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Vietnamese at loggerheads over proposed ‘sensitive service’ quarter

Wednesday, October 28, 2015, 10:45 GMT+7

A proposal to gather “sensitive service” providers into one designated area in Ho Chi Minh City has just been put forward by a municipal office in charge of combating social ills, sparking mixed reactions.

>> An audio version of the story is available here

Le Minh Quy, deputy head of the Office for Social Ill Combat and Prevention under the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, announced his agency’s proposal to designate an area dedicated to “sensitive services,” on a pilot basis at a meeting on Friday last week.

The suggestion is intended to better manage social evils and curb illegal sex work, as what is considered a “sensitive service” is inclined to lead to prostitution, Quy stressed.

Most districts throughout the city are home to “sensitive service” providers, including barbers, massage parlors, spas, and karaoke bars.

“With proper control, made possible in a concentrated area, these ‘sensitive service’ providers would be deterred from offering sexual intercourse and stimulation and make do with legal intimate acts,” he elaborated.


A female masseuse provides a service for a half-naked male client at a shop in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Attendants in many such shops, mostly women, tend to offer illegal intercourse and other sexual services, the official said.

But some just engage in intimate acts such as sitting close to their male clients, feeding them food or drinks, chatting, singing or allowing the clients to touch them in non-private parts, which are not banned by law, Quy added.

The official asserted that the set-up of such an area does not amount to the legalization of prostitution, which remains unlawful in any form in Vietnam.

The proposition, however, has sparked divided opinions from many Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper readers and lawyers.


A number of readers and some lawyers interviewed have expressed support for the proposed establishment of a “sensitive service” zone.

Nguyen Truc Duyen, residing in Tan Binh District, agreed that the concentration would facilitate management and help curb the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases.

The proposition would earn the government more tax revenue, and ensure that the female workers are entitled to proper health care and benefits.

Lawyer Bui Quang Nghiem is also supportive of the proposal, as without such a quarter, sex work would still quietly thrive under the “protection” of underground gangs.


Two trainees at a massage parlor in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre

He urged that the set-up should also include strict rules to deter service providers and users from violating the law.


By contrast, other readers are of the opinion that a “sensitive service” quarter, “red-light districts” and “prostitution” are of a mere semantic difference.

They are concerned that such a quarter would easily turn into a “red-light district,” as it would verge on the impossible for such a quarter to stamp out covert sex work.

Some also pointed out that the obscure definition and operation of a “sensitive quarter” would result in legal loopholes which may allow providers to circumvent rules.

They added that men seeking “sensitive services” or craving “fun” tend to do so in secret, which may undermine the intended management effects of such a concentrated zone.

Phuong Thao, like most other opponents, blasted the proposal for going against the country’s time-honored traditions and culture.

“The legalization of such ‘sensitive services’ would only shatter families and nuptial bliss,” she insisted.

Vo Thi Thanh Thao, of Tan Binh District, voiced her worries that the set-up would entail drug use or other illegal activities.


“Ladies” are pictured at a “sensitive service” shop on Pham Ngu Lao Street in the “backpacker area,” located in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Lawyer Nguyen Huu The Trach asserted that it is not appropriate for such quarters to be established in Vietnam.

He added that even with the presence of such legalized “red-light districts” in neighboring countries, prostitution dens remain common outside the confines of these quarters.

Meanwhile, Trach’s counterpart, lawyer Nguyen Thi Hong Lien, advised that Vietnamese customs and culture, as well as the long-term community benefits, be taken into close consideration before the proposal is approved.

Concurring with Lien, Associate Professor Luong Dinh Hai, head of the Institute of Human Studies under the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, noted that several countries have legalized prostitution while others refuse to, as that depends heavily on each nation’s political and socio-economic conditions, as well as its historical and cultural characteristics.

He called for thorough surveys, statistics and research to be conducted before competent agencies make their final decision.

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