The Ironies of Freedom

Sex, Culture, and Neoliberal Governance in Vietnam

Thu-huong Nguyen-vo

  • Published: 2008
  • Subject Listing: Asian Studies / Southeast Asia; Anthropology; Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
  • Bibliographic information: 356 pp., 5 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Series: Critical Dialogues in Southeast Asian Studies
  • Contents

In the late 1980s, Vietnam joined the global economy after decades of war and relative isolation, demonstrating how a former socialist government can adapt to global market forces with their neoliberal emphasis on freedom of choice for entrepreneurs and consumers. The Ironies of Freedom examines an aspect of this new market: commercial sex.

Nguyen-vo offers an ambitious analysis of gender and class conflicts surrounding commercial sex as a site of market freedom, governmental intervention, and depictions in popular culture to argue that these practices reveal the paradoxical nature of neoliberalism. What the case of Vietnam highlights is that governing with current neoliberal globalization may and does take paradoxical forms, sustained not by some vestige from times past but by contemporary conditions. Of mutual benefit to both the neoliberal global economy and the ruling party in Vietnam is the use of empirical knowledge and entrepreneurial and consumer's choice differentially among segments of the population to produce different kinds of laborers and consumers for the global market. But also of mutual benefit to both are the police, the prison, and notions of cultural authenticity enabled by a ruling party with well-developed means of coercion from its history. The freedom-unfreedom pair in governance creates a tension in modes of representation conducive to a new genre of sensational social realism in literature and popular films like the 2003 Bar Girls about two women in the sex trade, replete with nudity, booze, drugs, violence, and death. The movie opened in Vietnam with unprecedented box office receipts, blazing a trail for a commercially viable domestic film industry.

Combining methods and theories from the social sciences and humanities, Nguyen-vo's analysis relies on fieldwork conducted in Ho Chi Minh City and its vicinity, in-depth interviews with informants, participant observation at selected sites of sexual commerce and governmental intervention, journalistic accounts, and literature and films.

This book will appeal to historians and political scientists of Southeast Asia and to scholars of gender and sexuality, cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and political theory dealing with neoliberalism.
Nguyen-vo Thu-Huong is associate professor of Asian languages and cultures and Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"The Ironies of Freedom is a path-breaking effort to document the explosive growth and evolving character of commercial sex in contemporary Vietnam and to explain the complex social, cultural, economic, and political significance of this well-known but poorly understood phenomenon. But it operates, as well, as a remarkably sophisticated, lucid, and ambitious attempt to mobilize insights gleaned from the Vietnamese 'case' to revise influential (post) Marxist and (neo) Foucauldian notions of the relationship between dominant modes of government and the current neoliberal economic order."
-Peter Zinoman, University of California, Berkeley


Part One Sex for Sale: Entrepreneurial and Consumerist Freedom
1. The Hooking Economy: Entrepreneurial Choice and Commercial Sex in the Liberalizing Economy
2. Hierarchy and Geography: Class and National Identity in Sex Consumption

Part Two The Real and the True: Governing by Choice and Coercion
3. The Rise of the Empirical and the Case of Medical Expertise: A Genealogy of Governance
4. Governing Passion: Consumers' Choice and the Production of a Differentiated Citizenry in Public Medicine
5. Who You Truly Are: Coercion, Culture, and the Global Imaginary in the Governmental Rehabilitation of Sex Workers
6. What Kind of Power? Specialization of Intervention and the Coexisting Modes of Governance

Part Three To the Real: Ideology and Cultural Production
7. From Antigone to the Kneeling Woman: A Genealogy of the Real from Socialism to the Preparation for Marketization
8. Love in the Time of Neoliberalism: Ideology and the New Social Realism in Popular Culture



"This is an excellent book and I highly recommend it. Theoretically sophisticated, insightful and well-written, this study draws on a wide range of Vietnamese-language materials and field interviews and experience to develop a clear and strong argument. Skillfully and concisely crafted, The Ironies of Freedom is an important addition to the literatures on sex work, Vietnamese studies and contemporary political economy."
-Journal of Contemporary Asia

"[T]he rich ethnography allows the author to ground the scholarship on 'governmentality' in context, pressing the limits of received theory with the hard facts of social differentiation and the two faces of Vietnam today. The 'ironies of freedom' are many: self-mastery coexists with conformity; choice with coercion; consumer freedom with social obedience; and today's Vietnamese Marxism allows class prerogatives to dictate unequal governance."
-American Anthropologist

"Nguyen-Vo uses the commercial sex trade in Vietnam to demonstrate how both the government and individuals have emerged from their dark communist past and adapted to economic, political and social liberalization, market forces, and entrepreneurship. Recommended."