The breasts of Bali: An update

Abandoned souvenir painting shop, Ubud, Bali (photo by Isham Cook, 2019).

And our women would have to cover their breasts as if they were whores…
Vicki Baum, Love and Death in Bali

If you wonder what years of living in Bali — as opposed to Elizabeth Gilbert’s four months of Eat, Pray, Love fame — might do for the soul, long-time expat Diana Darling has bequeathed to us the delightful novel, The Painted Alphabet (Editions Didier Millet, 1992), a lush reimagining of the Dukuh Siladri folktale, from which I highlight the following quotation. Sent packing by her parents to be brought up by the witch Dayu Datu, the naughty eight-year-old Ni Klinyar is provided with an assemblage of gifts to bear to her new guardian:

Four sacks of raw rice, a black rooster, three batik sarongs, two thousand Chinese coins, several loops of cotton string (black, red, and plain white), a young yellow coconut and various other implements of Balinese ritual, plus several more unusual items — a size 32AA brassiere, a bottle of nail polish remover, and a Japanese-Indonesian dictionary. (ch. 7)

We have here in this odd collection of incommensurables an example of the Borges-style list—referring to the master Argentine writer’s penchant for leavening his tales with bits of surrealism. Lest you assume this kind of invention is confined to the world of fiction, we find another such list of curiosities in Colin McPhee’s memoir of his Bali stay in the early 1930s, A House in Bali. An earthquake has released evil spirits and his ill-protected house evidently becomes haunted. He seeks out a priest for advice. There is nothing intentionally playful about the list of sacrificial offerings the priest demands with a straight face he must assemble if the purification is to be successful:

For this you will slaughter one young bull, one goose, one goat, one dog with a three-colored hide, one duck with similar markings, one young male pig, one chicken with feathers growing the wrong way, five hens of five different colors, and twenty-five ducks. You will also need six hundred duck eggs, six hundred bananas, and five thousand Chinese cash. The offerings prepared in advance will include two roast pigs, ten roast chickens, ten roast ducks, five baskets of rice, flowers and cakes, and five skeins of thread in the five colors. (ch. “Ida Bagus Gede expels the demons”)

Bali’s age-old Hinduism, which is itself imbued with an even older indigenous animism, has given rise to one of the most mystically inclined of societies. The religious routine is thickly laid on everywhere: the dance-like moves you perform to avoid stepping on the palm-leaf tray offerings scattered on every sidewalk, the ubiquitous split stone gates of street-front gardens signifying the parting of the material world, the shops that close for weeks as the owner attends a relative’s cremation ceremony, the houses that can’t be bought or built and the shops that can’t open without an elaborate ceremony to appease the local spirits.

Hindu-inspired art (early 18th c.), Klungkung Palace, Semarapura, Bali.

Yet when I consider the strange superstitions of my own homeland and how much of the population is stuck in a magical apprehension of the world, including a disturbing number of people I’ve met, I don’t find Bali so alien. I refer to those who believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago and is flat, the dinosaurs were wiped out not by an asteroid but lack of space on Noah’s Ark, a zygote is a person, nuclear war is desirable as it will hasten the Rapture, the first female Presidential candidate to win the popular vote ran a pedophile ring out of a pizza restaurant, and the sight of a woman breastfeeding her child in public is offensive. I always experience renewed shock by the last item in this American basket of bizarrables. With every fresh news report of a hapless nursing mother being harassed in public or even arrested, I seem to be encountering it for the first time, so astonishing and inexplicable is this taboo. We can lay the blame at the feet of one outraged Calvinist pastor from Boston named Hiram Bingham who in 1819, with the backing of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, charged off to Hawai’i—presumably to see for himself—and almost singlehandedly succeeded in forcing the native women to don Mother Hubbards, upon reports they went topless. If there’s one thing to be said about Bingham that resonates with males today, he was obsessed with the female breasts.

