Describing what may well be a moment in his own life in 1970s Taiwan, American journalist Richard Bernstein writes about the feelings a white American man has for his Taiwanese girlfriend: “he even loved her and her sleek black hair and Eastern slenderness, her quiet intelligence, charm, her barely controlled passions […] so different from those seemingly tougher, more blasé women he went to school with back home.”
Curiously rich in racial and cultural stereotyping, the sentence appears in Bernstein’s 2009 book The East, the West, and Sex. The book, which retraces the sexual history between European men, from Marco Polo to Gustave Flaubert, and the local women they encountered in the colonies, is one of the more detailed attempts in recent years to shed light on the sexual dimensions of Western colonialism in Asia.
The consumption of female Asianness by white masculinity remains a social and cultural reality today, as the routine objectification and exotification of Asian women in the sex industry testifies. Popular explanations for this usually focus on the woman and her supposedly immutable characteristics. One of the most tirelessly rehashed adjectives that pops up in Western descriptions of Asian women is “submissive”; other regularly repeated stereotypes include “sensual,” “exotic,” “feminine,” and “eager to please.”
This racial and cultural stereotyping not only assumes the homogeneity of a wide array of societies and cultures, but is also brimming with ideals about traditional gender roles and hierarchies. In this sense, it tells us more about white men than it does about Asian women. In her 2005 book The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient, Sheridan Prasso, a former Businessweek Asia editor, writes that the experience of white men in Asia is “ultimately, ‘remasculating’ — engendering feelings of masculinity or dominance which […] Western men may have found diminished in their own cultures.”
Indeed, it could be argued that this Western male stereotyping of the Asian woman has more to do with perceptions about appropriate gender roles than it does with any sort of reality about Asian women. But what is the historical basis for this specific Western construction of imagined female Asianness?
The sexualizing and Orientalizing of Asian women is steeped in a lengthy history in which race, class, and empire all play crucial roles. Bernstein points out that in the colonial period, stereotyping of Asian women received validation through literature and the arts, such as the famous 1904 opera Madama Butterfly (in which an enamored Japanese teenager commits suicide after being abandoned by her American naval officer husband), and the writings of explorers such as Richard Francis Burton, who extolled the Indian bibi over the white woman because she “caused less trouble and because she was better in bed.”
Bernstein (a columnist for the International Herald Tribune and former China correspondent for Time magazine) doesn’t note this, but imperialism was also responsible for the creation of the stereotype of the white male in Asia. Though much less discussed — perhaps because it requires a perspective that is not that of the white male’s –- this stereotype, which derives from Western military might and material wealth, tends to involve notions of power, dominance, and money. In trying to make sense of the amount of attention he himself received from female classmates as a student in Taiwan, Bernstein observes that “the patina of prestige that attaches to foreign men in Asia is a cultural leftover from the century during which European men were the masters of most Eastern societies.”
Throughout the work, Bernstein –- himself married to a Chinese woman –- consistently puts himself in the shoes of a white male experiencing life in colonial and wartime settings. His failure to integrate racial and gender perspectives into his history makes the entire book feel uncomfortably like apologism for the sexual exploitation of Asian women by Western colonizers and the flourishing modern-day sex industry in Southeast Asia. He also stops short of establishing a clear link between colonialism and the creation of imagined female Asianness by white men. Researcher Sunny Woan of Santa Clara University, in her article “White Sexual Imperialism: A Theory on Asian Feminist Jurisprudence,” establishes this link as follows:
“White sexual imperialism, through rape and war, created the hyper-sexualized stereotype of the Asian woman. This stereotype in turn fostered the over-prevalence of Asian women in pornography, the mail-order bride phenomenon, the Asian fetish syndrome, and worst of all, sexual violence against Asian women.”
Bernstein does acknowledge the role empire played in allowing for sexual conquering: “Seizing women and seizing wealth were part of the same process by which the British slowly became the masters of India,” he notes. But when he writes about an Indian schoolmistress complying with a British officer’s request for a schoolgirl and sees in this type of example the “willingness of Eastern societies to provide [sexual opportunities]” he seems to not realize that these societies — because of their colonized status — did not really have the option of refusing white men’s sexual requests.
The main theory of the book is a questionable one. The author believes that what he calls “the East” (in itself a questionable category) had a less inhibited relationship to sex than the Victorian, Christian “West.” This, he seems to believe, is why Western men initially became so intrigued by Asian women. Yet he fails to mention Asian traditions like brahmacharya (celibacy) in India, and he offers up “harem culture” as the universal sexual culture of “the East” –- even though there is no evidence to suggest that harems existed in countries like Thailand. Having uncritically posited the existence of a certain Eastern “sexual culture,” he then goes on to argue in favor of the model:
“As an approach to the handling of male physical desire, the Eastern way was vastly more realistic, less blinded by sentimental illusion about biological forces and the nature of men than the Western way.”
By positioning male sexual desire as a purely biological phenomenon, Bernstein fails to take into consideration social and patriarchal dimensions that validate the notion of the “nature of men.” By assuming that the universal “harem culture” was simply extended in a hospitable manner to colonizers on their arrival, his argument also cruelly lacks in discussion about racial dynamics, failing to note the pivotal role racism played in underpinning, tolerating, and even encouraging the sexual exploitation of Asian women.
He does point out the role of war in legitimizing this sexual exploitation: a Vietnam veteran he speaks to reveals that American soldiers with confirmed kills in the Vietnam War would get a three-day in-country R and R in a town that was a center for brothels. But his examination of the topic is weakened by the use of terms like “sexual mingling” to describe the sexual exploitation and rape of Asians during the Korean and Vietnam wars –- and he does not note that these wars were largely responsible for the creation of the massive modern-day sex tourism industry in Asia.
His strongest argument is that colonialism cast “the East” as feminine, passive, conquered, available: “The Western view of sex in the Orient […] is all part of the reductive and feminizing discourse that was itself part of the imperialist project.” But it should also be noted that this reductive discourse was also largely to blame for the creation of imagined male Asianness, which crucially is associated with effeminateness, weakness, and asexuality – and thus positioned in opposition to white masculinity.
By the far the biggest weakness of the book is that –- as the introductory quote above illustrates –- Bernstein himself furthers Western male stereotypes about Asian women. Throughout the work, he regularly associates Asian women with “femininity,” but never explores or critically examines what this word means. He also indulges in racial stereotyping when he says that Asian sex workers seem “sweet, affectionate […] charming, eager to please, kittenish, and at the same time, skillful.” In addition, he at times uses the infantilizing term “girls” to describe adult sex workers.
Because of this, it’s easy to suspect that Bernstein simply equates “femininity” with unquestioning adherence to traditional gender roles. But rather than recognize that this stereotyping actually reflects a desire for the “remasculating” experience that Prasso describes above, Bernstein seems to adhere to the essentialist view that there are specific traits inherent to the Asian woman.
A writer for the internet forum One Vietnam argues that the creation of female Asianness is not just about “depicting female submissiveness but about seeking in Asian women the holy trinity of inferiority, exoticness, and reverence for the white man […] It promises that Asian women want white men to want them, that they want to please white men, and that they prefer to be (culturally, sexually) dominated, especially by white men.”
Understood as such, the stereotyped Asian woman is in reality a symbolic creation onto which anxieties about evolving gender roles and concepts of masculinity are projected. Imagined female Asianness continues to be packaged as what many Westerners still believe is the true nature of the Asian woman: docile, obedient, sweet, and –- perhaps most importantly –- deferent to male, especially white male, authority.