Social and Cultural Anthropology, Extended Essay (a 4000-word independent paper required for all students pursuing the International Baccalaureate Diploma) Supervisor Maria Tsvetkova, United World College Costa Rica Mark (externally graded): A Maria's feedback in the first review session on October 12th 2018: "This is a very impressive, college-level, work." This was uploaded at 00:00 July 7th 2019, after Khoi checked his IB final results.
In this Extended Essay, my research question is created with concerns about how and why female sex workers were motivated and able to act upon and shape the unequal structure in Vietnam’s ever-changing context: “How do female sex workers in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam actively take advantage of the patriarchal masculinities constructed by the shifting global economy?”
The analysis of this Extended Essay is based on the ethnographic materials offered in “Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work,” conducted and written by Kimberly Hoang, a Vietnam-origin sociologist. In the five-year fieldwork in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), the author conducted participant observation, supported with semistructured interviews with 276 persons. The ethnography delivers a different lense of Vietnam, its people, and how they position themselves in the changing global order, which is completely opposite to Vietnam’s stereotypical image usually associated with the Vietnam War.
The sex workers in “Dealing in Desire” were highly aware of their expected images and behaviors in the industry. They consciously acknowledged that Asian elite businessmen used intimate bars as “where they can engage in deal-making practices crucial for organizing business ventures” besides “leisure and consumption” (Hoang 12) and Viet Kieus (i.e., the overseas Vietnamese men) and Western men, including both businessmen and backpackers, utilized the spaces that didn’t exclude them due to their then limited economic transactions “to displace their status anxieties onto women’s bodies” (Hoang 13). Four niche markets then were constructed, catering to four types of customers with specific needs and expectations.
Such complex and dynamic interactions between the stakeholders in this intimate labor market led to my interest in the female sex workers’ agency in actively taking control of their identity and categorizing themselves into different niche markets. They were, from my reading and analysis, critical of how power is socially practiced, associated closely with the capital flows in Asia and in Vietnam particularly, and how flexible identity is. As a result, they made use of the existing patriarchy, a deeply-rooted oppression on women including the sex workers. My analysis here is established through a feminist theoretical lense, examining the relationship between women and the patriarchy, with support from Michel Foucault’s theory of power regarding the prostitutes’ purpose of actions.
Less than three decades after Đổi Mới—Vietnam’s remarkable economic, social, and political reform in the 80s—the country has experienced “rapid economic growth and development and transformed Vietnam from one of the world’s poorest nations to a lower middle-income country” (The World Bank). A free market was established, which eventually raised certain related social issues that had never existed before in the context of war and social reform, including the involvement of prostitution in business. The underground sex industry gradually became critical in reflecting what men expect in women, how men perform their masculine superiority, and how women adapt into the structure.
Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2007, not long before the 2008 global financial crisis, striking the most developed and influential economies such as the United States’ and European countries’. Yet, the crisis did not affect many developing nations, mostly located in Asia, as negatively as the West. In other words, “[…] while the advanced economies still remained mired in stagnation and uncertainty, developing countries have largely shrugged off the effects of the crisis and are recovering with a healthy dose of certainty and momentum” (Park et al. 103). This shift resulted in a new hierarchy, in which Western global domination started to be threatened by Asian countries, many of which successfully maintained stable growth during the crisis, becoming more economically independent and capable.
The interactions between Vietnam and other Asian economies also got stronger. By 2010, according to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam, foreign direct investment (FDI) to Vietnam came mostly from Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, respectively. This created new opportunities for cultural and social exchange via negotiation of investment and trade, where Asian businessmen presented and strengthened Asian-oriented values and lifestyles; some of which were patriarchal and stereotypical. The Western and also the Viet Kieus were seemingly left behind as dollars started losing its once significant worth in international monetary flows. As a result, female sex workers, who play an important role in Vietnam’s economy, catered themselves to a specific group of male customers of each niche market, satisfying the men’s needs of practicing masculinity by either embracing their rising capital power or denying their potential capital powerlessness.