Two decades later, a young American sailor on a whaling ship sailed some 2,500 miles to the south into a tropical paradise, the island of Nuku Heva in the Marquesas, whose inhabitants were the ancestors of the Hawai’ians. Before dropping anchor, the sailors found themselves surrounded by scores of swimming beauties, the sashes wrapped around their hips the only nod to modesty as they climbed aboard. They then lay supine on the deck awaiting intercourse with the stunned crew, and we don’t mean spoken intercourse. The sailor wrote up his experiences on the island after jumping ship and turned it into a book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), which became a bestseller in both the US and the UK. The author, Herman Melville, knew of the events in Hawai’i and was thus able to appreciate his pristine setting before French missionaries in the succeeding decades would proceed to corrupt these islanders as well and achieve the prime objective of Christian missionaries the world over—the veiling and the hence sexualization of the breasts—along with other grand civilizing influences: “Let the once smiling and populous Hawaii islands, with their now diseased, starving, and dying natives, answer the question. The missionaries may seek to disguise the matter as they will, but the facts are incontrovertible; and the devoutest Christian who visits that group with an unbiased mind, must go away mournfully asking—’Are these, alas! the fruits of twenty-five years of enlightening?’”

Ancient erotic sculpture, Monkey Forest, Ubud.

By the time the great Paul Gauguin set foot in the Marquesas, six decades after Melville, on the sister island of Hiva Oa, the female natives had long buttoned up, as they had throughout Polynesia, including Tahiti, where the artist had just spent the greater part of a decade. This may come as a surprise given the plethora of olive-skinned nudes in his paintings. He had to coax them out of their clothes. He managed this by inviting schoolgirls in their teens and older, anyone he could manage, to his house to view his art. Strategically tacked on a wall of his studio were pornographic postcards he had acquired in Europe. Whenever one of his lovely visitors gazed curiously at the photos, for they had never seen the like, she would feel his hand creeping onto her buttocks as he propositioned her to pose for him. Most couldn’t surmount their disgust at the oozing syphilitic sores on his legs, barely hidden by the Polynesian wrap around his hips, his sole article of clothing.

Gauguin has been reduced in our present politically enlightened era to a caricature more repulsive than pathetic (Ian Littlewood’s Sultry Climates being one example), not wholly without justification, as the prospect of fresh women in the backwater of the Marquesas who didn’t know he was diseased was the very reason he made the move from Tahiti, where, as lore has it, he had been notorious among the locals.

You might suppose I’m being ironic in referring to Gauguin as “great,” but not wholly. In defense of the man, an examination of the facts reveals a more nuanced situation. To begin with, syphilis was widespread everywhere, having coursed around the world like wildfire since its first appearance in Europe three centuries earlier. By the close of the Elizabethan era in England alone, most sexually active adults and many congenitally infected children were afflicted (for more gory details see my Shakespeare sex and violence starter kit). Gauguin would not have been the only Polynesian resident to have the disease. On the contrary, Europeans stood as good a chance of being infected by native islanders, who first received the bacterium from Spanish explorers, as infecting them. Its general virulence had somewhat abated by the nineteenth century, but your beloved Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Charles Baudelaire, Abraham Lincoln, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Leo Tolstoy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, and many others are known or suspected to have been ravaged by it. There was, of course, no cure until the discovery of antibiotics. Being a syphilitic carrier was not necessarily regarded as a question of sexual morality or of morality at all, but as an unfortunate and pretty much inexorable bodily scourge. In the scheme of things, being spared the pox only increased your chances of succumbing to tuberculosis, typhoid, cholera, diphtheria or smallpox (the latter alone killed 300 million people in the twentieth century). And Gauguin’s motives in moving to the Marquesas weren’t all licentious. Those islands still maintained a Maori tradition of facial tattooing that had fascinated him for years. Meanwhile, it was his souring relations with the Catholic bishop, the gendarmes, and other enemies in Tahiti due to his political rabble-rousing, more than the receding prospect of fresh bodies, which gave him the excuse he needed to make the leap to the new island (Sweetman).

