The Harem (1876) by John Frederick Lewis
Where did it start?
In 1978, Edward Said coined the term “Orientalism” in his book of the same title. A concept established and perpetuated by the West through their colonial infiltrations of Asia and Northern Africa, the idea of the “Orient” became an imperialist’s wet dream. Countries such as Great Britain, France, and Spain all projected their values of power and conquest onto these cultures, reframing the power dynamics and emphasizing inequities and social castes among the people to further push their imperialist ambitions. In other words, divide and conquer: they encouraged cultural divide as much as possible based on the existing social classes to encourage the power-hungry to take their side. And when the powerful pick a side and follow the rules of the game an outsider created, the colonizer is the one who comes out on top; which is entirely the goal of imperialist colonialism.
Part of this newfound power is access to the fulfillment of desires. And by having no chips in the game, there is nothing for the Westerner to lose when their power cards are played. If a colonizer subjugates, sexualizes, and brutalizes the people of these cultures, they are not the ones to sympathize or mourn. There is no sense of a compromised people as there would be for the victims of imperialism. By creating the concept of the “Oriental,” the “other,” a group that is seen through the perspective of the West as less valuable and less human than their Western counterparts, an unspoken rule is set. The “other” exists for the fulfillment of the fantasies and desires of the West and otherwise holds no value.
Where is it now?
In real life, as reflective of decades of media portrayals, Arabs, Asians, and Africans have primarily either been seen as dangerous or overtly sexualized. In movies like Fatima (1897), nearly any James Bond or Austin Powers movie, or even in modern TV shows or video games such as Orange is the New Black or Grand Theft Auto, many of the ethnic characters in these media pieces fall into these two primary categories. Whether life imitates art or vice versa, these media tropes – often the only exposure many Westerners have of these cultures even today – transcend the screens and develop into the biases held against these groups in real life.
When typing the phrase “countries with the highest sex trafficking rates” into your preferred search engine, most of the first 10 results will likely steer you toward countries in Asia and Africa. However, when searching where a majority of the world’s sex tourists hail from, you’re far less likely to get a straightforward answer. The continued sexualization of these groups is the point, the perpetrators of these forced categorizations are not the focus. Popular shows such as 90 Day Fiancé are the perfect examples of primarily American, often white, men and women traveling to previously colonized countries to prey on potential sexual partners for the promise of escaping their impoverished lives in their impoverished countries.
By offering the “Oriental” partner this seemingly appealing alternative, the Western partner often perceives themselves as doing their partner a favor without openly acknowledging, or perhaps being in denial of, the predatory nature of the relationship. Their beliefs that Western countries are more “civilized” and desirable compared to the countries ravaged by the effects of imperialism are echoed and subtly encouraged through similar pop-culture media. These relationships enable the continuation of colonization by taking advantage of the “Orient” for sexual gratification and justifying their perspective of race-based superiority. These conquests are the continued exertions of previous race-based power structures through the last remaining – controversially – socially acceptable form: sexual relationships.
Where has it been?
Even today, as in line historically with the administration of these power structures, the relations between the Western partner and the “Oriental” do not need to be fair, consensual, or even legal. Take for example the 1997 case of the married American 30-something school teacher and mother, Mary Kay Letourneau who groomed a 12-year-old boy at the school where she was employed. A white woman who sexualized, groomed, raped, and (after serving years of jail time) eventually married a child who was of South-East Asian descent. Their story found its way back into the limelight following the release of the 2023 movie, May December based on their relationship, as well as the TV interviews with the couple in the years prior to the film’s release.
The age gap and racial identities of the two involved in this scandal led to much debate at the time, when mixed-race couples were not often represented in the media in the 1980’s and 90’s. The western world also has a bad habit of aging-up children of minority backgrounds, which has been an excuse for putting ethnic children in compromising situations. The child came from a difficult home situation and could easily be preyed upon and taken advantage of by this woman to fulfill her desires for sexual gratification and dominance. The argument regarding his ethnic background and gender were not inconsequential to onlookers of their case, since the narrative around their situation was that they were equally “in love” completely disregarding the concepts of rape and abuse. Even “Oriental” children are seen to be capable of promiscuity and sexualization regardless of age, since their identity fits the predetermined narrative of the conquests of “Orientalism.”
Where do we go from here?
The inverse of dominance is subordination. By inflicting a power dynamic onto sexual or romantic relationships, the dominating party is ensuring their role as the superior is known and obeyed by the subjugated party. This is true for all relationships rooted in abuse, yes. However, in the case of the dynamic of the relationship between the “Oriental” and the Westerner, there is also the influence of the one-sided belief of superiority based on race, as argued by Edward Said in the concept of “Orientalism.” The idea of the “Oriental” was not one constructed by the people it referred to, but instead created to categorize the people subjected to the violence of imperialist colonialism by its perpetrators.
When modern media and society continue to encourage and enforce these tropes that were forced onto these groups of people, it continues the mission of the Western colonizer. Believing the tropes “Orientalism” created and using these stereotypes to justify the abuse these communities face both in media and in real life only continue the violence of imperialism. In the Letourneau case, the revitalization of this sensational scandal in the media does not do so for the sake of educating potential victims and communities of these risks, they just do so for shock value . Sex sells, but by commodifying the sexuality of the racialized “other,” the only ones who benefit are the ones guilty of dehumanization. And if society keeps placing more chips in the colonizer’s pile, we are only helping them hurt the ones whose cards were fixed in the first place.