A Harem for Every Man

In an excerpt from his new book about the West’s erotic obsession with Asia, Richard Bernstein points to long-held sexual fantasies, and compares Bangkok websites with century-old paintings.

06.04.09 7:53 AM ET

Around 1812, the British cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson published a pornographic drawing titled Harem, which illustrates the dreamworld that the Ottomans’ peculiar institution was for the West. Rowlandson, born 1956, had never traveled to the Levant, so his drawing had to have been based on the harem’s reputation rather than its reality, and the imagination of what called “the dream of infinite possibility that inspires so many masculine fantasies of the East.” It shows a turbaned man, evidently the sultan, looking at two tiers of naked women lined up to a vanishing point on the drawing’s edge, each striking a pose of come-hither seduction.

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The only person with clothes on in this drawing of teeming life is the sultan himself, who sits on a rug beneath a canopy, a gracefully curved pitcher and bowl by his side. He is wearing a turban and an elaborate robe, and the robe is open in front, revealing both to the viewer of the drawing and the women within it a fully engorged penis. The sultan’s member seems almost like a diving rod, an implement to assist the otherwise baffling decision of which woman to choose, baffling because the depicted women are so similar to one another that, in Rowlandson’s vision, the infinite number of women actually presents no real choices. “As if the alternative to monogamy were indeed gratification without limit, bodies and pleasures multiply endlessly in harems of the mind,” Yeazell wrote of Rowlandson’s work. Like Ingres’ and Mozart’s and Byron’s harems, Rowlandson’s is imaginary, an illustration of the erotic possibilities of elsewhere. He didn’t intend it to be taken as reality.

But down a well-known narrow lane in Bangkok, a hundred yards or so from one of the city’s broad commercial thoroughfares, is another sort of harem that is decidedly real, of the here and now and the entirely possible. A neon sign identifies it as the Darling Massage Parlor, one of many suck establishments in Bangkok, and although this now-famous emporium of pleasure didn’t exist in Rowlandson’s time, the caricaturist perfectly anticipated it in his work. The Darling Massage Parlor, you can learn on any of the many Web sites that provide information about it, is open daily from 3 p.m. to midnight. Inside are men standing in a sort of foyer looking at women who sit on tiered wooden banquettes in a sort of goldfish bowl of tinted glass. The women are dressed in diaphanous pastels. Most of them are not especially young or pretty, though a few of them are. They can see the men looking at them, and they try to make eye contact in an effort to attract a customer, like Rycaut’s virgins striking “wanton Postures” to attract the attention of “the Grand Signior.”

The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Sex. By Richard Bernstein. 336 pages. Knopf. $27.95.

The manager of the place will tell you which woman specializes in which particular service. He will let customers know which of them sucks and among them fucks, and he will urge customers to take two of the girls so that they can have a little of both and be in the middle of a sort of Oriental sandwich, one girl on top, the other on the bottom and both lathered with soap and warm water. Whatever choice the customer makes, he will be given a bath, then massaged a bit, and finally, after some negotiation, given what is marvelously called a happy ending, the different forms of which command different prices.

The Darling Massage Parlor is one of many such places in Bangkok and far from the most opulent, luxurious, or popular. It is said that that distinction belongs to Poseidon, at 209 Ratchadapisek Road, which, according to its Web site, has three levels of women: fishbowl, sideline (women who sit outside the fishbowl), and models, ranging in price from about $70 to $180 for an hour and a half, the price going up with the beauty of the masseuse, the happy ending extra. Other such establishments are Ceasar’s, Mirage, New Cleopatra, and Victoria’s Secret, and they all offer a close approximation to Rowlandson’s fantasy. These are harems available to every man, present-day realizations of the fantasy propagated by Ludovico de Varthema and Paul Rycaut centuries ago, the life of the sultan democratized.

Extracted from The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Sex By Richard Bernstein © 2009. With permission from the publisher, Knopf, a division of Random House.

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Richard Bernstein is a writer based in New York. He was a critic and foreign correspondent for The New York Times for 24 years. His new book, The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in June.