The story also goes that once the Marquesan women dried up, Gauguin made a last desperate appeal to any female passersby by mounting above the entrance of his dwelling a wooden sign carved with the words, “Maison du Jouir” (“House of Pleasure”), jouir being a double entendre for orgasm. The man was indisputably a lecher, as male artists often are. But what might seem nothing other than a pathetic personal ad writ large can be reevaluated as well. The placard was in fact an elaborate frieze of three-dimensional figures; its accompanying text would have been legible only to those who had approached the house and were literate in French. There was also a beautiful vertical pair of carvings along the sides of the entrance reading “Be mysterious” and “Be happy being in love,” and two more laterally placed along the entrance floor. All five panels were rescued upon Gauguin’s death in 1903 and are now displayed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Three years later in 1906, a major retrospective of several hundred of Gauguin’s works was exhibited at the Salon d’Automne, with a younger generation of painters present, including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy, and André Derain. It was one of the founding events of Modernism. All were blown away by the riot of unencountered colors, the free play of forms, the pursuit of non-Western artistic media, the frank sexuality, and the striking idea of abiding in a culture on the opposite side of the planet for artistic inspiration. Gauguin’s and several Cezanne retrospectives around the same time were the two decisive influences on the world’s most famous modern painting, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907.

So began the cult of Western expat artists venturing to distant Oriental utopias for inspiration. Matisse had to see for himself where Gauguin’s colors came from and visited Tahiti in 1930, though he stayed for only two months. Next was Swiss artist Theo Meier who arrived in 1932. He stayed for longer but was disabused by the reality of the place, far more priggish than Gauguin’s paintings had led him to believe. Two years later Meier set sail for another location known for its naked maidens. He had heard rumors of an expat painter, the German Walter Spies, who had been in Bali since 1927 and was assembling an enviable cast of friends in his own “studio of the tropics” (Gauguin’s phrase) in Ubud, already an established artists’ enclave on the island.

Picture of traditional Bali scene hanging in my guesthouse in Ubud.

In the Western imaginary, all tropical paradises are essentially the same place, though Bali is as far from Tahiti to its east as it is from Istanbul, Turkey, to its west. Bali, however, delivered: the native women really did go about topless, and not only when breastfeeding or bathing in the river but in all their daily activities, the only exceptions being upper-class women who bore their status in their apparel, ceremonial dress worn at court, and dancers and theatrical performers, though toplessness in the royal context was once the norm throughout South and Southeast Asia: “Neither men nor women in the first millennium [C.E.] routinely covered the upper part of the body; this remained the case in non-Muslim parts of rural Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, Bali, etc.) into modern times, as in parts of South Asia itself. Court versions of women’s clothing were often sexually revealing, as a vast body of evidence from Indian sculpture and literature makes clear” (Samuel).

Claude Lévi-Strauss’s quip in Tristes Tropiques that “the tropics are not so much exotic as out of date” applies to Bali: it was the last of the island paradises to cover up. It’s significant it was no longer the missionaries but a homegrown leader whose sexual propriety was shaped by Western puritanical morality, despite or rather because of his leftist ideology, when the dour nationalist Bagus Sutèja’s first decree upon becoming governor of the island in 1958 was to banish the breasts (in Thailand it was the Hitler-admiring dictator Plaek Pibulsonggram who had put a stop to that country’s toplessness in 1939). It didn’t happen right away; there was much resistance evidently, as female natives struggled to understand the reason for having to confine their chest. During my stay in Ubud, my hired driver, in his forties and too young to know firsthand, seemed to think women had all covered up by the 1970s when I asked him. It was probably a bit earlier, before the tourism boom. In any case, it’s ironic that this transpired in the freewheeling ’60s when back in the 1930s Bali’s tourist industry actively promoted its bare-breasted women (Vickers).

