When I was 17-year- old, a friend of mine returned to the States after living on her own in Thailand for six months. Her gift to me was a number of shocking stories about the sex industry, and my introduction to the now-cliché phrase “what happens in Bangkok, stays in Bangkok.” When I was 25, my sister spent two weeks in Thailand. The first thing she told me about upon her return was a bar she and her friends accidentally stumbled into where women were projecting ping pong balls from their “lady parts” (her phrase, not mine). These days in India, when my partner tells a guy that he wants to visi Bangkok, the response he receives is a homosocial, assumptive grin; the guys presume he will go to the city for sex.
Sex tourism in Asia is not a new phenomenon, and Richard Bernstein, former Time Magazine China correspondent and current bureau chief of the New York Times in Paris and Berlin, has recently published a book called The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters, and two excerpts are available on The Daily Beast. Despite the gender neutral title, this book is primarily about men—so much so that its description even relegates women to a brief, fragmented mention, as though they were simply an afterthought instead of a central component to sex tourism.
I know what you’re thinking: shouldn’t we have books that center men’s experience? And my answer is absolutely! The issue for me is not the subject of Bernstein’s book (“the powerful erotic hold that the East has always had for Western men—a pervasive yet often ignored aspect of their long historical relationship”), but the way it is presented, which reinforces women’s status as sexual objects instead of sexual agents, and perpetuates the construction of the very discourse that it aims to deconstruct. Take this paragraph, for example, which sounds more like a titillating advertisement in favor of sex tourism rather than a critique of it:
The manager of the place will tell you which woman specializes in which particular service. He will let customers know which of them sucks and among them fucks, and he will urge customers to take two of the girls so that they can have a little of both and be in the middle of a sort of Oriental sandwich, one girl on top, the other on the bottom and both lathered with soap and warm water. Whatever choice the customer makes, he will be given a bath, then massaged a bit, and finally, after some negotiation, given what is marvelously called a happy ending, the different forms of which command different prices.
An Oriental sandwich? Can I get one of those at McDonald’s?
Like sex tourism itself, Bernstein’s research and perspective are not new. This book was written long ago by postcolonial feminists like Chandra Talpade Mohanty (Feminism without Borders), Reina Lewis (Rethinking Orientalism and Gendering Orientalism), and Meyda Yegenoglu (Colonial Fantasies). If imperialist, white, male privilege makes you cringe, you might want to pass over The East, the West, and Sex in favor of a critique a little more comprehensive and a little less sensational.