Trigger warning for themes of assault, abuse, and domestic violence. There is no sexually graphic imagery written or portrayed. This is a very important read, especially for white folks. Breathe, be gentle, reflect and take action.
I have been trying to find a way to write about my experiences in Vietnam as there were so many intense and varied moments. Vietnam is a place of dramatic paradox with beauty and resiliency butted up against trauma and poverty. I am going to start with the experience that impacted me the most. To do so, I need to start with a statement about sex. I am a very sex positive person. If it is safe and consensual, I am all good with what folks are into. I personally love sex, it’s pretty damn fun. I know sex workers in the states who enjoy their work, make a lot of money, and grow from it. These are people who have many other options in life and choose to be in this industry in many ways from being a dominatrix, to paid companions, sex healers and teachers, all kinds of stuff. I am also a survivor of sexual assault and abuse, so I have a huge and fierce justice button around sex. To be clear, people who are in the industry because of oppression, poverty, coercion, misogyny, violence, slavery, trauma, or any other kind of power dynamic or lack of privilege is not okay. People who are prostitutes but would rather go to school to be a dental hygienist or any other job, that’s not okay. People who do not make 100% of the money off their bodies and has any person having say or control with their bodies without their full wholehearted healthy consent, that is not okay. That is exploitation. This is a very black and white issue with a clear line to me.
Everywhere I went in Vietnam, I would see young beautiful women with older white men. White men who looked like young frat boys to white men who were in their seventies. Mostly middle-aged white men with paunch bellies, tropical shirts and balding heads. The very young women were in a variety of clothing from traditional to glam sex kitten. The men spoke many different languages and almost always looked puffed up with ego and satisfaction. Under it I could see their insecurity, their grasping of youth and power, their entitlement and lack of respect. Many of them had the women fawning over them, laughing at their jokes and stroking their shoulders. Some had quiet girls, obviously submissive, serving their every move in deference. My heart ached for the girls and filled with rage over the men. I am sure there were many other women being sold to Asian men in my line of site, but it was less obvious. Sex tourism is a big thing in Vietnam. Men from all over the world, and especially white men, come here just for the women. When I say women, lets also remember that many of them are still girls. In fact, many are children, although they keep that mostly behind closed doors.
Girls are stolen in Vietnam by the thousands. No one really knows the numbers as there are not enough systems in place through the government to track. Estimates are that between 2012-2015 3,000 girls and women were enslaved for sex, labor and/or bearing children. They are taken mostly from rural areas, but also from cities. The majority are exported to neighboring China. Because of China’s 1979 one-child policy and their cultural misogyny and preference of boys, they now have “the most serious and prolonged” gender imbalance in the world. As of this year, there are an estimated 30 million more men than women of marrying age. Let’s also remember that this imbalance came about with a lot of sex-preference abortions and infanticide of baby girls. So, now there is a huge market for purchased brides. These brides are often girls 13-17 stolen from the indigenous Hmong people in northern areas of Vietnam and Cambodia. Many of these girls are lured by young boys on Facebook or Vietnamese online chat platforms, who pose as boyfriends with promises of marriage. The boys meet up with them, drug them, then take them over the border. The girls are often naive due to a lack of general and sex education and their young age. Girls cost anywhere from $10k to a mere $40. Some are targeted by neighbors or tourists who call them in as good potential stock and get a cut of the profits.
In Hanoi, a city of almost 8 million, I was able to spend quite a bit of time speaking with a young woman about her life in Vietnam while on a private food tour. I am changing her name here for her privacy. Lily is from rural Vietnam in a tiny northern village. Lily loves Americans and American culture, so we had an amazing conversation. She has many jobs and goes to school for hospitality and finance and wants to own a restaurant one day. She is very confident about her cooking skills. She’s also smart, charismatic and impressively taught herself English through YouTube. She did an array of accents for us from California valley girl, Boston tough gal, and Texas queen. It was hilarious. She also called Andrew my long hairy baby after I told her he was my little brother and not my husband. Guess who has a new nickname, thanks Lily! I was fascinated by her living situation. Lily lives in one room in an apartment with three people in Hanoi. They share the rent and all sleep in the same bed. She doesn’t even know their names, and she said this is common. City living is expensive when renting a small flat is $150 and most make about $40 a month. I think because we were so open and friendly, Lily relaxed a lot with us while sharing many delicious meals.
