Lessons to be learned in Vietnam from Thailand’s sex industry

By Khai Don   April 4, 2018 | 01:56 pm GMT+7
Lessons to be learned in Vietnam from Thailand’s sex industry
A sex worker waits for customers at night time on a street in downtown Hanoi in a file photo by AFP.
Thai sex workers are offered unofficial protection, but for the men and women who walk Saigon's dark streets, the security is not there.

“Call me Ryn, I like that name!” a transgender woman told me with a hoarse voice and a shy smile, preferring the female name than her given one.

Ryn works at a bar in Soi Nana, one of many glittering alleys along Sukhumvit which often sit on top of the must-visit places in Bangkok. At these red light districts, sex workers, male or female, provide all kinds of services, from a fun date to arousing massages.

The alleys stand right next to a shopping center crowded with Muslims.

A man having fun all night at Soi Cowboy can take a short walk to the mall and buy beautiful hijabs for his wife or lover back home.

It’s hard to work out if prostitution is legal in Thailand. The country has at least three laws defining the acts of selling one’s body and enticing sexual desires for money as illegal. In 2003, the Ministry of Justice planned to legalize prostitution to collect taxes and try to control STDs, but eventually it could not rule over traditional ethical values.

Lacking a legal status, red light districts remain an important part of Thailand's tourism industry, generating $6.4 billion in 2015. Authorities in Bangkok and Pattaya have loosened their grip by allowing red light districts to appear on tourist maps. Officials tend to turn a blind eye and dismiss sex deals as a one-night stands with mutual benefits.

So whether the Thai government wants its country to be associated with a famous sex industry or not, the business has been booming for the past decades.

Thailand’s health ministry said the country has around 120,000 sex workers. Each of them earned 5,000 baht ($160) per night in 2017, 17 times more than the country’s minimum wage.

Ryn sends most of her money back to her rural home in northern Thailand, which she left to escape discriminatory eyes.

She said her job helps her to take care of her entire family, and it has paid for a house for her parents and her transgender operation.

She said she has received support from civil rights groups for regular health checks and protection against sexual violence and human trafficking.

Red light districts in Thailand are constantly guarded by police guard to make sure sex workers are not beaten or abused. They are unofficially recognized as part of the economy.

In Vietnam, sex workers are commonly looked down upon as social evils.

Nguyen Xuan Lap, director of the Social Evil Prevention Department at the labor ministry, told reporters last week that: “Prostitution cannot be a job. Not until 2020 at least.”

Lap said that Vietnamese authorities have been “too humane” by not criminalizing prostitution or publicly shaming sex workers. These workers are fined in Vietnam if caught.

His statement makes me worried for the sex workers who stand on dark streets or run their motorbikes around Saigon looking for clients, an uneasy feeling that I don't have about Ryn and her wellbeing.

Figures in 2016 indicated there were nearly 101,300 sex workers in Vietnam, not much less than in Thailand.

I do not think that threats to criminalize them will eliminate their existence in the near future. No matter how the authorities put it, prostitution is practically a job, but those that who follow that line of occupation in Vietnam do not receive protection. They struggle by themselves with the risks of diseases, abuse, violence, rip-offs and trafficking.

It’s not clear when prostitution will be deemed legal in Vietnam, possibly never, and that uncertainty will lead to many consequences, such as child sex and sex slavery, which used to plague the Thai industry before its red light districts were recognized.

*Khai Don is a writer based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The opinions expressed are her own.

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