1930s travel poster by the Netherlands’ Travellers Official Information Bureau, printed in Adrian Vickers, Bali: A Paradise Created. Vickers’ publisher used this poster for the book’s cover but covered up the woman’s breasts.

I should add that Western society as well had long had a fairly relaxed attitude toward the breasts until the anomalous eruption of the Victorian era. Throughout Europe in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries (before that the historical record is more obscure), women were free to display their nipples in public, though there was an etiquette to it. Unmarried women were given more leeway. The “virgin” Queen Elizabeth was hence free to expose her breasts around Court and is known to have done so. Lower-class women who could not afford the “extreme décolletage” variety of bodice untied their chemise instead to let their breasts peek out. Numerous European paintings of tavern scenes reveal hands wandering on improperly secured bosoms. Upper-class women sitting for portraits could display one nipple to signal they were betrothed, both nipples if they were a mistress. With the historical evidence in mind, being upset at the contemporary “nip slip” on live American TV is a function of petty Victorian morality, prosecuted more eagerly in the U.S. than it ever was in England. And if this does apply to you, you can always visit more museums. But alas in our era, what the missionaries dreamed of but could not achieve is fast coming to pass through technology: the rapid dwindling of toplessness and nudity at nudist beaches the world over due to the ubiquitous presence of cellphone and face-recognition CCTV cameras. It could be that in the future the only place you’ll be able to find women going about topless will be those scattered jungles and hill tribes where covering up has never quite penetrated, Laos for example.

In 1937 Walter Spies, the German painter, moved to the remote countryside of Iseh, near Bali’s Mount Agung volcano, to escape his hectic socializing and concentrate on his painting. When Spies later moved back to Ubud, he let the aforementioned Theo Meier take over the idyllic house in Iseh. Over the next two decades, Meier netted scores of local female lovers, nude models, and several wives. He subsequently moved to Thailand to explore the female landscape there until his death in 1982. His paintings are now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. This curious lineage of artists inheriting each other’s houses continued when American expat Daniel Reid took over Meier’s house in Chiang Mai in 1990. Reid was a classic hippie out of 1960s Berkeley who subsisted on LSD, opium, and whatever else he could get his hands on while vagabonding around the Middle East and India. This was followed by years in Taiwan where he claims to have slept with over 2,000 women, and then Thailand, by which time he had acquired expertise in Chinese medicine and sexual Taoism, popularized in The Tao of Health, Sex, and Longevity, and recounted in his memoir, Shots from the Hip (Reid had moved to a different house in Chiang Mai when I visited him in 2019, where he ran an internal-cleansing massage therapy business with his Taiwanese wife Snow).

As for Walter Spies, he had little predilection for female nudes; he preferred naturalistic settings for his art and teenage boys for his bedmates. Inspired by the jungle scenes of Henri Rousseau, his paintings were so gorgeous they influenced native Bali artists and now fetch over a million dollars at auction. He came to a tragic end when he was unceremoniously deported from Bali in 1938 for pederasty and died a day out of port when his ship was bombed by the Japanese. Spies’ 1930s circle also included the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, the novelist Vicki Baum, and the Canadian composer Colin McPhee and his wife Jane Belo, one of Mead’s proteges. McPhee’s A House in Bali, cited at the outset of this essay, is a charming but enigmatic memoir of his Bali years. There is a great deal of scene painting and memorable detail on the local culture, but almost nothing about women or their breasts; nor does his wife merit a single mention in the entire book, though she was with him every day. McPhee regularly employs “I” rather than “we”; the reader unaware he was married would assume the occasional “we” refers to his servants. That McPhee was, in fact. gay partly accounts for this, though it seems he was a bit of a closeted one, or at least he chose to be more circumspect than Spies; there are references to the mundane activity of bathing in a nearby creek with one of his male servants and that’s it.

Colin McPhee’s private cook, the girl Rantun, as photographed in his memoir, A House in Bali.