She told me her story of how she was raised by a dad who was one of 17 children. His name was eight because they just named each one a number. So, eight has four children. Lily is the oldest. Her father had four kids because he kept trying for a boy. He doesn’t like girls and never liked Lily. Her family thinks she has mental problems because she is 23 (25 in Vietnamese lunar years) and is unmarried and lives in a big city and speaks English. They don’t talk much. He did finally have a son, last year, when he was 58 and her mom 47. She showed me pictures her mom sent her. All his clothes have the crotch cut out so everyone can see his penis. Apparently, they do this to all boys where she is from until they are 6-7. This is to show pride and to give no doubt that they are a boy. Lily said that in her rural culture, girls have no value at all. She said in the cities it is better, but not great. We commiserated over how hard it is to be a woman in the world. I was sure to name that this is true, but being a white woman is the easiest. Lily lit up with agreement at the acknowledgement and it opened conversation further.
She talked about Malaysia and Dubai and stories of rape and assault there. She said when a white woman is assaulted people do something and say it’s wrong. When it is an Asian woman, she is then ostracized and outcast for her assault like it is her fault. She talked about violence and lack of education in Vietnam, especially in rural areas like where she is from. Beating women is expected and many don’t even know it’s wrong. As we spoke, I was not entirely sure if she was also a sex worker or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I have read and was told that if a woman is on her own in the big cities, she is most likely a prostitute. I could also tell this was a young woman who wanted freedom and was working hard for it in any way she could. I told her that she inspired me and was very strong and resilient and she gave me a teary hug, I don’t think she hears that often.
After a bit, Lily did broach the subject of dating. She said she was trying to find a husband, but didn’t want one that would control her, so it was almost impossible. She talked about tinder and the online dating scene in Vietnam. She said the older men are mostly mean and beat women. The younger ones are self-absorbed and more concerned about their image than anything else. They just want arm candy, so they look good. She talked about the beauty standard of looking like Barbie. How girls there whiten their skin and dye their hair, how blue or green eyes are coveted. I noticed repeatedly the infiltration of American whiteness throughout Vietnam. White Virgin Mary’s for Christmas, pictures of white models in store fronts, Hollywood white movies playing everywhere. Even Lily was dressed just like my Seattle teens with ripped jeans, a crop top and high-top sneakers with a messy bun. Lily said that at 5’5” she is too tall to be considered pretty for Asian men, she also had skin that is too dark. She said that because she is unmarried many think she is a Lesbian, and that is very bad in Vietnam. She looked at me curiously at this point and said, “Men here want women to be very feminine. Being gay or masculine is not okay.”
This was hugely validating for me because the whole time I was in Vietnam I noticed that Sarah and Andrew received different greetings and interactions than I did. I noticed that I got different looks and sometimes treatment. I was sure it was because I am not gender conforming with my short hair, broad shoulders and sassy butch attitude. People would literally oh and ah over Sarah walking by like she was a queen and be deferential. Men would touch Andrews muscles in admiration and talk with him at length. People asked for pictures with them, the strange but attractive white folks. I was ignored, laughed at, or even chastised in subtle ways; men had zero attraction to me. This oddly worked in my favor because I have never felt safer from rape or assault in my life. I was also left alone more to observe. So, I watched many other women being objectified and used, and it hurt.
Lily asked me many questions about my life and was amazed that I could be so independent and successful in the US. She kept asking in confusion and admiration, “And you have no husband?” It was one of those moments where my whiteness, education and background were amplified, and I could feel how badly she wanted that independence and freedom. I could feel how badly I wanted it for her too. Lily looked at me straight in the eyes and said, “I hope that the western women do something. That they take over and make change for us all.” It hit me like a ton of bricks and is a big reason why I am relaying this all to you now.
Here is the kicker folks, sex trafficking is bad in Vietnam. It was in my face the whole time because it is out in the open and obvious. People just turn heads the other way. But do not think for one minute we don’t have the same problem in the states. It is more hidden and underground, but it is alive and well. The Super Bowl is tomorrow, and it is the biggest sex trafficking event of the year. The worst part of it is that most of the trafficking is of underage boys and girls, the average age is 13. The sex slave and child rape industry in the US is on the rise, and we need to do something about it.
In Seattle, we ranked 17 for the most trafficking hotline calls and per capita for 2007-2016. I worked in a homeless youth shelter as a mental health counselor for a year here and can attest to hearing many disgusting firsthand stories of young women being drugged and stolen. Some were able to escape and resource for help, some just…. disappeared. Along with stealing vulnerable youth in this city, they bring Asian and Russian slaves in through the port all the time. I can never look at our shipping containers without wondering how many people are hidden in there. It all breaks my heart.
