Coffee and massage in Burma

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Walk in any direction in many Asian cities and you will run into a house of massage. My bloodhound’s nose could sniff out the sparse offerings on hand in dour Ulan Bator, Seoul, and New Delhi. India frowns on the practice but relies on its traditional Ayurvedic treatments (e.g. streaming warmed oil over the forehead) as a foreign-tourist draw, though it’s usually performed on you by a person of the same sex. The elderly man who gave me a body massage in Agra seemed more interested in the hard-on he had incited by inching his fingers under the netted briefs I was required to wear. In Seoul they had me don a hospital gown-like contraption with flaps opening up the respective body parts. Korean barbershops used to be available for all manner of massage and you’d think the city would have quite a selection today, but even the Itaewon nightlife area, now considerably cleaned up since my previous visit two decades ago, turned up only a single shop with a “No sex massage” sign in the entrance.

In Vietnam, on the other hand, they take you there. A hot woman in Hanoi came up on a motorcycle. “Marijuana? Massage?” she asked, inviting me to jump on. Traveling with a Chinese girlfriend at the time who was walking a few paces behind, I wasn’t at liberty but was dying of curiosity, even at the possibility of being ferried somewhere to be beaten up and robbed.

It is so ubiquitous in Asia that it practically stands for Asia. Finding a massage service there is normally as easy as finding a church in any city in my home country, the US. In Rangoon, however, I wasn’t having much luck.

The mile-long stretch from our hotel to the Bogyoke Aung San Market on the morning of our first day revealed nothing that resembled a massage establishment. Nor did we espy anything after another fifteen miles of crisscrossing the city center on foot over the rest of the day (I like to get to know a city by walking it). We wound up all rubbery back near where we had started out, at the Coffee Club, which had a balcony over a busy street, good brew and an Internet connection that worked (our hotel’s didn’t). Heading up Wadan Street to the hotel, we passed by open-air restaurants, snack vendors, hair dressers, car mechanics, and one mysterious shop whose loudspeakers blasted the Buddhist chanting of a group of females sitting under a tent projecting out onto the street. An attractive woman of about forty, leaning against a doorway and dressed in a white blouse and slacks rather than the usual longyi (the sarong worn by almost all Burmese), threw me a provocative smile. A prostitute or a masseuse?

Chen crashed in our room for a bit while I went for some massage research before dinner. I headed back down the street to the doorway but the woman was there no longer; in fact I wasn’t exactly sure where it was or even if it had been a shop or a residence. But then returning to the hotel, I saw a sign for “Massage” in both English and Chinese on the door of the shop next to the hotel. I hadn’t noticed it before because a truck had been parked in front. I went in—and encountered one of the strangest massage scenes ever.

Several young men manned the counter in the drab lobby. The price was so cheap, K3,000 or about $3, I figured the only way they could make money was tips from erotic add-ons. An attendant led me down a black-painted hallway lined with industrial doors and little window slots. He looked through one and opened the door into a room thick with cigarette haze and a trio of male patrons lying on the floor on thin mattresses, each being massaged fully clothed by a girl. The attendant saw my consternation and asked if I wanted a non-smoking room. That was not the only thing I was aghast at but yes, I did, and he took me down another hallway and into an identical room with a middle-aged male patron and three vacant mattresses.

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Coffee Circles, Rangoon

I lay down on the far mattress. Two flat screen TVs had on soccer and UFC matches. A young woman entered and began palpating my legs. The other man seemed acquainted with his massage girl and they were joking and giggling together, as she jumped and squatted on him and teased him with her hands under the folds of his longyi. Meanwhile my girl had switched to a rough Thai-style folding and stretching procedure. I winced. She slipped out the door and returned with the attendant a moment later, who handed me a card with English-Burmese glosses of typical complaints. I pointed to the first on the list, “Please use less pressure,” and she eased up. She continued working on me indifferently while carrying on a conversation with the other two. Soon the session was over and she stepped out of the room.