The narrative takes on greater clarity when one realizes McPhee’s real passion was not people but the strange, dense murmur of the Balinese orchestra known as the gamelan. He traveled all over the countryside investigating every gamelan ensemble he could find (all villages possessed one), lavishing particular attention on the finer musicians and composers, in order to extract their music out of them, transcribe it, and work the exotic sounds into his own compositions. This music was his true love object, which he pursued with the relentlessness of an obsessive lover, and he sought to convey its effect on the reader in flights of erotically leavened prose:

There was something dark and secret about their ancient craft, for they had to do with metal, cold mysterious product of the underworld, charged with magic power. For centuries they manufactured from the same substance the instruments of both music and death, the resonant gongs, the spears and thin-edged krises. In their craft the elements of life and death were strangely united. For a gong when struck can (or once could) dispel the demons, bring rain, wind; or give, when bathed in, health and strength. And music, which is the most ecstatic voice of life, rang from the bronze keys even as they were hammered out in the forges, over fires that had burned from time immemorial. (pt 3, “The Gamelan of Semara”)

Vicki Baum, an Austrian author of a bestselling novel about Berlin, Grand Hotel, turned her 1935 Ubud sojourn into the historical novel Love and Death in Bali, recounting the 1906 Puputan massacre. Here the breasts are treated not with any special attention, except where their prominence merits mention: “The habit of carrying loads on their heads gave them an erect carriage and a rhythmic step, and their breasts and shoulders were at once soft and muscular.” Elsewhere, the breasts serve to reveal the character of those reacting to them, such as the villager Pak’s feelings about his wife, “how ugly [she] was with her untidy hair and hanging breasts.” The breasts are never sexualized, and appropriately so, as the bare female figure was considered the most prosaic of sights, capable of being eroticized only through expensive clothes and adornment. But at the same time, Baum’s novel is largely devoid of love and passion, despite its title; there is no obsession of any sort, let alone sexual, anything on the scale of McPhee’s gamelan. Her scene painting and dialogue is workmanlike and often flat. The book’s main redeeming feature is the fascination of its dramatic irony, as the protagonists, several Balinese families, comprehend all too slowly how the chain of events that began with a few fishermen grabbing some flotsam from a wrecked Chinese trading ship results in a Dutch naval invasion of the island and the slaughter of a thousand of their countrymen.

Balinese gamelan music CD. You won’t see traditional Balinese dancers going topless, but you can’t fault the marketing savvy of this cover.

The Japanese occupation of Bali put an end to the first tourist wave (Theo Meier lingered on until 1955), and it wasn’t until the 1970s, after decades of poverty, the devastating 1963 eruption of Mount Agung, and a protracted and vicious anti-Communist purge, that the island started to come to life again. Bali today has become popular with Western female tourists and expats, including some long-established ones such as the aforementioned Diana Darling, and an intriguing Canadian woman, Cat Wheeler, who has been living in Ubud off and on since the 1980s. I suppose what attracts foreign women to Bali more than other tropical paradises is its freedom from the Muslim restrictiveness of the rest of Indonesia, the absence of a garish Thailand-style sex industry, and a reputation for being a peaceful place where harassment of women is relatively scarce. Wheeler has written an eccentric yet not unenjoyable book, Bali Daze: Freefall Off the Tourist Trail. As expected, the book is free of a single reference to Bali’s old reputation for its topless natives. She does have this to say, however:

In warm climates and cultures that are deeply social, the public water supply has been a traditional meeting place. The pragmatic Balinese take this a step further by taking off their clothes and jumping in….Yet Balinese women consider the bikini top and tiny pair of shorts that some western women wear around Ubud unacceptably immodest. (p. 81)

