Love, and even marriage, between sex workers and their clients is not uncommon in the sex industry in Ho Chi Minh City, Dr Kimberly Kay Hoang, a Vietnamese-American sociologist, said in an interview with Tuoitrenews on her doctoral thesis, which recently earned Hoang this year’s “best dissertation” award presented by the American Sociological Association.
This phenomenon tends to occur in the mid- and top-tier sections of the industry, which is illegal in the city, while the low-end often involves direct sex-for-money exchanges, said Dr Hoang, who is now a Postdoctoral Fellow at Rice University in Texas.
The winning paper, New Economies of Sex and Intimacy in Vietnam, draws on 22 months of fieldwork between 2006 and 2010 in HCMC, where Dr Hoang interviewed sex workers and clients while working as a hostess and bartender in four different downtown bars catering to wealthy local and international men.
The 28-year-old sociologist relied on their economic, cultural, and bodily resources to place sex workers in three aforementioned separate tiers. The lowest tier includes older women with limited resources targeting poor local Vietnamese clients, whereas the other two have more favorable conditions and pay close attention to wealthy locals, Asian businessmen, overseas Vietnamese men, Western businessmen, and Western budget travelers.
The former simply focuses on the economic aspect, while the latter also looks for migration opportunities through frequent emotional interactions with their clients.
Dr Hoang pointed out a woman named Linh who engaged in sex work to seek money and the possibility of migration from international clients.
“We go through a lot together to get visa and he work so hard for it … In life it is all about luck, I feel really lucky,” the doctor quoted the sex worker verbatim after Linh managed to get a visa from James, her Australian client and husband.
Dr Hoang said her thesis shows that, contrary to conventional belief, many sex workers in the city have entered the industry willingly.
“Few studies have been able to furnish empirical evidence to support the assumption by most people that women engaging in the sex industry do so because they are kidnapped, forced, or coerced into sex work,” she argued.
She cited Mai, a sex worker from the Mekong Delta, as saying that “I am in my mid-thirties, I have a child . . . . I don’t have a choice but to do this.”
Many women chose to do the work as it could offer them more chances of attaining a better life, the academic said.
“On average, [they] earned one hundred dollars per month, which was forty to fifty dollars more than they would earn working in local restaurants, legitimate barbershops, or as house cleaners,” she said in her research.
Dr Hoang referred to Ngoc, another sex worker, who did it simply to get some “extra money” while she was also working for a U.S.-based investment company with a good salary.
She was quoted as saying, “It is nice to be spoiled with nice gifts and extra money. I have fun doing it.”
What is the practical significance of your dissertation, Dr Hoang? Over the past few decades the issue of human trafficking has captivated NGO’s, researchers, and people around the world. When I began this project, I too was looking for trafficked victims and was surprised by the hundreds of conversations that I had with women who entered into the sex industry willingly.
In all four of the bars that I studied none of the bar owners, madams, or clients ever forced women to engage in sexual activities against their will. In fact many of the madams and bar owners felt that it was a sin and bad karma to force a woman to do anything against her own will. This is not to say that sex trafficking is not a problem. Rather I show that the boundaries between force and choice are quite blurry.
Do you mean, or think, that it was not financial difficulty that forced those women into sex work?
Many of the women in my study worked in factories and engaged in service sector work as restaurant hosts or maids. They were making less than 1.5 million VND per month and so if there was a family crisis where they needed more money, they would turn to sex work, as for them sex work offered clearer pathways out of the poverty trap than other kinds of indentured labors.
What do you think about the legalization of sex work?
I am not an advocate for sex work. However, I do believe in a woman's right to choose to engage in these kinds of activities if they choose to do so. In that way I believe that legalizing this work would provide women with the same legal rights as other working people.
Why did you choose HCMC to carry out the fieldwork for your dissertation? Why not another place that is more open to sex work, like Thailand? I chose HCMC because it is one of the most dynamic cities in Asia. It has grown so rapidly over the past couple of years and I loved watching the city transform. As a Vietnamese-American woman born in the United States, I always wanted to find a way to return to Vietnam to work in some capacity. I do not feel connected to Thailand or other parts of Asia in the same way that I feel connected to Vietnam because I do not have roots in those other places.
I chose HCMC also because I was interested in looking at the links between sex work and globalization although other parts of the country are rife with sex work. Therefore, I only studied the groups of clients who had access to global capital. In addition, I was interested in studying a racially and economically diverse group of global and local men. HCMC provides a critical site where economic globalization and migration intersect.
When did you first return to Vietnam for your fieldwork? How did you feel about the country then? Did your feelings about it change after spending some time here?
I first returned to Vietnam for fieldwork in 2006 and I was merely doing preliminary research then. It was very challenging to gain the trust and rapport of people. At that time I fell in love with Vietnam and wanted to find a way to return for work.
My favorite moments were riding around on a motorbike just to watch the people and traffic. In addition, it was very humbling for me to watch the declining prestige of overseas Vietnamese in Vietnam and the rise of local Vietnamese people. When I was living there I saw a new high rise open nearly every month and it was incredibly exciting to see how dynamic the economy and the people are. I met a lot of local academics who were trained in Russia and I was so inspired by them. I hope to build institutional ties between my university and Vietnam National University as well as local research institutes. I would like to see more people from Vietnam get accepted into American universities.