As I gathered my things, a new pair of customers arrived and occupied the two middle mattresses, changing into provided pajama tops and readjusting their longyis for comfort. I was to keenly observe longyi habits over the course of my stay in Burma. Whereas women wrapped a flat sheet around their hips before tucking it in, men’s longyis were joined at the ends, requiring them to step into the cylinder and tuck in the sides on the left and the right. They could be seen out on the street undoing and readjusting their longyis, opening them up wide and peering down inside in a kind of machismo gesture, as if to signal to any observers that they literally still had their balls, though whether they wore underwear or not wasn’t clear. Apparently women did not: when we stepped into a woman’s shack in Pagan one day to buy one of her longyis, she whispered to Chen that she could go without underwear.

The parlor seemed quite popular, and it dawned on me what made it tick. Like Japanese hostess bars, you go for the intimacy and nurture relationships by being a regular. The bars provide a lucrative part-time job for female Japanese college students, who can be paid hundreds of dollars an evening for mere bantering and flirting with businessmen, and for more fees, indulging in light groping. Whatever flirting was permitted or encouraged at this massage parlor, the girls would have little incentive to engage one-shot foreign patrons like me, given the language barrier. Since the regular customers were local men, the routines were for their benefit. And like another curious practice in nineteenth-century America known as bundling, which allowed teenage couples to sleep together and touch each other under the covers as long as they didn’t have intercourse, with a “bundling board” typically placed between them, massage functioned in this Burmese parlor as a kind of bundling, carried out in full sight of everyone to ensure it all stayed within bounds.

The next day we returned to the Bogyoke Aung San Market but from the other direction this time, and discovered several cafés and a massage shop on nearby streets just east of the market. I was eager to try the latter since the reflexology sign out front somehow seemed promising. Alas, dedicated massage was available but only for women, they informed me, and only foot treatment was on hand for men.

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Bar Boon, Rangoon

The coffee situation was better. Chen had parked herself at the shabby Ya Kun Coffee overlooking Bogyoke Aung San Road, before moving over to the adjacent Bar Boon where I met her later. It had a loft-style interior with exposed ceiling pipes and an outdoor deck for people viewing; the lattice-crust deep-dish apple pie and mug of rich Americano were international coffeehouse caliber. On a nearby side street I found an intimate affair called Café Genius, which roasted their own and offered a choice of drip, plunge and siphon coffees (and an Internet connection that worked), but they couldn’t compete with the Bar Boon’s location and ambience. Its main competitor was the stylish Coffee Circles up on Dhammazedi Road near the Shwedagon Pagoda, which we discovered later in the day; the airy interior had an exposed ceiling, pendant glass-lamp lighting and heavy teak work-station tables. If I were living in Rangoon I’d be a regular there as well (if only the Internet worked).

Why massage and coffee? Why not massage and tea? A comparison will underscore the difference. Once in Beijing I chanced upon a teahouse that seemed at first like any other teahouse. It had a variety of teas at different prices and the standard Taiwan-style tea service provided by waitresses in cheongsams. Yet the interior was “off,” too functional, like a backwater city teahouse. Then several girls with heavy eyeliner came to my table to offer themselves for back-room activities.

That was the first time I had encountered a sex teahouse in China. They must be more widespread than I am aware of, in the south of the country perhaps, but it wasn’t the normal sort of venue for the trade. The 1990s saw a fad for prostitute café-bars with names in English like “Jane’s Café” and “Lily’s Café,” before real coffee establishments took off in Beijing with the advent of Starbucks at the turn of this century. Still, the most loyal patrons at the Lido Hotel Starbucks (and other locations with high foreigner traffic) were sex workers. Meanwhile one day some years back in the huge Golden Resources Shopping Mall I discovered an awesome fusion of coffeehouse and luxury massage center. The two shops were adjacent with separate entrances but joined on the inside. The coffee was good and there was no pressure on you to go for massage; you were drawn into the elegant lobby out of curiosity. The treatments were good too, both proficient and mildly erotic (male customers could expect some genital teasing).

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A coffeehouse in Rangoon

Throughout the East, tea stands for tradition, coffee for the contemporary. Teahouse culture, regarded as a bourgeois indulgence, was wiped out in northern China (less so in the south where it’s more entrenched) after the Revolution. You could count the number of teahouses in Beijing on one hand, until the Taiwanese Wufu chain began opening shops in the mid ’90s. An explosion of similar high-end establishments sprang up over the next decade (some with 24-hour service and private tatami rooms), before just as suddenly going out of fashion in the face of the burgeoning coffee craze. Today in Beijing, years later, Starbucks and Costa Coffee are already passé as they yield to the South Korean luxury coffeehouse invasion led by Maan Coffee and Caffe Bene. Most Chinese regard tea as much too ordinary a thing to bother going all the way to a teahouse for. The only animals you’re likely to encounter in Beijing teahouses any more are scattered businessmen seeking a quiet environment to conduct their dealings, when restaurants are too noisy.

