Feminist Arguments on the Prostitution Problem: A Vietnamese Perspective

Feminist Arguments on the Prostitution Problem: A Vietnamese Perspective

Article by Hanh T. L. Nguyen

Abstract: Across the historical length of humandkind from the time of prevalent feudalism to the modern world, prostitution has always been considered a thorny problem in many societies. Numerous scholars have regarded and theorized the unaging question of prostitution from various points of view, such as public security, public health, and gender equality. This article examines prostitution from the last viewpoint (i.e. gender equality). The article first defines prostitution, then lays out prominent feminist arguments on prostitution, or sex work. It finally finishes with the author’s reflection on how such arguments apply in the Vietnamese context where the issue of gender sometimes yields its prominence to the issue of class, especially in the face of war and neoliberal marketization.  

Keywords: Prostitution, gender equality, class issue, Vietnam, neoliberal marketization

Header image “prostitution” by Herr Herner is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Definitions of Prostitution

Many dictionaries have defined prostitution. The Cambridge Dictionary, for example, defines prostitution as “the business of having sex for money”. In Merriam-Webster Dictionary, prostitution is “the act or practice of engaging in promiscuous sexual relations especially for money.” Different nuances aside, most dictionaries share a common description of prostitution as the exchange of sexual activities for money or material things. Researchers have also expanded and modified this understanding of prostitution to suit the purposes of their different projects. For example, in Lerner (1986, p. 131), it is defined as “an activity, which in broad terms can be identified as the exchange of sex for money: women typically provide the sex and men the money” (cited in Jolin, 1994).

Recent research on prostitution in contemporary Vietnam has yielded new understandings of a very evolved sex industry (e.g. Hoang, 2011, 2014, 2015), in which prostitution is understood as “a variety of services that go beyond sex, in return for various forms of payment beyond money” (2011, p. 328-9).

International Feminist Theories of Prostitution/Sex Work

Jolin (1994) explained the etiology of prostitution with the triangulation of promiscuity, chastity, and inequality. The controversies of prostitution lie in the double standard and cultural contradiction in which men wanted to ensure promiscuity for themselves and chastity for women. While men wanted sex with multiple women, they wanted women to have sex with only one man. This double standard created “a theoretical impossibility to which men have found a practical, albeit controversial, solution”, that of prostitution (Jolin, p. 70). Prostitution set aside a number of promiscuous women to satisfy men’s needs, and reserved a number of chaste women to be men’s wives. This was possible due to the economic and political inequalities between men and women. These inequalities that were results of male ownership of the means of production, spawned, paradoxically, both prostitution and monogamy (Engels, 1942 cited in Jaggar, 1994): prostitution for men and monogamy for marriable women. This prostitution/monogamy dichotomy also worked to maintain the good woman-bad woman (or Madonna-whore) divide. For radical feminists, such as Mehrhof and Kearon (cited in Jaggar, 1994, p. 107), prostitution has been a way of controlling non-prostitutes: “By the ubiquitous ‘threat’ of being treated like a ‘common prostitute’ we are kept in our places and our freedom is further contracted.”

The inherent gender inequalities and the sexism that dictate male promiscuity and female chastity have long informed feminists to condemn prostitution. Nevertheless, feminist scholarship has been deeply divided on this issue (Della Giusta et al, 2004; Jaggar, 1994). While some consider prostitution as the selling of “something deeply personal and emotional” (Moen, 2012), and even the selling of “oneself” and one’s dignity (Carol Pateman, 1988, cited in Sullivan, 2020; Linda Thurston, 1972, cited in Jaggar, 1994), others see it as a mere trading of sexual services (Della Giusta et al., 2004). Principally, feminists are divided into two broad groups regarding prostitution in women’s fight for equality.

