Since I moved to Europe, I've discovered that the perks of being a expat include having sex with interesting people from different cultures. In other words, there's something deeply compelling about fucking the "Other." My friend Tanya, for instance, likes guys who are as far from her Russian-Jew-from-Brooklyn heritage as possible. Another French acquaintance of mine is a gay South Asian from Toronto with a thing for straight North African guys.
But the line separating healthy cross-cultural miscegenation from unhealthy sexual power plays is thin, and has been for centuries. Ask any woman of East Asian ancestry how many guys have ignorantly confessed to her their love for "Oriental chicks." Forty years after Loving vs. Virginia, dating across cultural and ethnic lines is still a taboo turn-on, inextricably linked to the legacy of colonialism and exploitation.
There seems to be a biological basis for being sexually attracted to people different from yourself. Studies indicate we're turned on by people who smell different than we do. Julie Delpy's Two Days in Paris taught us that individuals with different immune systems are instinctively attracted to one another. And sex across racial lines is a natural safeguard against inbreeding. Delving a bit deeper, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss theorized that human civilization is based on kinship via the "exchange of women" between family groups, a theory supported by studies of the Westermarck effect, which biologically precludes children brought up together from being sexually attracted to one another. The flip side of the Westermarck effect is another phenomenon known as Genetic Sexual Attraction, in which family members who have been raised separately find themselves inexplicably aroused by each other when they finally meet. (One case that took place in Michigan, that of Allen and Patricia Muth, inspired a great Drive-By Truckers song, "The Deeper In.")
There's also a social component to all this. Women from the Pacific Rim (like Lucy Liu) and men from Latin America (like Ricky Ricardo) have been fetishized in a way that women from South Asia (like Benazir Bhutto) and nice Jewish boys from Brooklyn (like me) have not. In other words, even if race has a biological basis, our attitudes towards it are socially constructed. As such, we can excavate a historical archaeology of the Erotic Other.
Digging in, the first thing we uncover is the legacy of colonialism. Young, middle-class men in the nineteenth century couldn't get married to respectable girls until they had made their fortunes, so they were encouraged to ship off for the colonies with the promise of easy native women. Rudyard Kipling's veteran in "On the Road to Mandalay" sings of his "neater, sweeter" Supayalat awaiting him in Burma, "where there ain't no Ten Commandments and a man can raise a thirst." Inviting Arab women in the guise of the Biblical Salome or the Turkish odalisque likewise became a common trope in nineteenth-century French art. It was these sorts of fantasies that made the despondent, broke, syphilitic Paul Gauguin set sail for Tahiti to infect thirteen-year-old island girls. No wonder, then, that it's the women from "subject" countries whom we paint as "submissive," and the men from "dominant" countries — the Irish poet, the Latin lover, the Israeli commando, but not the Taiwainese engineer or the Indian scientist — who tend to be the stereotypical objects of affection.
Ironically, this same affection today is entrenched in the distance we've moved away from our more racist past. The desire to be more than just a superficial tourist or white sahib, to be enmeshed in a cultural network — to belong — is now a big part of the Erotic Other's appeal. The idea of fucking your way into another culture comes naturally from this — you can be born into a society by attaining flesh in two ways: from a mother, or from a lover. In either case, you take some portion of their identity upon yourself. Ever since I moved to Paris, people have been telling me that to really learn the language and culture, I need to find a French lover. (When I remind them I have a girlfriend back home, they point out that cheating on her will only help me learn French culture even more.)
In fact, it seems Lévi-Strauss was right: Sex with the Other as cultural acclimation is a far older practice than sex with the Other as colonial exploitation. Besides the fact that the explorers and conquerors who circumnavigated the globe hadn't usually brought along women, the advantages of a cross-cultural sexual relationship for the newcomer were many: He learned the language, legitimized his place in the local power structure by marrying the bigwig's daughter, appropriated indigenous survival techniques, and his children grew up bilingual and bicultural, able to explain and interpret one side to the other.
For example, the Romans in Britain begat a Latin-speaking Celtic-Roman aristocracy that, in turn, married the invading Anglo-Saxon "barbarians." The
European colonizers found it strategically advantageous to take native brides. Alexander the Great had Roxanne, Cortez had La Malinche, John Smith had Pocahontas.
elements of this class that survived the Norman Invasion then married their conquerors. And then, though nobody talks about it these days, they all went on a Crusade and created an entire new class of Middle-Eastern Europeans known as Turcopoles. Likewise, European colonizers — from the Spanish in the Canary Islands to the French fur traders in Quebec — found it strategically advantageous to take native brides. Alexander the Great had Roxanne, Cortez had La Malinche, John Smith had Pocahontas.
Despite its practicality, European men "going native" terrified the nineteenth-century public, which had just recently embraced British economist Herbert Spencer's "survival of the fittest" theory. Polemicists back home warned against either "degrading" the breed, or of producing a half-breed caste that, armed with the white man's "superiority" but lacking the restraint of his "civilization," would overwhelm the colonizers.
The solution was to export Old World women who could provide suitable partners for colonial men and reproduce European culture in the colonies. There would be no more wearing of saris, no eating in native style, no sleeping in hammocks in well-ventilated houses — wool, forks and proper beds in clapboard houses would once again be the norm. Native women were painted as dirty and ugly — one step up from animals, fit only for cleaning up after the whites. The newcomers stopped adapting to their environment, and we entered the era of cultural imperialism.
The twenty-first century idea of assimilation through sex seems, if anything, a return to the past. As Warren Beatty said in Bulworth, the only cure for racism is "a voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction. Everybody just gotta keep fucking everybody till they're all the same color."
©2007 Ken Mondschein and Nerve.com