Geisha cultists seriously disturb me.
Surprisingly enough, many of them are women. They love the geisha
mystique, the tinge of nostalgia for a bygone era, the careful
artifice, the idea of humans as living artwork.
I’ve enraged a few of them simply by dropping the “geishas are
prostitutes” bomb. They tell me they know about Japan more than I do.
I’m a lowly mixed-race Japanese-American. I don’t even speak Japanese.
I’m pluralizing “geisha” wrong. I obviously have no respect for the
traditions of my ancestors. Geisha = serious business. Ha!
Geisha are not very relevant in modern-day Japan. They’re a
fossilized archetype, almost like ninja. If you asked a group of
Japanese people the burning question, “are geisha prostitutes?”
depending on region and generation, you would probably get a variety of
answers: “that’s an insult, of course not!” “Well, it depends on your
definition.” “Yes, they’re high-end prostitutes.” “I don’t really
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But a lot of people, especially white people, are invested in
defending geisha, in putting them on a pedestal. And when they do that,
it does harm to Japanese-American women and to all Asian-American
women. Appropriation is almost too mild of a word. It’s not just theft,
it’s domination. Imagine a young girl, on the verge of understanding
herself as a sexual being, looking deeply in the mirror… and seeing her
mirror image controlled by puppet masters.
I’ll try to explain further. The geisha figure is one end of a
continuum of stereotypes of Asian woman sexuality. The continuum is
inanimate. Other races have different sexual stereotypes: for example,
“animalistic”. But Asian women are neither animal nor human. They’re
inanimate things. They’re so passive that they barely even move. On the
high end, they’re beautiful clockwork dolls, to be petted and treasured
and collected and shown off. The most expensive ones can’t even be
bought for money; instead, you have to win them through your superior
knowledge of authentic Asian culture. On the low end, they’re doormats,
sperm receptacles, happy ending massage girls, completely impersonal
and interchangeable, existing for nothing more than a moment’s
pleasure. Common sex jokes about Asian women concentrate on the idea
that they have “stripped down” bodies — neat, efficient, even
machine-like — and facial features that lack human expression.
It’s a fairly simple stereotype, and all this obfuscation about geisha unnecessarily complicates it.
I’ve also been accused of being prudish and anti-sexual when I say
things like this, so I’ll try and explain where I’m coming from. I used
to say I was a sex-positive feminist when I was young. I don’t call
myself that anymore. The plain, pragmatic variety of feminism I was
raised in always gave me clear benefits and made me a stronger person,
but this new extra label I’d discovered never became as relevant in my
day-to-day life. One reason was that I actually worked in the sex
industry for a while, in a strip club, and thought it was a horrible
environment. I still don’t believe in a unique, essential stigma
attached to sex work, so I’ll say that while it was a horrible
environment, there are plenty of others just as bad. I did notice there
was very little barrier between work identity and life identity for
most of the people in the industry. But then, that’s true of plenty of
other jobs: bartenders, politicians and police, to name a few. I saw a
lot of the strippers get sucked into insanely negative patterns of
behavior, getting high on coke all the time, subsidizing parasitical
boyfriends and spending what was left of their money on $100 purses the
size of postage stamps. Others were instead sending all their money
back to Eastern Europe and seemed deeply depressed about having to work
I was a cocktail waitress. My outfit, and the female bartenders’
outfit, was skimpy; it involved an ass-cape. We were all selling sex in
While I’m not “sex-positive” I don’t reject all the theories, and I
have sympathy with a lot of sex worker activism, so I do want to say
this: lumping in all sex workers is bad, and so is splitting them all
apart. It’s elitist and deeply nasty to say “I’m the nice clean
expensive sex worker, not like those low-class dirty whores.” All human
beings should be valued the same. But different people in the industry
happen to have different experiences. I wouldn’t call myself a whore
for working there, or claim that I know what it’s like for all sex
workers, although I suppose I was on a kind of whore continuum.
One thing I noticed that while the environment at the strip club was
pretty racist, it wasn’t any more racist than the racial hierarchies at
the regular restaurants I was used to working in. And this brought up a
question I still wonder about today. Do the actions of Asian-American
women have any impact at all on our sexual stereotypes? Does it matter
if we look or act whorish or geisha-ish or virginal or nonsexual or
work in the sex industry or refuse to work in it? Or will the
predominantly white media continue to import and circulate our images,
reading into them whatever gets them off, regardless of our reality and
our choices? The thought of such powerlessness is really sad.
Many white men (and to a lesser extent, other non-Asian men) have an
obvious, direct sexual interest in controlling these images. In the
case of Asian-American men it’s more complicated and involves interplay
between assimilation and opposition stances, between race and sex,
between power and powerlessness. For example, what’s the effect on the
psyche of an Asian-American man consuming Asian woman fetish
pornography designated for a white male audience? For any
Asian-American, male or female, gay or straight, developing a healthy
sexual self-image can be a horribly difficult battle.
But the weirdest piece has got to be white women. You would think
they wouldn’t have a stake in this dynamic, but the most ardent
geisha-worshippers seem to be white women who identify with geisha.
They want to remake themselves into treasured objects. They want to
steal a sexuality that’s already stolen. The project of arcane
knowledge mastery, of transformation, of “becoming,” gives them sexual
If you think I’m making this stuff up, go to a website called
immortalgeisha.com then click on “About Us” then “The Face Behind.”
These women need to realize what they’re doing and who they’re
hurting. They’re just as complicit as the anonymous man who shouts a
pornographic joke at a young, vulnerable Asian-American girl. But we’re
not real to them. Our images provide so much more satisfaction than our
To make a long story short, call me a cranky prude and an
inauthentic Japanese all you want, I don’t give a damn about geisha. If
you’re sexually obsessed with them, hey, whatever, I’m not going to
tell you how to run your sex life. But don’t pretend it’s some kind of
noble homage. It gets you off. And you need to distinguish fantasy from
reality. If shoes happen to be your thing, do you go to Payless, tell
the clerks how to position the shoes and then start masturbating in
front of them?
Own up to your fetish and at least try to be responsible about it.
This post first appeared on Racialicious.