Correction to This Article
A July 19 book review of "The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters" incorrectly said that author Richard Bernstein was sent to China for Time magazine in 1973. Bernstein arrived there in 1975. The review also incorrectly said that Bernstein lived in China for decades. He lived there for three years. The review also misstated where Bernstein was born and left the possibility of a misinterpretation for where Bernstein met his wife. Bernstein was born in New York City and met his wife there.

Book Review: The East, the West, and Sex, by Richard Bernstein

By Michael Sims
Sunday, July 19, 2009


A History of Erotic Encounters

By Richard Bernstein

Knopf. 325 pp. $27.95

"It is the main thesis of this book," declares Richard Bernstein, "that 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." Bernstein hammers this banality throughout his book, but readers should know what to expect from the beginning. As an epigraph to his depressing mishmash, Bernstein quotes from Rudyard Kipling's poem "Mandalay":

Tho' I walks with fifty 'ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,

An' they talks a lot o' lovin', but wot do they understand?

Beefy face an' grubby 'and --

Law! wot do they understand?

I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!

On the road to Mandalay. . . .

Bernstein writes later that this poem "is all you need to understand the heart-racing allure that the East had for tens of thousands of adventurous Europeans, eager to hear the temple bell at dawn (which 'comes up like thunder') and see the nut-brown girl who's waitin'." By the end, the main message is that he agrees with Kipling.

There are a lot of nut-brown girls in "The East, the West, and Sex," and often they are just that -- girls, children, teenagers, not women. But even the women are never in a position of equality, in society or in Bernstein's mind. "Sex and combat, like rape and pillage, have always accompanied each other in war," writes Bernstein. In case you might miss his casual dismissal of rape he adds, "or, as Time magazine put it in 1966 in an article aimed at downplaying the importance of sex in Vietnam, 'Strumpets trailed the trumpets of Joshua at Jericho,' " cutesy wordplay that metamorphoses soldiers into musical instruments and rape victims into whores. Bernstein's own jokes include double entendres such as "the Western penetration of the East."

Bernstein went to work for Time in China in 1973; six years later, he opened the magazine's first bureau there. He lived there for decades, married a Chinese woman and has written books about the region such as "From the Center of the Earth" and "The Coming Conflict with China." He is now a columnist for the International Herald Tribune. In his new book, he ranges from interviews with Vietnam vets to Flaubert's praise for the boys of Egyptian bathhouses to a recent American blogger who ignited a furor in Shanghai by bragging online about his sexual conquests among Chinese women.

Along the way, Bernstein wastes a lot of time. For one thing, he repeats himself. Although he's made this point before, he writes, "The East was a place where money was made and imperial ambitions pursued," then two sentences later says, "Chiefly, Westerners went to Asia in pursuit of personal wealth and national glory." This sort of echo occurs throughout. He also makes ridiculous generalizations. "It is a quality of young men in general, and American young men in particular, to want to be liked," he remarks while writing about Vietnamese prostitutes and U.S. soldiers. During this chapter, entitled "I Souvenir. You Boom-Boom," Bernstein can't muster enough qualifiers to mask his bias: "Indeed, there are no clear signs that the alleged depravity of the Americans and their 'puppets,' as Hanoi put it, particularly bothered a substantial part of the local population." He even spends time passing judgment on his female interviewees. "If you are a man whose taste in women runs to the slim and delicate," he writes of one of them, "you couldn't do much better than Yangsook, a thirty-seven-year-old Korean woman now living in New York." He doesn't stop with this personal ad. "She's a lovely woman," he adds later, "and perhaps one of these days some lucky man is going to win her heart." These admiring tributes occur during one of the "Interludes," personal close-ups inserted every few chapters.

Bernstein seems to assume that his audience for this book will be mostly male -- perhaps men who describe women as "creatures," as Bernstein does in the closing hymn to "the urge for a moment of delirious, primal, sublime contact with an exquisite perfumed creature free from the judgment of an unsympathetic God and far from the domain of restriction and repression that is home." Or perhaps he hopes that this book will be read mainly by Brooklyn-born white male journalists in their mid-60s who are looking back fondly on the erotic adventures of their youth.

Michael Sims's most recent books are "The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime" and a companion book to the National Geographic Channel's "In the Womb" series.

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