Prostitutes in HCMC utilized male’s expressions of masculinity, determined by economic and social changes, by actively adapting their performative identities into the patriarchy and keeping themselves aware of social changes and consumers’ behaviors. Furthermore, they successfully exploited the system financially with full acknowledgement of their capability while embracing the expected staged femininity. Therefore, the female sex workers not only survived but also defied within the structure of male domination and the hierarchy of power.
Financial Benefit and Gained Autonomy
There were four niche markets within HCMC’s sex work, including “(a) local Vietnamese business elites working to attract foreign direct investments from their Asian business partners, (b) Viet Kieu men tied to nostalgic remittances, (c) Western men investing in small-scale businesses through benevolent remittances, and (d) Western budget travelers who still view Vietnam as […] in need of aid or charity through benevolent remittances” (Hoang 39) from the most luxurious to the least regarded, respectively. In this mutual and dynamic process, each group participated with their own interests in mind. While the male customers had the incentive to exhibit or protect their power and masculinity, the prostitutes benefited from the industry with a new, significant source of income and a sense of autonomy by actively sensing the international economic shifts and catering themselves accordingly. Feminist theory can be used to analyze this phenomena as the female sex workers and the male clients consumed, behaved, and negotiated around the frame of patriarchy.
“Patriarchy has no gender” (Hooks 142) because it is exercised by everyone. While this toxic order of gender roles could cause harm to certain groups explicitly and implicitly, those willing and able to take advantage of the system, including women, could to an extent benefit from it. Particularly, the income brought by sex work could be very appealing for the underprivileged, especially women from rural areas or hadn’t had access to general education. The Vietnamese female prostitutes, mostly coming from low-income or working-class background, could earn “roughly U.S.$2,000 per month in tips for joining men at their tables and U.S.$150–$200 for each sexual encounter” (Hoang 42) in the niche market targeting Vietnamese and Asian elite businessmen. The situation was quite similar in other niche markets, in spite of the relative variation in income depending on the specific group of customers and alcohol purchased. Furthermore, due to the preexisting wage gap, highly educated women working in leadership positions in the legal job market were underpaid. This also explains the motivation for some women, who were socially intelligent and were capable of leading business, to turn to this underground industry and work as mommies (female pimps): “The mommies earned U.S.$3,000–$4,000 per month in tips (in comparison, women with master’s degrees in managerial positions made roughly U.S.$2,000 per month in HCMC)” (Hoang 42). Sex workers, therefore, could make ends meet and may have exceeding savings. Their first and most directly important goal was to survive, financially, in one of the fastest growing cities in Asia.
Even though patriarchy was initially and mostly beneficial to men, regardless of each’s privilege and background, women could still benefit from it as long as they were conscious of the tacit expectations on them. It took critical observation and awareness to possess such knowledge, as women were likely to become extremely passive if they started to institutionalize and normalize one’s inferiority or superiority. The women participating in Ho Chi Minh City’s sex work, as noted by Kimberly Hoang, were young female mostly coming from rural areas and not obtaining higher education. With the undeniable lack of educational and vocational preparation due to a variety of reasons, they could have tremendously struggled in Vietnam’s legal and semi-capitalist job market, mainly consisting of vacancies requiring at least a vocational degree. Furthermore, gender inequality was still profound in Vietnam’s workplace, shown by the wage gap and the unequal distribution of labor between male and female in certain fields such as STEM and the heavy industry. Therefore, joining the legal job market didn’t make much of a difference—economically speaking—from joining the underground sex industry. For some, especially those working in the higher end of the market, they not only made ends meet but also had a quite well-off life.