Teahouses also have the dubious distinction of having traditionally functioned as state surveillance mechanisms. If the Communist authorities in the early decades had been smarter about it, they would have encouraged teahouse culture throughout China as an effective means of gathering intelligence, by planting spies to eavesdrop on customers—as had been the practice in Qing Dynasty teahouses. According to Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma (2004), this is still the practice in Burmese teahouses, or it was until the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010 and the relaxation of political tensions in the five years since, though these changes may only be provisional and cosmetic and things could be rolled back at any time.

I stepped into a number of old teahouses in Rangoon and elsewhere in Burma. They are cramped, cacophonous affairs with plastic stools, rickety tables and grimy floors, serving up fried snacks, syrupy instant coffee and rather plain tea. They are also plentiful in every city and town, and their open fronts are instantly accessible from the street. With some proficiency in the language, they might be fun places to hang out. They reminded me of the primitive Uighur tea bars I recall in Kashgar in western China, with their rainbow array of mixing syrups, black brick tea, homemade ice cream of obscure flavor and TV set with the volume turned up past the point of distortion. In other words, we are bull’s-eye in the Third World.

I cannot presume to know whether Burmese teahouses remain dangerous places to be caught discussing free ideas in. We can use Larkin, who was fluent in Burmese and fond of visiting them, as a guide, if not to the current reality then to the political climate before 2010. We also learn from her sad and poignant account that the Burmese, at least at that time, were so terrified of being arrested they seldom discussed politics with foreigners and were reluctant to be seen with us at all. Larkin relates how politics was off-topic even in the privacy of people’s homes she visited. She was never invited to stay overnight. This was not because she was mistrusted. It was against the law not just for foreigners but also for locals to reside in others’ homes, even for a single night, without registering the guest with the police. In every town she visited she was required to explain her daily whereabouts at the police station and tailed by spies on top of that, so secretly shacking up with Burmese she knew was out of the question.

Present-day clientele in Burmese cafés, by contrast, seem to be quite distinct from those of the teahouses—younger, hipper, wealthier, more educated and less afraid. You could call the state of the café a thermometer of the country’s current political temperature.

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A teahouse calling itself a “Cafe” in Mandalay

After Rangoon, Mandalay was a real backwater, Burma’s Midwest. Café City across from the east gate of the massive Fortress in the city center was the best on offer, reminiscent of an American Western saloon, with an adjoining airy back room built around a glass-enclosed tree. The coffee was humdrum but the place would be a nice haunt if I had to live in Mandalay. The clump of newly sprouted establishments southeast of the Fortress had promise as well, notably the marvelous Green Elephant restaurant. And then there was old Mandalay, the labyrinth of streets west of the Fortress stretching to the Irrawaddy River. Chosen at random, our hotel lay in this district, in the general vicinity of protagonist Rajkumar’s food stall where the British sepoys, a “solid mass of uniforms, advancing like a tidal wave,” cleared the road on their way to sack the Fortress in 1885 (Amitav Ghosh, The Glass Palace).

As our taxi drove us back from a day trip to Amarapura, I spotted a shop with a sign for “Body Massage” in English and made a quick mental note of the location. The only street sign I could catch, 34th St., was thankfully numbered instead of in Burmese script (the city is laid out on a grid). A few more turns and we arrived at the hotel. After dinner I set out to find the parlor on foot. I inspected every store front between 33rd and 35th and 80th and 84th streets and turned up nothing. The shop simply seemed to have disappeared in the interval. Maybe it never existed and I had only imagined it. Or it had but no longer existed. The phenomenon reminded me of the funny theory of the universe propounded by an old college friend of mine, namely that Newton and Einstein were both correct in their physics; only the universe changed in the interim. I later found out (in Thant Myint-U’s eye-opening account of China’s current creeping colonization of Burma, Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia) that Mandalay’s massage parlor scene is located over on 78th St. and caters primarily to the Chinese.

