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Monday, February 20, 2006

The Asian Branding of Sexuality

Sex sells, and Asian sex sells a lot. Is it Orientalism or cultural openness?
By Jillian A. Glaeser, AAV Contributor

In the United States, images of sexuality are apparent in nearly all forms of media – magazines, newspapers, billboards, television and movies – creating cultural wallpaper that bends and shapes individual sexuality. However, as a nation, we’re still sexual babies – mere infants at 226 years old. Compared to the ancient civilizations of Asia, the U.S. is just beginning to discover, understand, and define its own sexual culture.

The Kama Sutra, which dates back nearly 1,800 years, was written in India and served as a guidebook to everything from personal finance to human sexuality. Its most notable aspect is its instruction on sex and love, so frankly addressed. Without technology, its spread was slow, but eventually it came to be recognized as an icon of Asian sexuality and a popular personal/sexual resource worldwide.

Globalization has facilitated our awareness of Asian countries’ long-standing traditions of sexuality. It has promoted a cross-cultural introduction between the sexually knowledgeable and experimental East and the sexually immature U.S., enabling us to sample the enigmatic offerings of Asia's long, diverse sexual histories. While globalization is most often viewed as a "west-to-the-rest" flow of information, media, and products, there is significant reverse underway in sexual material that is facilitating a change in American sexuality.

A more contemporary representation of Asian sexuality than the Kama Sutra is the "sex toy" or "sex aid", many of which are Asian in styling, packaging, or theme. The toys are marketed to the mature or sexually curious – often those with limited familiarity of Asian culture and sexuality – capitalizing on exoticism and eroticism. The wide availability of and fascination with Asian sex aids allow voyeurs to experience a recondite culture, to employ all of the "mysticism" associated with Far East sex – by way of ancient prose, contemporary marketing methods, and personal fantasy.

But are we really to believe that an orgasm with Asian underpinnings is different than any other? What does consuming "Asian-style" sex toys do for users – Asian or otherwise? Does using them drag Orientalist perceptions into the bedroom, allowing them to construct our nation’s sexuality? Does it allow one to be transported, through fantasy, to distant, perhaps unfamiliar shores, and so explore new horizons in a safe, personal, and even relatively progressive way? Are American companies that concept or market these sex toys accurately representing the Asian culture?

And for the sake of sex, does it matter?

An Ancient Representation of Asian Sexuality: The Kama Sutra

In ancient India, Sanskrit was the spoken and written language. In Sanskrit, the broad translation of Kama is "love" or "desire" while the translation of Sutra is "teachings." Historians believe that the Kama Sutra was originally a very large treatise—or, as Indians called it at the time, a voluptuary—that was composed of no fewer than one thousand chapters. In actuality, the Kama Sutra is not just one book. The standard contemporary adaptation is an abridgement of revisions that have been written over centuries – the reduction of hundreds of thousands of words into one volume.

India has been home to many of the world’s illuminated prophets, saints, and thinkers, and among them was Vatsyayana, author of the most widely accepted version of the Kama Sutra. While it is not known exactly when Vatsyayana wrote the texts, various scholars narrow the time to between the third and fifth century A.D. He was commissioned by the King to produce a how-to guide on many important issues. The Kama Sutra was written for the socially/economically powerful; however, its universal themes facilitated its tremendous cross-cultural appeal. Many kings, as well as emperors in China, believed that those who mastered the art of love gained power and advantage over their enemies and became unconquerable.

In addition to its first definition, the word "kama" is also the name for the Indian god of love in other hybridized Sanskrit languages (similar to Cupid, the Americanized symbol of love). Indian legend tells of the god Kama wielding his powers over a yogi who lived deep in the jungles of India. The yogi fell desperately in love with a yogini who complemented his powers in a uniquely feminine/sexual way. The two lovers perfected their yogi practices and learned how to direct their intense orgasmic powers to personal thought and creativity. This early positioning of Asian sexuality would sustain multiple interpretations, and thousands of years of curiosity and education.

