Friday, March 6, 2009

Re: Sex is Everywhere, Sex is Nowhere


Dear Rae,

I read today in the Phnom Penh Post that a prominent opposition politician and human rights spokeswoman in Malaysia has resigned because nude photos of her have been making the rounds of the country’s cell phones. She’s not posing for the camera in these photos; she’s not caught in any act. She’s simply asleep in bed. “I wish to state that I am not ashamed of my sexuality as a woman and a single person,” Elizabeth Wong is quoted. “I have broken no laws. I stand by the fundamental principle in a democracy that everyone has a right to privacy.”

Malaysia is very Muslim and very conservative. Ms. Wong had a broad base of support among a number of ethnic groups and Malaysia’s women. “She is a single person,” a government official is quoted as saying. “How can she allow a man into her room when they are not married?"

I read it and could perfectly imagine a constipated man with angry, angry eyes shaking an index finger. Viciously conservative Muslims are pretty much as the viciously conservative American Christians would have you believe, with the additional fact that they are more similar to each other than is comfortable to admit. It’s not hard to conjure up the glee behind Malaysian government doors, the handshake, cash, and position handed with a wink to the boyfriend who sold himself, to the stranger whose warmth won Ms. Wong over. Sex as a weapon, sex as a wand, sex with eyes open and sex with eyes shut. In Cambodia and, it seems, in most of Southeast Asia, sex is the world’s warming winters, the outsourcing of interrogation, the 15-year-old that everyone at the Thanksgiving table knows is sleeping with her boyfriend. It is the thing glaring and loud but still largely ignored, the thing berated but given permission, forbidden to all but acceptable for some, denied its very existence yet made a foundation of society and the economy. Sex is everywhere and nowhere.

If you take the red dirt road outside our gate fifteen yards to the right and then make another right onto a different red dirt road and follow that out into the open country, in ten walking minutes you’ll come to Bakheng Entertainment. Bakheng is a Khmer disco but looks more like a set piece from Scarface the morning after, a cross between new money Miami and Disneyworld’s Frontier Land. The neon sign that hangs over the road, a pink swirl of a moon in the black night, gives a pretty good visual foundation. Just add to your mental image an open courtyard with wagon wheels bedecked with Christmas lights atop the surrounding walls, thatch-roofed bungalows going to seed in the brush where the courtyard’s tiles end, and young men careening in and out of the front gate stacked two or four to a motorbike, their motors whining off into the fields.

You go to open the door and suddenly it is opened for you, three or four eager men in suit jackets buzzing around the entrance, arms swept wide, “come in, come in,” and you walk into an entranceway lined with women in short skirts and prom dresses, dozens packed shoulder to shoulder against the wall, one after the other after the other until you realize you have dozens of women, thirty or forty girls, from which to choose. The DJ is crushingly loud and another tier of women, these in waiters’ slacks and high white collars, swarm around you waving cardboard tokens with pictures of beer, “To drink, sir? To drink, sir?,” and there’s machine-made fog and cheap green lasers like Def Leppard used in ‘88 and it’s all so much, all so much like sailing smack-dab into a school of luminescent fish that rush around and below and above you, that you can’t get it all arranged in your head, that you have to make it to the safety of a high stool with someone’s beer token in your hand and wait to see what you’re brought and what you’ll pay and just what the scope of all of this is.

Bakheng isn’t a whorehouse. The DJ spins English-language hip hop and the dance floor is packed, bodies clipped in blacklight, heads and arms and feet, and you think, “Man, those kids are really good” until you stare for a little longer and realize, no, they’re not good dancers, not really good dancers at all, just nineteen-, twenty-one-, twenty-five-year-olds clustered in single-sex groups and hopping up and down like happy rabbits, girls touching their girlfriends, boys touching their mates, nothing co-ed at all, no dance floor sophistication or flirtation, no moves, just kids bouncing like embarrassed kids under the momentarily-deceptive pulse of light and fog. The odd girl you see trying out some of what she’s learned from hip hop or karaoke videos looks out to lunch, her attempts at the slinky waist groove or a grinding pelvis a gag, something that breaks her and her girlfriends into immediate giggle fits. Even freed from adult supervision, these folks take no steps toward carnality.

This isn’t just the hesitation of the inexperienced or the reserve of the culturally-shy. A friend of ours, a native New Yorker who owns a shop that employs a few Khmer men, told us one afternoon of the conversations she’d been having. One of her guys was using her computer to watch porn and she started asking him about sex in Cambodia. Blow jobs come up and it turns out her guy and his friends thought such a thing was pure fiction, akin to citizens of Mumbai breaking into dramatic choreography in the middle of a Bollywood film. When she explains that oral sex is a regular part of most Westerners’ sex lives, the men just stare at her dumbfounded. “Jason, it was just beyond, Beyond, BEYOND them,” she says. She asks them how often they have sex with their wives and the say about once a month. When she asks them if they masturbate to make it from one month to the next, they have no idea what she’s talking about. A little sheepishly she uses the phrase jerk off and they nod sagely and say, “Oh, you mean being silly.” They have heard tourists use the phrase as an epithet. “No,” she says, “you know, like what you did when you were a kid and just figuring it out.” The guys have no clue what she’s talking about. So she takes a banana and, again rather sheepishly, tries to give them the sense of things. “And Jason,” she says, “they fucking FREAKED THE FUCK OUT! They were just screaming with laughter and they said, ‘Why would you do that to yourself?’ and I said, ‘Well, because somebody else isn’t doing it for you,’ and they were rolling on the floor."