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Café City in Mandalay

Back at the hotel, the elevator door opened onto a floor with a house spa, and I stepped in. Bristling with New Age accoutrements, it turned out to be nicer than the rest of the hotel. A sixty-minute oil massage was a hefty K24,000 ($25), a price more in line with the rest of Southeast Asia. Sanda, my masseuse, was plump and pretty and dressed in matching violet top and longyi. The lavishly decorated massage room had four tables—three more than I would have preferred. It was becoming evident that private massage was not permitted in this country.

We were alone, however, and she locked the door from the inside. The usual etiquette is to let you get undressed in privacy, but she stood there and watched me undress. I lay down naked and she draped me with a towel. Great, I thought, I’m back in Thailand. It soon came off. Leaning over me at the front of the table, she worked my back down to my ass and thighs, maintaining a practiced pressure throughout, apart from the trembling of her fingers with sexual agitation. She then swung around to the foot of the table and drove up my legs all the way to my hard-on. Turning me over and hooking my legs around her waist, she pulled at the massive erection as I dug my heels into her hips, and brought me off with a handful of strokes. She finished off the hour with regular massage. As I was leaving she asked for a tip. I was a bit caught off guard at this but shouldn’t have been surprised, really, and handed her another 10,000. A flash of disappointment and then a smile, as she accepted the bill in both hands with a polite nod. I guessed 20,000 to have been more appropriate. You could say it was worth as much.

When I think of Burma and its alter ego across the border, Thailand, I think of North and South Korea. Ethnically and linguistically the Burmese and the Thai are distinct, but racially and culturally they have much in common. The two peoples look alike. Theravāda Buddhism dominates both cultures and they both wear the sarong, though in Thailand it’s more of a ceremonial than an everyday dress. Burmese cuisine, on the other hand, is more Indian than Thai. For all practical purposes they are as similar as the two Koreas on either side of the Demilitarized Zone, the one free and the other viciously repressive.

Among the worst of the modern nation-state bullies to beat up their populations, North Korea and Burma stand out. Their contrasting methods are instructive. North Korea is the smarter of the two. It knows it can’t just grind the people into the dirt without offering a compensatory sustenance in the form of some powerful religious-like symbolism. This was on graphic display everywhere I turned on a visit to the pristine capital of Pyongyang in 1995. Its precise layout and utter absence of grit and clutter resembled the miniature town of an expensive train set replete with plastic gas stations and churches (minus the gas stations and churches). Even the people looked like train-set citizens, the men dressed in regulation suits and ties and the women in dresses, infinitely on their way to work, walking with the happy snap of purpose. Coffee, not to mention massage, was hardly on the agenda. Yet the odor of sex seeped through the cracks when the retired couple hosting my home stay invited me to take a shower, and I could see the wife spying on me through the lace-adorned bathroom-door window as I undressed.

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The Viewpoint in Yawnghwe

Larkin frequently compares Burma to the nightmare world of Orwell’s 1984, but North Korea more closely matches the dystopian novel. While Burma does a better job at feeding its people, its ideological apparatus is clumsier. North Korea feeds its population more effectively with symbols. By some unfathomable alchemy the regime is able to transform the crushing misery and despair of a malnourished population into the most fervent loyalty and patriotism. The mere sight of the Great or the Dear Leader’s portrait accompanied by an announcer’s tremulous voice of ardent praise is enough to cause ordinary North Koreans to sob uncontrollably (as I witnessed at several public events). As with Orwell’s Big Brother, love and fear of the Leader fuse into a transcendent spiritual projection that extends to and forms the mental substrate of each citizen. When that happens, and your sense of self is plugged into something outside yourself, it’s all over for you. There must be a huge psychological cost to this mass doublethink. One suspects that if and when the regime collapses, half its population will go insane at the confounding new reality, though the mental clarity honed by a starvation diet may already have short-circuited this transference and resolved the contradiction in the minds of many.

In Burma, by contrast, there is no compensatory symbolism, no recompense for the people’s loyalty, no reassuring Big Brother, just a faceless dictatorship of brute intimidation and institutionalized violence. There is fear of the regime all right, but no love or respect for it, only hatred, particularly after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, when the government responded to the catastrophe by refusing international help in the immediate aftermath when tens of thousands who had initially survived were in peril from lack of water. It seems we have international revulsion over this disaster to thank for some soul-searching by the regime and its recent gestures at democratic reform.