Wheeler does not seem all that much interested in people, much less things like love and relationships. Her descriptions of her life center around her garden. The unflinching focus on her fish, birds, and insects, and her dogs, begins to feel claustrophobic in a sweltering hothouse way and reminds me of McPhee’s preoccupations with gamelan music. Readers noticed this absence of the human dimension, as Wheeler acknowledged in her follow-up book, Retired, Rewired: Living Without Adult Supervision in Bali: “If I wrote about the expats in Ubud, I’d have to leave town.” Yet like McPhee, she does succeed in sexing-up her material in subtle ways, as if every Western writer on Bali cannot help but eroticize the island somehow, as when she writes of “copulating frogs” and the sex life of cucumbers. I have nothing against nature writing—will one day get around to Edward O. Wilson’s Naturalist and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which have been sitting on my bookshelf for ages—but I was hoping to be more enlightened about the Balinese today.

Idealized contemporary nudes photographed by J. P. Navicet, Navicet Arts Gallery, Ubud.

I gave one more book a shot, Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, the last third of which recounts her 2004 stay in Bali. A memoir about her career and relationship crises, the three countries are never more than an exotic backdrop to her internal psychodrama. The elderly Balinese healer she hangs out with, Ketut, indulges the attractive American woman and mouths for her spiritual benefit such platitudes as, “Smile with face, smile with mind, and good energy will come to you and clean away dirty energy.” The book teeters on the edge of banality. But there is one interesting development that threatens to thrust the narrative in a different direction, one protruding thread the extraction of which would cause the whole thing to unravel. Early on in her stay, Gilbert runs through the usual capsule history of the place. There is a sole reference to Bali’s age-old toplessness: “Margaret Mead…despite all the naked breasts, wisely called Balinese civilization on what it truly was, a society as prim as Victorian England: ‘Not an ounce of free libido in the whole culture.’” Gilbert’s source for this Mead quote is Adrian Vickers’ Bali: A Paradise Created (cited above). What Mead actually said was even more snobbish: “‘Not an ounce of free intelligence or free libido in the whole culture.’” This was after all a rather insular group of Western intellectuals who had few close interactions with locals, apart from Spies who spoke the language. For all of Mead’s groundbreaking work on indigenous sexuality in Samoa, it’s an honest comment which merely reflects her status as an outsider.

Meanwhile, Gilbert befriends another healer named Wayan, who runs a “Traditional Balinese Healing Center,” where she seeks help for a bruised leg from a bicycle accident. The healer is an attractive and spunky female in her thirties with a pronounced sexual sense of humor. As her business barely brings in enough to pay the rent, Gilbert takes pity on the woman and launches a campaign among her friends back home to fund enough money so Wayan can buy a small house for herself and her daughter. She manages to raise $18,000, but the story takes an unexpected turn when Wayan inexplicably delays the purchase, using various excuses—this month or that plot of land wasn’t spiritually propitious—only to ask for another $22,000. Gilbert suspects she’s being scammed, but her newly acquired Brazilian boyfriend and Bali expat Felipe reassures her this is the normal way the Balinese negotiate. Wayan does finally acquire the house and it turns out well in the end.

The movie adaptation of Eat, Pray, Love elides these complications in the interest of conciseness. The movie also makes Wayan look much older, to downplay her sexuality, employing an actress who looks to be in her sixties, and there is of course no reference to the true nature of Wayan’s job, as described in the book:

Then, to our lurid fascination, she described the different massages she does for men’s impotent bananas, how she grips around the base of the thing and kind of shakes it around for about an hour to encourage the blood to flow, while incanting special prayers….But that’s not all Wayan can do. Also, she told us, she is sometimes called upon to be a teacher of sex for a couple who are either struggling with impotence or frigidity, or who are having trouble making a baby. She has to draw magic pictures on their bedsheets and explain to them which sexual positions are appropriate for which time of the month….Sometimes Wayan has to actually be there in the room with the copulating couple, explaining just how hard and fast this must be done….But then Wayan confides something extremely interesting. She said that if a couple is not having any luck conceiving a child, she will examine both the man and the woman to determine who is, as they say, to blame. (ch. 100)

