Sunday, 15 September 2013

The East, the West and Sex, by Richard Bernstein

Why I read it: Slate Review

Podcasts: None

Brow: It's the history of sex tourism. Very low brow, even if you put a Japanese print on the cover.

Summary: When the first Portuguese traders went abroad in search of spices, they immediately started sending letters home reading, 'Dude, the chicks here are craaazy!' I may be paraphrasing, but that's basically what happened, and is still happening today. Men from the west (which Bernstein defines as Europe and North America) go east (which he defines as everything between Turkey and Japan) and find a whole new sexual culture, which they may be appalled or enthralled by. One seldom hears about eastern men coming west and starting up blogs about all the chicks they've bagged, as one westerner did, to the great outrage in some quarters of China, and although western women do find partners in the east, the numbers are significantly lower than the opposite pairing.

What I liked about it: I lived in Japan for 3 years as an English teacher, and spent most of my vacation days in the rest of Asia, and from my own observation, a lot of this book still rings true. A lot of the men ended up with Japanese girlfriends, and quite a few with Japanese wives. Others preferred the smorgasbord approach, bragging about all the women in our prefecture they'd slept with, whether paid or volunteers. I won't say that no women found local boyfriends or even husbands, but the numbers were significantly lower. Things are changing, though, as I did spend a couple of weeks mostly shacked up with a Thai man who basically supplemented his income by romancing western women.

What I didn't like about it: Bernstein nearly completely neglects the perspective of the women involved in these encounters. Yes, in a rich country like Japan at the beginning of the 21st century, where the women are educated and mostly free to make their own choices, they are clearly not coerced into their relationships with western men. But that has not been true for the past 5 centuries, nor is it true everywhere today, and the vast majority of the women have been exploited, either sold by their families, or lured into relationships that can never be equal due to the income, and therefore power, imbalance. Yet even in telling his modern stories, Bernstein never interviews an eastern woman in any kind of relationship with a western man to find out her side of the story.

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