Female sex workers, through the process of interacting with men from different financial, racial and ethnic, and social backgrounds, acknowledged what were happening and what they could do to make the most out of such an unpredictable setting. Feminist theory, besides investigating the patriarchy and its oppressive system of degrading women and minorities, also focuses on how women possess an agency to benefit from the structured inequality. In this case, the prostitutes were aware of the systematic shifts, influenced by global economic changes and influencing the local social order, and were then purposefully shaping the industry and exploiting the market as soon and as much as possible.
Although maintaining financial stability was one of the priorities, it was not the sole reason motivating the sex workers’ consciousness of their role and benefits. It was the freedom that mattered, creating a myriad of benefits that went beyond the financial ones. An intertwined relationship was established through which one’s agency strengthening their autonomy and vice versa. The sex workers provided themselves with the autonomy they had never had as poor uneducated women in a fairly conservative context since “their involvement in commercial sex work shapes their own personal trajectories of economic and social mobility” (Hoang 79) For example, they, according to the ethnography, had complete access to safe sex if needed and total right to negotiate in their sex work. They, therefore, possessed not only spending power but also freedom that allowed them to make their own decisions such as giving consent (e.g: they could refuse to involve in sexual intercourse) and observe and understand not only their but also the clients’ capital worth on the market. This was surely dehumanizing, in which human beings were viewed as objects based on one’s monetary value, but it was necessary, even important, for the sex workers to get out of the passive role of victims by gradually equalizing both sides’ influences on each other in the industry.
Still, the female sex workers could not entirely escape the structure because, as Conrad Kottak once stated, patriarchy is a political and social system that maintains women’s inferiority in status and access to human rights. Patriarchy, unfortunately, was everywhere, including but not limited to the city’s sex work, and had profound impacts on every individual. This situation was also noted by Hoang herself: “But while women were able to capitalize on Vietnam’s rapid development, it is important to situate their mobility as constrained within structures of patriarchy” (Hoang 17-18). As a part of a larger industry interrelated with many other societal aspects with an assigned role, the prostitutes could neither freely express their knowledge via actions nor create any immediate impact on their lives. Therefore, it can be reasoned that they were still much constrained in agency. This, however, further indicates how thoughtful the sex workers’ agency and autonomy were, fully aware of their being underprivileged while slowly but firmly enhancing their power and exploring new limits. What they could do were limited, in contrast with what they could understand, because “women in lower-class and poor groups, particularly those who are non-white, would not have defined women’s liberation as women gaining social equality with men, since they are continually reminded in their everyday lives that all women do not share a common social status” (Hooks 19). Nevertheless, they still weren’t hesitant to shape the sex work industry into different niche markets and maintain their relative freedom to make decisions and execute negotiation. Such a tacit method of empowering oneself and regaining power was prominent. The autonomy they gained was crucial, enabling them to be more independent, empowered, and aware.
As a result, the female sex workers in HCMC, in spite of numerous challenges and restrictions, were determined to take advantage of the patriarchal system of global masculinities via making ends meet and developing a gradual sense of freedom. From the feminist theoretical lense, their agency and actions were feminist, even though they did not, and could not, explicitly disobey as it may have caused them to bear financial and social hardships. They refused to remain passive in a prejudiced structure that had long assumed women, specifically sex workers, to be inferior and powerless. Their courses of work and agency might be objected by many due to their prior preconceptions (that prostitution is destructive and anti-feminist) and its negative systematic effects, but it is undeniable how female sex workers, at least in Hoang’s ethnography, possessed critical knowledge about and made the most out of the patriarchy was applaudable, especially for feminists supporting women’s rights in being able to afford their lives and protect their endangered autonomy.
