Sex Work in Vietnam

Much of the material I teach on racial, gender, and class inequalities is US based, but given the increasing relationship between the US and the rest of the world, I’m learning to add more to my repertoire on the push factors that bring new immigrants to the US and the life conditions of the people there. Sometimes documentaries help me figure out the big frameworks for a particular issue, and that helps me to dig my way into the literature on a particular topic. One such documentary I viewed recently is called Half the Sky, based on the book with the same title by journalists (and husband-wife team) Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (the first Asian American Pulitzer Prize winner btw).

In the two part series, Kristof invites noted celebrities who have an interest in meeting the needs of women in the developing world or the Global South. In each of their cases, viewers are exposed to the after effects of female genital mutilation, systemic rape, and child sex trafficking. As Patheos critic Azra noted the documentary suffers from a kind of Western tourism where American celebrities are filmed in conversation with women who have at various times been recipients of truly brutal behavior. It creates this picture that suggests that women in the West are superior since they are embodied by beautiful celebrities who never remark on the inequalities they or other women face in the west. Nonetheless, the documentary illuminated to me some of the ways that women find agency after trauma. Protective spaces and organizations are formed where young girls find new ground in which to recover, and grow through unconditional affection and education.

The sections that focused on Asia intrigued me of course because of my interest in Asian America. And it helped me to engage some new research on the sociology of sex work that’s appearing in some of the best sociology academic journals. One of these is by Dr. Kimberly Kay Hoang, a post-doctoral fellow at Rice University and soon-to-be Assistant Professor at Boston University College.  

Dr. Hoang’s study (which was part of her dissertation and won the American Sociological Association’s best dissertation award for 2012) was an examination of voluntary sex workers in Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam which accounts for 30% of the nation’s GDP. She selected this site because it’s one of those destination cities that casual tourists and business travelers visit with increasing frequency. Vietnam like many developing countries builds its economy from tourism. Less well discussed is that part of that tourism entails sexual tourism via prostitution. As Hoang states there are an estimated 200,000 prostitutes in HCMC alone; this amounts to about 2.7% of the city’s population. This is astounding to me, but I do not know how it compares to other contexts.

Hoang’s thesis states:

“Globalization does not create a single market for poor exploited women who cater to wealthy foreigners; rather I contend that globalization creates diverse markets and new segments that expand already existing inequalities.” (370) “…women’s access to economic, cultural and bodily resources position them in higher and lower paying sectors of sex work with different relations of intimacy.” (370)

In order to support her argument, she frequented bars, cafes, sex workers’ homes, malls, restaurants and the street for seven months to meet with about 54 sex workers and 26 clients. She notes the difficulty in using the most formal method, the one-on-one interview since there is (understandably) a reluctance to divulge much of what they do. Keep in mind sex work is illegal in Vietnam, thus these women describe their work as “girls who accompany customers.”

In Hoang’s study she divides sex work in HCMC into three sectors: low, mid, and high tier. At the low end sector, sex is exchanged for money in a one-time encounter. Sex workers here resemble the ones seen in the Cambodian story in Half the Sky: poor rural and urban women. They work to escape severe poverty but they don’t make enough to get plastic surgery nor do they have the language and cultural capital to gain more expensive clientele. Since their bodies are the instrument of their work, “body capital” becomes important. Those with more resources can augment their bodies in ways that appeal to wealthier clientele. But for the low tier sex workers, they lack these advantages and their clients are usually local somewhat poor, Vietnamese men.

At the mid-tier level the exchange is what Hoang calls “relational.” Women in this class are typically poor and urban similar to the low-end sex workers mentioned earlier. They can obtain plastic surgery and some designer clothing but not of the quality of the high-end workers, and they are fluent enough in English to frequent areas with English-speaking clientele, who are collectively described as “white backpackers,” tourists of American, Australian and European background. These budget travelers seek “authentic” experiences, desiring to meet “real people” as opposed to a sanitized version of HCMC. As such, mid-tier sex workers try to create a sense of authenticity through exchanging intimate details of their lives. The client is then drawn into a relationship as opposed to a simple sex-for-money exchange. The clients are led to believe that they are “saving” good women from poverty by being more involved relationally with the sex worker. The most interesting aspect of the mid-tier sex workers is that that while some of the client-worker relationships are short term, some relationships turn into boyfriend-girlfriend as well as husband-wife pairings. The white backpackers sometimes maintain remittance relationships with sex workers.

