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The Sex Trade by Jody Hanson (2)

Map to the Hanson articles

PAGE ONE: Child Prostitution in South East Asia: White Slavery Revisited? • Beyond the Rolling Hills and Sheep: Tourism and the Sex Trade in New Zealand • Ship-Molls, Sailors and Sex at Sea
THIS PAGE: Where There are No Tourists - Yet: A Visit to the Slum Brothels in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
PAGE THREE: Learning Democracy: Working at the University, Studying at the Brothel • Sex Tourism as Work: A Discussion with New Zealand Prostitutes

Where There are No Tourists - Yet: A Visit to the Slum Brothels in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam


In Section One of this chapter Malcolm Cooper discusses the post-1975 development of tourism in Vietnam. Jody Hanson follows, in Section Two, with an account of her field work conducted in January 1996, with prostitutes in the slum brothels and on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. The final section of the chapter examines ways in which Vietnam could develop a sex-industry which recognises the contribution, but does not exploit, prostitutes. Section One- Post 1975 Tourism Development in Vietnam Introduction The 11th General Assembly of the World Tourism Organisation (WTO), held in Cairo during October 1995, condemned organised sex tourism. The resulting WTO Declaration on the Prevention of Organized Sex Tourism rejected all such activity as exploitative and subversive to the fundamental objectives of tourism. The Declaration requested governments of both tourism destination and origin countries to issue guide-lines to their tourism sectors insisting that they refrain from organising any form of sex-tourism and from exploiting prostitution as a tourist attraction. In this chapter we argue that this type of binary approach to regulating the sex-industry into a destination and origin framework creates a them/us approach which ignores the reality of both the local economic situation and of the true place of the sex-industry within that situation.

Rosa Luxemburg (1927), writing from a socialist perspective at the beginning of the 20th century noted: "Prostitution is as little specifically Russian as tuberculosis; it is rather the most international institution of social life. But although it plays an almost controlling part in our modern life, officially, in the sense of the conventional lie, it is not approved of as a normal constituent of present-day society. Rather it is treated as the scum of humanity, as something allegedly beyond the pale" (p. 348).

The World Tourism Organisation Declaration overlooks the supply and demand realities in developing economies. It also ignores the simple fact that people are survivors - and if there is a demand for sex, within the capitalist developmental framework, then there are people who will supply it to make a profit. For many people in the developing world it is the only realistic option for earning a decent income, particularly for young uneducated women from rural areas. Given that the wages of factory and domestic servant jobs, the other two options open to women in this group, are so low and the hours so long, it is little wonder that they opt for prostitution. There really is no alternative economic choice for this group. For others associated with the sex-industry, such as bar owners or pimps, it may also be their only way of trying to increase their financial base and establish personal power and control.

This chapter looks at the emerging sex-industry within the reality of Vietnam as a developing country where rural overpopulation and the demands of an emerging and diversifying urban economy are rapidly transforming economic and social relationships. And one where the outside world, in the guise of tourism, is also beginning to impinge on national and local modes of production. We argue that the sex-trade has always been a significant part of socio-economic relationships in the personal service industry within any human community and that, therefore, the sex-industry in Vietnam must be analysed within the same developmental change context as the rest of the economy to be properly understood. As a consequence, any analysis of the sex industry in relation to tourism must also acknowledge that tourists merely constitute a particularised and specific market for development, and, therefore, of the sex-trade.

This is not to say, however, that the patterns of power and control inherent in the operation of the sex trade do not have significant implications for the safety, health and welfare of the people involved in it, particularly the women who work as prostitutes. In many countries the sex-industry is an important part of the system of political and financial control supported by the shadow economy, exercising a role similar to drugs, arms and other forms of illegal trade. Often too, it is controlled or heavily influenced by foreign interests as well as by indigenous criminal elements.

