Love and Sex Around the World

Kimberly and Jane wonder about a big cultural change happening in Japan as women earn their own money and go out from behind the closed door of marriage to do what their men have done, buy sex and intimacy.

KC: In the first PBS documentary of Love and Sex Around the World, Christiane Amanpour focuses on women in Tokyo taking their sexual needs and desires into their own hands. It’s been historically normal for couples to be a married without sexual intimacy or even to utter the words “I love you” in public. But things appear to be changing in primary love relationships. From the Amanpour’s interviews, it seems to be largely acceptable now for women as well as men to go outside marriage to find ways to fulfill needs for sex and intimacy on their own, and pay for them. Traditionally, Japanese men have pursued satisfaction outside marriage in various forms but what is astounding now is that women are doing it. Successful businesswomen are going to bars and clubs where they pay large amounts of money to be paid attention to, sometimes by very young men.

JAS: The series is eye opening for me and raises an interesting question.  Is this a variation on the familiar Japanese tradition of men seeking sex outside marriage, only now practiced by women?  Is this a way to keep marriage stable for financial and child-raising reasons?  I don’t know how “accepted” sexual exploration is for women in the general Japanese culture. The women interviewed did a lot of giggling.  There was one married woman who was interviewed on camera who admitted to having a boyfriend but she also admitted she kept him a secret from her husband. Oddly she also claimed her husband wouldn’t want to know.  Sex was not a part of their marriage by mutual agreement.  She didn’t want sex with her husband and assumed he had sex with other women.  For her, marriage was about family, tradition.  But she did want intimacy. Just not with her husband.  And she wasn’t interested in going to clubs, paying for sex and attention.  She was simply breaking with the “men only” tradition of seeking intimacy in a relationship outside marriage. Her girlfriends, also married and also making their own money, talked openly about going to clubs and paying for attention, often without sex.  They seemed to think it was a great idea.  Apparently intimacy and not just physical sex is missing in many Japanese marriages. As you say, the startling change is, according to Amanpour’s coverage, that Japanese women are opening up their horizons to what men have done for years, getting sexual and emotional satisfaction outside marriage.

KC: I find it interesting that these women are empowering themselves, admitting publicly that they want and need sex or intimacy.

JAS: That’s a huge change, right?  It’s not just men but women coming forward and pursuing sexual and emotional satisfaction not found at home.  The fact that women can now pay for it brings women’s desires out into the open.  The woman above made it clear.  She didn’t desire intimacy with her husband.  In America, I think it would be difficult for either husband or wife to accept that kind of separation of love and sex.  It’s not just men who seek satisfaction outside marriage here.  Many women have side interests but, or and, like the Japanese woman, keep it to themselves. They don’t want to break up their marriage but they want someone emotionally compatible to talk to or someone to touch. In general, I think the need for intimacy by both men and women is coming forward in both countries and challenging norms.  

KC: Japanese women seem to be looking for intimacy as well as sex.

JAS: That may be another surprise.  When Amanpour interviewed a female sex worker who entertains men, she mentioned that the men like her because she is married and they like to think their wives could be like her, that they might give them attention and talk to them. They wanted ego boosts that they don’t get at home. But the availability of sex clubs and sexual entertainment in Tokyo seems similar to Las Vegas or Amsterdam. What’s different in Japan now is that women have the money to have fun, pay for sex.

KC: And why shouldn’t they?

JAS: Well, of course, why shouldn’t they? But it still begs the question of whether their seeking satisfaction on their own is threatening or supporting the traditions of Japanese marriage.  What’s most surprising is that Japanese women are using their money like men have used it. They are going out to public places to find it.

KC: So, some of this is very familiar. This idea of the side dish delight. But what struck me as unique was the cultural difference between the Japanese and what I am used to seeing in America. There was one married couple interviewed early on in the show that talked about how they don’t kiss or show affection to each other. The man even said something like, “Who would want to kiss me?” It seems like the Japanese culture in general has normalized the separation between familial love and sexual intimacy. It’s almost as if they’ve come to accept that these are two different sets of needs to be taken care of by two separate sets of outlets—the partner is one, the sexual pocket is another. Which is very different than America. Here, we say we can have it all and follow rabbit holes of self-help down every corner to try and integrate all these aspects into our one main relationship. I know these are age-old questions—but I can’t help but ask: Do the Japanese have it right? Maybe looking at love and sex as separate is actually practical. They seem perfectly fine with their compartmentalized way of keeping sex as their own private pocket. Because of their kind of logical acceptance of this, these clubs and love hotels are also accepted as “normal” outlets of their society.  Over here, we call it cheating and give it negative connotations.

JAS: Does it look more accepted from the outside? I have no first-hand experience with the Japanese culture, visited but never lived there. From the interviews, the women sound like they are keeping their sex lives private, protecting a tradition of privacy. But here they are, talking about it on TV so they do seem to want it to be known.  It’s a little odd but it sounds like women believe they are keeping their sex lives private by taking the reins and meeting their desires on their own. Ones with money are getting what they want and taking care of those needs in a discerning and discreet way.

KC: Right, and there’s something else about this private idea. I watched another film called Love Hotel that was very similar in showing this aspect of Japanese sex culture. What was interesting is that even couples that were married would go to these hotels for a night of sexual exploration together. So, these couples obviously have sexual intimacy in their lives but it is still an illicitly thrilling secret pocket because they aren’t watching the porn together at home, they are going out, paying for a night away from their regular lives. It’s still separated from the daily marriage.

JAS: It seems like the interviews are pointing to a significant cultural insight, that Japanese couples live two very distinct lives: public and private. Perhaps, with this change in women’s options, the line bisecting familial love and personal sexual needs that’s been in place for a very long time may be shifting.    

KC: I can relate to this because my partner is Japanese and was raised in a family that didn’t talk about sex. To them, sex is just a need to take care of in some economical and logical fashion. It’s almost like an invisible need that everyone has but everyone also just needs to figure out a way to take care of themselves. Again, I think very different than America. Here, we strive to be open, not private, especially not private from our partner. When there are issues with sexual intimacy in relationships, we try to fix it WITHIN the partnership as if a partnership is failing without the integration—it’s not an option to normalize outside interests. Of course, the more progressive amongst us might find the equivalent in an open marriage arrangement where both parties are mutually open to the idea of finding sex outside. I guess that’s where my biggest bone to pick with this show came from. In America, with our constant search for enlightenment and mental health, we view secrets as having negative mental health connotations.

JAS: Well, I’d have to agree even though I’m not sure it’s true.  For the Japanese women interviewed, they seemed to think to keep the two separate was healthy.  These age-old sexual satisfaction issues have different answers in different cultures and it’s fascinating to see the way they are being challenged in Japan. Now, as a final note, I will say that cultures do change with more mainstream exposure to each other, and shows like this provide that. But also, the way our world works today enhances awareness of cultural diversity. With global travel, global business, and global accessibility via the Internet and social media, people are exposed to a myriad of ways to live and pursue their sexuality like never before. I found it interesting that the interviews with well-traveled, culturally astute Japanese businessmen expressed their own wishes for intimacy in their marriages.

KC: Yes, one of my favorite moments was at the end when one of these Japanese men agreed to yell, “I love you” to his wife in a parking lot!  We got to hear him do it and while he seemed a little embarrassed, he did it enthusiastically.

JAS: In public!  Changing women changing men changing times.  

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