Scandals, Pre-Marital Sex, and Surrogacy: A Look at Sex in VN
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A number of sex related stories made the top news in Vietnam lately: a sex scandal with university students from Hanoi, a UNICEF report on reproductive health among youth, and an illegal Thai surrogacy ring. We have put some of the issues touched on these stories in context and tied it all together in this article.
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Actress Hoang Thuy Linh’s Sex Scandal
In 2007, Vietnam’s online world was rocked by a sex scandal. A blurry video posted on the Internet showed two teenagers engaging in sex. The five-minute video clip was filmed on a mobile phone and uploaded to Youtube.
The actress (although, presumably not acting) in the video clip was also the same actress in a popular television series, Hoang Thuy Linh, who was 19 at the time.
Fallout from the scandal was immediate, as the media picked up the story and a huge public backlash ensued.
Censored images of the video depicting a less than innocent Thuy Linh contrasted with her role as a schoolgirl in the Vietnam Television (VTV) series “Vang Anh’s Diaries”. VTV (Vietnam’s national broadcaster) dropped the show as news of the scandal broke.
"The VTV show in which the closure of Vang Anh’s Diaries was announced, with Thuy Linh tearfully apologising to her parents and begging for understanding from her fans, attracted a phenomenal number of viewers." But perhaps these numbers pale in comparison to the number who watched her sex video then and those who continue to do so now, as the clip is still available online.
Fast forward to 2011. Sex scandals are nothing new, nor are they surprising in a relatively conservative Vietnam. And yet, they still make headlines and cause shock. But instead of big name celebrities and high-ranking politicians, Vietnam’s sex scandals involve not so famous people.
Video Clips Continue to Shock
A few days ago, Vietnamese media reported that a “10-minute sex clip with dirty dialogues and hardcore acts” was leaked on the Internet. This time none of the “victims” are celebrities. In fact, both are students from Hanoi, including one from a top university.
According to the family of the female student involved, she and her boyfriend recorded the video clip at his apartment a year ago. After they decided to delete the video, it was discovered that someone had already copied it. Despite their efforts requesting website and online forum administrators delete the video, it continued to spread. The families of the students are now requesting that police investigate to find those responsible for uploading and distributing the sex video.
While those involved in private sex clips are not prosecuted, Vietnamese authorities will certainly make efforts to find those implicated in their distribution. For students caught distributing Thuy Linh’s sex video were given suspended sentences of between 20 to 30 months in 2008 by the Hanoi People’s Court.
So why all the fuss over grainy or blurry video clips, especially those starring average people?
Sex Not for Public
Well in Vietnam, the production and distribution of pornography is strictly prohibited. Moreover, sex and sexuality are not matters normally open for discussion. Even public displays of affection are frowned upon. Last month the city of Hai Phong shut down a public kissing contest in part because “the event did not suit the customs and culture of Vietnam.”
Still, even with an official ban on pornographic material and a culture that values discretion when it comes to sex, curiosity about this private subject matter is high. Sex and politics (though not together) consistently rank among the top requested Vietnamese-language articles from Wikipedia. Granted, sex sells in many countries, but it is perhaps Vietnam’s combination of a young population (over 65 percent of Vietnam’s 90 million people are under 30 years old) and lack of comprehensive public sex education that fuels this curiosity. One young woman from Hanoi recently became pregnant after trying to use cola as a contraceptive following her boyfriend’s advice which he found on the Internet.
Attitudes Towards Pre-Marital Sex
While valuing discretion is one reason why Vietnamese are shocked to see sex videos publicly released, another is the belief that teenagers, students, and unmarried young adults are not supposed to be “doing things a husband and wife does.”
Vietnam’s attitudes to pre-marital sex contrast starkly with those in North America, for example. In one Canadian survey, over 90% of women who were about to get married were OK with sex before marriage. Another survey from the USA revealed that almost all Americans, some 95%, had had premarital sex.
How do these numbers compare to Vietnam?
In Vietnam, pre-marital sex is often referred to as “ăn cơm trước kẻng”, which literally translates as, “eating before the meal is ready” or “eating before the lunch or dinner bell has been rung.”
According to a 2011 UNICEF report, among married couples 24 years of age and under in Vietnam, 10% had sexual relations before marriage.
Among the same group of youth (15 to 24 years of age), “37% said that having sex before marriage is acceptable, if both sides agree and they know for sure that they will get married or they use contraceptive methods.”
However, “Sexual and reproductive norms and behaviours are changing rapidly among young people”, says UNICEF. The age of first sex among Vietnamese decreased from 19.6 to 18.1 years, while the average age of first marriage increased from 25.3 to 26.6 for men, and 22.7 to 23.2 for women. Rural Vietnamese marry on average two years earlier than their urban counterparts.
Moreover, the UNICEF report indicates that Vietnamese youth have made some progress especially in contraceptive use, but are still below expectations in terms of reproductive health.
The Sex Industry
Changes in Vietnam’s attitudes and behaviours regarding sex coincide with changes in Vietnam’s population structure and economy. With a shift towards a global free market economy, and the rise of Vietnamese consumerism, more can be bought and sold in Vietnam today.
“Bao cao su” (condom) shops selling nothing but contraceptives, and in a range of flavors and styles, can be found in Vietnam’s major cities. They are ubiquitous as many are located along streets popular among eating and drinking establishments.
Despite a ban, pornography can still be purchased; 3D porn smuggled in from China is the latest such craze to hit the streets. Sold for about 15,000 VND (~$0.75 US) per film, 3D porn is apparently widely available and popular, especially among university students.
Although Vietnam does not have “love hotels” like in Japan or cheap motels like in the US, there are “nhà nghỉ” (rest houses) or hotels that charge hourly rates. On the outside they look like a typical low-cost or two-star accommodation, but for those who stay overnight, one can often hear “noises” from the occupants next door. And these establishments are not just for the impulsive couple who happen to stop by for a quickie, but are also used by married couples to escape from crowded houses shared with parents and children.
Among the darker, seedier aspects of sex in Vietnam, none is more difficult to tackle than perhaps human trafficking. In a society where every thing, every act, every idea can be bought and sold, not only are humans commercialized but also human tissue (sperm, eggs, organs), and now human reproductivity.
A few weeks ago, international media reported that fourteen Vietnamese women, including seven who were pregnant, were rescued from an illegal baby farm in Thailand. The women were lured with promises of work and good pay only to discover that they had been trafficked to Thailand to be used as incubators for Taiwanese customers seeking babies.
Despite these challenges and other more important issues, Vietnamese media will likely continue to report sensationalistic stories of sex scandals. Vietnamese forums, blogs, and websites will also continue to attract millions of viewers with promises of “gái xinh” or “hot girl” photos and videos.
Then there is Hoang Thuy Linh…
After her 2007 sex scandal that ended her acting career, Thuy Linh started singing. Her continued popularity appears to have been helped in part by her notoriety. Thuy Linh also seems to be doing well on the dating front: although her new boyfriend is more than a few years older, he is rumored to have money (isn’t that what’s important, after all?). As for her singing and dancing ability? We’re not sure…
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