AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 186

[ Southeast Asia Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Session 186: States of Desire: Sexual Cultures in Southeast Asia

Organizer: Quang-Anh R. Tran, University of California, Berkeley, Singapore

Discussant: Tamara Loos, Cornell University, USA

The dominant scholarship on the transnational history of sexuality has unduly focused on the unidirectional influence of “Western” ideas, discourses and materiality on Southeast Asia and its peoples. Sexual desire became a dense transfer point of power, but a power that was characterized as a movement from the imperial West to the Rest. Given the global legacy of European and American imperialism, such studies are understandable and merit continued analysis. While acknowledging this legacy, however, this panel proposes to move away from this mode of framing. Instead, it hopes to fulfill three interlocking objectives. First, it seeks to illumine the study of sexuality where it is in short-supply or lacking altogether (Vietnam; Singapore). Second, it seeks to focus on analytical categories heretofore understudied (homosexuality; masculinity; hypergamy). Third, taking its cue from Tamara Loos, the panel examines sexual desire as a complex point of movements and flows spawning from within Southeast Asia and beyond. Tran’s work addresses the conundrum of same-sex sexuality in late colonial Vietnam; Hoang’s work shifts the lens from the prostitute in Ho Chi Minh City to the stratified perspectives of male clients. Newton’s research examines the challenges Vietnamese lesbians face at the juncture between an autochthonous and global LGBT rights discourse. Finally, Yang’s work interrogates the tensions that inhere in the over-determined figure of the Singaporean Sarong Party Girl. Together, this panel attempts to open new avenues of understanding about sexual cultures in Southeast Asia.

Between Love and Vice: The Double Character of Same-Sex Sexuality in late French Colonial Vietnam, 1930-1940
Quang-Anh R. Tran, University of California, Berkeley, Singapore

This presentation analyzes the cultural and rhetorical representations of same-sex sexual relations in late colonial Vietnam (1930-1940). In particular, I wish to elucidate a paradox that has vexed historians and scholars of Vietnam: how do we explain the culture of “free-love” that is the hallmark of the early 1930s, on one hand, and, on the other, the homophobic impulse of one of Vu Trong Phung’s short story “Stratagems” (1931) which depicts a horrific sodomy rape scene? Is this story simply an anomaly or aberrant data point in an otherwise “progressive” moment in Vietnamese cultural history? I suggest that to comprehend the manifestations of homosexuality in this period, we need to disaggregate the polyvalent meanings of the contemporary term. I argue that based on an examination of archival documents, two different modalities of same-sex relations can be discerned: homosexual “love” and sodomy’s vice. Whereas the contemporary category of “homosexuality” has conflated both, in the colonial period, sodomy was irreducible to the former. This distinction suggests that the sexual regime Michel Foucault founded in nineteenth-century Europe—the development of a coherent “homosexual” identity—lacks an analogue in the colonies. This conclusion implies, minimally, a revision of Foucault’s theory of power.

Erecting Boundaries: Classed, Racialized, and Transnational Masculinities among male clients in Ho Chi Minh City’s Global Economy of Sex
Kimberly K. Hoang, University of Chicago, USA

The literature on sex work in developed and developing nations around the world carefully examines the lives of female sex workers but what about the male clients? Scholars have constructed the experiences of male clients mainly through the narratives that sex workers provide. Men have been marked as deviant sexual predators and as a monolithic group who purchase the power to exert sexual control over women. However, very few scholars have actually studied the clients themselves. Moreover, no scholar, to my knowledge, has examined a stratified sex industry that caters to a racially and economically diverse set of clients. Based on eighteen months of ethnography conducted between 2006- 2007 and 2009-2010, this paper examines five stratified sectors of HCMC’s sex industry, which cater to wealthy local Vietnamese men, Asian businessmen, overseas Vietnamese (Viet Kieu) men, white expatriates, and white backpackers (from the United States, Europe, and Australia). I examine how male clients exert, classed, racialized, and transnational masculinities. I examine how male clients erect and reproduce both social (Bourdieu 1984) and symbolic (Lamont 1992) boundaries to create levels of distinction HCMC’s sex industry. By looking the various relations in the sex industry, I explore how elements of desire are co-articulated along hierarchies of race, nation, and class in HCMC’s contemporary global economy of sex.

Les is More: Challenges with Lesbian (Les) Inclusion in Vietnam’s LGBT Rights Organizing
Natalie Newton, University of California, Irvine, USA

This paper analyzes the challenges that Vietnamese gay and lesbian community organizers face when appropriating globally circulating constructs of “LGBT human rights,” specifically regarding the inclusion of lesbians (les). In 2008, Vietnam entered what scholars and activists call the contemporary “global LGBT human rights movement” (International Conference on LGBT Rights 2006, Correa and Muntarbhorn 2007, Kollman and Waites 2009), with the inception of its LGBT organization, Information Connecting and Sharing (ICS). For the first time in Vietnam’s history, Vietnamese gays and lesbians are organizing around rights-based initiatives, outside a paradigm of HIV/STD prevention. ICS’s main task is to collaborate with newsmedia to create a more positive image of LGBTs in Vietnam. How do the transnational concepts that ICS uses to educate newsmedia, such as “LGBT,” “sexual orientation,” and “gender identity” interface with an indigenous Vietnamese construct of gender and sexuality, called giới tính? How does ICS address gender inequalities as a multi-gender “LGBT” initiative? Based upon 21 months of ethnographic fieldwork in 2006, 2007, and 2008 and 2009-2010, this paper argues that Vietnamese les face disproportionate barriers at every level of the organizational work, due to social subjugation as women and political marginalization under the de-racialized and gender-blind “LGBT” umbrella. This paper expands Kate Sheill’s (2009) analysis of the limitations of activism around lesbian human rights, specifically regarding how les navigate public/private space in Ho Chi Minh City and challenges realizing the indivisibility of human rights within ICS’s campaigns for Vietnamese les.

Modernity and romantic desire in Singapore: cosmopolitanism and cultural identity as sexual capital in a globalized dating sphere
Mirabelle Yang, Cornell University, USA

Interrogating the intersections of race, class, gender, and nationality/citizenship through the figure of the Sarong Party Girl (the pejorative epithet for women in Singapore who (like to) date westerners, her desired Other) and hypergamy, I discuss Eurocentric modernity’s implications for gendered selves and Asian identities predicated on various forms of capital (e.g. social, cultural, physical and economic) that derive their currency from associations or identifications with the west through educational privilege, taste(s), lifestyles, language, knowledge, worldliness and “modern ways”. This trend of reverse colonial desire attributed to SPGs is shown to be fraught with tensions, contradictions and ambivalence, covertly reinforcing racial hierarchies even as present-day women who date white men profess to be color-blind in their romantic preferences, citing reasons they consider unrelated to appearance or skin color such as worldview, or manners for their choice. This provokes the question of race, ethnicity, nationality and culture (ceteris paribus) in identity, sexual or otherwise. To what extent can we say that one is loved or desired regardless of their cultural background? How far is one’s sexual capital enhanced via membership in a certain social category, and how are globalization and development shaping romantic ideals in this part of the world? This paper seeks to address the ways in which modernity, cosmopolitanism and the existing global order permeate gender ideals in a “westernized” Southeast Asian city-state that underwent rapid modernization, and beyond.