Some like it hot

Article by Lucretia Stewart

When Lieutenant Pinkerton of the US Navy took up with a 15-year-old geisha, Cio-CioSan (which means “butterfly”), in Nagasaki, where he was stationed at the time, he was simply following a well-trodden path which continues to this day – that of Western men pursuing Oriental women. As Pico Iyer writes in The Lady and The Monk, “… the pairing of Western men and Eastern women was as natural as the partnership of sun and moon. Everyone falls in love with what he cannot begin to understand.”

And when Pinkerton returned to America and married an American wife, a proper marriage, never giving a thought to Butterfly (and the child she had subsequently born, unbeknownst to him), he was doing nothing unusual, however reprehensible. He had gone through a form of marriage with Butterfly in Japan, but for him it clearly didn’t count. Sex, love even, in foreign parts isn’t real. Or rather they are not part of one’s real life.

Pinkerton, of course, was not exactly “travelling”, but he was abroad, away from home, from all that was familiar and expected of him. He doesn’t appear to have had any qualms about his fake marriage to Butterfly. In fact, there seems to have been something expedient about it. He wanted – even needed – a woman, so he got one. If he had to go through a form of marriage to get her, so be it. The American consul, Sharpless, tried to warn him of the dangers in such a match, but he paid no attention.

Years ago I edited an anthology called Erogenous Zones: An Anthology of Sex Abroad. I discovered that all sorts of things, all kinds of behaviour, appeared to be permissible away from home. My criterion for inclusion was that the foreignness of either the setting, or of the object of desire, should quite demonstrably have had a transforming effect on the traveller, and therefore on the quality of the experience itself. (Ideally these factors should coincide with literary merit, as in the case of Gustave Flaubert whose travels in Egypt reveal him to be the very model of an erotic traveller, but, in some cases, where the writing was less strong, the experience itself was sufficiently unusual, sufficiently sexy, to merit inclusion).

So Duncan Fallowell, a gay writer, found himself engaging in heterosexual sex in St Petersburg when he was caught off guard by a masseuse/prostitute. Geoff Dyer found himself on the verge of public masturbation on a beach in Mexico; after making love to a girl in Los Angeles, Richard Rayner donned her Bunny costume and transformed himself into Bunny Richard.

While staying at a pensione in Venice, the British writer Jonathan Keates overheard an exchange between “a bald, bespectacled Frenchman of a certain age” and a couple of sailors – “country boys from a village somewhere down south, doing their military service on the lagoon” – whom the Frenchman had brought back to the pensione late one night. It’s a sad, rather shoddy little encounter, but before recounting its humiliating denouement, Keates remarks that “in garrulous Italy the talk which follows sex is worth everything else for pleasure…”

Some travellers – of whom Giacomo Casanova, the great 18th-century lover whose name is now synonymous with sexual promiscuity is perhaps the best example – have journeyed, it would appear, almost solely for the purpose of erotic titillation and gratification. Casanova’s travels were really just one long, erotic pursuit, perhaps the best example of the fusion (or confusion) of sex and travel.

With comparable energy and enthusiasm, Gustave Flaubert, according to letters and diaries he wrote during in his travels in Egypt in 1849-1850, flung himself whole-heartedly into the gratification of his libido and effectively set out to embrace and explore the country through its women. The ones he slept with were usually professionals; if not actual prostitutes, then courtesans or dancers.

Flaubert indicates a degree of sensitivity and tenderness towards some of his sexual partners, in particular the dancer Kuchuk Hanem whom he visited several times and itemised their encounters in considerable detail. Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1873 painting The Almeh, though done from life, might easily have been of Kuchuk herself: “Kuchuk has just left her bath… her front hair was plaited in thin braids that were drawn back and tied together, the lower part of her body was hidden in immense pink trousers; her torso was entirely naked under purple gauze… She is a formidable looking creature, large-breasted, fleshy, with slit nostrils, enormous eyes, and magnificent knees; when she danced there were formidable folds of flesh on her stomach.”

For Joe Orton, abroad – specifically North Africa – became virtually indistinguishable from sexual pleasure. As Orton’s diaries clearly reveal, for him and for his companion, Kenneth Halliwell, the whole point of taking their holidays in Tangiers was to have as much sex as was humanly possible with young Arab boys. And it was only when André Gide – in France a respectable married man – was abroad (and in the Third World) that he could give full expression to his true nature, his homosexuality. In Si le grain ne meurt… (1924) Gide describes his first and second homosexual encounter, the latter in particularly explicit terms.

Travel is, above all, the search for the unknown, for the other; so, in its purest form, is sex (the pre-skin cancer obsession with the sun is a less forthright form of this; even today people associate the two, travelling to the Caribbean in search of sun and sex – the sea coming a poor third in the desire stakes). Travel and sex both involve exploration and experimentation; linking the two is almost irresistible.

