The Global Politics of Sex

KhajurahoBy Maya Wesby

The Wilson Quarterly

Sex “burns at the intersection of existence, identity, and power,” says Eric Berkowitz, author of The Boundaries of Desire, a book about the legal boundaries of sexuality over the past century. According to Berkowitz, these laws were mostly absurd, and served a system of oppression that placed a lid on people’s sex lives.

There’s a reason why such an instinctual, animal act should find itself in five thousand years of legislation. It is perhaps the highest form human intimacy, both physically and emotionally, but sex and sexuality are inherently political — a tool that shifts balances of power, and also one that reflects (and sometimes challenges) cultural norms.

Among myriad other studies, Dr. Judith Mackay’s findings on the topic reveal the vast cultural variations in the conjugal act. Over the course of a year, the average French citizen has nearly three times as much sex as the average resident of Hong Kong. (Vive la France.) Some populations seem to stop having sex completely after a certain age — like in India, where many couples stop being intimate when they have a married daughter or become grandparents.

In Japan, a national sex drought has dire implications for an already shrinking and aging population: an unsustainable workforce amidst negative population growth has led international markets to abstain from Japanese investments. A 2013 Washington Post piece revealed that a strong percentage of the nation’s young people were embracing sekkusu shinai shokogun, or “celibacy syndrome,” as the norm. For Japanese men, the dread of sex is so strong that many prefer “relationship-simulating video games and even holiday retreats” to actual relationships. For women, the strict norms of Japanese culture force many to choose between family and career; married women who work often find themselves labelled “devil wives.”

A short flight across the Sea of Japan, you find a completely different story. In China, custom dictates that all powerful men keep a mistress. The practice has become so deeply entrenched that there are now different gradations of mistressdom; one type of mistress (called an ernai) merely serves as a girlfriend, while another (xiaosan) forces herself between a man and his wife. “If you’re an official, you have to have a mistress, or at least a girlfriend,” one mistress, named Xiaxue, told Aeon magazine. “Otherwise you’re not a real man.” (Even China’s wealthiest gay men keep mistresses while keeping their boyfriends secret.) However ubiquitous the mistress culture may be, it’s still dangerous. The Internet has become a superhighway for shaming these kept women, often at the hands of ex-boyfriends or their lovers’ wives.

Continue to full article . . .

Picture: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France (Le temple de Parshvanath (Khajuraho)) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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