No doubt about it. There is something about sex.
In Amy Tan's The Valley of Amazement, sex is used as an instrument of power by the women protagonists. As Little Violet begins her career as a courtesan, she is given this piece of advice: "Always remember, you are creating a world of romance and illusion...you must learn all the arts of enticement and maintain a balance of anticipation and reticence..."
Would that we could claim that balance in our fast-paced modern world! Sex lures us into movie houses and on to the Internet; it creates top picks on the New York Times bestseller list; it is the favorite marketing tool for a variety of products from lingerie to socket wrenches; and it is the basis for what has long been designated "the world's oldest profession."
In Violet's world, in the carefully cultivated scenario of a first-class "flower house," as the brothels are euphemistically called, the object is to create an erotic escape for men and to attain what Magic Gourd calls the "Four Necessities" for herself: jewelry, furniture, a seasonal contract with a stipend, and a comfortable retirement.
Sex is a great paradox of human behavior.
We speak of fallen women but never fallen men. Many of us know the term "Soiled Doves," but there are no references that I know of to "Dirty Hawks." Rather these men become "players" or "studly dudes."
We react with self-righteous indignation to Miley Cyrus naked on a wrecking ball, and tsk, tsk at such unladylike behavior, yet hit YouTube millions of times to watch her do it over and over again. The man who is the recipient of Miley's twerking favors is not tsked at no doubt he's considered the victim of this young temptress's wiles. Similarly, the man who makes the highest bid for the privilege of deflowering Violet, is not looked down upon or condemned. Rather he is a hero to be envied.
In Old Shanghai there used to be a yearly contest to choose the "Top Ten Beauties" among the comeliest courtesans. They were pictured on posters and in the newspapers in an interesting parallel of our nationally televised beauty contests.
Whether we wish to admit it or not, sex seems to lie at the very center of who we are as human beings. The Puritans taught us to hate it; the Victorians told us to put a corset on it; Freud counseled that we stop suppressing it.
The dilemma of sex will always be with us, whether couched in blatant modern terms or depicted in Amy Tan's carefully separated venues of home/family/business and the finely orchestrated sex industry. All of us then, like the souls in the first circle of Dante's Inferno, are blown about on the winds of desire, which deliver some of our greatest pleasures and some of our deepest pains.
A 1930s Shanghai advertisement, author unknown
This article was originally published in November 2013, and has been updated for the
July 2014 paperback release.
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