Growing sexual independence among Vietnamese women is generating anxiety among men who have growing doubts about "˜traditional' masculine advantage, study found
A young couple in traditional Vietnamese dress film a wedding video at Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City
Huynh said that his uncertainty about whether or not his partner was a virgin initially caused him to feel cheated. However, he also said this ambiguity just demonstrated to him that virginity is not an indicator of a good character.
"I recognized that even though she was only one year older than me, maybe she had [had] prior sexual affairs... because, from what we learned at school, [if she was a virgin] she would have been in very great pain... The sex seemed quite painful, [but] not extreme," said the 26-year-old man from Hanoi.
Huynh said he told the story to question his own expectations and prejudices and not to cast aspersions on her character.
Vietnam's rapidly changing society has re-defined female sexual identities inspiring anxiety among men about their own sexual abilities and doubts about "traditional" masculine sexual advantages, said Philip Martin, a lecturer at RMIT University's College of Design and Social Context in Australia.
Martin conducted 13 months of field work in Hanoi and interviewed 26 men, aged 18-30, during his research.
According to Nguyen Thi Thu Nam, a researcher at the Institute for Studies of Society Economy and Environment (ISEE), qualitative studies based on small but focused samples are common in sex and sexuality research.
Nam, who recently led a team of researchers in authoring the country's first major study on female sexuality, called Martin's findings interesting and important.
"[Martin] has offered evidence that young men and women, considered as sexual agents, are in a continuous negotiation progress for their role and gender identity in a rapidly changing society," she told Thanh Nien Weekly in an e-mail.
"I realized that practically all the Vietnamese men under the age of 30 I came to know were expressing a profound sense of restlessness... Many Vietnamese men were thinking a great deal about "˜change' in the socio-economic and gender order, and the implications for their lives as young men," Martin told Thanh Nien Weekly via email.
In his study "These days virginity is a feeling: heterosexuality and change in young urban Vietnamese men" first published in the August issue of the Culture, Health & Sexuality Journal, Martin found that young men in urban Vietnam are increasingly ambivalent about notions of "gendered morality" in general and the significance of female virginity in particular.
Martin alleged that this shift began with doi moi (Vietnam's socioeconomic reform launched in 1986) which initiated an evolution in female sexuality.
"Such ambivalence might at first suggest a shift toward improved gender and sexual equality. Findings reveal that some young urban Vietnamese men construct and reinforce explicitly "˜masculinist' gender ideologies by watching heterosexual pornography in groups with male friends or by visiting female sex workers for the purpose of watching their friends have sex," the study found.
According to the study, the young men have deduced that as young women today have changing fashions, bodies and opportunities (compared to those who grew up prior to doi moi) they must also have changing sexual needs and expectations.
They also believe that the physical evidence for female virginity is no longer so reliable due to the prevalence of hymen-reconstruction surgery.
Duy, 28, said that before doi moi, Vietnamese girls were beautiful but very skinny. After 1990, the economy of Vietnam was growing following trade normalization with the US and the society changed a lot.
"Girls became more modern... Now they are taller; more plump-faced, plump-bodied, with plump hips, a plump chest, and with whiter skin... their bodies have become more lustful, and they wear more provocative clothes," he told researchers.
Some men argued that women's appearances are not always reliable indicators of their changing attitudes and behavior toward sex.
Another interviewee, Tuan, suggested that those young women who don't wear risqué clothes are also "more free" than "before," but choose to conceal their freedom by dressing chastely.
Tuan referred to one female colleague who pretends to be very reserved about sexual affairs in her dress and conversation, but keeps a lot of sexual poems and material stored on her computer.
Men's adapting problems
Martin said that young Vietnamese men's observations of the changing role of women in their families and in society following doi moi greatly affected their conceptions of masculinity and behavior "as men."
"Young men in part negotiate changing social conditions in general, and changing gender relations in particular, by invoking "˜traditional' patriarchal and Neo-Confucian tropes."
"Where young women in Vietnam were once thought to have little control in their sexual relations, they are now understood by young men as having sophisticated sexual needs, and demanding expectations. These ideas are regularly reinforced by stories in Vietnamese popular culture around women's changing sexual energies and activities," he said.
"In turn, young men reflect on their own uncertain sexual roles and responsibilities, and question the practicality of "˜traditional' gender norms and narrow expectations around sex and sexuality," he said, adding that the trend has helped improve relations between men and women while raising concerns.
Martin found that young men were increasingly turning to commercial sex to satisfy their fantasies of traditional power.
Hieu, 19, suggested that women are "more open on this issue." He said young women's "openness" to their sexuality and knowledge of sex meant that it would be "easier" for him to find a girlfriend, but it's also likely that inexperienced men would lose their girls.
A Vietnamese woman writing to The Gioi Dan Ong (Men's world) magazine said that she never felt a happy moment with her husband. "I have never had any happy moments, he hugged me for a few minutes then he ejaculated immediately," the woman wrote.