Viet Nam News
By Trọng Kiên
Vương Thúy Kiều was a prostitute.
There is no Vietnamese generation that has not been moved by her epic, tragically immortal story – the sacrifices she made time and again for her family, becoming the epitome of filial piety held so dear in our culture. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the Tale of Kiều has touched the hearts of millions outside Việt Nam, too.
Nguyễn Du’s poetic magnum opus might be a work of fiction, but it has deep roots in reality; in the austere Buddhist and ossified Confucian tenets that have shaped Vietnamese society over millennia.
And it is an open secret that many women, not just in Việt Nam, but the world over, have resorted to and are resorting to commercial sex work to support their families, laying their bodies on the line, literally.
These social, historic and cultural contexts were completely lost on one police officer in the southern town of Đông Dương on Phú Quốc Island, who, wielding a microphone as a weapon of self-perceived righteous punishment, sought recently to publicly shame two commercial sex workers, a client and the owner of a café believed to have organised the service.
The police officer read out aloud the ‘sins’ of and respective fines for the four people involved in ‘selling and buying sex’ while forcing them to stand in broad daylight. Then, he asked each of the four people to step up, and “introduced” them.
A thickening crowd of curious people, including children, tourists, and drivers, were made privy to all the intimate details – names, age, hometown, marital status, and other private details, not to mention sexually explicit information.
A sex worker got her whole background revealed – sick husband, two young children… desperation drove her, the police officer said, and, as she stood helpless in cheap flower crying, covering her face, he sermonised that “she could totally have chosen another means of livelihood.”
We have to recognise, without utmost clarity, that it is not the women or even their clients who were exposed by this incident, but the misogyny that pervades our patriarchal society to this day.
The police officer’s scathing moral indictment of the women turned into a more moderate, understanding criticism as he “introduced” a male client as a bachelor construction worker who “without wives, therefore … frequents these types of pleasure places to satisfy the needs of a man.”
Call the spade…
It bears repeating: What is exposed by the video clips covering the “essentials” of the public ‘indictment’ – over four minutes in length – is the ugly face of misogyny, the immoral, unjustifiable practice of blaming the victim (typically the woman), and flagrant abuse of power that violates the fundamental human rights of every citizen as guaranteed in the constitution.
Hopefully, the reverberations of this incident, which unfolded in my imagination like a Salem witch trial where death sentences have already been handed down long before the trial even starts, will last long, ushering in some long overdue reforms and changes in some key attitudes and perceptions.
Two days after the clips in question were posted online, faced with a vehement public backlash, the deputy director of public security in Kiên Giang Province explained at a press conference admitted the public shaming was “inappropriate” but it stemmed from good intentions – the local police’s wish to maintain social order in the area “with a new method that is meant to be educational.”
Educational he said? For whom exactly? What are the lessons that have been learnt and by whom? What education can come out of mental torture, anguish and trauma inflicted by people abusing their power? What have the public learnt? That some law enforcers can break the law with impunity? Better still, that some law enforcers don’t even know the law?
Descent into farce
Then, probably realising how ridiculous the excuses being trotted out were, the provincial police ordered the policemen involved in the incident to “find the four people and apologise,” facilitating a steeper descent into farce.
How are they going to apologise? Again, rounding them up in a publicised ceremony and humiliating them even more? Do they think the ‘honour’ of the ones they have blighted so shamelessly, in a society that sets great store by not losing face, can be restored with a mere apology? Would they have paused to consider the legality, hypocrisy and morality of this event if public outrage had boiled over to a firestorm status?
We should not let this incident peter out. Our lawmakers have debated the question of legalising prostitution for some time now, but the debates have remained inconclusive. But the very fact that this is still being debated shows no one can pass an absolute moral judgement on those who engage in this work, far less violate their fundamental human rights by heaping public ridicule and insult on them.
In the aftermath of this incident, lawyers were eager to suggest that the four victims could file a defamation lawsuit against the policemen involved. Theoretically they could, and actually, they should. However, can they afford it – from the court fees, being in the spotlight again, going through the enervating legal process, etc. – to seek justice that they might not get?
In his ruminations, the philosopher Bertrand Russell has noted that it is the advent of hollow Christian morality that began ignoring and demeaning the valuable social service that a sex worker provides. “The real offence of the prostitute is that she shows up the hollowness of moralistic professions,” he wrote.
It is also obvious that those who profit handsomely from the profession are not the sex workers themselves, but those who provide the service in various settings.
Yes, aside from just a supply-demand relation, there are several evils and problems associated with this sensitive profession, like human trafficking, drug abuse, pimping and sexually transmitted diseases, that the society in general and law enforcement agencies in particular, should focus more on tackling, instead of striking unintelligent moral postures, which is nothing more than virtue signalling.
For now, sex work remains illegal in Việt Nam, but this does not mean the fundamental rights guaranteed by our constitution to all, including commercial sex workers, can be trampled on.
If anything, they need to be protected against obvious occupational hazards, facilitating the provision of non-discriminatory healthcare, for instance. This is what a progressive mind-set and legislation would provide, at the very least, and this should be our aim as well.
If anything, in my opinion, prostitution – not the forced kind – is less ‘disruptive’ than other vices like gambling or storage of weapons.
In a modern, market-oriented economy and society, there are legions that are engaged in vocations out of necessity, not of choice. Studies have shown, for instance, that people join the US army more for economic reasons and lack of other options than anything else. It is most likely that this is true of commercial sex workers as well.
We should remember that there were times when courtesans, predecessors of commercial sex workers, were accorded high status in society, and the very least we can do today is treat them with respect, formalise their legal rights and stop any form of discrimination, including public ostracism.
It is not for nothing that prostitution has been called the world’s oldest profession. To end it, we have to end male demand for sex and remove the socio-economic constraints that propel women into the profession. — VNS