All of these guys had at least a few sexual relationships before getting married, almost certainly with prostitutes or one of the bar girls that trade sex for a man’s patronage of the bar where she works, and my New York buddy asks if any of these woman have given them blow jobs. They shake their heads. When she asks them if would feel comfortable suggesting it to their wives, they fall back into fits of laughter. What a ludicrous suggestion. Wives would never, ever, ever do that, uhmm-uhmmm. When my friend treads lightly into the topic of the men giving oral sex to their spouses, their eyes screw up suspiciously. “What do you mean?” When she suggests that women have orgasms – “What happens to the man during sex can happen to the woman, just differently” – they sit back with wide eyes and shake their heads. And foreplay?, forget about it. That’s just something a ‘massage girl’ sells to paying customers.

“So when you have sex with your wife,” my friend asks, “how long does it usually last? I mean, all of it?”

“Oooh,” one of the men replies, considering his answer. “About two minutes.”

“And what does your wife do?”

“She looks up at the ceiling.”

All of this is not just a different cultural experience of sexuality. The kinds of things we consider relatively open aspects of sexuality are denied to both the individual and to partnerships. Surely the French passed on a little knowledge in their 80-odd years here, but that too has been lost to decades of civil war. These sex acts aren’t so much forbidden as they are fantastic impossibilities, things being conception. It reminds me of a story told by another friend in Siem Reap, a Texan who has worked in the Middle East for the past thirty years. “Men and women are kept completely apart in Saudia Arabia until the day they are married,” he says. “So boys, to deal with their natural urges, they have sex with their buddies, have sex with animals. It’s not uncommon at all for a husband to come storming into a clinic dragging his wife behind him and angrily shout that his wife will not bear him any sons. So the doctors separate the couple and ask them questions and pretty soon they find out that the husband has been putting it in the wrong place because that’s all he knows and no one has told him any different. It’s a different planet, man, it really, really is. That’s why I call it Sodomy Arabia.”

The Texan is also the person who has told me that the only source of blow jobs from a Khmer is from the ladyboys, the transvestite prostitutes that stand casually in the town’s royal gardens until late into the night, waiting for a john. But the ladyboys, they work the end of Pub Street too, grabbing at the arm of a Western man while the cops yawn and look on. And at Bakeng, the DJ stops spinning every half hour or so to make way for a five piece band and a handful of karaoke singers whose eyes are dead tackle as they sing Khmer pop songs. These girls cost one hundred dollars a night, a Khmer friend tells me. “Very expensive.” How much for the girls lining the entranceway? “Maybe twenty dollars.” And those two men who take turns amongst the female karaoke singers? “Oh, many hundreds of dollars.” At the end of the live music set, once the DJ is back and the awkward teens are again packed onto the floor, the singers join the girls working the doors in small rooms that dot the walls of the place, disappear behind doors with a man or a boy and return in short order.

The kids dancing know this. The wives in the country know this. The government and the monks and everybody else with their feet on this ground for more than a couple of days knows this. Dozens of door fronts across Siem Reap are lit red every night, the girls sitting out for the casual passerby to assess. Everyone is aware and everyone is participating in some way yet nobody shares what they do or don’t know. Everyone is playing a game that no one knows the rules of. Men get sex ed from prostitutes and both the prostitutes and wives get their sex from lying on the backs and waiting to see what happens. The blind lead the blind and a country decimated in every conceivable way, a country full of sadness and anger and loss, adds sexual frustration to the list of burdens that are ready to make a person blow his or her top. And across the country, serious money trades hands every night, people and their confusion with themselves and their partners supporting a large slice of the national economy.

My initial instinct is to be disgusted by the hypocrisies in all of this, and then to try to understand those hypocrisies as they are in the social order, and then I end up reminded of home and the cultural duality of our own American culture. You can find many American movies over here and the other day, flipping through the stack, I passed The Bratz Movie, the adult glamour and anorexic skulls and pouty lips and cocked hips of the characters and the dolls that inspired them just adult sexuality and pathology rouged up for pre-adolescents. Those toys are popular, man. Parents buy them for their little girls, the ever-present sex in pop culture aiming for a younger and younger audience. And what that says to me – after the initial conclusion that most people will bite down on just about anything waved under their noses – is that even as grown-ups and parents that allure is too much to resist, that somehow sexuality is so fundamental and all encompassing that many of us instinctively process it as a ‘given’ for kids that have yet to reach puberty, even when we don’t know we’re doing so.

Sex is that fundamental, right? We do ourselves no favors by reserving its faintest echoes, its vaguest acknowledgment, for those only of a certain age or secured safely in classrooms or the family kitchen. But we do do all of that and we deny that elemental quality even as we cannot help but acknowledge it by the toys we buy and the movies we show to our kids. “Get a load of this, check out how fun this is,” we seem to say. “But don’t let us see you enjoying yourself.”

And that’s Cambodian sex in a nutshell as well, the cultural arrangement that keeps men and women from public touching but which sends all of the men to those very-public brothels. So the similarity between our American Evangelicals and Malaysia’s Conservative Muslims is not an isolated similarity. Our sex may not be the same as Cambodia’s, but the two share a certain psychology, a certain psychosis suffered by our families and their families. It comes down to Doublespeak that says of something that hurts, “This feels good,” and says of something comforting, “This feels bad.” And so I'm writing to you because it's good to know someone else with the incite to say, "Now wait just a goddamn minute here..."


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