Only 11 (out of 64) of the extracts in my anthology came from books written by women, and one of these was a lesbian encounter. I think that this is because rarely do women have the same free and easy attitude towards sexual encounters. Women fall in love, want to get married and have children. It is rarely a carefree experience and, in a case such as Butterfly’s, the whole business ended in tears and worse.

Men, in contrast, generally seem able to breeze through it all. I know one man in Naxos, where I live, who has four illegitimate children under the age of ten, all by foreign women (two Americans, one French and one English), none of whom he has ever married, nor has he legally admitted responsibility for any of his children (i.e. registered their births, naming himself as the father, so he is not legally obliged to pay towards their maintenance), nor does he support any of his offspring, except the latest one, a boy, with whose mother, an American, he currently lives. He refuses to use condoms so, no doubt, there will be more children.

The women, as in the film Shirley Valentine, were seduced, entranced by an idyllic vision of Greek rural life – olive groves, fresh vegetables, retsina. This man was very handsome (less so now that he has had his front teeth broken in a drunken fight); he is a farmer and a sculptor, though any talent he possesses will always be curtailed by his desire to make money out of tourists. But each of the women was much better educated than him, more cultivated and more refined. By no stretch of the imagination can they have imagined that they had much in common with him, but none of that mattered. They were abroad, having the adventures of their lives.

Of course, it was, like Butterfly’s, an adventure with consequences. They were left – literally – holding the baby while Christos still continued his bachelor life, drinking, out for hours, womanising – I doubt that he will ever try to resist. After all, this is what he believes that he was born to do.

The Anglophile American scholar Paul Fussell claimed in his book Abroad (1980) that “Making love in a novel environment, free from the censorship and inhibitions of the familiar, is one of the headiest experiences travel promises.” The operative word here is “promises”. The traveller, like the sexual adventurer (of whom homosexuals seem to be the most daring – although some people might think “reckless” a better word), embarks on his quest in the hope of encountering the unknown. Erotic travellers are, as the old song would have it

Strangers in the night, exchanging glances, wondering in the night what were the chances we’d be sharing love before the night was through…

For these lovers at first sight, love (and sexual adventure) is simultaneously just a glance away and many miles from home. The promise of a foreign affair, that enticing combination of the erotic and the exotic, can prove unbearably alluring.

The trailer which advertises the video of the film version of Han Suyin’s novel Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing, promises that “Passion loses control in exotic Hong Kong”. Implicit is the suggestion that uncontrollable passion and sexual adventure (even, with luck, depravity) beyond your wildest imaginings are possible only in such places as “exotic Hong Kong”.

Sexual tourism still continues, of course (particularly in the Orient, both near and far – on a recent trip to Bangkok, the gay friend with whom I was travelling went to a gay brothel most evenings where he was apparently very popular), but its real heyday spanned 150 or so years from early in the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. Then AIDS and a change in attitudes put, if not actually a stop to, a brake on the free and easy predation of earlier times.

I’ve enjoyed my share of lovemaking in exotic spots and understand all too well the relationship between the place, the moment, the situation and the person, which all combine mysteriously to create an atmosphere ripe for adventure. There’s something magical about tropical countries: the strangeness, the dreamy warmth, the scent, the fact that no-one in the real world knows where you are or what you are doing. In the right circumstances, that most depressing of encounters, the one-night stand, can seem positively thrilling. As the old poem has it

Wouldn’t you like to sin on a tiger skin with Elinor Glyn?

The tiger skin is the real attraction.

I first understood the erotic potential of the East in Canton, China, in a Ferris wheel that revolved slowly high above the city. Later that evening, back at a hotel on the banks of the Pearl River (the name alone evokes a kind of magic) with the sounds of the boatmen in their sampans on the water, all scruples were forgotten, all cares banished, London, other obligations, other people, everything ceased to exist. Only the moment remained. You can recognize such moments, not just afterwards when they linger in your memory with a crystalline clarity, but at the time, almost as if you have taken a drug that intensifies your senses – of smell, of sight, of hearing.

I came to associate the Far East with a particular kind of erotic experience – and, when I was back in England with its monochrome colours and its gloomy climate, I would take out and examine my store of such memories rather as a miser might gloat over a secret hoard.

There were other times too – in Luang Prabang, in Angkor – until my travels ceased to take me to the Far East and I discovered that it was possible to enjoy myself in Martinique, Guadeloupe, St Vincent, Grenada, New York, Paris, Venice, Seville, on the night train to St Petersburg…

Anywhere but home, in fact.

Lucretia Stewart is the editor of Erogenous Zones: An Anthology of Sex Abroad. She is also the author of Tiger Balm: Travels in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, The Weather Prophet: A Caribbean Journey and Making Love – A Romance