Much of the literature on prostitution in Asia contains horror stories: how girls are duped, trafficked, made to work as sex slaves, and exploited in various other ways. This is a literature of outrage. But it is also inextricably linked to development and policy changes to ensure Asian governments and bureaucracies conform to current Western or Northern standards of morality, public policy, and political behaviour. For example, many forces are constantly applying pressure on Asian governments to become signatories to United Nations and other international conventions and instruments. Some of this horror is indeed true and justified. But as some authors have recently begun to write: do not believe all the hype (Murray 1998).
The global commercial sex scene constitutes a booming market, involving a multi-billion dollar industry (Kempadoo 1998:16). As an example from the region, the Thai sex industry is said to be worth about 5 billion US dollars a year (Kempadoo 1998:16). However, the economic aspects of sex industries are rarely discussed. Because of the dominant influence of discourses on morality in characterizing the sex industries of the world as evil and abounding in horror stories, the economic contributions made, particularly to poorer countries in regions like Southeast Asia, are rarely considered. In this paper I put aside moral concerns to concentrate on another aspect of the issues concerned with the sale of sexual services: to examine the scale of economic dependence on prostitution in one of these Asian countries, Vietnam.
In an insightful paper on tourism and the sex industry in Vietnam, Cooper and Hanson (1998) make two important points. The first is that the sex industry is an important component in the economy of many countries, and it could be so in Vietnam should the government seek to value the work of prostitutes, decriminalize their services, and recognize their contribution to the economy. The second point is that research, outreach and support work done with prostitutes should be responsible to people involved in the sex industry rather than to government or its bureaucracies. I wish to take up both these points here. Initially, to take an empirical step beyond the claims