It is the intention of the authors to briefly examine the characteristics of the sex-industry observed during field trips to Vietnam. The suggestion here is that as a developing industry in post 1975 Vietnam, the sex trade does not currently, and need not in the future, experience the same oppressive forms of power and control as found in many parts of, say, Thailand. Nor does it have to be influenced by foreigners, such as those who became involved in the sex industries of other countries. If the sex-industry in Vietnam is kept in local hands and does not become, as the WTO characterises, part of an organised pattern of sex tourism originating from and for the benefit of nationals of other countries.

Economy, Tourism and the Development Debate

World interest in tourism as a development option stems from the foreign exchange employment, income, government revenue and regional development potential of the industry (Dieke, 1995). From the point of view of the World Tourism Organisation and many Governments, the benefits to be gained from the development of tourism can, if properly harnessed, be used to overcome resource problems, increase economic well-being, and further facilitate development (WTO, 1994). This perspective on the economic benefits of tourism is widely supported in the literature, although its drawbacks are now beginning to be outlined (Sinclair and Vokes, 1995).

Tourism as an Economic Growth Generator in Asia In the 1980s, and especially in the latter part of that decade, many Asian governments strongly committed themselves to the development of international tourist industries in the firm belief that to do so would bring substantial economic benefits to their respective countries. Foreign exchange earnings and the creation of employment opportunities were identified as the major reasons for tourism development, with other factors such as an ability to promote regional development also taken into consideration. Moreover, tourism as one of the world's fastest growing industries could bring relatively rapid returns to investment. Vietnam is just the latest Asian country to declare the importance of tourism to national development on this basis (VNAT, 1995).

Although there have been some variation in strategies, Asian governments have also generally accorded high priority to tourism development through special investment and tax concessions, and substantially increased financial backing to revitalised or recently established tourist promotion boards and programmes (Tisdall and Wen, 1991; Opperman, 1992; Kadir Din, 1989; Shen, 1993). However, the desirability of these measures has not been accepted by all members of their societies, and the growth of tourism has been questioned from both extreme and moderate points of view (Richter, 1993). The former view argues that tourism should be banned altogether, whereas the latter suggests that the economic benefits from tourism should be weighed carefully against the environmental and social, as well as economic, costs of tourism development (Hall, 1993).

Employment and the Sex Industry

Even if the favourable economic impacts revealed by these data should occur in Vietnam, it is important to emphasise the overwhelming concentration of low paid employment opportunities within the tourism sector in most countries. Despite near universal literacy in Vietnam, for example, the majority of the surveyed labour force in the tourism industry remains virtually untrained (Table 1). The rapid rural-urban migration found in developing nations has changed the circumstances in which many young people now have to live, the towns in which they live and how they have to earn to live. Often the only 'jobs' they can get are as waitresses, receptionists, bar girls, dancers, tour guides and street merchants. And the extent to which they engage in sex-for-cash is often in direct relationship to their ability to earn money in low-skill occupations in the rapidly growing cities.

Table 1: Estimated Number and Qualifications of Tourism Employees, Vietnam

Employment Category Number Level of Training Number
Tourism service 6,000
Technical training 25,000
Hotel service 60,000
On-job training 20,000
Related to hotel service 15,000
University degree 2,000
Management 7,500
Total Employees 88,500
Total Trained Employees 47,000

Source: VNAT, 1995.

In north east Thailand, for instance, the girls from poverty stricken rural areas seek to perform the expected filial duty of providing support for their families when they are recruited into Bangkok's brothels. Initially it is not their aim to enter the sex-trade as a preferred lifestyle. Where the new cities beckon as a way out of rural poverty, urban employment is often viewed as an economic safety net for the families who remain on the farm, rather than as a 'new horizon' for all. The young leave to find work and money to send back to the village. In the sex trade, and its peripheral occupations in the tourism industry they can earn, relatively, a lot of money (Black, 1994).

Nevertheless, as Cohen (1993) notes, although prostitution for local customers is far more prevalent, the foreign customer oriented sex trade remains extremely important to Thailand's accumulation of foreign capital, and also to political influence in that country. In Thailand the sex trade is centralised and oligopolistic (Fish, 1984), with active involvement of the military and the police. As a result, brothel owners are a strong political and economic force (Leheny, 1995).

