Officials, experts divided over legalizing prostitution

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Public health experts argue that criminalizing prostitution has only lead to violence

A male sex worker soliciting a client on a street in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1. Vietnam has been hailed for its "friendlier" approach to mitigating the harmful consequences of prostitution but experts argue that legalizing the practice could help bring about "harm reduction" for sex workers and their customers alike.

Dressed in a short skirt and a shirt that hangs low over a padded brassiere, My Tam often waits at a bus stop on Ho Chi Minh City's Ly Thuong Kiet Street, late into the evening.

The 22-year-old gay man never steps onto a bus, however. Instead, he hops into cars and onto the back of motorbikes. The bus stop is the closest thing he has to an office.

"Virtually all gay men in Vietnam have two career options: singing at funeral ceremonies for tips or working as a sex worker. I chose the latter," said My Tam"”the name of a female pop singer he adopted.

Tam said his father left his mother soon after he was born.

He's had to make money to send back to his mothera cake hawker in Tan Binh Districtby selling his body for the past two years.

"Generous customers pay me about VND300,000 (US$15) each time," he said, adding that many female sex workers are often jealous of his popularity.

The number of gay sex workers in Ho Chi Minh City like Tam is increasing, experts say.

As prostitution is illegal in Vietnam, authorities have focused more on taking punitive legal action against prostitutes and their customers rather than managing the public health risks sex workers and their customers face"”such as HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Because male prostitution remains taboo and illegal, male prostitutes (and criminals posing as them) often blackmail or rob gay men"”who feel unable or unwilling to seek help from police.

Meanwhile, experts seem to agree that Vietnam's approach to homosexuality has pushed gay men further and further towards the fringe of society.

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Last week, at a review of a three month anti-vice operation that began in April in HCMC, officials from the Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs reported that agency inspectors have helped build 136 prostitution cases by working alongside local police departments.

Two hundred and six individuals have been arrested in the operation. So far, only eight have been tried.

During the meeting, police said there has been an increase in the number of male sex workers citywide.

Tra Van Lao, vice chief police of Go Vap District said his officers arrested two male sex workers recently, in two separate cases, after they lured their clients to a hotel, tied them up and stole their motorbikes.

According to a report released by the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, government agencies arrested 748 sex workers, 474 customers and 305 pimps in the first half of this year. The ministry also reported an "alarming" increase in male prostitution during the same period.

One researcher, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that recent government attention to male prostitution came as the result of HIV/AIDS data collection which placed new attention to the previously-ignored gay male population.

"It isn't that there's been an increase in numbers," the researcher said. "They've just always assumed that [the number of male sex workers] was insignificant."

Vietnam's HIV epidemic is concentrated among people who inject drugs, sex workers and men who have sex with men (MSM). The Health Ministry estimates there will be around 280,000 people living with HIV by 2012, including 5,670 children.

A new take on prostitution?

Vietnamese policymakers and law enforcement agencies have continued to view prostitution as a social evil that threatens ethical norms and traditional values.

However, during a recent meeting of the Labor Ministry, many officials took a surprisingly progressive tack.

Several officials called for an end to discrimination against sex workers and urged public campaigns to provide them with free condoms and education about STDs.

Since the conclusion of the meeting, several local newspapers have published articles supporting the legalization of prostitution - leading a number of public officials to backpedal.

"Discrimination against sex workers and fears of being arrested for engaging in the illegal sex trade have forced them away from preventive health services," the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper quoted Hoang Ba Thinh of Hanoi University of Social Sciences and Humanities as saying. "Sex workers have become reckless and some just want to take revenge on society by spreading HIV."

Le Thi Ha, deputy director of the Anti-Social Evils Department under the Labor Ministry, said the media had misunderstood the policies discussed at the meeting.

"Vietnam doesn't accept prostitution as an occupation," she said.

Ha insisted that the government continues to strictly punish all individuals found to be engaging in prostitution. At the same time, she said, it promotes and funds campaigns to provide sex workers access to social services and legitimate avenues of employment.

Legalize it!

Foreign experts have hailed Vietnam's "friendlier" approach to mitigating the harmful consequences of prostitution but argue that legalizing the practice could help bring about "harm reduction" for sex workers and their customers alike.

"Those seeking services from male sex workers or strangers face grave, sometimes fatal, risks. Some have been blackmailed, robbed or stabbed to death. Criminals target gay men knowing very well that their victims won't dare contact the police or seek help from others due to the social stigma and discrimination against homosexuals," said Le Quang Binh, director of the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE), a non-profit organization working for the rights of LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual and transsexual) and ethnic minorities in Vietnam.

"The legalization of prostitution is a necessary step to managing associated crimes, HIV/STDs and the protection of the human rights of male and female sex workers."

Binh argues that prostitution should not be considered a "social evil" and that male and female sex workers should not be arrested or sent to reeducation camps.

"The legal framework and society should treat them equally. By doing so, we can reduce associated crimes, HIV/STD infections and ensure social security," he said.

Nguyen Thi Thu Nam of the Health Strategy and Policy Institute at the Health Ministry indicated that society creates a demand for male sex workers even as it condemns their existence.

Nam argued that prostitution should be legalized. "A legalized field does not necessarily follow [ethical] norms," she said.

She said that the social stigma has only prevented gay men from developing stable partnerships, pushing them further into the fringes of society.

Because there is a real demand for the services of male sex workers, she said that ending discrimination against gay men won't dissolve the demand for male sex workers.

Vulnerable group

Nam said male sex workers are considered by many researchers as "vulnerable."

"They have suffered from abuse at the hands of customers or pimps without being able to rely on any protector," she said. "They don't have the right to demand that their customers use condoms or other measures to protect their health."

"If a sex worker could register with the authorities and follow certain strict regulations, they'd be protected under the law. They could access mitigation campaigns more easily. Their health and the health of their customers could be protected."

Donn Colby, Medical Director of Harvard Medical School AIDS Initiative in Vietnam (HAIVN), said many gay men chose prostitution to earn money also because there are few job opportunities available to them.

"Medical School has done a research project involving more than 300 male sex workers in HCMC in 2010, which included interviews, a written survey, and testing for HIV and STDs," he said. Though the findings have yet to be released, Colby did provide a general interpretation of their findings.

"The main reason that people engage in sex work, both men and women, is financial.  Every male that we asked said that they did sex work for money and a lack of other job opportunities." 

Colby took the position that male sex work is also a function of Vietnam's developing economy.

"Salaries for unskilled labor are very low and sex work pays more money for less effort," he said.

Only by creating effective support for this fringe group will things change.

"People will only leave sex work for other jobs when they have better alternative employment options," he said.

Looking forward, Colby said that there is a chance that recent government acknowledgements that male sex workers exist in significant numbers may translate to more government-sponsored HIV prevention programs.

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