A day’s journey downstream from Mandalay on the Irrawaddy is ancient Pagan, where over 2,000 stone temples of extraordinary beauty and strangeness have survived the past millennium, whose stupas and spires suggest an alien landscape of primeval spaceships set for launching to the heavens. Old Pagan is situated between the towns of New Pagan and Nyaungu, both within biking distance and chock full of restaurants and accommodations, though apart from the expected high-end spas in a handful of luxury hotels, no massage services were anywhere in evidence. As our bus wound through Nyaungu we did catch sight of a café with a Lavazza sign out front and the promise of brewed coffee, but a careful scouring of the same streets later on our rented bikes failed to find it—another hopeful shrine mysteriously elided from reality.

One highlight of Pagan was a woman manning a crafts stand at a temple who ran up to give me a rundown of the temple grounds. She was a grad student in history and spoke enough English to carry out a conversation. I found her immediately enticing, with her round Western eyes and face of indeterminate race and buttocks that rolled and shimmered pantyless beneath her longyi. My private tour lasted all of ten minutes before she took me over to buy some of her crafts; but she walked close and twice brushed her breast against my arm. I gave her my card and she said she would email me. She never did. I can’t get rid of the nagging suspicion she had either been discouraged or prevented from doing so by her country’s Internet police. I didn’t even get her name.

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The French Touch in Yawnghwe

Let’s consider the notion of baseline freedom, the capacity of a regime to reduce freedom to the absolute minimum possible (short of outright slavery) in order to exert maximum control over the populace. North Korea illustrates the closest thing to this baseline. In this most extreme of societies, people’s very freedom of movement is severely constrained. All citizens awake at seven o’clock in the morning to the national anthem on the radio and head to work in robotic formation. School children march to and from school singing the anthem and swinging their arms in unison. People are expected not to vary from their daily paths to and from their job. Apparently bicycles are not permitted (except in the countryside where they aid in farm work), since they enable wayward departure outside of the prescribed trajectories. It is as if the authorities have latched onto the key means of preventing any freedom of thought. When you’re afraid of so much as straying off the pavement, what kind of spontaneous movement of ideas does the mind permit? Needless to say there is zero freedom of speech; an overheard private remark can land one along with one’s family in a concentration camp.

In Burma we move up a rung on the ladder of freedom. The people’s lives aren’t micromanaged to the same extent. Nonetheless there is little freedom of speech or movement, all travel hampered by sadistic regulations against unofficial stays outside one’s domicile. Few are allowed out of the country for work or study, much less tourism (when was the last time you met a Burmese?). In Malaysia, as we have seen, I encountered a number of Burmese women working as masseuses, though it wasn’t clear whether they had managed to flee the country of their own accord or had been trafficked out.

Things like chocolate or coffee, trivial as these might otherwise seem, remain inaccessible to the majority of Burmese. Nescafé is available in teahouses for those with the leisure to partake, but quality brewed coffee and international-brand chocolates are prohibitive for all but the tiny minority of the population that can afford them. You might ask why this should matter when coffee and chocolate aren’t germane to the culture. But that is precisely why it is important. It’s not interesting to observe the extent of daily coffee consumption in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Vietnam and the Philippines, where for many in these cultures coffee is already a necessity, i.e., a breakfast drink, and readily available. It is interesting to observe coffee consumption elsewhere in Asia where it’s not a daily habit. Why is it consumed at all? What spark of curiosity or leap of the imagination leads anyone in these countries to want to try it, whether or not they like it? For that matter, why hasn’t quality tea (i.e., better than Lipton and Twinings) caught on in the US or England? What act of conceptual freedom enables any new good idea to take hold?

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A family-run café in Yawnghwe

Rangoon certainly has the most foreigner-friendly establishments in Burma but they are scattered about the large city. For the highest concentration of good restaurants, bars and cafés in one locale, Yawnghwe (Nyaungshwe) is the place to go, the feeder town for the popular boat tours around Inle Lake and its villages perched on stilts: Green Chili Restaurant, The French Touch, the Viewpoint (I chatted with a Frenchman outside the latter inquiring about the coffee, who turned out to be the owner)—to name only a few places with both enticing fare and atmosphere. The Red Mountain Estate winery with its stunning view of the valley and impressive wine was worth the trip to Yawnghwe alone.