The supply and demand factors related to employment in any country, together with different cultural views of prostitution in different settings, are therefore the most important influences at work. The role played by international tourism, especially paedophile tourism, in promoting prostitution has been much overrated (Cohen, 1994; Leheny, 1995). The world's oldest profession has always been plied around men away from home: soldiers, sailors, traders, pilgrims. The international businessman and the tourists are just amongst today's most numerous, and most free spending, customers. They may contribute to an expansion in the sex industry generally, and to that extent they can play an important role in a local economy. But the majority of customers for prostitutes are neither foreigners nor tourists. Except in a few special resort locations, tourists are not the daemons of commercialised sexual abuse they have been painted.

As Black (1994 ) suggests, the onus of guilt carried by tourists is partly explained by their visibility. Then there is the fact that no society wants to admit that it in part relies on the sex trade for significant economic benefit. And where the evidence is undeniable, it is more bearable to blame the 'unclean other' decadent foreigners with their incomprehensible tastes and misbehaviours.

However, there is in fact no need to look further than the rigid control of girls and women which used to and often still does operate in most societies to recognize that the notion of innocence perverted by the evil outsider is far fetched. Most societies are by no means so simple that they do not perceive the risk to girls of lascivious male intent. The circumstances in which they can continue these protection customs such as early marriage and purdah (which women activists deplore) are vanishing, and nothing has been put in their place. Girls venture out into the world, obliged for one reason or another to enter the workplace. They are young, sexually mature, under educated, ill prepared for adult life, their options are limited, and the outcome is a foregone conclusion (Richter, 1995).

The general conclusion that international tourism can be of significant economic benefit should not therefore obscure the fact that this benefit is often bought by significant rural/urban migration, low paid part-time employment, and employment in industries like the sex trade. The task for policy makers in Vietnam is to foster the development of tourism while lessening the adverse impacts of development on their people. The role of the brokers of tourism; agents, guides and the hotel and brothel owners, the police and the politicians will be crucial in this transition. The remainder of this chapter is devoted to the results of fieldwork carried out in Vietnam, in an attempt to develop specific suggestions as to how the transition may be achieved in Vietnam without the stigma attached to the tourism aspects of the sex trade found in other countries.

Vietnamese Tourism - An Alternative Sex-Industry Plan

Viet Nam has significant potential for tourism development. It has attractive natural resources such as beaches, lakes, forests, and mountain ranges, many rare species of fauna and flora, as well as a rich and diverse cultural heritage. Some of the recent wars sites, such as the Cochi Caves (Is this the right spelling?) have also become tourist destinations. The 1995 Master Plan for Tourism Development outlines the expected main features of the Vietnamese tourism industry to the Year 2010. This plan, developed by the Viet Nam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT, 1995), on the basis of work carried out by the World Tourism and Travel Organisation, is a comprehensive document covering the development of the Vietnamese tourism industry since 1989, and shows that Viet Nam has significant potential for tourism development over the next 15 years. In the longer term, the wider Indochinese region has similar potential, and Viet Nam hopes to act as a gateway for the rest of the region, particularly Cambodia and Laos.

The Tourism Master Plan (TMP) identifies the tourism sector as a significant potential earner of foreign exchange for Viet Nam. Turnover from Tourism (not including transportation) is predicted to reach US$ 400 million in 1995, US$ 1.06 billion by 2000 and around US$ 8 billion in 2010 (1989 US$). In 1993 the 'tourist branch' of the economy made up 2.8% of Vietnam's GDP. When 'tourist related branches' are included the sector contributes 5.8%. This is expected to rise to 9-10% by 2000, and to 20% by 2010.