If he’s to blame, she spares him a loss of face by announcing it’s his wife who has the problem and needs to be treated by her alone. In these sex therapy sessions, Wayan invites young males around the neighborhood to come and satisfy and even impregnate the wife, unbeknownst to the husband yet reassuring him of his virility when she gets pregnant. I guess I have to give Gilbert her due for not excising this content, content which contradicts everything the book stands for, as this side of Wayan’s personality threatens to undo the integrity of the narrative, even as it renders her character more three-dimensional. Gilbert had to choose between maintaining a genteel façade of New Age propriety for her female audience or doing the opposite, scandalizing it by presenting a Balinese woman who is considerably more compelling and sexual than Gilbert herself. A more incisive female author (no male author could get away with it these days) would have exploited this extraordinary window into the sexual practices of one Balinese woman and devoted the entire book to Wayan, or even joined her life as participant-observer, business partner, co-conspirator or lover. So much for the Victorian primness of Balinese women.

Benignly erotic souvenir paintings in Ubud shop, marketed to Western tourists of more prim sensibilities.

I am cognizant of how “progressive” scholarship has trickled down into common discourse in the form of a more “political” or “woke” awareness, a heightened alertness to exploitation in all its forms. In our current, seemingly enlightened era, it is taken for granted that to entertain any sort of promiscuous motive while sojourning in the Third World is anathema and disqualifies the traveler from educated society. In the postcolonial conception of things, we have at long last overcome and outgrown a millennium-long regime of Western imperialism, beginning with the Crusades, directed against dark-skinned peoples who because they were physically “Other,” alien and savage, were deserving of conquest. Conquest and control, in turn, feminized and sexualized these cultures as “virgin territory” and created the preconditions for the first wave of global sex tourism in the nineteenth century, pioneered by Sir Richard Burton, Pierre Loti, Paul Gauguin, and other English and French notables who ranged over distant locales on a whim and set up shop wherever they pleased. Thus were England and France able to “do with the territories what they would have wished to do with its women,” and treat “the Orient as if it were the harem of the West” (Schick). Or as Littlewood puts it, “tourism can be used to buy the sexual privileges of a former age.”

Irvin Schick’s study is informative and can be recommended for his illuminating research into the colonialist mindset and its inseparable female Other over the centuries. But while for the most part objective and analytical, the author can’t refrain from a moralistic condemnation of the contemporary traveler, as when he writes, “Southeast Asian countries, especially Thailand and the Philippines, have become the new ‘sex capitals’ to which Europeans and Americans flock….to purchase partners with whom to indulge in pedophilia and other illicit practices.” A reductive portrayal indeed. Pedophiles have been known to seek out minors in the Third World in the belief they can get away with it, but they constitute a minute fraction of the general population of tourists from developed countries. American child predators of more than minimal intelligence have a special reason to refrain from even considering the idea. The United States has the most punitive child sex laws in the world, and any American caught engaging in such activities abroad is subject to U.S. law. Law enforcement in most of these tourist destinations happily cooperates with their American counterparts. International pedophiles are tracked by Interpol and the FBI, prosecuted when caught, and splashed all over the national media before their imprisonment and subsequent deportation back home, where more imprisonment awaits them in the grim U.S. penal system.

The adult sex business is undeniably vast and Southeast Asia is a hot destination for it. But it’s not so easy to ascertain who participates and who doesn’t. There is much overt prostitution in the well-known haunts of Thailand and the Philippines. But what about your average “massage therapy” establishment which serves clientele of both sexes? The female customer emerges from her treatment satisfied, while the male customer who is treated by the same masseuse an hour later gets a bit of erotic teasing or even a happy ending. This is the vast grey area of the global sex industry today, that is if “sex” is the right word since there is no clear definition of what constitutes the sexual act in many instances.

