Hoang, K. K. Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work. (2015) University of California Press.

Reviewed by: Grace Tran, University of Toronto, Canada

Elizabeth Bernstein’s (2000) book, Temporarily Yours, laid the groundwork for a more global intimate ethnography. In her most recent book, Hoang (2015) extends Bernstein’s (2000) analysis of the meaning-making and economics behind sex work to explore how sex work is engaged in outside of the West, in the complex, postcolonial contexts of Southeast Asia. In Dealing in Desire, Hoang (2015) provides an in-depth look into the lived experiences of sex workers in a postcolonial setting through her ethnographic study of sex workers and their clients in Vietnam, a country experiencing rapid economic growth in the global economy.

By situating sex work in the context of Western decline and pan-East Asian rise, Hoang illustrates how sexual commerce and the buildings of informal relations intersects with, and facilitates, more formal business deals that rely on the consumption of an authentic, embodied experience of ‘Vietnam’—one which is produced along racialized, gendered lines.

Introducing a tiered analysis of Vietnam’s sex industry, Hoang dispels the myth that it is primarily affluent Western men who control both the formal and informal local economy; rather, in Vietnam, it is local elites and other Asian businessman who command the higher-end sexual niche markets. Consequently, intimacy operates as a “vital form of currency that shapes economic and political relations” (p. 15), in that it allows men and women to “reimagine hierarchies of race, nation, and class differently,” depending on the niche market that they occupy. The niche markets that Hoang studies in twenty-four months of ethnographic research, consisting of interviews and participant observation with over 276 individuals (sex workers, clients, mommies, and bar owners), cater to different clientele groups: Viet Kieu men (Vietnamese men who no longer live in Vietnam, but who return to Vietnam on occasion), Western tourists on a budget, poor local Vietnamese men, Western expatriates, and wealthy Vietnamese men and their Asian business partners. Working twelve to fourteen hour shifts as a hostess and bartender at the higher-end bars, and as an observer in the lowest-status bar, Hoang demonstrates an astuteness to the unspoken rules and traditions that unfold in intimate transactions and exchanges between sex workers and their clients, one which adds depth and clarity to her writing.

After tracing the evolution of the sex industry in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)—from the influence of French colonialism and American forces to its recent emergence as a “player in the global economy” (p. 24)—in Chapter 1, Hoang presents to the reader a more modern depiction of sex work by examining the four niche bars in which she conducted her ethnography. In Chapter 3, Hoang compares and contrasts the way that different male clients establish themselves and their respective status in sites where sexual commerce can be purchased and consumed. This chapter offers an especially important contribution to the production of culture perspective. As Hoang observes the interactions between hostesses and their clients in an upscale bar for wealthy Vietnamese elite, she asserts that “local affiliations and consumptive habits” are used by Viet Kieu men, Western men, and local Vietnamese men in different ways to “assert their superiority” (p. 69). The power of consumptive habits, when paired with established local affiliations with hostesses and other sex workers, is highlighted, for instance, when Vietnamese elites purchase expensive bottles of Johnny Walker Blue Label to share with non-local, non-Vietnamese business partners. By prompting the hostess to present the bill to a non-Vietnamese business partner (who inevitably struggles to pay the bill), and then graciously offering (in front of the hostess workers) to cover the bill himself, the wealthy Vietnamese client not only asserts his masculine dominance and challenges the stereotype of an impoverished Global South, but also “bolsters Vietnam’s ascendancy by articulating new national ideals” (p. 7).  Here, Hoang highlights just how, even in the seemingly mundane, non-intimate interactions between sex workers and their clients, the sex worker becomes not just an accessory to the performativity of masculinity, but associated with the image of Asian ascendency in a way that would not be possible if the Vietnamese elite were in a Western bar, thus illustrating how consumptive habits intersect with ideas of gender, economics, and colonialism.