Knowledge as Power
Although the prostitutes could not obtain full independence to defy the structure, resist the powerful patriarchy, or simply refuse to enter the sex industry in the first place, they still had certain autonomy. It was executed with full awareness, directly affecting the sex work in general (e.g: how they formed the niche markets and objectified and regarded their customers differently). This phenomena can be observed through Foucault’s Theory of Power, through which every exercise of power is taken into account and power is perceived as an interrelated and inseparable part of any society. In this case, the lense focuses on how the sex workers perceived themselves and their clients in the global hierarchy and its local manifestation and, in turn, exercised power themselves. The allocation of power was generated in the presence of the niche markets and the performances within them, “as male clients and female sex workers negotiate their changing status—either by embracing the shifts in global capital flows that bolstered Asia’s ascendancy or by reproducing old regimes of global power that hinge on Western dominance” (Hoang 13). Such a constant interaction required the knowledge base from both sides, which determines to what extent the prostitutes could act and benefit, depending on the niche market they belong to. The sex workers here took advantage of the shifting system implicitly, obtaining knowledge that helped enhance their activeness and power.
Knowledge held a profound role in the construction of power because knowledge, and how it is presented and utilized, represents the flows of power between different groups in a society. One of the most influential supporters of this phenomena is Michel Foucault: “For Foucault, power and knowledge are not seen as independent entities but are inextricably related—knowledge is always an exercise of power and power always a function of knowledge” (“Power/Knowledge”). In this situation, the prostitutes understood not only their social status but also their clients’ in an ever-changing global economy. Female sex workers in Vietnam held the position of inferiority as women participating in the field were significantly associated with stigma, but they were not completely powerless or unaware of how to function in the hierarchy. Their acknowledgement of to what extent individual and social capacity allowed them to critically interact with customers played an incredible role in determining their power in the industry. The importance of knowledge in the notions of power is explicitly shown in Hoang’s book’s ethnographic materials.
One of the examples is how the sex workers purposefully categorized themselves into four separate niche markets and catered their bodies and personalities to the particular demand of each general group of male customers, characterized by the changing economy, signified not only their willingness to take advantage of the patriarchy imposed on them but also their capacity, motivated by their knowledge, to do so: “In order to entice clients, sex workers who cater to wealthy local Vietnamese men and other Asian businessmen construct themselves as distinctly pan-Asian modern subjects, while workers who cater to Viet Kieus construct themselves as nostalgic cosmopolitan subjects, and women who cater to Western men construct themselves as Third World subjects dependent on Western support, to satisfy their clients’ racialized desires” (Hoang 16). By utilizing their knowledge, made by careful observations of the world affairs, the prostitutes stayed in demand and in the market, making impacts on their capacity, though implicitly, and on the structure in general: “Through these performances, sex workers effectively work together with clients to contest and actively reshape global race-, nation-, and class-based hierarchies” (Hoang 16).
The investigation of the agency of the oppressed requires an acknowledgement of the existence of marginalization. Despite the changing and unstable state of the economy, which in turn impacted the underground sex work, and the sex workers’ profound understanding of how to take advantage of such changes, they were still positioned in the inferior rank in the patriarchy as women and as prostitutes. However, their act of tacit resistance towards oppression, enhanced by their shared knowledge of the then social affairs, needs to be recognized as motivated from the position of inferiority but not from the position of passiveness; in other words, “to operate within the matrix of power is not the same as to replicate uncritically relations of domination” (Butler 42). Although they were situated in the oppressive system and were undeniably oppressed by being categorized as a highly taboo group, they were able to act within and upon their capacity, being in charge of the structure of the niche markets that many would believe to be oppressive instead of empowering.
