The East, the West, and Sex
A History of Erotic Encounters
By Richard Bernstein
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9780375414091, 336pp.)
Publication Date: June 2, 2009
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A rich and seductive narrative of the powerful erotic pull the East has always had for the West—a pervasive yet often ignored aspect of their long historical relationship—and a deep exploration of the intimate connection between sex and power.
Richard Bernstein defines the East widely—northern Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific Islands—and frames it as a place where sexual pleasure was not commonly associated with sin, as it was in the West, and where a different sexual culture offered the Western men who came as conquerers and traders thrilling but morally ambiguous opportunities that were mostly unavailable at home. Bernstein maps this erotic history through a chronology of notable personalities. Here are some of Europe’s greatest literary personalities and explorers: Marco Polo, writing on the harem of Kublai Khan; Gustave Flaubert, describing his dalliances with Egyptian prostitutes (and the diseases he picked up along the way); and Richard Francis Burton, adventurer, lothario, anthropologist—and translator of The Arabian Nights.
Here also are those figures less well-known but with stories no less captivating or surprising: Europeans whose “temporary marriages” to Japanese women might have inspired Puccini’s Madama Butterfly; rare visitors to the boudoirs of Chinese emperors in the Forbidden City; American G.I.s and journalists in Vietnam discovering the sexual emoluments of postcolonial power; men attracted to the sex bazaars of yesterday’s North Africa and the Thailand of today. And throughout, Bernstein explores the lives of those women who suffered for or profited from the fantasies of Western men.
A remarkable work of history: as unexpected as it is lucid, and as provocative as it is brilliantly illuminating.
Richard Bernstein is a columnist for the International Herald Tribune and a contributor to The New York Times. He has served as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Europe for Time and the Times, and is the author of six previous books, including Fragile Glory: A Portrait of France and the French, a New York Times Best Book of the Year, and Out of the Blue: A Narrative of September 11, 2001, from Jihad to Ground Zero, named by The Boston Globe as one of the seven best books of 2002. He lives in New York City.
A History of Erotic Encounters: The East, the West, and Sex, which is organized both by time period and by country, examines the idea of masculine Western colonization creating an idealistic portrayal of Asian culture, particularly those aspects dealing with heterosexual eroticism.
“Fascinating . . . Accessible, much-researched and far-reaching . . . Bernstein’s book provocatively externalizes, and maps, the heterosexual male erotic mind.”
-Toni Bentley, The New York Times Book Review
“The East, the West, and Sex is the best sort of book about sex: It is replete with anecdotes from history that titillate as they inform and observations on human nature that amuse as they illuminate, all delivered in language and tone that is broadly moral without being moralizing.”
-Tunku Varadarajan, The Wall Street Journal
“Provocative and intriguing . . . Properly high-minded . . . Very good and eminently discussable.”
-Simon Winchester, The New York Times
“Bernstein negotiates this territory with great delicacy and considerable historical knowledge . . . [An] elegantly written book.”
-Laura Miller, salon.com
“Bernstein is very good at telling these stories . . . [He] is brave to insist, in the face of much postmodern academic writing about colonialism, that for various reasons having nothing to do with the West, women . . . were far more readily available in the Middle and Far East than in Europe.”
-Thomas W. Laqueur, San Francisco Chronicle
“Wide-ranging [and] critically astute . . . Sweeping yet focused . . . Former New York Times correspondent Bernstein writes lucidly and with verve. This probing, absorbing, and eclectic study critically challenges morally and politically correct interpretations of the Western sexual exploitation of the East.”
-Starred review, Publishers Weekly
“A survey whose range is almost stupefyingly wide . . . Bernstein’s book . . . introduces the complexity of everyday reality into a world about which it is easy to preach.”
-Colin Thubron, The New York Review of Books
“In his loose-limbed style . . . a diligent scholar pursues a subject . . . intriguing any way you look at it.”