Parsing East-Meets-West Sex

Travel Blog  •  Julia Ross  •  06.08.09 | 1:33 PM ET

Well, well. The Asian sex trade seems to be a popular literary theme this summer. While Lawrence Osborne’s latest book, Bangkok Days, examines the issue of loneliness among Western men prowling the streets of Thailand, another new book, The East, The West and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters, takes a more academic approach to what author Richard Bernstein calls “an old and enduring story.”

A former China correspondent for TIME whose experience in Asia dates to the ’70s, Bernstein says he was reluctant to broach the subject—thinking that it wouldn’t yield enough for a book—but instead found “a rich, pungent, morally complex, and sometimes even moving history.” He interviews a swath of Western men and Asian women from Beijing to Malacca and unearths a few real-life versions of Madame Butterfly, concluding that “what has been taken to be fantasy was actually real experience.”

Hmm. I haven’t read either book yet, but I hope the authors aren’t rehashing what many of us who have traveled or lived in Asia can see for ourselves on any given evening in Hong Kong or Manila. Here’s what would interest me: a few insights from Western women and Asian men, who (bafflingly) never seem to figure when this topic comes up.

Julia Ross is a Washington, DC-based writer and frequent contributor to World Hum. She has lived in China and Taiwan, where she was a Fulbright scholar and Mandarin student. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time, Christian Science Monitor, Plenty and other publications. Her essay, Six Degrees of Vietnam, was shortlisted for "The Best American Travel Writing 2009."

5 Comments for Parsing East-Meets-West Sex

Julia Ross 06.08.09 | 2:36 PM ET

An update: Simon Winchester reviewed Bernstein’s book for yesterday’s NYT and cuts to the chase:

“In recent years Eastern entrepreneurs, perhaps the tawdriest of all players in an increasingly tawdry business, have cashed in on the trade, creating for millions of foreign visitors the fancy that what is on sale in today’s bars and brothels is somehow mystical, magical and a traditional sacrament of the Orient. It isn’t: it is every bit as much about power and exploitation as if it took place on Eighth Avenue or north of King’s Cross Station. There is absolutely nothing Eastern, nothing magical and nothing exotic about it. It is all just quite desperately sad.”

Full review here:;

Frank Colonico 06.09.09 | 6:58 PM ET

Well, good question, but the answer really isn’t baffling at all. The reason it isn’t discussed is that the Political Correctness that permeates American society today simply can’t deal with such a radioactive subject in an open and honest way. Exhibit A is the article you quoted above.

Grizzly Bear Mom 06.10.09 | 1:33 PM ET

Stereotypically, poorer women’s sexuality is sold to the highest bidder, whether that is a Prince Charles or a fleet sailor.  How many stories have we heard about parents from England-Shanghai arranging suitable matches which would elevate or ensure their daughters’ social standing, but which their daughters resisted?  The daughters wanted romance.  It is much more difficult, if not impossible, to market romance. 
    Unfortunately for a long time a white women’s involvement with men of any color undermined her position, and for a time if was even illegal, which is why you saw only White Men with Asian women.  But as women are empowered to make their own choices, and Asian men display romantic attributes desired by white women, whether that is money, bulging biceps, social class, etc., they become more attracted to each other.  Evidently that is what is happening because I notice people of all different shades dating.

Frank Colonico 06.14.09 | 5:05 PM ET

The implication that most poor women in Asia are slaves is nonsense. The women in Asia are no different than their Western counterparts in one respect: they want to be with a man who has money.

So I guess only in the last few years white women were allowed legally to be involved with Asian men? The only time Western women in Asia are willing to be with an Asian male in a long term relationship is if that male has money.

RenkliAdult 06.29.09 | 5:44 PM ET

Unfortunately for a long time a white women’s involvement with men of any color undermined her position

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