Vietnam experienced the highest rate of growth of all the East Asia/Pacific destinations during 1994-95, 22.8%, with the Philippines (20.4%) and Indonesia (14.7%) second and third respectively (WTO, 1995). Statistics from the Tourism Master Plan (TMP) indicate that the single largest group of tourist visitors to Viet Nam (21%) are 'overseas Vietnamese' - ie emigres returning to visit. The next largest group are the Taiwanese, at 20%, and the following are the French at 10%. Other significant groups include the Japanese (7%), the Americans (4.5%) and the British (4%). Thais (2.5%), Hong Kong residents (2.5%) and Chinese (1.5%) are also important. A further 27% are described as 'others'.

These figures suggest that, with organised Japanese sex tourism declining in recent years due to changes in the composition of Japanese outbound tourism (Leheny, 1995), Australian `sex tourists' coming more under public scrutiny (Crimes Child Sex Tourism) Amendment Act, 1994), and the other major groups not to date being noted for including this aspect of tourism as an important part of the pressure they can bring to bear on host communities, it may be that the Vietnamese need not see the development of this aspect of the sex trade. Or at least its development as something outside of normal sex-trade parameters.

Section Two - A Case Study in the Brothels and on the Streets of Ho Chi Minh City

Is it possible to set aside moral issues and regard sex-work as part of the personal service industry? A way that young women (and some men) in developing countries can earn a living? We have argued that sex-work can be considered as being employment in the personal service sector. By regarding prostitution as a fee-for-service occupation, and stepping back from its moral underpinning, it becomes rather ordinary work in many respects. In some countries (e.g. parts of Australia, Germany, Turkey) prostitution is legal, but as it is heavily regulated by governments, and, thus, part of the industry is driven underground. Decriminalising prostitution in Vietnam, in a similar way to the measures being proposed by the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective (NZPC), is essential because "It will be difficult to educate prostitutes in those parts of the sex industry which are underground and hiding. If AIDS is to be kept out of the sex industry, the sex industry must be brought out of hiding" (NZPC, 1989, 7). Further, decriminalising the sex-industry will give prostitutes more power over their working conditions and will help break the cycle of financial dependency on brothel owners.

While it is important to examine official government policies, projections and documents regarding tourism flows to understand the development opportunities in that industry in Vietnam, we argue that in order to understand the sex industry's role in that development it is also crucial to make contact with people who are actually working in the sex-trade. To that end, this discussion is based on interviews conducted in January 1996 with prostitutes, madams, Save the Children Fund (SCF) outreach workers and translators in Ho Chi Minh City.

Using Life History Methodology, as developed by Middleton (1993), these interviews start from the premise that "The women were telling the truth about their lives insofar as they understood and remembered the events. There was no reason for them to lie. The techniques of revisiting and reinterpreting the material in subsequent interviews . . . ensured that the stories were consistent" (Middleton, 1993, 68). All interviews were conducted with the help of a SCF translator.

A report prepared by Save the Children Fund estimates that there are 149 brothels in Ho Chi Minh City (SCF/UK/VN, 1995). Many of these establishments are, officially, bars selling beer to Vietnamese clients. Through Catherine Healy at the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, who did peer-training workshops in Vietnam, I obtained the names and addresses of contact people prior to going to Vietnam (Healy, 1995, pers. com). Once in Ho Chi Minh City, the Commercial Sex-Worker Project people were contacted and a meeting was arranged. Following this initial meeting, two former sex-workers and Miss Min, a SCF translator, arranged to take me on a tour of some of the brothels found in the slum area of the city, places I never would have found on my own.

The following is from a transcript recorded while we were visiting the brothels. I also draw on my field notes, written while I was in Vietnam. In addition to the prostitutes working in the brothels and on the streets, some of the street kids (a number of whom are sex workers) and some of the homeless women who live in a park in the downtown area of the city (again, a number of them are prostitutes), were also interviewed.