At the high end, the exchange is somewhat complex. These encounters with clients happen more than once and the exchange includes sex, but also intimacy (sharing of personal information), gifts and money. Women here are college or vocational-school educated and from wealthy families. Their language ability and knowledge of upper class culture allows them access to high-end hotels and bars where their clients frequent. As such they can afford expensive plastic surgery and clothing which also add to their desirability among high-end clients. These clients are Vietnamese men from overseas (Viet Kieu). The Viet Kieu clients are also particularly interesting in that the women “project to clients an imagined nation: Vietnam as nostalgic ‘home’ for Viet Kieu men” (371). It’s not simply sex, but the illusion of traditional Vietnamese male dominance and traditional Vietnamese female subordination. The relationship between high-end sex worker and Viet Kieu client is very public: these men want to be seen as wealthy, the kind that can afford to lavish their paramour with gifts and money. High end sex workers take great effort to blend in with other women so that these public exchanges cannot be identified as worker-client.

What I learn from this are the ways in which sex work is a means of subsistence, a means of migration, and a means of upward mobility. It’s true that trafficking occurs and with disturbing frequency. But sex work also includes thousands of women who voluntarily participate in sex-for-money exchange. To quickly judge this as exploitation misses the complex realities that women in these conditions face, and the kind of micro-control that they obtain. For the lucky few in the high end they can experience material wealth that cannot be imagined by the low end. For the mid-tier, such sex work might result in migration to a new start. Where their bodies are clearly commodities to their clients, sex workers do what they can to control it as a means to a better life. Ending sex work, as some activists in the West might prefer, will not be necessarily viewed as beneficial from the perspective of some of the women in Hoang’s study, and her cutting edge research helps us understand why.

Unexpected Learning From Student’s Experiences of Loss

This past summer I lost a friend at church and a family friend to terminal illness and through these experiences, I’ve grown more aware how often death and dying emerges at my stage in the life course. Apparently I wasn’t alone in this either. I happened to be in conversation with the university chaplain one day a couple of months ago, and he remarked that while he had a total of 40 cases in which students lost a parent or significant family member last year, he has had 50 cases in the first two months of this semester alone. The reasons for this still elude me, but suffice it to say something that is a fairly rare occurrence is recurring with somewhat more frequency lately here in central Texas.

Recently a former student of mine informed that she too had experienced the loss of her mother. Lisa [not her real name] was in my class 3 semesters ago, she was relatively quiet but clearly focused, and she performed well in her writing assignments and tests. However her absences grew more and more frequent, until one day she sent an email to her teachers saying that her mother was gravely ill. Judging from some of her writing and her communications, this student came from a vulnerable minority community somewhere in the southwest US. Later I would learn that she was of Navajo descent and lived on a reservation where her mother served as a healthcare worker.

I remember from that semester the internal conflict she voiced between wanting to please her mother by completing her education and pursue an advanced medical degree, and staying by her side while her health continually declined. The stress got to be unbearable, and she sought counsel from the chaplain’s office who then requested faculty and administrators to provide her a supportive leave of absence. I had heard nothing from her until late in the summer when she submitted additional materials that were incompletes in the previous semester. Lisa was determined to gain credit for the course she took with me. This young woman delivered well in her make-up exam and final writing assignments and passed the course. Whether her mother was doing better or worse at that point I thought was not appropriate to ask so all remained quiet.

Another semester had passed and I was relieved to hear from Lisa that she was back at Baylor in the spring of 2012. Knowing little of what had transpired in the past months I kept an optimistic outlook that she must be here with her mother’s blessing. And then I received news from her this past fall that her mother had passed. Lisa left the university once more to look after her mother, and she confided that she was one of her mother’s caregiver from her family, and I would gather that she was likely managing a fair amount of the details surrounding her funeral. There’s no doubt that Lisa’s mother’s passing affected her deeply and it became a source of inspiration for her to finish college and go on to advanced education.