Chapter 6 offers an especially riveting examination of the cosmetic endeavours that sex workers undergo to ensure that they remain desirable and relevant in sexual commerce. As Hoang observes, these endeavours range depending on the type of clientele the sex workers cater to, and the niche market that they occupy. For instance, sex workers who cater to Westernized white men and expatriates alter their bodies by relying on bronzer for darker skin, heavy liquid eyeliner, and less expensive clothing to project “Third World dependency by embodying virtuous Third World subjects, holdovers from an era where the “sun never set” on Western dominance” (p. 131). Hoang demonstrates how, as a sex worker, one uses one’s bodily capital to produce oneself as an ‘authentic’ Vietnamese girl in her áo dài [traditional Vietnamese dress]; this enables one to, in turn, pursue financial capital by way of securing economic and intimate exchanges with these clients. In contrast, sex workers in HCMC’s high-end niche market assist wealthy Vietnamese elite businessmen to secure foreign investments by rejecting Western beauty standards, lightening their skin, and emulating the look of Korean pop stars to project themselves as “pan-Asian modern subjects whose femininity conveys a deliberately exuberant projection of Vietnam’s new position as an emerging economic player within the globalisation landscape” (131).  In rejecting certain beauty standards, and manipulating and altering their bodies to embrace others, the sex workers in HCMC not only participate in producing themselves as gendered representatives of the nation, but consequently reproduce and reimagine their place in society and in the larger global economy. Hoang’s findings add more complexity to Bernstein’s (2011) idea of ‘bounded authenticity” by illustrating how ‘authenticity’ is produced in intimate exchanges and in the production of desirable bodies as well, thus demonstrating how bounded authenticity is ‘bounded’ and characterized differently depending on the niche market the each sex worker occupies.

Hoang’s work serves as a strong example of what global ethnography should seek to accomplish, how it should be undertaken, and why it is important; her self-reflexivity is especially powerful in Dealing in Desire’s appendix, which discusses the “embodied costs of ethnography” (p. 192). In perhaps one of the most poignant reflections on ethnographic work that this reader has read, Hoang notes the difficulties in making the transition back to an academia after her time working as a hostess and bartender, and after joining sex workers in ‘line ups’ to present themselves to various clients. The emotional and physical toll that this research took on her body, and the fact that her physical appearance had to be ”tuned” (p. 193)  and readjusted to different contexts (a colleague of Hoang’s from Berkeley informed her that she “would need to undo [her] embodiment as a hostess-worker to navigate the university halls again” (p. 193), parallels that of the physical and emotional readjusting that her participants must undergo on a regular basis in order to produce themselves and their bodies as ‘authentic,’ intimate extensions of Vietnam in the global imaginary.

One of the most surprising findings in Hoang’s work is her finding of how women’s solidarity, freedom to work, and access to money is celebrated and emphasized in her participants’ narratives, which again draws attention to the theme of agency in sex work, and troubles the ‘researcher as saviour’ and ‘sex worker as victim’ narrative. Hoang’s intervention is to draw attention to the ways that cultural, economic, and bodily capital are relied on differently by actors in various sectors and contexts of sex work, to restore a sense of agency and dignity to sex work, to dispute the myth of transactional relationships as wholly impersonal, and to trouble how actors in the sex work industry activate moral boundaries when it comes to sex for material gain, as opposed to sex for ‘love.’ Readers who have limited experience with studies on sex work will find this book an informative and accessible read; even those who are much more familiar with sex work will find this book refreshing and innovative for its multifaceted examination of how ideas of agency, empowerment, and structural disenfranchisement are simultaneously negotiated along gendered and racialized lines in postcolonial Vietnam.  Just as Hoang seamlessly weaves together contentious debates concerning whether sex work is work or leisure, whether interactions are public or private, and whether sex workers are coerced or choose to engage in the work that they do, so too does she seamlessly weave together empirical findings and theoretical discussion with ease, rendering her book a thoroughly engaging rather than disjointed read. In light of this, her book offers a valuable contribution to the field of sociology, criminology, gender studies, and socio-legal studies, and this reader maintains that Hoang’s book should serve as a staple on a bookshelf of exemplary ethnographic, scholarly work.