Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.4 (2002) 610-636
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"Syphilis, Opiomania, and Pederasty":
Colonial Constructions of Vietnamese (and French) Social Diseases
Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
"Our Most Dangerous Adversary"
AFRENCH PHYSICIAN and corresponding member of the Société d'anthropologie de Paris, Paul Michaut spent the final years of the nineteenth century studying matters medical, erotic, and scatological in the Far East. In a series of articles over the course of a decade, the intrepid observer dicussed Japanese and Vietnamese physiognomy, traditional pharmacology, hypnotism, massage, hot springs, climatology, musical anuses and "fartomania," and especially the use of opium. 1 Based upon his findings, in 1893 he issued a stark warning to his medical colleagues about the [End Page 610] conjoined dangers of "syphilis, opiomania, and pederasty . . . the three elements of a sort of nosological tripod, which one encounters among different peoples of the Far East." Michaut drew a frightening alarum for metropolitan readers about these three social plagues: "In all of our colonial empire of the Far East—Cochinchina, Annam, Tonkin, Cambodia—public hygiene finds itself engaged with the same enemies, this sort of morbid triple alliance that saps the health of our colonists." 2
Michaut's comparative study of the Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, and Vietnamese revealed a mutually reinforcing connection among syphilis, opiomania, and pederasty. "In a word, syphilis contracted among those peoples most accustomed to the habit of pederasty shows itself more dangerous than syphilis evolving among less depraved peoples." In Japan, where, by Michaut's account, "pederasty is unknown," syphilis "is very benign among the Japanese" and equally benign among Europeans who contracted it there. In Korea, by contrast, "pederasty is general, it is part of the mores; it is practiced publicly, in the street, without the least reprobation," and syphilis was likewise general: "[T]he non-contaminated subjects are the exception," and its effects were "particularly grave." Similarly, in the colonies of Annam and Tonkin, "the prognosis of this malady is always grave, death being only too often the result of syphilis contracted in Indo-China." High mortality rates were hardly surprising, since in Indochina "pederasty exists on no less a large scale [than in Korea], among the indigenes as well as among the Europeans. The boys, the portes-lanternes, constitute a vast corporation that exoticist novelists have described too well for it to be necessary to emphasize this masculine prostitution here." 3 From his exercise in epidemiology and comparative social medicine, Michaut concluded that there was "an almost perfect parallelism between the frequency and gravity of syphilis, on the one hand, and the habits of pederasty inherent to different nations of the Far East. Syphilis is much more serious when one contracts it in a country where genital relations are most often accomplished between individuals of the same sex. In a word, contagion appears more [End Page 611] dangerous when it operates between individuals of the same sex; this is true as much for individuals as for collectives." 4
The third leg of Michaut's nosological tripod, opiomania, steadfastly supported the other two: "[P]ederasty follows opiomania very exactly. . . and the morphinism of smokers has no more faithful companion than pederasty." This was the inescapable result of the well-known fact that "one of the first effects of opium is the perversion of the genesic instinct, the loss of moral sense and the weakening of the will." 5 Significantly, Michaut's concerns about opium, syphilis, and pederasty did not extend to the health of the indigenous populations; they rested with the French sojourners: "The moral enfeeblement of our soldiers in a country where the climate is already anemia-inducing must trouble those administrators concerned about the hygiene of our troops in the colonies," he noted with regard to opium, although, he hastened to add, it was often administrators and officers who provided a bad example for their underlings. "The poison," he concluded, "seizes the officer first, and the soldiers themselves, guided by the example of their chief, abandon themselves...