As is my penchant for social science research, reflecting on Lisa’s message drove me to spend a couple of hours looking through the literature on the effects of the loss of a parent. I consulted Mark Regnerus and a couple of other colleagues who are much more familiar with this area of sociology than me. Turns out few were familiar with this topic in the research-sense. Mark drew me to his recent publication, a response to critics, using analyses from his much-controversial study, the National Family Structures Study. In the article based on the sample of over 3000 young adults, he included two family structures, one for those who had lost a parent while growing up and whose surviving parent remarried (if you access the full article see the Tables and look for column 12, 117 respondents) and another column for those who lost a parent and the surviving parent did not remarry (column 13, 28 respondents). I was most interested in the latter since such individuals were growing up in a single-parent household which is often linked with worse outcomes for kids. As it turns out, these few individuals who grew up in these challenging circumstances report higher overall happiness, lower clinical depression, lower impulsivity higher income (Tables 1 and 2) and less often in therapy compared to respondents who grew up in intact biological families – and this was the case even after accounting for the respondent’s age, gender, racial background, mother’s education, and household income while growing up. This was intriguing, what might explain this?

In personal correspondence, Mark attributed this to resilience in these respondents’ lives when they were younger. Indeed that is probably one factor for sure. Loss of a parent at any time is a character-shaping experience, but all the more so during one’s early formative years. Important too are the circumstances surrounding the passing of a parent. Was it due to accident, homicide, suicide, or untreatable illness? As it turns out previous research in this area known as child bereavement suggests that these differences do not statistically distinguish bereaved children in their mental health capacities. In another recent study researchers found that bereaved children were more likely to exhibit delinquent behaviors during their growing up years. Psychologically this makes sense: a child in such circumstances is acting out their felt sense of loss and injustice perhaps. If there is no good in the world, why strive to be good yourself?

If we connect this study with Regnerus’ work perhaps there is some intervention that takes place that helps these bereaved children rise above their own desire to act out. This is another explanation that a different colleague suggested to me. Communities, family and friends are generally more sympathetic and perhaps more supportive when one comes from a household with a widow or widower. Perhaps they can well interpret the acting out behavior as a cry for help and they respond in kind.

In the most recent email I received from this former student, she shared that the loss of her mother and caring for her through the ups and downs of longterm illness was difficult, she now interprets her experience as one that will make her into an excellent physician. Moreover she attributes her resilience in the context of her personal faith in a God who now comforts her mother. Indeed I was reminded once again of Margarita Mooney’s book title “Faith Makes Us Live” in thinking about this student and perhaps the many young people who struggle to make sense of their loss and pain.

This Thanksgiving I am grateful for students like Lisa who have helped me understand their lives better. By sharing some of their stories, I’m reminded that teaching is indeed very relational, and it is very often teachers themselves who learn more than they anticipated.

“Porn in the Title” and Other Insights Gleaned Over Dinner

In a recent email interchange, Brad Wright suggested we go out to celebrate our 400 days of posting on Patheos: Black, White and Gray. Brad didn’t know this at the time, but we knew there was a special reason for our gathering. Truth be told, all four of the lead bloggers including Margarita Mooney, Mark Regnerus and yours truly as well as two “regular occasional” bloggers, Amy Reynolds and George Yancey  happened to be attending the annual Society for the Scientific Study of Religion / Religious Research Association Joint Meetings which was held in Phoenix, AZ this year. So it seemed like a good moment to actually meet up. For readers who may not be aware, all of the BWG bloggers are in different institutions all over the country from Connecticut and D.C. to North Carolina, to Texas and Illinois and California. I for one, had only briefly met some of the bloggers, so an actual face-to-face meeting helped build a sense of lived reality apart from the digital voice we project on this blog. And because of my habit for taking pictures of fancy food and places I’ve eaten, the BWG team designated that I post on our recent dining experience.

Here’s a picture of us with the amazing Chef Christopher at the Monarch Restaurant in nearby Scottsdale.

The Monarch has a set menu for a three course meal including an appetizer (the name of which escapes me and there is no menu online), which is pictured here.