Sex Aids in History

Kama Sutra board game from Xandria Collection

"Sex toy" or "sex aid" is a broad – often euphemistic – title given any object that is designed to sexually educate, excite, or arouse its consumer. Although it is not known precisely when the first sex toy was invented, it is believed that the use of cylindrical objects for sexual gratification dates back to Ancient Greece. This peculiarly shaped item eventually acquired the name "dildo" from the Italian word "diletto," which means to delight. Even during the time of the first writing of the Kama Sutra, women were thought to entertain themselves with phallic objects for the purpose of sexual stimulation. Eventually, the dildo’s purposes became limited and "technology" began changing and surpassing this minimalist object.

A precursor to the electronic vibrator was first developed in the mid-nineteenth century to treat a newly discovered "disease" called "female hysteria." A modern assessment of the symptoms of female hysteria would be identified as sexual arousal; during the Victorian Era, however, women were not considered sexual beings. Physicians would manually massage the agitated woman’s clitoris, exciting her to "paroxysm," or orgasm, and her symptoms would subside. By the late nineteenth century, the first electronic vibrator became available. Although it was still disguised as a doctor’s tool for treating hysteria, the electronic vibrator eventually was marketed and sold outright, appearing in a Sears & Roebuck catalog as a useful tool in curing hysteria. Eventually, the primary use for the vibrator became evident and it was no longer euphemistically advertised in mainstream publications. Meanwhile, by the early twentieth century, in technologically experimental Asian cultures, the electronic vibrator was being mass-produced.

2: Contemporary Representations of Asian Sexuality in Adult Products
By Jillian A. Glaeser, AAV Contributor

Continued from Page 1: The Asian Branding of Sexuality

Japanese Craft in Detail

Package detail by Vibratex

Marcia Jackson, Marketing Director for the adult product company Xandria Collection, described the representation of Asian product in the 2002 Holiday catalog. "Often, we offset the Asian product because it attracts attention to the product. The Asian toys sell well and deserve high profile placement." Some of these products include Chinese-style pleasure balms and ben-wa, the spheres that are generally presumed to be Japanese in origin, but Xandria's historical research suggests may have been developed in China.

One popular toy in Xandria’s catalog is the Original Deluxe Japanese Beaver. Crafted in Japan – as it clearly states on the package – it is imported by an American importer and distributor, Vibratex. Vibratex did not concept or create this product, but imported to the U.S., unpackaged, so that it could package and brand it with distinct Asian flavor.

This high-end vibrator is the ultimate combination of Asian-inflected design and marketing. Vibratex Marketing Director Dan Martin asserts that its traditional Japanese styling is the most emulated in the market, and is quick to identify the differences between the "Original Japanese Beaver" and its imitators. While the products’ ultimate goal is the same, the durability, and the detail in the design and the Asian-specific packaging of the Original Japanese Beaver distinguishes it from its competitors.

The background image for the product description is a line-drawing of a Geisha, framed by ornate floral patterns, against a background texture not unlike a rough paper used in some Japanese scrolls. An articulately worded explanation attributes the incorporation of human and animal forms to a historical prohibition Japanese against making toys resembling real genitalia. Words like "centuries-old," "tradition," and "ancient" convey that this product is more than just a vibrator: it is an Asian orgasm waiting to be discovered.

Vibratex’s well-produced catalog features 49 imported Japanese sex toys, many evocative of Asian cultures in their names – the koi, the "Big Indian" – or even their crafting, some carved with faces that clearly exhibit East Asian features. Its "Rabbit Pearl" model is currently one of the hottest products on the market thanks to the toys prominent role in the HBO series Sex in the City. But according to Audrey at Boston's Grand Opening shop, Vibratex's pricey products are among the most popular because of their high quality and durability.

Asian Odyssey: An American-Asian Sex Toy

West coast adult toy manufacturer, California Exotic Novelties Incorporated – Cal Exotic – is another distributor of Asian-themed sex toys. Unlike the importer Vibratex, Cal Exotic concepts and designs its "Asian Odyssey" toys in the U.S., has them manufactured in Taiwan, and returned here for packaging. It designed a product line based on a seductive Japanese model named (or at least trademarked as) Fujiko. A Marketing Director at Cal Exotic described the concept for the line as an opportunity to target a niche market that would respond to the peculiar styling of the products and the ethnic appeal of the spokeswoman.

