Confucian sexual mores continue to shift, albeit slowly
People watch the launching ceremony of the '100 percent Condom Use Program Campaign at a park in Hanoi. Though attitudes about virginity have eased in Vietnam, men still maintain their right to judge,accuse or forgive women for losing virginity.Photo: AFP
Last month, a 19-year-old woman in the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho filed for divorce based on a spiraling family dispute over her virginity.
The plaintiff, Nguyen Dang Xuan Thuy petitioned the Ninh Kieu District People's Court to recover a teddy bear and her passport from her husband, 27-year-old Nguyen Phuc Duy. The trouble, she says, began when Duy's family challenged her virginity, two weeks after their marriage.
Duy's family, a wealthy ice cube producer in Can Tho, publicly claimed to have discovered a pornographic clip featuring their former daughter-in-law on the Internet. Thuy's family rejected the accusations.
On March 1, the police announced that the video had been filmed outside the country based on the actors' school uniforms. The case only began to grab national headlines, in early April, after Thuy's family filed a formal complaint about Duy's remarriage.
Whatever the outcome of the public feud, it illustrates that even in an increasingly modern and urban Vietnam, some things have not changed.
A decade after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Vietnam adopted the "doi moi" or economic renovation policy that shifted from a central command economy to a market-oriented one. This triggered a period of high economic growth causing the country's per capita income to soar to about US$1,300.
During that period Vietnam's traditional Confucian values also changed, but at a much slower pace. Today, Vietnam's youth continue to be constantly confronted with questions about sexuality.
On April 8, a group of high school students taking an entrance exam at Ho Chi Minh City's FPT University were asked to respond to the following essay prompt: "Nowadays, less and less importance is placed on a women's hymen. Many young people engage in and support premarital sex. In your opinion, is it necessary for a woman to remain a virgin before getting married? Does real happiness depend on a wife's virginity?"
Media outlets descended on the university in the days after the exam, creating yet another flare-up in Vietnam's ongoing dialogue about female virginity.
Nguyen Dang Xuan Thuy (L), 19, filed for divorce in the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho after being rejected by her husband's family who claim to have discovered a pornographic clip featuring their former daughter-in-law on the Internet
In a series of random interviews with Vietweek, young Vietnamese displayed widely divergent attitudes toward premarital sex, particularly as in regards to young women. Some cited female promiscuity as the inevitable cause of marital discord. Others argued that a husband had no right to inquire into his wife's sexual history.
Khuat Thu Hong, director of the Hanoi-based NGO Institute for Social Development Studies, said that while premarital sex among females has come to be more accepted, the old attitudes continue to "haunt" Vietnam.
Hong, who led a recent study on the issue, found that although attitudes about virginity have begun to ease, men continue to maintain their right to judge, accuse or forgive women for their losing virginity.
"Many men now say a woman's virtue should not be associated with her virginity, which is actually another way to demonstrate male dominance," she said. "A woman losing her virginity can be forgiven if she has good characteristics to fill in that loss."
In this way, Hong argues, even the emergence of an ostensibly "accepting" attitude about a woman's premarital sexuality is an assertion of traditional gender roles.
"But our society is witnessing a revision of social values," she added. "Let's see if new perceptions about love and sex will erase the old perceptions about virginity."
The Survey Assessment on Vietnamese Youth released in 2010 revealed an increasingly relaxed attitude about premarital sex, especially among older age groups, males, and urbanites.
The survey sought response from 10,044 single, divorced and married young people nationwide. About 9.5 percent of the respondents (aged 14-25) said they had engaged in premarital sex up from 7.6 percent in 2003.
More young men (13.6 percent) reported having premarital sex than women (5.2 percent) according to the study, which was jointly conducted by the Health Ministry, General Statistics Office, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Hoang Tu Anh, director of the Hanoi-based Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population, said that more and more people are aware of the negative impact that traditional taboos have had on social attitudes toward virginity and premarital sex.
"However, there has been little change," she said. "Parents remain reluctant to tell their children about sex. Schools hesitate to launch sexual education programs. And the media continues to take a biased approach to the issue."
Anh further stressed that the government and parents should take responsibility for providing proper sexual education to the nation's children.
"Sex education should equip young people to determine whether or not they want to have sex and give them the tools to do it safely," she said. "It should also make them aware of the responsibilities that come with engaging in a sexual relationship."