We did a little bit of reflecting and a little bit of discussion on the direction of the blog. I tend to think back to where things began when this kind of meeting occurs. It was at the previous SSSR Annual Meeting that BWG first met in person after several conversations initiated by the intrepid sociologist Brad. We each had varying degrees of experience with writing to a broad public prior to BWG, and our first few entries reflected some of that. We were more text-heavy back then and didn’t make use of some of the unique characteristics that make blogging a different kind of writing. Nevertheless we were met with surprising success in reaching a new potential audience. Back then, we also discussed our degree of commitment to the blog, and tips and tricks on making each post hit the right tone. Back then we tried to come up with a list of potential fellow bloggers in order to relieve Brad from posting up to 3 times a week. We learned too that if we reached a large enough audience we would actually generate revenue. This recent meeting was the first fruits of this past year’s efforts (282 posts and counting).

Our main dish was a choice of either beef or scallops (and I forgot to take a shot of the latter):

So as I was enjoying this savory meal, I recounted to myself that over the past year we were able to convince more folks to try guest posts on the blog, but after a year or so we discovered that consistency seems to make a bigger impact. Perhaps not surprisingly to some readers, our various voices and topics are distinct enough that certain audiences continually check in when we post. So at this dinner gathering, we re-upped our commitment to continue for the foreseeable future. And we’ll be joined by “regular occasional” bloggers including Amy and George, as well as Becky Yang Hsu and Richard Flory. The variety of voices promises a new wealth of ideas and conversations that hopefully will continue to stimulate thinking about pressing matters of society and the self.

We ended the meal with this rich chocolate dessert:


While the menu was set, Brad had the foresight to mention to Chef Christopher his new mastery goal of eliminating processed sugar from his diet. Thus his dessert was replaced with this lovely fruit-based treat:

It will be very interesting to revisit Brad’s posts in the future as he may share some of how his own version of mastery helped him lose an amazing 50+ pounds in the past year.

We closed with some discussion about visibility. It never fails to amaze me that the line “the internet is for porn!” made famous by the Broadway hit “Avenue Q” reflects a powerful reality for many users.

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We were now dreaming of ways we could incorporate the phrase “porn” into our post titles, most of which have no bearing on that subject whatsoever. I suppose the gratuitous photos I take of our meals might constitute food porn? I’ll stop while I’m ahead and conclude that while we have fun with BWG, we’re seriously grateful for the opportunity to share our sociological reflections and research with an audience of lay people and professionals who hopefully have been learning along with us. We look forward to a new year of continued insights that will remain engaging and enlightening.

Racial Exclusion and Selective Inclusion: One Student’s Observations

Since I teach an undergraduate course on racial, gender and class inequality I am always on the lookout for new examples that are pertinent to students’ experiences. The biggest story in terms of race in higher education is the possible shift in affirmative action during college admissions based on a case by a white female student who did not gain entrance at the University of Texas at Austin. I’m still awaiting more news on how this will end so I will save this discussion for another time. It’s these larger systemic solutions of addressing systemic racial and gender inequality in the past that is more difficult for students to understand than the everyday racism that has a certain immediate feel. At the same campus where these deliberations are taking place, reports have emerged of minority students being “bleach-bombed”– this refers to the experience of being hit with a balloon filled with bleach. Incidences like these receive reasonable attention and they reflect new ways in which racial antipathy is projected today.

Baylor of course is no exception to this, and I unfortunately don’t pay enough attention to the student newspaper to realize how often issues of racism occur here. Most of it doesn’t make the news understandably. When you’ve been called ethnic slurs or experienced subtle (and not so subtle) discrimination from a prof or classmate, the immediate solution is to brush it off, soldier on, and don’t make a big deal of it. So for many minority students this is a learned response that traces back to earlier schooling and probably a talk or two with concerned adults who have struggled with these same issues themselves. What amazes me more is when I hear students like sophomore Asiah Phillips utter a phrase like, “I have had no issues with race until I came to Baylor.”

To give a little context, Baylor first-year students are required to attend chapel services twice a week, and in one of these sessions special speakers come in to share their reflections on a topic or issue that the organizers deem important. Given the requirement for first-years to attend this function, any talk here commands an audience of several thousand new students. So Ms. Phillips had an enormous opportunity to share her thoughts on a topic that is of interest to me, but was not of interest to her, until she came to Baylor.

If you’re in a hurry, move to the 20 minute marker where her talk begins.

