Geishas and Whores

by Guest Contributor (and regular commenter) Atlasien

Geisha cultists seriously disturb me.

Surprisingly enough, many of them are women. They love the geisha mystique, the tinge of nostalgia for a bygone era, the careful artifice, the idea of humans as living artwork.

I’ve enraged a few of them simply by dropping the “geishas are prostitutes” bomb. They tell me they know about Japan more than I do. I’m a lowly mixed-race Japanese-American. I don’t even speak Japanese. I’m pluralizing “geisha” wrong. I obviously have no respect for the traditions of my ancestors. Geisha = serious business. Ha!

Geisha are not very relevant in modern-day Japan. They’re a fossilized archetype, almost like ninja. If you asked a group of Japanese people the burning question, “are geisha prostitutes?” depending on region and generation, you would probably get a variety of answers: “that’s an insult, of course not!” “Well, it depends on your definition.” “Yes, they’re high-end prostitutes.” “I don’t really know.”

But a lot of people, especially white people, are invested in defending geisha, in putting them on a pedestal. And when they do that, it does harm to Japanese-American women and to all Asian-American women. Appropriation is almost too mild of a word. It’s not just theft, it’s domination. Imagine a young girl, on the verge of understanding herself as a sexual being, looking deeply in the mirror… and seeing her mirror image controlled by puppet masters.

I’ll try to explain further. The geisha figure is one end of a continuum of stereotypes of Asian woman sexuality. The continuum is inanimate. Other races have different sexual stereotypes: for example, “animalistic”. But Asian women are neither animal nor human. They’re inanimate things. They’re so passive that they barely even move. On the high end, they’re beautiful clockwork dolls, to be petted and treasured and collected and shown off. The most expensive ones can’t even be bought for money; instead, you have to win them through your superior knowledge of authentic Asian culture. On the low end, they’re doormats, sperm receptacles, happy ending massage girls, completely impersonal and interchangeable, existing for nothing more than a moment’s pleasure. Common sex jokes about Asian women concentrate on the idea that they have “stripped down” bodies — neat, efficient, even machine-like — and facial features that lack human expression.

It’s a fairly simple stereotype, and all this obfuscation about geisha unnecessarily complicates it.

I’ve also been accused of being prudish and anti-sexual when I say things like this, so I’ll try and explain where I’m coming from. I used to say I was a sex-positive feminist when I was young. I don’t call myself that anymore. The plain, pragmatic variety of feminism I was raised in always gave me clear benefits and made me a stronger person, but this new extra label I’d discovered never became as relevant in my day-to-day life. One reason was that I actually worked in the sex industry for a while, in a strip club, and thought it was a horrible environment. I still don’t believe in a unique, essential stigma attached to sex work, so I’ll say that while it was a horrible environment, there are plenty of others just as bad. I did notice there was very little barrier between work identity and life identity for most of the people in the industry. But then, that’s true of plenty of other jobs: bartenders, politicians and police, to name a few. I saw a lot of the strippers get sucked into insanely negative patterns of behavior, getting high on coke all the time, subsidizing parasitical boyfriends and spending what was left of their money on $100 purses the size of postage stamps. Others were instead sending all their money back to Eastern Europe and seemed deeply depressed about having to work there.

I was a cocktail waitress. My outfit, and the female bartenders’ outfit, was skimpy; it involved an ass-cape. We were all selling sex in some form.

While I’m not “sex-positive” I don’t reject all the theories, and I have sympathy with a lot of sex worker activism, so I do want to say this: lumping in all sex workers is bad, and so is splitting them all apart. It’s elitist and deeply nasty to say “I’m the nice clean expensive sex worker, not like those low-class dirty whores.” All human beings should be valued the same. But different people in the industry happen to have different experiences. I wouldn’t call myself a whore for working there, or claim that I know what it’s like for all sex workers, although I suppose I was on a kind of whore continuum.

One thing I noticed that while the environment at the strip club was pretty racist, it wasn’t any more racist than the racial hierarchies at the regular restaurants I was used to working in. And this brought up a question I still wonder about today. Do the actions of Asian-American women have any impact at all on our sexual stereotypes? Does it matter if we look or act whorish or geisha-ish or virginal or nonsexual or work in the sex industry or refuse to work in it? Or will the predominantly white media continue to import and circulate our images, reading into them whatever gets them off, regardless of our reality and our choices? The thought of such powerlessness is really sad.

Many white men (and to a lesser extent, other non-Asian men) have an obvious, direct sexual interest in controlling these images. In the case of Asian-American men it’s more complicated and involves interplay between assimilation and opposition stances, between race and sex, between power and powerlessness. For example, what’s the effect on the psyche of an Asian-American man consuming Asian woman fetish pornography designated for a white male audience? For any Asian-American, male or female, gay or straight, developing a healthy sexual self-image can be a horribly difficult battle.

But the weirdest piece has got to be white women. You would think they wouldn’t have a stake in this dynamic, but the most ardent geisha-worshippers seem to be white women who identify with geisha. They want to remake themselves into treasured objects. They want to steal a sexuality that’s already stolen. The project of arcane knowledge mastery, of transformation, of “becoming”, gives them sexual excitement.

If you think I’m making this stuff up, go to a website called immortalgeisha.com then click on “About Us” then “The Face Behind.”

These women need to realize what they’re doing and who they’re hurting. They’re just as complicit as the anonymous man who shouts a pornographic joke at a young, vulnerable Asian-American girl. But we’re not real to them. Our images provide so much more satisfaction than our reality.

To make a long story short, call me a cranky prude and an inauthentic Japanese all you want, I don’t give a damn about geisha. If you’re sexually obsessed with them, hey, whatever, I’m not going to tell you how to run your sex life. But don’t pretend it’s some kind of noble homage. It gets you off. And you need to distinguish fantasy from reality. If shoes happen to be your thing, do you go to Payless, tell the clerks how to position the shoes and then start masturbating in front of them?

Own up to your fetish and at least try to be responsible about it.