A survey of the erotic lines of force that run through the habits of travel abroad from the 17th century to the present.
Travel and sex have always been linked simply by simple opportunity, Littlewood (The Idea of Japan, 1996) reminds us: “journeying in cramped coaches, eating at communal tables, sleeping in public inns.” With the rise of the notion of a Grand Tour in the late 17th century, he argues, a certain kind of travel (usually over a period of several years) became a rite of passage considered essential to the proper education of a gentleman. Predominantly male, upper class, and English, these Grand Tourists had the economic power to attract sexual interest, the acquisitive instincts to sample sexual as well as cultural products, and the immersion in a foreign lifestyle that encouraged the adoption of perceived foreign sexual mores; a change of view permits a change of morals. There are other sorts of travelers too: pilgrims from E.M. Forster to Jack Kerouac have combined the urges for travel, sex, and enlightenment (Forster also shows “where the inequalities of status between tourist and native can lead”); and rebels such as Byron traveled in defiance, motivated by sexual dissatisfaction at home (today’s gay and lesbian travel movement shares some of the same impulses). Myths are as important as reality here: the vision of the South Seas as a prelapsarian paradise, first voiced in James Cook’s 1769 journal, was later embellished by Paul Gauguin, Pasha Brooke, and Evelyn Waugh. Through them all runs a constant, subterranean theme: “The moment of illicit sexual satisfaction is a brief erotic victory over the rest of the world, a successful raid on the kingdom of propriety.”
Much travel is for pleasure, and Littlewood has made the obvious, if not widely acknowledged leap, returning with a wealth of sensual travelers’ tales, sordid to voltaic. His points are well taken.