Relational Work and Careers of Intimacy: Rethinking the Cultural Interpretation of the Sex Trade in Vietnam

The Sociological Review, 2020, 68(6), 1307–1321

Cultural interpretations of the sex trade are pervasive in Southeast Asia, in particular, the argument that daughters enrol in sex work to repay a debt of life and support their parents. While useful to illuminate the role of culture in shaping economic action, this narrative carries the risk of viewing people as robots guided by stable and supra-individual forces. Drawing on ethnographic data collected in Southern Vietnam and Cambodia on precarious and indebted Vietnamese families that encourage their daughters to sell sex, this article disturbs deterministic cultural accounts of sex work by describing how families interpret, negotiate and (re)produce cultural scripts through relational work. More specifically, it shows how these families draw from familistic scripts about hierarchy, duty and sacrifice conveyed in popular culture to assemble relational packages. Deeply imbued in affective undercurrents and power asymmetry, these packages allow families to negotiate taboo trades like the repayment of debt through the sale of their daughter’s virginity. Overall, a relational work framework provides a better understanding of female participation in the sex trade in Vietnam than explanations based on normative accounts of culture or problematic trafficking binaries.