Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The East, The West And Sex: Same Schpiel, Different Day

As an "eastern" woman who has lived nearly half her life in the "west," I can admit to a personal interests in debates that tackle issues of gender, race, colonialist history and sex. After all it is an immensely rich vein to mine for political, social, emotional narratives. So I was obviously intrigued by a book review emailed to me about Richard Bernstein's The East, The West, And Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters. After all, the book had been described as "provocative and intriguing," (NYTimes), and "wide-ranging and astute" (NY Review of Books).

Funnily enough, although the review got over 350 responses within 24 hours – much of them virulently racist and misogynist – the voice of the “Eastern woman” is missing - perhaps because the book (and the review) says little we haven’t heard from lovers, acquaintances, strangers.

I remember that I decided within three months of living in NYC as a teenager that I would never date two categories of men: one, those who professed an interest in India; and two, those who had travelled to India. The first, I had discovered, very quickly were looking for their personal fantasy of the "Kamasutra girl," an impossible female caricature who was at once intellectually inferior, psychologically submissive and sexually voracious. The second category of men, I admit, seems to be a vast generalisation at first glance. Yet I realised that those who had refused to sample the local flavours at an Indian brothel during trip - due to an innate sense of decency, social or moral qualms, or plain good old upbringing - still nursed the same fantasy: the afore-mentioned Kamasutra girl. They want the final souvenir of their travels East, sex with the Oriental fantasy!

Unfortunately, the first dozen pages of the book made me realise something worse: Bernstein is far worse than the two categories mentioned above. In addition to travelling and living in the “East” (primarily China) and holding his personal Oriental fantasy, he is also of the long line of apologists who attempt to explain their own deeply held beliefs about race, sex and power in apparently “rational” terms. While a quick re-read of Said/Fanon/Shohat would be enough to rebut pretty much every single word of this book, let me just point out a few of the not so “provocative” and long-held notions that Bernstein holds forth on:

1) Bernstein’s “East” – and his pathetic little diatribe against Said notwithstanding – is blithely explained as anything ranging from Morocco to Japan. (Note to white, male writers trying that old “I know better” argument against Said: they not only make you look idiotic, irrational, unlearned but also don’t work in the post-colonial era).

2) He conveniently constructs a dichotomy between so-called "Christian" culture and the "culture of the harem." Nice! Except not all of the “East” had harems! Moreover, and with classic sleight of hand, he implicitly includes "Jewish" cultures in the same "western" rubric, conveniently forgetting the far larger “eastern” Jewish populations. But to acknowledge that minor historical detail would not quite hold with the idealised, and politically expedient, notions of the “Judeo-Christian West” against the Eastern “culture of the harem.”

3) In his grand Orientalist sweep of the “East,” Bernstein must – and does – overlook some basic cultural facts that don’t quite support his personal fantasist agenda. While I will not speak for the grand “East” and focus only on India, his false dichotomy of Eastern “harem” vs Western “monogamy” requires him to skip not only the many monogamous cultures that developed in the "East" prior to the white man's “discovery” of the region(s), but he also pointedly refuses to acknowledge the various polyandrous cultures (such as that of the Himalayas). Guess the eastern woman with a harem of men does not quite fit the Orientalist fantasy of the submissive!

4) Another overt exclusion is that of relationships between “eastern” women and “western” men that do not fit his over-arching colonialist paradigm. Not surprisingly then, there are no “anecdotes” of the likes of Begum Samroo – the famed Witch of Sardhana – who rose thanks to her political acumen from a courtesan to the ruler of her own principality. After all, as the transformation of the courtesan to the nautch girl in India shows, and contrary to all pretensions of 20th century Euro-American feminism, the “west” could not until recently conceive of public roles for women that did not include sex-for-sale. And this is why Begum Samroo – with her series of European mercenary/lover-employees, and finally a French hired-gun-turned-husband – does not make it in Bernstein’s fantasy.

5) Perhaps the saddest and yet the most offensively Orientalist aspect of Bernstein’s argument revolves around the apparent lack of guilt regarding sex in “Eastern” cultures. Again, he conflates everything from Islam to Hinduism to Confucianism in one large monolith, betraying not only his firmly Orientalist agenda but also an incredible lack of knowledge and understanding. This is particularly sad because there is a grain of truth in Bernstein’s thinking: most non-Biblical traditions do not centre on notions of a fall from grace. Unfortunately, this argument is buried – quite properly – under Bernstein’s slipshod reasoning and sweeping generalisations, especially as he chooses to use this lack of sexual guilt as a handy excuse for the sexual exploitation of “eastern” women by “western” men: after all goes the unspoken rationale, why shouldn't a woman be exploited when she lacks the moral compass of her western female (Judeo-Christianic) counterparts!

If we consider solely the three pre-Islamic Indian traditions, Bernstein’s reasoning is demonstrated as half-baked and less than half-informed. Yes, the Hindu/Buddhist/Jain traditions attach no guilt to sex. Indeed, the Hindu goal of the four purusharthas includes kama (material and physical pleasure). Unfortunately this is not automatically a call to non-monogamous relations or indeed grounds for the “harem” cultures. What Bernstein conveniently ignores are the philosophical/moral rules that require the pursuit of kama to be about quality not quantity: the “East” may lack the Bible, but it has no trouble privileging the gourmet over the gourmand.

Finally, there is a far more troublesome aspect of Bernstein’s apologia: the ghost of Haditha haunts these pages, reminding the discerning reader (and more importantly, the Asian woman reader) that this same rationale has long led to, and justified, the rape, torture and murder of “Eastern” women. While Bernstein chooses to focus contemporary East-West sexual encounters on prostitution in Far East Asia, he conveniently ignores that the same thinking – non-western women as objects of fantasy and thus less than fully human – also continues to drive “western” men, especially Bernstein’s idealised virile, colonialist types, to the excesses we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. And that makes Bernstein’s book neither “enlightening” nor “provocative” but simply another in a long line of Orientalist apologia, based on half-truths and prejudices.