother me. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the male captor finally rapes the character played by Zhang Ziyi, but it’s supposed to be okay, because she changed her mind after the rape had started. In Memoirs of a Geisha, the grown man already had the hots for the female protagonist before she hit puberty, and the movie portrays this as romantic. WTF? Both these cases would be considered sexual deviances among Asians, not normal Asian sexuality. Even my father made a comment about the guy being a pedophile.)

  4. Therese Says:

    “Eastern societies are not more sexually liberated than Western societies.”

    Oh that sounds about right, reminds me of my (asian) parents *shudders in fear*

  5. Maria P. Says:

    The idea that there’s “no opprobrium” on a woman being a sex worker made me laugh. When I was in Tamil Nadu a few years ago, people were burning the actress Khushboo in effigy. Why? She had admitted to having sex before marriage — and to enjoying it. I agree with the class thing, but I would argue that it also has to do with who the woman is having sex with.

    A woman like Jayalalitha being a ‘courtesan’ to the godlike MGR? No problem.

    A nameless woman in a brothel selling her body to a laborer? Not what you want your daughter doing.

    A woman like Khushboo enjoying sex because it’s fun — and talking about it in public? Shameless strumpet who demeans Tamil womanhood!

    Other than those ridiculous quotes (and the convos with men who remind me why I moved outta BKK) the article was surprisingly non-icky. Nothing groundbreaking, but fluffy and enjoyable.

    (Though I /totally/ wouldn’t miss the monolithic pronouncements of WESTERN and EASTERN things, twains never meeting and whatnot. Alas, it’s still the paradigm that a lot of these men are working in.)

  6. Kathy Says:

    Macon D’s continuing threads about white restraint are almost unbearable to read, I think your link was a great example.

  7. DaisyDeadhead Says:

    I commented on that Macon D thread too… good lord, is he kidding?

    I think he means New Englanders! :P

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