An Account of a Visit to the Slum Brothels

The first visit was to a slum area near the edge of Ho Chi Minh City where there are a series of brothels which use selling beer as a front for their primary activity, which is sex work. In front of each beer drinking establishment there is often a cluster of young girls. My initial reaction was "At least the prostitutes get to sit out in the sun", unlike the women I met in Bangkok who work in clothing factories and spend up to fourteen hours a day hunched over a sewing machine. Now some of the prostitutes in front of the bar looked to me to be 13 or 14, but I was told they were, in fact, 16 and 17.

How the young women came to work in the sex-industry is a fairly consistent story: these young women had moved to the city from the provinces in hope of gaining decent paying employment, but it was not forthcoming. One girl had had a fight with her family and had left. Another girl, for instance, worked in a factory for a while and she ended up drifting towards prostitution simply because it paid more money and required fewer hours and consisted of less work.

Over a three day period, sixty of the young female sex-workers were surveyed. When asked what they would be doing if they were still in the provinces, their answers were: 'Nothing', 'Looking after the house', 'Watching children'. The question as to whether they perceived they were better off being here or staying on the farm was always met with startled looks. They all said they were much better off working in the brothels, thank-you very much. Every single one of them. They would then proceed to tell me, through the translator, just how much better off they were in the city. The girls certainly seemed to think that they weren't doing too badly economically and some of them said they were having a better time socially than they would have had in their village.

The prostitutes were incredibly open about relaying information and discussing issues, undoubtably because I was with the SCF Outreach workers and translator whom they already knew. As a researcher, I was introduced as "a foreigner who was looking at the spread of AIDS and STD's and that kind of thing". As a foreigner I attracted a lot of attention and a pattern developed. Whenever we stopped a crowd would gather and the questions they had for me were inevitably along the same lines. The prostitutes wanted to know whether or not I was married, if I had any children, if my hair colour was natural and how old I was. After I had answered their questions, Miss Min would then turn to me and say "Now you should ask the sex-workers some questions." As more people joined us, those who had been there first passed on the information about me and a lively discussion took place.

Following our first stop, we went down the road a little further to yet another brothel, and there were three young girls sitting in front of the pub. Again they were from the provinces, again they thought they weren't doing too badly financially, even though they didn't really see all that many clients a day. An older women wearing light blue pyjamas, whom we later learned was, in fact, 50, came across the street. She sat down on a stool and said she was sort of the `madam' of the establishment, although she insisted that they were only selling beer these days because the police raided the area three or four times a day, rounding up the prostitutes and taking them away.

When sex workers are arrested in Ho Chi Minh City they are taken to a detention centre at the Local Committee level. Some of them may be sponsored by the brothel owners. So the brothel owners raise money, which they pay under the table for the release of the prostitutes, and a debt is incurred. "Once the sex-workers are out they have to work and pay back the money. Because the interest charged is very, very high, and especially because the money paid under the table is a big amount, so the sex-workers have to be loyal to the brothel owner. For those who do not have anybody to sponsor them, they must just let their life take its course in these circumstances" (Hanson, 1996, transcript of interview).

After our visit to this particularly poor area we went to another section of the suburb that was slightly more prosperous, judging from the buildings and the way people were dressed. In the second area the brothel where we stopped was run by a very attractive and articulate woman. Miss Min later informed me that this woman had been a working girl herself, and then she'd gotten married, and her husband had left her for another sex worker. She had a child (who would be about two or three years old) to support, so she had set up this beer parlour business to earn a living. Although she lived elsewhere, the brothel was built beside the bar, carrying on an obvious business. Besides the madam, there were three girls of about 17 or 18 sitting in front of the bar. More kept joining us.

The girls seemed to be quite a congenial group, and for the most part the place was quite clean and rather well kept- much better than some of the South East Asian hotels in which I have stayed. The observation that consistently comes through (common, in fact, to prostitution elsewhere), is that girls often get into the industry because they know someone else who is already working as a prostitute. They are often from rural areas and are making a transition to urban living. They often start by doing some other kind of work, be it in factories or restaurants or whatever, but drift into prostitution to make enough money to support themselves and to send dong back to their families.