Bali is not presently known as a destination offering much in the way of red-light entertainment, yet its massage scene, as expected, falls in this grey area as well. I try out a number of massage shops in Ubud, Canggu, and Kuta on my visit.[1] Most are humdrum and disappointing, in terms of so many of the masseuses’ lack of training and skill. With one exception: a shop in an upscale bungalow-style hotel off a busy street in Ubud, which I take my wife to. She chooses a spa treatment involving milk and lavender baths followed by a massage by the proprietor, an enticing woman in her late thirties, who would have been perfectly cast as Wayan in the Eat, Pray, Love movie.

For my own “four-hands” massage, the owner assigns me two masseuses who arrive a few minutes later by moped. I am already face down on the table when they arrive. I try to guess what they look like from the feel of their hands on my body. The one working my upper torso is noticeably lacking in technique and an immediate letdown, but the one working my legs is skillful and is far more thorough. Her strong fingers slip under my underpants (naked massage here being proscribed) and dig down to the erogenous zones around my ass and inner thighs. When I turn over, I am able to size them up. The inept masseuse is in her 30s, dressed in a blue silk kebaya and is very pretty, but I dismiss her. The expert masseuse is around 50, wearing eyeglasses, slacks and a T-shirt, fat and ordinary looking. I have trouble conveying to her that I want her for another half hour, with her lack of English. The boss interrupts my wife’s massage and comes to the rescue to translate with her own limited English. Upon resuming, she proceeds to work her hands further down the lower belly and pubic region before lifting my erect member out of my underwear and applying similar techniques to it. There are only a few minutes left and perhaps uneasy at my wife’s presence on the other side of the partition, she refrains from releasing me.

With female toplessness long banned in Bali, I might be asked at this point, why does the topic even matter? But it does matter, in the copious iconography of the female breasts all around me, the framed photos of topless rural women placed in guesthouses and restaurants to conjure up an atmosphere, the plethora of nude paintings in the many souvenir shops and galleries, the lore and mystique of this past on display in bookshops, the voluptuous Hindu naked goddess sculptures scattered along the streets, and in the intimate interactions with locals. It’s everywhere, as if the traces of a repressed past have multiplied in myriad new guises.

[1] This was in mid-2019. The Bali tourism industry has of course since been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic. We hope of course it can fully recover.


Baum, Vicki. Love and Death in Bali. Tuttle, 1937.

Darling, Diana. The Painted Alphabet. Editions Didier Millet, 1992.

Gilbert, Elizabeth. Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. Penguin, 2006.

Littlewood, Ian. Sultry Climates: Travel and Sex. J. Murray, 2001.

McPhee, Colin. A House in Bali. Pickle Partners, 1946.

Melville, Herman. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. Penguin Books, 1996 (orig. pub. 1846).

Reid, Daniel P. Shots from the Hip, Vol. 1: Sex, Drugs and the Tao. Lamplight Books, 2019.

Reid, Daniel P. The Tao of Health, Sex, and Longevity: A Modern Practical Guide to the Ancient Way. Revised edition, Atria Books, 2011 (orig. pub. 1988).

Samuel, Geoffrey. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge UP, 2008.

Schick, Irvin C. The Erotic Margin: Sexuality and Spatiality in Alterist Discourse. Verso, 1999.

Sweetman, David. Gauguin: A Life. Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Vickers, Adrian. Bali: A Paradise Created. Tuttle, 2012.

Wheeler, Cat. Bali Daze: Freefall Off the Tourist Trail. Tokay Press, 2013.

Wheeler, Cat. Retired, Rewired: Living Without Adult Supervision in Bali. CV. Bayu Graphic, 2016.

*     *     *

This essay appears in Sexual Fascism: Essays, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

Related posts by Isham Cook:
The sewage system
Toilet terror
American fascism: The sexual rage of the state
Massage diary: Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam
Massaging the Yin-Yang in Pattaya
The breast etiquette project

1 reply »

  1. Having travelled several times over Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand I’ve yet to venture as far as Indonesia or Bali but your article has certainly whetted my appetite with some great suggestions of further reading. Thank you.

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