The most popular and unusual product in the line is "Fujikos’s Asian Odyssey with Dual Prong Stimulator." This purple, battery-powered toy’s design is highly unusual, with teeth-like stimulators flanking a short, thick, bumpy center with a large, globular tip. The packaging features the suggestively dressed Fujiko, and wording that seems purposefully clumsy, fabricated to feel like the translation of Japanese writing into "Engrish". All the product’s elements seem emphasize the foreign-ness of the product, and the notion that Asian Odyssey-branded sex toys are like no others.

An American-Chinese-Indian Guide
Technology has broadened the category of sex instruction in the centuries since the Kama Sutra, adding instructional videos to the expanding list. Romantic Arts, Inc. produces videos that are designed to arouse, educate, and mostly entertain the viewers. Capitalizing on the marketing appeal of Asian sex aids, it produces a video entitled, Kama Sutra - The Sensual Art of Lovemaking: Positions of the Tao, referencing two very different Asian representations.

The video features three couples – including one Asian woman and a white man – demonstrating a variety of sexual positions which commentary that references the Tao, occasionally intercut with illustrations of Indian figures from the Kama Sutra and talking head sex therapists. The incongruous pairing of these Asian icons emphasizes this video’s intention to evoke the Far East. The general consumer, however, is unlikely to question the pairing of Indian and Chinese doctrine, and more likely to focus on the entertaining aspect of the video.

These are not the typical sex aids found in roadside sex shops, where top-selling items are movies and magazines – products that seem to require little or no pro-activity, and contain very little cultural specification. In traditional sex shops, educating oneself about Asian culture is likely the last thing on the consumer’s mind. These three items, however, represent a newer, more sophisticated sex toy being marketed to educated, discerning consumers who are obliquely aware of cultural differences and willing to experiment. The ideal marketing channel for these products is an online distributor such as Adam & Eve, Good Vibrations, and Xandria Collection.

Orientalism or Cultural Openness?
Why the American fascination with Asian sex toys? One possible explanation is the manifestation of classic Orientalism. Described by Edward Said, Orientalism is the scholarly thought system created by the first Orientalists – those who translated the writings of "the Orient" into European languages. Orientalism held that by knowing the culturally backward and inferior Orient, the West was thought to be able to dominate and own it. The female in the Orient is similarly seen as exotic, sensual, passive, and willing to be dominated. Said’s representation includes East and South Asia, as well as the Middle East and Muslim culture. Applying these concepts of Orientalism to the American fascination with Asian sex toys is plausible on the surface: mainstream Americans may want to demystify or dominate the Orient or Asia by literally owning a small piece of its culture.

The marketing approach of companies and websites in lumping together all parts of the Orient is also directly descended from an Orientalist viewpoint. Distinctions are blurred, for example, between the origins of the Kama Sutra in India and the Tao in China, as the Romantic Arts videotape illustrates. Although some products occasionally distinguish between Indian and East Asian women, cultural motifs, and philosophies, few distinctions are drawn among Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines.

But if this Asian cultural branding is not always accurate, it may still have an educational value. The fascination with Asian sex toys on the surface appears to be a fascination with the mystical and the different. Marketing of Asian-styled sex toys is frequently targeted at the middle- to upper-income segment of American women and couples. Those who seek out and use Asian sex toys may be more open to culturally diverse experiences than other types of consumers. Perhaps the popularity of ancient Asian materials reflects the sexual immaturity of American collective culture, searching for a deeper understanding of our own sexuality.

In the end, what are we to make of the American fascination with Asian sex toys and Asian sexuality – literally inviting mechanized fabrications of sexuality in to our most intimate spaces? Globalization expert Thomas Friedman believes that bridging the gap between cultures is capable if, and only if, we are able to "protect our cultures and environments while getting the best out of everyone else’s." If the net effect of mainstream America inviting Asian sexuality into its lives and bedrooms results in a deepening and enrichment of our individual and collective sexualities, then the benefits would outweigh the risks. In the end, we should be comfortable embracing, at least with regard to our sexuality and our bedrooms, the oft-repeated mantra, "Think globally, act locally."


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