Her first observations were about awareness of institutional exclusion and what we might call token institutional inclusion. (Caveat: Ms. Phillips doesn’t use these terms in her talk, I’m taking her narration to exemplify these concepts.) For Asiah Phillips and other Christian students who were raised in non-white-evangelical-influenced church contexts, chapel worship experiences are jarring. “Where’s my type of praise?” she asks. As of her third semester she recalls no African American faculty; moreover all 15 faculty she has had were white.

Her elation in participating in Homecoming festivities was tempered by the realization that she could not find another person who resembled her racially based on a casual glance of her social surroundings. Notably (and this is partially what I mean by token inclusion), the only black faces she saw at Homecoming were the victorious athletes parading through the main procession. “Where were the rest of us?” she asks. “What about people like me?” For many minority undergrads and their parents Ms. Phillips experiences and interior reflections resonate deeply:

“So after various parents asked my mom if her son played football here or if her daughter ran track, I got tired. Is the only way people can fathom me going to school is if I’m an athlete? Why can’t I be here on academic scholarship like you? It seemed like people here didn’t treat me just like I was any other person.”

The other example she provides of token racial inclusion is of the notable presence of non-student minorities working in campus service capacities. She says: “It’s hard being in an institution where it seems that the only people that look like you push brooms and make cafeteria food.”

And if that were not enough, we might also add the personal experiences she has with peers outside the classroom:

“I can still remember nights when I went out with my friends, and I would be dressed up to go to a party, and I would be stopped at the door because there were “no blacks allowed.” In 2012 that is crazy to me, that I am still judged and taken aback because of the color of my skin. Shortly after, she notes too that she’s been the recipient of epithets including the n-word, and even the word “slave.”

In sum, Asiah Phillips sees and hears no examples of her Christian religious heritage, she sees minorities in campus-wide events largely on display alongside other noted white students, she is presumed by others to be a student-athlete (rather than a conventional academic student); her main examples of same-race non-student adults on campus is that of the blue-collar workers in service, and none in the professorate. I might add also, none in the administration. This is a recipe for alienation, and it has consequences for the culture of a university, the kinds of mindsets that will represent that culture when they graduate. I would predict that minority students who experience the kind of alienation that Ms. Phillips shared in her talk will likely:

-be aware of racial power imbalances in their day-to-day encounters in multi-racial settings,

-lack confidence that white-dominated institutions and white actors within them will identify with her,

-believe that cultural practices and traditions begun by white Christians will go largely unchanged

-believe that the pathway to middle class standing is not obtained by getting a PhD and teaching at a university.

Given that Ms. Phillips grew up and attended schools that were more diverse and inclusive students, and given that (along with most other graduates) will likely work in a diverse environment, I would also predict that she will compartmentalize her experience at Baylor as a “white Christian” school. These predictions focus mainly on how I think a young person might react in the absence of other factors that Ms. Phillips also noted. Asiah Phillips views herself as a Christian, a person of a particular faith tradition that conveys a belief in universal love of others. It is this belief that fuels her pursuit of racial affirmation and greater inclusivity. Notably she sees this issue of love and racial inclusion as a matter of spiritual calling.

Second, Ms. Phillips has counterexamples which she must balance with the other realities that she’s faced. She says that

“I’ve been lucky enough to have white friends who don‘t treat me any different than anybody else because they love me and they don’t see a difference just like I don’t see a difference.”

While she has witnessed numerous examples of exclusion, selective inclusion, and downright discrimination, she has also experienced friendship with white peers. And while there’s no direct mention of this, the very fact that the chaplain’s office, also largely staffed by whites, included this talk in their program suggests that not all white institutional actors will sweep such stories off to the side.

One final observation. I think that Asiah Phillips’s talk reflects a strategy that many will find uncomfortable, even though her fundamental belief is shared by all. Several times she notes that race doesn’t matter to her, and it didn’t until she came to Baylor. If we ask most Americans today whether racial inequities are justifiable, most would also say no. But here’s the difference. For many Americans, the solution to the thorny matter of racial inequities is to not talk about it. For others, like Asiah Phillips, the solution to reducing racial inequities is to talk about it, and indeed she has bravely, and lovingly done so.