Sex trade: Social evil or just a job?

Sex trade: Social evil or just a job?

As Vietnam develops, sex workers there are dealing with changing social attitudes towards their profession.

For Vietnamese sex workers like Do Thi Oanh, being caught touting used to carry a long stint in forced "rehabilitation". But as fines replace detention, many detect a shifting attitude towards the world's oldest profession.

In 2008, Ms Oanh was sent to one of Vietnam's notorious rehabilitation camps on the outskirts of Hanoi, joining hundreds of prostitutes and drug addicts detained without trial for taking part in a "social evil".

The 32-year-old was held for 18 months in the centre where detainees worked for free raising poultry, gardening or making handicrafts. Last year, Vietnam replaced compulsory rehab for sex workers with fines of between US$25 (S$32) and US$100, releasing hundreds of people from centres across the country.

Ms Oanh, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said the legal move points to a wider liberalising attitude towards sex work in the country.

"I think society today is much more tolerant with people like me," said Ms Oanh, who has given up prostitution but remains in sex work, running a massage parlour in the capital.


Prostitution is illegal in Vietnam, but hundreds of thousands of sex workers ply their trade in a deeply conservative society still dominated by Confucian social mores.

In recent months, a fierce debate over whether to legalise and regulate the sex industry has sprung up online and in the official press, views that were long considered taboo have been aired.

Even the national assembly is due to address the issue at its next session in October.

Despite decades of official suppression, Vietnam's sex industry has flourished in parallel with the economy since market reforms of the late 1980s opened up the socialist system to international trade and investment.


Researchers estimate there are around 200,000 sex workers in Vietnam, full-time or occasional, of whom up to 40 per cent are believed to be HIV-positive.

"We should legalise prostitution because it is part of human rights. Everybody has the right to enjoy sex," said sociologist Le Quang Binh.

Legalisation could help "protect sex workers and their clients, and bring in revenue for the government through taxes," he added.

For now, the official line is that "prostitution cannot be considered a job", according to Ms Le Duc Hien, deputy director in charge of the fight against vices within the labour ministry.

"Legalisation is really a great challenge for us," she said, adding that "this issue is still too sensitive" in Vietnam.

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