The town also had a larger offering of massage than I was able to find anywhere else on my brief sojourn in the country. The first place I tried had just opened up, they told me. The K18,000 for a sixty-minute oil massage targeted the higher-income bracket of foreigner. I received a competent if unmemorable treatment in a room with several unoccupied tables, naked but for the towel the masseur draped over my groin. Across the street was a dingy travel service offering fully clothed massage for K7,000 by a middle-aged woman in a back room with a single bed. It too was carried out in a perfunctory manner and without the least hint of erotics.

Most massage shops billed themselves as “family massage” (which either meant a family business or “family-friendly”), performed fully clothed in an open room in the presence of other customers. Yet one of these family affairs offered oil massage on their menu, and I was eager to know how it would be carried out while clothed. It was a family business all right; children scurried about, and a notice in the entrance claimed this family’s tradition of massage went back eight generations. Two young couples traveling together (Asian American and Korean) were emerging with satisfied expressions just as I arrived.

“Wow, that was really thorough,” the American girl remarked as she rotated and caressed her shoulder. “What was in that oil, Tiger Balm?”

I took off my shoes and entered the raised wooden platform separated from the entranceway by a curtain and lined with a row of eight futons. I was presently the only customer. A masseur instructed me to take off my jeans and step into the longyi he held open for me. The hour was devoted to my legs, arms and neck. He coated my skin with a small amount of the mentholated oil (Tiger Balm in fact originated in Burma) and applied the same odd technique throughout, snapping his thumb up and down my limbs.

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A massage shop in Rangoon

Like the café culture, the extent of legal, commercially available massage can serve as an index of a country’s general level of freedom, although when dealing with the higher rungs of freedom, it’s no longer a ladder but a tree. There is no absolute freedom; there are only different kinds of freedom in greater or lesser degree. Americans enjoy many varieties of freedom, that of movement, assembly, speech (short of terrorist or hate speech), suffrage (the latter illusory in the face of moneyed politics), religion, sexual orientation, self-protection (the right to bear arms), and so forth. Yet Americans lack certain important types of freedom that exist in most other developed countries, where universal health care, affordable higher education and strict gun control are taken for granted: freedom from financial disaster due to illness or injury, freedom from debt, and freedom from violence. In this respect the US is hardly the standard bearer of liberty. On a quirkier note, Americans are not allowed to breastfeed in public (even where the law allows women to they may be prevented), drink alcohol under the age of twenty-one (in few countries is the drinking age so high), or engage in sex under the age of eighteen though marriage is allowed at sixteen; in some states, there are prohibitions against oral sex among consenting adults.

As regards commercial massage, in the US it is available in some regions or locales but not others. Since it is not practiced as a tradition the way it has been for millennia in the East (it only really grew in popularity over the past few decades), American society is still uneasy with it and tends to equate massage with prostitution. Naked massage, even between members of the same sex and even without sexual contact, is against the law as well in most venues; patrons must be draped. To be sure, the array of massage services in Burma is paltry in comparison, but only relatively so. In terms of variety and extent of massage, many countries—Thailand and China in particular—are far more liberal than the US.

What intrigues me more than societal freedom, finally, is conceptual freedom. Conceptual freedom is the ability to grasp freedom critically, in your head, and make it your own. It follows from curiosity and imagination and enables the life of genuine freedom. You can expound all you want on “freedom” without being internally free.

Sexual freedom is often scorned as a silly and indulgent cliché of the ’60s, or as an excuse to engage in reckless promiscuity. But it’s actually among the most advanced and precious of freedoms. The spirit and fortitude required to venture to try something like massage, commercial or otherwise, erotic or not, is a big deal for many people. But jump over the fence to conceptual freedom, and you wonder why people aren’t doing massage all the time, especially when they don’t have to go for commercial massage but can do it freely by themselves, among friends, after a dinner or birthday party or on any occasion. They can even do it naked. This takes some imagination, to be sure, but not all that much, when you think of it.

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