The first group largely considers prostitutes as victims of patriarchy and male domination and stresses emancipation from male sexual oppression as the primary equity issue in the prostitution debate. They are radical feminists who demand sexual equality first. This group argues that prostitution represents institutionalized sexual inequality and is evidence of women’s social and economic inequality. Thus, in the long run, they advocate the abolition of prostitution, which seems highly unlikely. Understandably, it is a difficult and often inconsistent position to condemn prostitution without condemning those performing it. While working towards this end of eradicating prostitution, these feminists continue to support prostitute women’s rights and campaign for their protection (Sullivan, 2020).

The second group emphasises the freedom of choice as the primary equity issue in the prostitution debate. They demand free choice first and consider prostitutes as workers, hence the term “sex workers”. They argue that the progress toward equality must involve women’s freedom to choose even when their choice is sex work. They assert that choice in sexual matters is as important to women’s fight for equality as is choice in the economic, social, or political realms. Since choice is inalienably linked to full and equal personhood, limiting a woman’s choice reduces her status as a full and equal human being.

This liberal concept of “choice”, however, has been greatly challenged. As Pateman (1999) pointed out, like exploitation, coercive nature underlies all paid employment under capitalism, including but not unique to prostitution. Jaggar (1994, p. 104) also explained, “It may well turn out that the sorts of economic considerations that impel some persons into prostitution do indeed constitute a sort of coercion and that the prostitution contract [which a woman chooses for herself] may therefore be invalidated on those grounds”. Besides, prostitution, even when dubbed as “sex work”, is not really just another occupation like others. According to Pateman (1988, cited in Jaggar, 1994), the “embodied” nature of prostitution makes it different from other types of work. Prostitution greatly exposes prostitute women to dangers of violence and exploitation.

On the other hand, the priority on “sexual equality” for women as advocated by radical feminists has also been criticised as a middle-class luxury. While most prostitutes come from the lower-class (Alexandre, 1987, cited in Jolin, 1994), for whom “sex is an economic first and an equality issue second, if at all” (Walkowitz, 1982 and Coles and Coles, 1978, cited in Jolin, 1994, p. 78), sexual equality seems indeed a privilege these women cannot afford to indulge themselves.

With such substantial differences, these two groups also hold opposing views when it comes to the legalisation of sex work. Liberals believe that prostitution should be treated as an ordinary occupation, hence endorse legalising the trade. In their view, the law should be invested in matters such as hygiene, disease control, minimum standards of service and of working conditions, payment of taxes and social security, to name a few. Meanwhile, radicals strongly oppose the legalisation of prostitution which, according to them, allows the state (a predominantly male institution) to further regulate female bodies and female sexual conduct. They argue that legalisation is the state’s official endorsement for the subjugation of women and the “ultimate patriarchal expression of the traffic in women” (Bernstein, 1999, p. 93). Nevertheless, both groups recognise that prostitution is a result of women’s inferior social and economic status to men’s (Jaggar, 1994; Jolin, 1994). Both being in support of equality for women, they advocate the decriminalisation of prostitution because criminalisation often leads to even more severe forms of women’s exploitation and victimhood (Bernstein, 1999).

Figure 1: “SW Parliament Protest” by Juno Mac is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Feminist Arguments Applied in Vietnamese Context

In the Vietnamese context, the answers to the questions of sexual equality and freedom of choice depend very much on the time period under examination. For example, during the American war (1955-1975), when the U.S. destroyed the countryside and livelihoods of farmers, it seems clear enough that rural women with little education and scanty job opportunities were coerced into prostitution rather than choosing it as an option among others. As such, the argument for sexual equality between women and men becomes a cruel luxury in such a situation: who cares about equality, least of all sexual equality, if they are on the verge of starving? Even so, being pushed into situations where they had to prostitute themselves in order to survive, they might feel dirty and undignified, like they were “at the bottom of society” (Hoang, 2011, p. 378).

