It is not enough to say that “Lust” is a flawed article. To say that something is flawed implies that there is something of value to be found underneath exterior failures on the part of the author. However, there is almost nothing of value to be taken from “Lust” save, perhaps, a sense of the way in which deeply imperialist notions of sexuality, gender, and ethics already taint the literature surrounding the nascent field of Transgender Studies. The failings of “Lust” fall into two distinct categories: generalizations about gender variant individuals living in Thailand and an underlying current of imperialism that infects Lingis’s notions of sexuality and ethics.
Most important to the subject of this class are Lingis’s generalizations about gender variant individuals in Thailand. The excerpts we have read from Male Bodies, Women’s Souls make it clear that gender variant individuals in Thailand, whether they identify as kathoey or sao praphet song do not live their lives in isolation from the wider culture they inhabit. They grow up feeling disconnected from and often ostracized by their family and peers; their government is well aware of their existence and has taken legal action to curtail their potential employment. In contrast to this detailed, complex, and all-encompassing lifestyle, Lingis presents gender variant performers as existing only for the entertainment of foreign tourists, like himself. He states that “one hardly ever notices transvestism in the streets of Bangkok” (Lingis 108). According to any other source this is a blatant falsehood, a massive oversight on the part of an academic attempting to assert some authority as a world traveler. This statement plays into a literature and sensibility that ignores the mundane lives of gender variant individuals, in favor of fetishizing gender variant sex workers. Of course, Lingis continues to play into this sensibility, stating both that “the farang tourist has the impression that the show is being performed for him” and that he is impressed by “how far they [cross-dressing cabaret performers] are willing to go to be sex objects for you [Lingis], to the point of changing their sex” (Lingis 110-111). The claim that gender variant individuals choose their gender expressions in order to satisfy the sexual desires of sex tourists is ludicrous. In truth (at least as presented by Male Bodies, Women’s Souls), cabaret and sex work is a last, albeit profitable and tempting, resort for gender variant Thai individuals who cannot present as their preferred gender in more conventional work environments (this may be a class biased view of gender variant Thai life, given the focus of Male Bodies, Women’s Souls on a college environment). Lingis reduces the complex and varied lives of these individuals to simple staged submission to Western sexual needs. If we know anything at all about gender variant individuals, it is that their identities are not whimsical or easy to change; gender identity is a deeply-rooted and painfully explored area of human experience. Lingis ignores this, content to see only his own lust. He even heaps insult onto injury by slandering the entire breadth of gender variant sexual activities, reducing them to “pathetic reciprocal masturbation” (Lingis 111). This derogatory generalization plays into a larger narrative that infects the entire article: sexual imperialism.
At one point in the article, Lingis couches his entire view of gender variance in Thailand as an expression of “an intercontinental sexual duel” (Lingis 115). This view combines both his ignorance of true gender variant experiences with his own ethical failings regarding Thai sex workers. It is impossible to assume that there is any equity between Thai sex workers in general, or gender variant Thai sex workers in specific, and the Western tourists they so often service. How could there be? Every power dynamic is aligned in favor of the Western tourists: racial, imperial, economic, gendered, and sexual. Even mobility favors the tourists, for it is not they who must deal with the physical and social consequences of dangerous sex work. Yet Lingis entirely sidesteps this ethical question by treating gender variant sex workers as willing subjects of sexual imperialism. They represent “economic and cultural subordination” to the West and, as above, are opponents in a “sexual duel” (Lingis 114-115). By positioning them as such, Lingis is free to explore the fetish and fascination surrounding male-bodied, female-presenting Thai sex workers without any question of his own ethical, imperial position in the sexual equation. In Lingis’s presentation of the act, soliciting a gender variant Thai sex worker is not an act of imperial exploitation and violence, but is instead “taking up the challenge” offered by “two more or less bisexual guys stripping for one another” (Lingis 113). This passage both reduces gender variance to bisexuality, as understood in the West, and ignores the question of power inequality by a specific phrasing in which both sexual actors are equivalent. In reality, they are clearly not and the exploitative nature of the sex is obvious. Unfortunately, Lingis has no time for detailed explanations of the ethics surrounding imperialism and its effects on gender expression in developing nations, nor the exploitative nature of imperial sexual relations. He only cares to explore his own narcissistic fascination with lust.
Alphonso Lingis’s “Lust” does almost nothing to expand true knowledge of gender variance in Thailand. It features no empirical evidence, no surveys of kathoey or sao praphet song, no dialogs between Lingis and the sex workers he describes, not even a single mention of gender variant life outside of the cabaret or brothel. Instead, Lingis writes in excruciating detail about his own sexual fascination with individuals he does not respect or understand. The article serves only to justify Western participation in an imperialistic field of sex tourism, while simultaneously contextualizing Thai gender variance as entirely optional and adopted only to please Western tourists. In truth, the article actively damages Western understanding of gender variance in another culture while simultaneously cataloging one man’s ethical failures.
Alfonso Lingis, “Lust” in Abuses (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994) 105-130.