At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the family as a social institution is solidly established as a global ideology. The United Nations (UN) defines ‘the right to found a family’ as an essential human right (see United Nations Convention on the Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages [1962]), and national legislation in most countries upholds and protects marriage-and-the-family. The family in these national and international documents is usually defined in terms of procreative heterosexuality. A similar political consensus around the importance of the family can be found in Vietnam. The Constitution of 1992 states that the family is the nucleus of society, and that it is the responsibility of the state to protect marriage and the family (Article 64). In present-day public discourse, the importance of the family for social stability and personal happiness is strongly emphasised, being communicated to citizens through official speeches, mobilisation campaigns, women’s magazines, and commercial advertisements (Drummond 2004: 158). In a typical statement, the chair of the Vietnam Commission for Population, Family, and Children describes the family as follows:

In the consciousness of the Vietnamese nation, the family is always a sweet home, a primary environment in which virtues are born and nurtured and the Vietnamese personality created. The precious traditional values of the Vietnamese nation such as love for the country, solidarity, industriousness and creativeness at work, resilience, undauntedness in over­coming difficulties, trials, have been kept up and developed by the Vietnamese family throughout the history of national construction and defense. (Le 2004: 4)

This celebration of the family as the cornerstone of society has intensified since Vietnam’s 1986 turn to a market economy and the return to the household as a basic economic unit (Leshkowich 2008: 11—16; Werner 2009). In the wake of market reforms there were vivid debates on national morality, with both officials and ordinary people expressing anxiety that the country’s traditional culture and long-held family values would be eroded by increased con­sumerism, commercialisation, and foreign contacts. In this context, young people’s sexual conduct was a particular cause of concern. The exposure to foreign influences might, it was argued, contaminate Vietnam’s youth, drawing them into morally corrupt and socially damaging sexual practices. The social and economic conditions offered by the new market economy were seen as conducive to sexual escapades as increasing mobility, expanding leisure opportunities, new means of communication, and rising incomes enhanced the opportunities for erotic liaisons (Gammeltoft 2002: 483-96, Rydstrom 2006: 283-301, Phinney 2008: 650-60).

It is probably no coincidence, then, that the launch of market reforms coincided with the introduction in the late 1980s of the Happy Family (Gia Dinh Hanh Phuc) as a key image in state efforts to produce a modern and morally wholesome citizenry. As drawn up in official rhetoric, a happy family consists of mother, father, and one or two children; it is financially stable, morally sound, and socially harmonious. Families are important, official discourses state, because they are the building-blocks of the nation. The late president Ho Chi Minh’s statement on the connections between family and society is frequently cited: ‘Many families add up to become a society. If society is good, the family will be better; only if the family is good can society be good. The family is the nucleus of society’. In public discourse, the moral task of ensuring that families — and thereby society — are good is routinely assigned to women: ‘Men’, a popular saying claims, ‘build houses. Women build cosy homes’ (Ddn ong xay nhd, dan bd xay to am). Since the family is depicted as the site where children are socialised and future citizens moulded, mothers are held to bear momentous moral responsibilities (Vu 2008: S163—S176; Leshkowich 2012: 497—526). In a typical statement, an article in the daily newspaper, The People’s Army (Quan Doi Nhan Dan), points out:

In modern society, wives and mothers have become the pillars when it comes to bringing up children and building happy families. Society must forge a good family socialisation, respecting the roles of mothers… Only by ensuring that children are well-behaved can we produce talented pupils and citizens who are useful for the nation. Without good children, we cannot produce good citizens (Dao 2012).

The duties of females as outlined in post-reform party-state discourse resonate in striking ways with classical Confucian female virtues: in order to protect their families, women are told, they must be gentle, caring, faithful, obedient, and self-sacrificing. The moral roles carved out for men, in contrast, are wider and more permissive; although men too are expected to contribute to family and society, they are afforded sexual and social privileges that women do not have (Go et al. 2002: 467-81; Schuler et al. 2006: 383-94).

Since the mid-1990s, happy family discourses have been supplemented by social evils (te nan xa hoi) prevention campaigns which depict phenomena such as pornography, sex work, gambling, drug use, and HIV/AIDS as moral evils and as destabilising threats to family and nation (Montoya 2012: 561-91; see also Newton in this volume). While happy family rhetoric places primacy on women’s roles as mothers and nurturers, relegating female sexuality to the sphere of marriage and procreation, social evils campaigns draw up moral contrasts to the happy family, depicting the unruly sexualities of socially marginalised individuals as subversive to social order. Since the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Vietnam is concentrated among injecting drug users and sex workers, in 2002 the Government established the National Committee for AIDS, Drugs, and Prostitution which included members of the Department of Social Evil Prevention under MOLISA (Ministry of Labour, Invalids, and Social Affairs). The discursive linkages between social evils, HIV/AIDS, and prostitution, which were thereby institutionalised, seem to have contributed to consolidating the idea that people with HIV/AIDS and sex workers are the living embodiments of moral evil. Although the Vietnamese Government is currently making efforts to adopt a non-stigmatising public health approach to HIV and its prevention, the language of social evils continues to mark public discussions and seems to have seeped into daily life with significant consequences for the country’s most vulnerable persons (Vijeyarasa 2010: S89-S102).

In short, the present-day political celebration of the traditional Vietnamese family entails justification of social and moral hierarchies – between women and men, between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sexual practices, between sex that is assumed to support the social order and sex that is seen as subverting it. In this moral optic, sexual intimacy outside of marriage is rendered ethically suspect, while sexual problems within marriage tend to be silenced and suppressed. These moral-political mechanisms have far-reaching sexual health consequences.