Moreover, Indigenous women in the US are going missing at alarming rates and no one is seeming to do anything about it. Our domestic violence and sexual assault numbers are increasing, particularly since 2016 when our president seemed to sanction that treating women like dirt is okay, “Grab them by the pussy.” In April 2019, the Trump administration rolled back domestic violence (DV) laws to what they were in the mid 1970’s, making only physical harm that constitutes a misdemeanor or felony can be considered DV. This rolled back gains made in the Obama administration counting psychological abuse, coercive control and manipulation to be DV. Gay youth and trans people are much more likely to suffer as well. It is well known that assault numbers are higher in that community. It is amazing to me how many of my peers are completely ignorant to these statistics or to the brutality that goes on daily in the world for girls and women, especially right here at home. Not knowing these things is privilege.
White women, we need to do more and better. None of us are free if we aren’t all free. White feminism that looks to get ours without looking out for everyone else and how we contribute to suffering is bullshit. Want to not do that? Look to your local communities and ask, “Who is being left behind? Who is not being heard and represented? Who needs resources and a platform?” Look at the global community and ask the same. Look to yourself and ask, “Where am I blind? Where am I bias? Where am I benefitting?” Take action, and not some white savior complex action, that is just more oppression. Educate yourself on your own whiteness and what it’s like not to be white. Look at the system and how it plays out in your personal life.
Find organizations run by black, brown, indigenous and queer folks and see what they want and need. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t project onto them what you would want, don’t tell them what you would do, LISTEN TO THEM. Donate money and spread equity. White folks hold the most wealth in the world due to the systems in place. In countries like Vietnam, a little goes a long way. Don’t stop there, look to the local title one schools in your area and start sending their PTA and lunch programs cash. Take a few lattes or whatever cash you spend on what you don’t need and give it to organizations that support education, advocacy, health care and resources to other women in need. Education is especially important as it is well documented that the more education a woman has the more freedom and choice. Raise your kids to ask these questions and do the same, especially if you have boys. Raise fierce little feminists full of kindness and grit. As Lily said thoughtfully and hopefully, “I think it would be a better world if women were in charge. I think it’s time they are.” I’m with you sister!
Along with supporting organizations trying to fight against this industry and help people out of poverty through education, we need something else. As most of my blogs discuss, we need WHITE MEN to do something. We need the culture of white supremacy and misogyny to shift. I am not fighting white men. I love many white men. I want to fight the SYSTEMS that have placed white men in positions of power that they have clearly often wielded with violence and a lack of humanity. The systems and laws that put a few at the top and many on the bottom. The ones that do not protect the vulnerable. I want more white men to look at their privilege, their positions in our culture and start standing up for everyone else. Where is fucking batman?!? Dude, it’s your neighbors, doctors, lawmakers, coaches, it’s all kinds of men you know that are buying these CHILDREN. If you can’t take a stand against that, then I fucking quit. Also, get off my blog.
Look, privilege doesn’t mean you haven’t struggled, it just means you haven’t struggled in certain ways systemically. I have lived a super hard life in many ways. I have an ACE score of 9, I have had chronic illness since a teen, I have been beaten, assaulted and abused, I grew up in American poverty, sometimes with little to no food on the table. That all really fucking sucked. You know what didn’t suck? It didn’t suck being discriminated against or abused because of my skin color. In fact, being a semi-cute blue/green eyed ginger has aided me in many ways, including getting good jobs and a good education. Nobody can control pigment and DNA; we don’t choose the bodies and skin we live in. We definitely either benefit or are persecuted for it though. We need to change the fucking systems at home and abroad. I realized in Vietnam that there wasn’t much I could do for Lily directly besides listen, leave a huge tip and encourage her. I can do things to chip away at the system though. Roll up your fucking sleeves people, we have work to do. Here are some links to dig deeper and help.
4 thoughts on “Sex Trafficking in Vietnam: What You Can Do Here and Abroad”
Omfg thank you for rocking the ship.
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Always Carol! Eric said, well, you clearly won’t stop until you piss off everyone! Nope, I will not stop. Thanks for reading and supporting!
YES! Dismantle the systems. Listen to what is needed (which is often for white people and cis-people and male/masculine people to do their work and call others into doing the work too) and learn to see the world through a wider lens.
This is a great piece. ❤
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