In such an extreme situation, the answer to the question “Were they coerced into sex work?” might be an easy positive. However, as the country’s process of neoliberal marketization continues to gain greater momentum, the sex industry has also become highly complex and volatile (Hoang, 2015; Luân, 2013). It would be insufficient to ask entrance-level questions such as whether sex workers are coerced into sex work or they choose to enter it freely. In my opinion, “free” and “coerced” should be understood as levels that slide on a spectrum of liberty. Thus, yes or no questions should be replaced with degree inquiries of “how free?” and “how coerced?” Specifically, we should ask, for example, “What are the factors that shape women’s decision to enter sex work?” “What are the factors that keep women in sex work?” and: “Can these factors be changed in ways that will not make women feel forced to become a prostitute or to remain one?” Even when women choose to enter sex work, they might do so because of familial pressure (Lainez, 2020), to avoid harsh working conditions in factories (Hoang, 2015), or for a combination of many factors. Thus, it is significant to consider the multiple pressures that contribute to women’s decision to become sex workers as well as causes of such pressures.

Figure 2: “Vietnam War Daily Life 1972 – Photo by Michel Laurent” by Manhhai is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

As such, the issue of prostitution should not be seen only as a gender issue. Rather, it should be considered as tightly linked to the social, cultural, economic and political conditions of society at large. For example, the economic conditions of a neoliberal Vietnam in the 2000s where business deals happened in hostess bars prompted the production and popularization of the bargirl career. Vietnamese men’s practice of doing business in commercial establishments such as bars and restaurants and service girls’ facilitation of such business brokering mutually assist one another and together they shape Vietnam’s “hooking economy” (Nguyen-vo, 2008; Hoang, 2015). Moreover, it would be more apt to consider the power relation not only between men and women, but also between women (and between men) of different classes. In other words, prostitution in contemporary Vietnam is not only a gender issue but even more so a class issue due to the increasingly widened income gap since Đổi Mới. The jobs that are available to the uneducated and the qualifications-free are scant, hard, and provide little income – a situation that, in many cases, informs them to resort to prostitution.

On the other hand, should feminists insist that all prostitutes are oppressed women (or men) if ample research has found that many sex workers do not feel coerced or discriminated against by parties involved in their sex work? Would such an insistence not be a denial of the voice of the real experiencers of the social reality that feminists are studying? While some women enter sex work as the last resort, some consider it an entrepreneurial venture or even a prosperous career. For example, research has found that many sex workers enter sex work voluntarily and indicated that they earn substantially more money and have more comfortable lives compared to average urban workers (Hoang, 2015; Luân, 2013). It is important, thus, to acknowledge that not all sex workers come from the same background or lead the same lifestyle. While some of them come from poor rural families that depend on their labor to repay debts and escape poverty (Lainez, 2019, 2020), some come from urban middle-class families and hold college degrees (Hoang, 2015). Thus, it is essential to distinguish between sex workers who can afford brand handbags and luxurious apartments from sex workers who come from nothing and remain have-nots. These are class differences of not only their origin/family but also their current lifestyles as afforded by sex work in the diverse niche markets of the expansive contemporary sex industry (Hoang, 2015). Thus, it is essential that research on sex work clearly delineate the various instances of commercial sex, and develop diversified understandings of sex work and sex workers.

Concluding Remarks

From a feminist and humanistic point of view, sex workers have long been considered victims of oppression, and victims they have been. Nevertheless, within Vietnam’s contemporary highly volatile sex industry with complex stratification among the workers, some women have made their way to be in mutually beneficial relations with economic and political male elites. These men rely on prostitute women’s sexual and intimate labor to facilitate their businesses. Some sex workers even tactically re-appropriate the whore stigma to expose deceitful clients or display conspicuous consumption to correct the common perception of prostitutes as wretched creatures (Hoang, 2015). Prostitution is and always has been imbedded in particular social conditions including various social, economic, and political relations of power. These infrastructural factors shape the sex industry and the experiences of sex workers. Therefore, the particularities of such conditions and relations of a sex industry should be scrutinized when applying international feminist theories of prostitution in order to better understand the question of prostitution in particular contexts, in this case, the Vietnamese context.


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