In Response to Lucy Williamson, BBC Seoul Correspondent
“Love” – Matt Lemon Photography*
On June 10th, 2014, the BBC published a report by its Seoul correspondent Lucy Williamson about elderly prostitution in South Korea. The report, which quickly went viral, is titled “The Korean grandmothers who sell sex” and deals with “women in their 50s, 60, even their 70s” who sell sex to elderly male clients in the area around Jongmyo Park, a popular hangout for Korean seniors located right in front of the Jongmyo Royal Ancenstral Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On Age, Dignity and the Police
In April 2013, Korean daily The Hankyoreh had published a 2-part report about the same subject and titled it matter-of-factly “Elderly prostitution at Jongmyo Park”. Lucy Williamson – or her editor – instead chose a more sensationalist title to fit the tone of the report. While it’s conceivable that all women Williamson interviewed had in fact grandchildren, the underlying implication is quite obvious: grandmothers shouldn’t sell sex but grow old with dignity. And Williamson quickly confirms that suspicion, as she writes: “At an age when Korean grandmothers are supposed to be venerated as matriarchs, some are selling sex.” In her opinion, being venerated and selling sex are obviously mutually exclusive.
One of the interviewees Williamson quotes is a 71-year-old woman selling energy drinks on the steps of a subway station near Jongmyo Park, but she doesn’t “go out with the grandpas and earn money from them” like others she points at. Nevertheless, she worries about the police who are always watching her, as “they don’t differentiate” between her and those selling sex.
Williamson seems less worried because her report leaves out the police almost entirely, apart from mentioning that some officers “privately say this problem will never be solved by crackdowns” and that “policy needs to change”. Important views, but they fade into the background of Williamson’s narrative. “Law-enforcement isn’t the only problem”, she simply concludes, as if the frequent police crackdowns had no impact on sex workers – or their clients, for that matter. She also fails to mention the recent announcement by the government to pay informants rewards of up to one hundred million won (US$98,000) for tip-offs about prostitution activities, a plan which drew strong criticism from Korean sex workers.
It doesn’t come as a surprise then that in a report about prostitution in Seoul, Williamson also omits that for the last year and a half, South Korea’s constitutional court is mulling over the constitutionality of the country’s anti-prostitution law, ever since a Seoul court asked to review it back in January 2013. The review was supposed to be completed within 6 months, but to this day, no decision has been announced.
Sex Work and Sexual Health
Instead, Williamson writes about “one local survey, which found that almost 40% of the men tested had a sexually transmitted disease”. While she correctly points at the problem that sex education is mainly “aimed at teenagers” and that local governments have begun to respond by offering “sex education clinics especially for seniors”, it remains unclear who conducted the local study and whether or not the participants were drawn from among the men buying sex at Jongmyo Park or from the general population. But the underlying implication is once again quite obvious: apparently, selling and buying sex inevitably results in contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
The United Nations report Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific tells a different story. The study found that the criminalisation of sex work increased the vulnerability of sex workers to HIV by fuelling stigma and discrimination, by limiting access to sexual health services, condoms and harm reduction services, and by adversely affecting the self esteem of sex workers and their ability to make informed choices about their health. South Korea’s anti-prostitution law, which criminalises the selling and buying of sex, is therefore detrimental to public health, not the selling or buying sex per se.
Williamson then turns her attention to love hotels, “hidden in a dingy warren of alleyways in central Seoul”. Jongno, the district where Jongmyo Park is located, is right in the middle of downtown Seoul, an area that has undergone rapid modernisation over the last ten-odd years, and while some alleyways are indeed narrow and dark, it doesn’t make them any dingier than any littered street in the UK.
Click here for images of Jongno on Flickr
But then again, everything related to selling and buying sex apparently must be described in such a way, just as love motels must be put between inverted commas and described as having “narrow corridors” and “grey rooms”, like there are no sky-high property prices that make business owners cram as many rooms as possible into their hotels, and as if there aren’t lavishly decorated love hotels all over South Korea.
Click here for images of Korean love hotels on Flickr
Of course the cheaper ones, which might be the only ones the elderly buying and selling sex around Jongmyo Park can afford, may well be less pleasant. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are as unsavoury as Williamson’s report insinuates.
If you cannot afford one of the more expensive guest houses or hotels in South Korea, love hotels are an affordable option to stay, whether one needs some privacy for sex or simply a roof over one’s head. An article published in Korean newspaper Joong Ang Daily from as early as 2005 states that love hotels’ main customers are young or married couples who want privacy, but sometimes also “students use the place to study together, relax or watch a movie”. As Lee Gil-won, a motel consultant, explains: “The recent remodeling boom by love hotels is due to a realization that to survive they have to upgrade their services and eliminate the kinds of stigmas they are associated with.” **
Williamson’s report, however, perpetuates stigmas, not just those of love hotels but, more importantly, those associated with selling and buying sex, too. And she doesn’t stop there.
Williamson writes of “many young people” in South Korea as saying that “they can’t afford to support themselves and their parents in Korea’s fast-paced, highly competitive society”. How many young people she has spoken to or where else she obtained this information remains unknown.
What is known, however, is that according to 2012 data from the National Tax Service, nearly ten million South Koreans earn “less than 1.55 million won (US$1,530) a month, chiefly from labor or their own small businesses” and that “the actual median income is predicted to be even lower if individuals with relatively low earnings who were not subject to taxation – such as farmers, fisherman, and day laborers – are factored in.” In addition, youth unemployment surpassed 10 percent as of February 2014, and “for those aged 15 to 29, the employment rate is barely above 40 percent”.
But those facts wouldn’t fit into Williamson’s narrative of young Koreans who apparently care more about themselves than the elderly, a message the report hammers home with an image of an elderly woman passing by an advertisement for expensive consumer electronics.
In an earlier piece about American radical feminist Janice Raymond spreading misinformation about South Korea’s prostitution law, I wrote: “If you want reliable information about the current conditions in South Korea’s sex industry, sex workers are the people to go to.” And BBC Assignment, where you can listen to Williamson’s audio report, claims to tell “the world’s stories from the point of view of those most affected by them – the victims, the witnesses – and the perpetrators”.
I’m afraid, however, that despite Williamson’s efforts to talk with people selling and buying sex at Jongmyo Park, a few interspersed quotes fail to disguise that her report mainly reflects her own view: the title, the tone, the omission of sources on the one hand and crucial information on the other – they all add up to a quite superficial and biased view on a complex situation. And while elderly poverty and youth unemployment in South Korea are real concerns that deserve much attention, this piece of poverty porn does not.
In 2003, when Jongno’s modernisation wasn’t nearly as advanced as it is now, I spent one month living at a love motel in Jongno for lack of better options – and survived.
*To avoid using images used by the BBC to which I do not own the copyright, this post features a photo of a light fixture outside a love motel in Sinchon dictrict, Seoul. Photo: “Love” – Matt Lemon Photography (All Rights Reserved)
Articles mentioned above
Elderly prostitution at Jongmyo Park – Part I
Elderly prostitution at Jongmyo Park – Part II
Love hotels not just for secret liaisons anymore
Judge seeks constitutional review of law that criminalizes prostitution
10 million people nationwide earning only around $1,500 per month
Korea suffers youth unemployment blues
Janice Raymond and the South Korean Model