Thursday, August 28, 2014

Sex Tourism: Defining Cultural Identity

Before coming to Vietnam I knew that sex tourism is a huge source of income for the country. This fact was actually the largest contributing factor for me to study abroad in Vietnam. At the age of thirteen I knew that for my eventual career that I would want to work towards reducing the amount of human trafficking in the world and help develop victim's rights. This spring will be ten years of working towards that goal. I specifically chose UCSB for their Global Studies program, because when I was in high school I Googled "types of majors to work for the UN". From my ten years of periodic research, I would say I know the defining signs of trafficked victims. Although I know what to look for, I feel as if I have been too mesmerized by Vietnam to give attention to some things I have seen. Our teacher would call this our "honeymoon period", and I feel as if this time has changed for me after today. A group of seven of us decided that it would be a fun idea to get massages in town. We have seen countless signs for massages near our neighborhood and so we were tempted to go and try one out. We met up with a local friend who knew a reliable place, so we gladly followed. The place that we were supposed to go to was too full to massage all seven of us at once and so we moved on to a different place down the street. From the outside it looked like all the shops. Our friend asked the male owners of the shop if they could accommodate six of us. They could, so we happily entered. Looking back now, I feel as if I should have known the warning signs. It's a difficult thing to stop a bad situation from happening when it's happening. We paid for the massages in the lobby (and I use that word sparingly) before entering the massage area. The women masseuses were behind curtains while the three men took care of the financial transactions. The men looked like what you would imagine massage brothel owners to look like. They were all wearing polos of various American designers, sporting silver chains and gold rings, and smoking during the entire transaction. Something didn't feel right, but the process was very fast and we were ushered into the massage rooms. By massage rooms, I mean we walked through a curtain into individual cubicals that were lit by a dim red light. Waiting for the female masseuse I began to get nervous and on edge. At the time I thought it was because this would be my first massage in a foreign country. Now I realize that the feeling was my body telling me to get the hell out of that place. The massage itself was extremely uncomfortable. A woman about my age entered the room wearing the tinniest dress. My Mom was a massage therapist for many years and I consider myself quite knowledgeable of various massage techniques. It was clear to the start that this woman was not a trained masseuse. I won't get into detail, but as a woman I felt as if the interaction was way too sexual and I was extremely uncomfortable by the end of it. After meeting up with the group, we came to the same consensus that the whole interaction was strange. Again, I won't get into detail, but I know that that place gives services other than massages. We tipped out our girls and the end total came to a little less than two dollars (an average price around town). I talked with my roommates for a long time about what happened. A part of me feels stupid for allowing what happened to happen. I feel as if I should have known better. I'm angry at myself for financially supporting that kind of place. The scholarly side appreciates the interaction. I want to help victims of human trafficking and I know that means becoming aware and getting involved. I think its important to bare witness to atrocities in order to be apart of the solution. As always, I see the good and bad in what happened today, but it has also lead me to questions. Like, did those girls get the tips we gave them? How did they get into that kind of work? Were they forced to work? Were they happy? Were they healthy? All of these questions I wish I could ask them.

This experience has lead me to reflect on the other forms of sex tourism I have seen since arriving two weeks ago. Sex tourism is not foreign to me. Growing up in the Bay Area I have seen my share of prostitutes and sketchy massage parlors. The difference between Vietnam and the Bay is that sex tourism is more hidden in the U.S.. Although I get frustrated at the insufficiency of U.S. policy on human trafficking, it is eons better than here. In 2012 Vietnam enacted strict laws and policies to combat human trafficking. The problem is that there are not enough resources to support the laws. I am starting to realize that this problem is a reoccurring theme. From the little time I have spent in Vietnam I have seen prostitutes soliciting johns, big bellied white men holding the hands of ten/twelve year old boys, escorts accompanying white businessmen at elite bars, and white men on holiday with their Thai/Vietnamese/Malaysian girl for the weekend. Before the trip to the massage brothel today, my mind seemed to push these experiences to the side. I know I could be wrong about what I've seen and I could be incorrectly judging people. Regardless of this, I am going to be paying attention from now on. There's a new fire in my belly and I want to learn about/recognize sex tourism while I'm here. I think these experiences are hard to see, but good for me to see, because they solidify my desire to spend my career combating human  trafficking. 
Spending two weeks in a country doesn't give you an accurate understanding of it's culture or people. Vietnam is a country filled with many ethnic groups. The people in the North are said to be different than the South. The youth population is huge and experiences a very different Vietnam than their parents. In our class we were asked to write about aspects that shape/help to define Vietnamese identity. I don't feel confident in answering that question, because I have seen so little of the country and have met a small portion of it's people. This week I spent time with some students from the university. I had a lot of fun, eating street food, going roller skating, drinking coffee at cafes. Earlier this week I went to the floating food market with my classmates and saw the sun rise on the Mekong. I learned about dating culture from an extremely limited article in my Cultural Vietnam course. Although I have done a lot and seen a lot this week, I do not feel as if I can confidently describe Vietnamese identity. I am starting to see some factors which contribute to the formation of identity here. From hanging out with the students from CTU, I see that friends have a huge influence in a person's life. Just like in the U.S., students at CTU are living away from their parents for the first time and their friends become their support system. As far as dating goes, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity all preach abstinence which influences the low rate of sex outside of marriage. However, the emergence of Western culture is beginning to change Vietnamese ideas about dating through movies, music, and magazines. From the short time I've spent in Vietnam, I can say that religion, family, peers, and established cultural norms help to construct youth identity. 


2 comments:

  1. Kaitlan,

    I thought this was a really well thought-out piece. I was also pretty shaken by our experience, but I want to play devil's advocate a little bit. When I was talking to Kevin about it and he said they offered him more services, I didn't feel bad for the women employees so much as I was relieved that for that 50,000VND (which I'm certain they get a very small cut of), they didn't have to perform any acts beyond non-sexual touch. Maybe, in a backwards way, we offered them a half hour of relief from the daily routine.

    This is not to say that sex tourism is okay if you use it only in certain ways, and sex tourism is one one the most disgusting and demeaning acts of exploitation I have witnessed. But I hope that in our own small way, we offered those women a chance to take a break--and a chance to feel respected when Kevin said, "No, thanks".

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