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Author on sex bars to head Simone de Beauvoir Institute

by Alison Ramsey

RobinsonThis is Lillian Robinson's take on Thai sex bars: "I was in one of these bars, with a lei around my neck, feeling like a prize ox -- and looking like a prize fool -- and I realized that I had more sensuality in the tip of my little finger than any of those girls in their whole body, because I had the freedom to find out what the gestures they were making so awkwardly mean."

The new, tenured head of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute co-authored a book about this subject two years ago called Night Market. In a wide-ranging interview as she arrived to take up her post June 1, the feminist scholar moved smoothly from showing how the U.S. Secretary of Defence during the Vietnam War and the World Bank are responsible for rampant teen prostitution in Thailand, to a vivid description of a typical bar.

"It's like the go-go bars of the '60s and '70s, with songs like Credence Clearwater Revival'sRun Through the Jungle -- a song about Vietnam, after all -- strobe lights and dancers. In North America they'd have one or two dancers suspended in cages, out of reach, because the idea was to have sex liaisons between customers. In Thailand, there are hundreds of dancers, with their crotches at eye level and wearing numbers. Patrons can order a beer and No. 44.

"If a patron wants to spend time with the girl, he pays a 'fine' for taking away an entertainer -- but there are so many. The message is all about abundance: as much as you want of anything you want.

"What makes men do this? It's not that the sex is that much better. It's that there's no possibility of refusal, yet they can maintain the illusion of a 'relationship.' They also convince themselves that they are contributing to the economy. While the only way to help the family is to work in the sex industry -- because you can send money home -- it's never enough to reach the point where that labour will not be necessary."

In one swoop there, you have a basis for further discussion about women and government, cultural mores, our "use" of Third World countries, the allure of excess, the importance of women's self-determination, and how worldwide consumerism and low-pay sweatshops enforce enduring poverty. Those issues will be part of Robinson's first course, in the winter term, on Women and Globalization.

Robinson interrupted a book she is now completing about two persistent rape myths (that men of colour lust after white women, and that the woman's narrative is always a lie) to write Night Market. "Both these myths are living," she said. "They shape how we read headlines. Look at O.J. Simpson, where it was not rape, but murder. Look at the Central Park jogger."

Robinson's career as a feminist scholar has spanned 31 years and five academic works. She was editor of the four-volume reference work Modern Women Writers, done in 1996, and in 1997 wrote In the Canon's Mouth: Dispatches from the Culture Wars, which deals with multiculturalism, political correctness, and pokes fun at censorship.

Her résumé brims with variety: court translator, published poet and mystery writer, student at the Sorbonne, teacher at University of Hawaii, Radcliffe and, most recently, University of East Carolina. "I have had a very peripatetic life, not by choice," she said. "I wanted my next appointment to be my last."

A native New Yorker who has been studying French since she was 13, Robinson is happy to be settling into a cosmopolitan, bilingual city. While the city itself appeals to her, it is the nature of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute that excites her.

"There's such a range of courses," she said enthusiastically. "There's an extraordinary number of departments that have women's courses. There are courses like Science, Technology and Women's Lives, and Health Issues: Feminist Perspectives, which would not be offered by a medical or science school, as well as courses on the system done from a perspective outside the system. There's Women and Peace. What field would that go in? It wouldn't."

The opportunity to continue her research while guiding a well-regarded institute that tackles meaningful issues was a temptation Robinson simply could not resist.

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