In ‘Civilization and its Discontents,’ Freud tells us that civilisation necessitates the curbing of the natural expression of the libido, and this repression leads to neurosis. The answer is to redirect the libido into work or artistic expression. For author Isham Cook, the state keeps us in fear of our libido as a mechanism of power. Sexual transgressions are punished to a degree of severity completely incommensurate with the nature of the peccadillo. This repression is not a function of civilisation but of fascism. And it is in America that this ‘Sexual Fascism’ has its most extreme expression. Like Freud, Marx, Jung and others before him, Cook has dusted off a mirror and is holding it up for us to see our reflections. In this book of essays, he articulates things most cannot, even if they are aware of them.
Cook the plastic surgeon has a number of fixes for wrinkles caused by tortured sexuality. He’s a good surgeon but the results won’t be what he promises – but hell, nobody else knows how to fix things either. It’s not news that we are hung up about sex, and Cook gives a vision of how it could all be different. He puts forward the case that all sex should be paid for. What would happen? All sexual interactions he means and he’s talking about America. It’s a remarkably free-market idea from Isham who leans to the left. Once sex is just another commercial activity, we will be free of sexual shame. But won’t this capitalization of sex create a lot of have-nots? He also imagines a polyamorous society. Could such a utopia work? Or would human nature sabotage it? Some of his radical solutions he is serious about, others are merely challenges to staid thinking.
In the first essay, Cook gives a competent definition of fascism. He explains that fascism needs scapegoats and in America it is no longer popular to scapegoat minorities, so the sexual offender is the new pariah. In the USA lives are ruined over offences as trivial as urinating in public. It’s up to the police to decide whether you were just pissing or ‘wilfully espousing yourself’ – an offence that will get you placed on the sex register. Only in America is the sex register public and often the offender is on there for life.
As usual with Cook, there is much freewheeling from topic to topic. The writing is academic with references but also highly entertaining. Cook is at his oddball best in the essay ‘Toilet Terrorism;’ where the prudish and wasteful practice of gender-segregated public toilets comes in for his criticism. It was refreshing reading his discussion of toilets in China and the USA, not for the visual images summoned to mind, but because the state of the public toilet infrastructure in any given city is of concern to all and not written about enough. Only George in the hit series Seinfeld has previously given the topic its due.
To this point, Cook has been concerned with sexually repressive America, and China, which while repressive to be sure, is not particularly obsessed with cracking down on sex. Germany is frequently referred to as a more enlightened society. Then, in a not so smooth transition, we go walkabout. First to the massage parlours of America and then to those of Southeast Asia, the idea is to contrast American prudishness to relaxed Eastern sensuality. These massage essays appeared in an earlier book by Cook, but they bore a second reading well.
In Bali, inspired by pictures on the wall of his guesthouse in Ubud, the author begins to research the Bohemian paradise of bare-breasted women that once existed there. But he doesn’t get very far. Most of the novels and history books he reads about Bali’s glory days disappoint. Tuttle publishes many of these old Bali classics and on my bookshelf I have ‘Bali: A Paradise Created’ by Adrian Vickers. The cover image is an old Dutch East Indies tourism poster featuring a modestly-dressed Balinese woman carrying a bowl on her head. Cook includes the original poster, in which the woman has bare breasts – that got censored by Tuttle!
Cook discusses a number of artists looking for a sexual paradise in the South Seas from Gauguin in Tahiti to Walter Spies in Bali. Because I grew up in Auckland, the city with the largest Polynesian population in the world it’s hard for me – probably because of prejudice or trauma – to imagine a sensual paradise in the Pacific Islands. However, with Bali, I can imagine this and have experienced it to some degree. Though Bali is a tourist trap and breasts have been covered there for a long time, it’s still a place in which sexual adventures can be had. But will you see any real-life breasts of Bali? The Balinese are quite reserved and many of them are sick of tourists. Spending time in Southern Bali, one can see why. In 2016 I went to a medical clinic in Seminyak. My thumb had become infected from a splinter I got hiking in North Maluku – an Indonesia a million miles away from touristic Bali. At the clinic, there were two Australian men covered in blood. Laughing and shouting, they had obviously been in a fight and were very drunk. After getting stitched up, they unsteadily sped off on a motorbike. The Indonesian doctor and nurse apologised to ME(!) for their behaviour. This is one of a million incidents of tourist (mainly Aussie) boorishness in South Bali that have been happening for generations now. I would suggest Balinese women and their families have reservations about foreign men not present on Indonesia’s other 1000 plus islands. A tourist (let’s not define them beyond that) looking for female company in Bali is more likely to see Javanese breasts. Most of the prostitutes on the online dating apps are Muslims from Java. Interestingly, on the same dating apps, you have a number of European yoga teachers who hang out in trendy Canggu. Beyond that, there are Javanese girls looking to experiment while on holiday and the drunken Australians. If like Isham, you want to go the massage route (Australian pun) my experience is that most masseurs are Muslims from the adjacent island of Lombok. So much for going to Hindu Bali to get away from the stuffy Muslims in the rest of the country!
The best place to relive the breasts of Bali era is the Timescape Indonesia channel on Youtube. One particular video features a beautiful woman naked from the waist up combing her hair. She smiles for the camera, knowing her beauty is being admired, but probably unaware of the potential to arouse her breasts posses. To her exposing them publically is an everyday thing. This for me is an erotic rather than pornographic video. You can eroticize the scene but it wasn’t overtly set up for the purpose of sexual arousal as is the case with pornography. Isham, however, doesn’t believe there is a difference between erotic and pornographic. He also makes the claim that all pornography can be counted as art.
The book finishes strongly with ‘Sexual Surveillance in the Age of Covid 19.’ Isham likes to insert himself into the narrative and here his anecdotes from his trip to Xinjiang in 2019 give us a taste of a future of mass surveillance where sexual trysts will be near impossible to hide. ‘Sexual Fascism’ is another solid collection of essays from this original writer.