This research also substantiated the fact that working girls in Ho Chi Minh City see mostly local clients. The prostitutes confirmed that absolutely no foreigners go to the first area we visited, except possibly the occasional Taiwanese business man who is looking for an out of the way place, or for very cheap sex. The women on the street told me the same story- their clients are locals. Even in the more wealthy areas, the major prostitution market in Vietnam is still comprised of local clients. An analogy might serve to better illustrate this point: Sex workers' presences are parallel with the visibility of using pedacabs. Yes, tourists use them, and when they do they're very noticeable, but most of the pedacab clients, like most of the men who frequent the brothels most of the time, are, in fact, still the locals.

Working safely in the sex-industry requires that prostitutes be taught safe sex-practices, and that they be aware of the health and safety issues surrounding their work. One of the ways this is currently being done in Ho Chi Minh City is through the SCF, which in its official literature reports, "Peer educators and peer counsellors serve as credible and impactful disseminators of preventive/protective knowledge and behavior skills, and as positively reinforcing role models and change agents in the referent target populations (including sex-workers)" (SCF, 1995, p. 4). Consistent with the SCF literature, an outreach worker reported, "The awareness of the sex workers is very high. So many refuse sex without condoms. We talk to them about the usefulness of condoms. So now in the area where I work, 80% of the sex workers use condoms whenever they have sex" (Hanson, interview transcript).

Educating prostitutes through peer education is an effective strategy (Hanson, in press). Later, on the street, an outreach worker told me, "At first it might be difficult to bring in some girls for a STD checkup, but as we develop a relationship with them, and develop some trust, they see that we come to them with respect. We come to them with empathy, so they readily participate actively" (Hanson, 1996, transcript of interviews).

If their work is regarded as contributing to society, rather than as a crime, it stands to reason that more sex-workers will become conscious of the health and safety issues in the sex-industry. As the tourist industry in Vietnam grows, it also stands to reason that so will the area of the sex-industry which services foreign clients. By preparing for that development, rather than adopting a knee-jerk reaction, Vietnam can support the prostitutes who will work in that part of its tourism industry.

Section Three: Considerations and Recommendations

Vietnam has an opportunity to set a precedent for other countries in the Indochinese area, specifically Laos and Cambodia, by decriminalising prostitution and supporting the sex-industry as an important part of its developing economic structure. Unlike, say, Thailand or the Philippines, where foreign interests have already staked out a lucrative share of the sex-trade, Vietnam can pass laws outlawing outside interference in the development of its sex industry.

By viewing sex-work for exactly what it is- namely, work- the government in Vietnam is in a position to recognize the contribution of prostitutes. Like any other job which requires training, prostitutes entering the industry could be educated about safe sex procedures. Peer-education has already proven to be viable in this regard. English, the language of international tourism, classes could help sex-workers negotiate safe-sex with foreign clients. Empower, a prostitutes support group in Thailand, has found this to be an effective strategy when dealing with foreigners.

As well as supporting the women working in the industry through peer-education programmes (some of which are already in place) the government could also, again through the support groups, assist women who want to get out of the industry by recognising the skills they developed as prostitutes and by assisting them with training for other work. The basic skills of hospitality, after all, are developed by women working in the sex-industry and are transferable to other occupations.

Further, by recognising support groups already involved in peer-education and training in the sex industry, such as the SCF, Vietnam can assist in generating an exemplary development model for this industry. We would caution, however, that groups working with prostitutes should be responsible to the people involved in the sex-industry, rather than to the government and its bureaucracies.

Should this alternative model come to pass, then the question of foreign dominance and manipulation of the local sex-trade need not happen and the concern of governments and the WTO about the organised sex-trade need not be borne out in the Vietnamese context. And, by establishing laws and infrastructures that promote sex-worker control, Vietnam can break the cycle of power and control that typifies organised sex tourism in other countries.

Through cooperative efforts, education, training and support, Vietnam has an opportunity to support the development of a local sex-industry founded on the principle of worker control. And that is something of which Rosa Luxemburg, cited earlier, would approve.

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