The title of The East, The West, And Sex: A History Of Erotic Encounters promises prurience to the max, but the subtitle mixes the academic and the arousing. Writing clinically about sex is always a gamble, and veteran journalist Richard Bernstein ultimately loses the bet after a semi-valiant struggle. He announces his thesis early: “for centuries the East, broadly defined to include most of the world’s territory from North and East Africa to South, Southeast, and East Asia, represented a domain of special erotic fascination and fulfillment for Western men.” With that “broadly defined,” Bernstein signals his awareness that he’s getting into tricky territory not just sexually, but racially. The ghost of Edward Said—his theory of Orientalism, the idea that all Western depictions of “the mystic East” fetishized and distorted it to fit colonial Western thinking—looms large here.
As it happens, Bernstein is all too aware of Said. The first half of The East, The West is equally entertaining and enlightening. Bernstein begins with one “Chinabounder,” who uncharitably blogged about how easy it was for him as a Brit to hook up in China, and the subsequent nationalist ire—death threats and all—that resulted. His chapters on Richard Burton and Flaubert’s travels are fine capsule introductions, leavened in particular with unbelievably blunt, crass observations from Flaubert’s correspondence. But a little more than halfway through, Bernstein shows his full hand, shifting from straight conventional history to something more polemic: an argument that the nebulous “East” most definitely had a fundamentally different sexual culture, one accurately documented by visiting Westerners. As soon as Bernstein starts griping about the “politically correct” position (a term that always raises alarm bells), he enters into a three-page anti-Said diatribe that continues to appear throughout and poison the rest of the book. Bernstein’s merely functional prose breaks down when he repeatedly invokes “the culture of the harem” as a corrective.
Worse yet is the queasy tone of sublimated leering that envelops the last chapters about contemporary men who’ve settled abroad, geographically and sexually: A statement like “every once in a while a truly stunning creature materializes before you” is instantly qualified by a reminder of how “tawdry” bar prostitution can be, which should go without saying. Bernstein seems more than a little personally fixated on Asian sexuality, and the façade of objective history and journalism becomes unsustainable. Some honestly lusty, unapologetic prose would have been better than trying to have it both ways.