Viewed from the theoretical lense of Foucault, their mindsets and actions can be seen as the epitome of critically exercising power, the pervasive and fluid feature of social relations, in the form of knowledge. They fully understood that the capital flows, business activity, and economic domination were considerably shifting from the West to the East, which caused the gradual collapse of Western hierarchical power imposed on Asia’s investment scene and HCMC’s sex industry. Since the patriarchy is a system of power and everyone, according to Foucault, practices power regardless of their social status, the prostitutes could not entirely escape the structure or resist to follow it. Therefore, by catering themselves to four niche markets directly targeting a specific type of male customers based on their wealth, economic potential, and race and ethnicity, the female sex workers, constrained within the patriarchal frame, found a way to most utilize their knowledge to implicitly equalize their capacity with that of men in this intimate labor market. The nature of power relations, especially of and in this market, should not and cannot be separated from forms of resistance, knowledge in this case, and their complex set of purposes, to benefit from the system while also weakening it in this case, whose complexity is in turn acknowledged by Foucault himself, “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.” In the intertwined matrix of power, the female sex workers in the ethnography defied the oppression by preparing themselves with knowledge, a significant factor in determining and maintaining one’s position of power and the society’s structural power relations, and by applying it consciously at work. They didn’t just exploit the system, whose unequal hierarchy had long degraded and marginalized them, but they also acknowledged and took full advantage of the new-found inequality within their male customers in terms of economic potential and social influence. This phenomena has long been issued by various thinkers interested in how women, regardless of their status, think and act within the intersectional and complex social structure: “Since men are not equals in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure, which men do women want to be equal to?” (Hooks 19). Knowledge in this case, therefore, became incredibly crucial in shaping how the sex workers regarded both themselves and their customers, which in the end shaped their explicit performative identity according to one’s niche market and implicit awareness of the relationship between the market, and the individuals within it, and the economy in a much bigger scale.
It can be concluded that the female sex workers in HCMC benefited from the systematic oppression imposed on them, which was analyzed above based on Hoang’s ethnographic materials and feminist theory. Nevertheless, it is also important to take into account how such bold thoughts were applied and critical actions were motivated. Knowledge, undeniably, was the main reason for the remarkable accomplishments, although most of them were tacit and perhaps more structure-oriented, of the sex workers in empowering themselves and being involved in the economic and social changes. The niche markets and the sex industry in general, despite being established to satisfy men first and foremost and being explicitly oppressive to women, appeared to be the engines for the sex workers to exercise their capacity of power, grounded by their profound knowledge. Their minds were unsettling and their knowledge was powerful.
From the ethnographic account provided in “Dealing in Desire,” we can reason that the female sex workers in HCMC were able to actively, consciously take advantage of the patriarchal masculinities by exploiting the system for personal benefits, empowering themselves with new-found autonomy, and advancing their knowledge about the world’s economic changes that significantly affected people involving in this intimate labor market. This phenomena, in my Extended Essay, has been analyzed through the lenses of feminist theory and Foucault’s theory of power. I believe that, being positioned in and constrained by the patriarchy, both the female prostitutes and male customers could not do much to exercise and act outside of their limited capacity. However, the sex workers, through my analysis, went beyond their systematic constraints to manifest their agency, with very clear interests to become more active in manipulating the industry, gaining more capital power, and making personal decisions.
Some may perceive the prostitutes’ mindsets and actions in the ethnography as toxic and negative when they, instead of resisting the patriarchy and the unequal hierarchy of power, supported and fully adapted into it and could further worsen gender inequality and class stereotypes in the long run. However, such a problem doesn’t fit into the scope of this Extended Essay and also is not specifically targeted in Hoang’s ethnography, so I, to not make any assumption or conclusion that is not evidently supported by ethnographic accounts and theoretical argument, would neither agree nor disagree with the above perception. Nevertheless, it is crucial to acknowledge that the interactions between the prostitutes and the clients were placed in a highly complicated and constantly changing social and economic setting, and the formed niche markets and the relationships within those can be viewed as initiatives, actions, and networks that were not motivated to create any long-term structure change but were to expand the sex workers’ limited space and capacity that helped them benefit from the oppressive patriarchy and male-dominated economy.
The prostitutes’ relationship with the masculine exercises of economic power and patriarchal expectations granted them with expansive agency, performative identities, and empowered control over their own lives and the closest system that affected them. Through the niche markets, they successfully not only exploited the system but also defied it by subversively establishing an intertwined connections of power rather than an imposed hierarchy. They were, in short, anything but powerless.
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