Coming soon: Questionable documentary about “sex trafficking”
Not a day goes by without another lurid news report, blog article, petition, or film project about “sex trafficking” surfacing. Last week, Jason and Eddie Lee, two Korean-American brothers who founded the Jubilee Project, and Jean Rheem, a native Korean living in the US, published a trailer for their upcoming documentary “Save My Seoul”, which aims to uncover “prostitution and sex trafficking in Seoul”.
Although the documentary has not yet been released, the details that have already emerged raise serious concerns over the three film makers’ grasp of the subject in general, and the harms caused by the conflation of sex work and human trafficking in particular. The following will examine the “facts” they present on their website and in the trailer, in order to highlight the problems that arise when presumably well-intended do-gooders choose to create ostensibly objective accounts about “sex trafficking”.
Apart from the fact that, ranging from 500,000 to more than double that number, it doesn’t even qualify as a guesstimate, this figure, which the film makers attribute to the Korean Feminist Association, was first spread more than ten years ago and before the adoption of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws in 2004. It has since been quoted in news reports time and time again, which is par for the course for such figures, but considering that even the South Korean government isn’t able to produce any reliable research on the subject (see next paragraph), the figure is highly questionable. It doesn’t bode well that the film makers label an outdated and inaccurate figure as a “fact”, and without providing a link to the actual report, but their other claims are no less problematic.
Eddie Byun is a Chicago-born pastor at Onnuri Community Church in Seoul. He “fights against modern-day slavery” through HOPE Be Restored, an extension of Onnuri’s English Ministry “that seeks to bring freedom for the oppressed and restoration to lives that have been effected by human trafficking in Korea and around the world”. His book, “Justice Awakening: How You and Your Church Can Help End Human Trafficking”, includes tips how to “teach and preach sermons on human trafficking” and “rally men’s and women’s ministries to educate and actively engage in the fight against trafficking by helping anti-trafficking and after-care programs”. It doesn’t come as a surprise that among those praising his book is Gary Haugen, president and CEO of the International Justice Mission, an organisation “whose reliance on headline-grabbing brothel raids conducted with police to “rescue” sex workers have drawn criticism from human rights advocates around the world.” (Continue reading: Melissa Gira Grant – U.S. Policy and the Unjust Approach to Human Trafficking of the International Justice Mission)
While it is perhaps understandable that the Christian film makers felt they could trust the words of a pastor, Eddie Byun supports his claim by citing a report from November 2007 that was published by the South Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF) but produced by the Korean Women’s Development Institute (KWDI).
The report, which is only available in Korean, is titled: “National Survey on the current conditions of the Sex Trade in Korea” (전국성매매실태조사). KWDI chose altogether 8 business types from government registries of businesses they suspected as most likely to facilitate transactional sex. Those were: serviced pubs, clubs, smaller pubs, tea and coffee houses, noraebangs (karaoke places), barber shops, massage parlours, and beauty shops/wellness places. People living or working in red light districts were interviewed and the findings were based on their impressions (emphasis added).
The numbers in the KWDI report don’t always add up either. The 2007 figures in the report list 39 red light districts, 1,443 brothels, 3,644 sex workers, 2,510,000 clients per year, and an average of 5.8 clients per brothel and day. However, if one multiplies 5.8 x 1443 x 365 (clients per brothel and day x brothels x 1 year), one arrives at 3,054,831 client visits, a discrepancy of 544,831. It probably explains why MOGEF stated they wouldn’t take any responsibility for the figures in the report. (Continue reading: Janice Raymond and the South Korean Model)
The report’s research methodology is questionable at best, and while Byun and the film makers take the figures therein at face value, the authors actually admit that their estimates are based on conjecture.
For this claim, the film makers provide as source a “Korean Municipal Government” and the accompanying link leads to an article by Jennifer Chang on Al Jazeera, where the news channel deemed it necessary to inform its readers that some of the NGO figures Chang quoted “are not supported by any official data and are impossible to verify”, which casts doubts on the article’s overall credibility. According to Chang, the report (by the Seoul Metropolitan Government) cited figures from the police estimating that 200,000 youths run away from home each year, and “a survey of 175 female teen runaways by the municipal government found half had been led into the sex industry.”
Chang’s article, which focuses entirely on female runaways selling sex, appears to be based on this survey, which engaged with less than 0.1% of the total estimate of teenage runaways, and on interviews she conducted with female youths she met with the help of Hansorihoe (United Voice). Hansorihoe is an umbrella organisation of NGOs working towards the “eradication of sex trafficking in a society where all human rights are met”, promoting “anti-sex trafficking campaigns”, and “advocating for polices”. These campaigns – click here for a selection of them – not only frequently objectify women but regularly conflate sex work and human trafficking, which leads not only to “harm to sex workers on the ground, but also to conflicts that undermine HIV prevention”. (Continue reading: Richard Steen et al – Trafficking, sex work, and HIV: efforts to resolve conflicts)
If Chang’s report were an academic paper, it wouldn’t get past any peer-review. But in a news story, one can easily make claims that remain largely unchallenged and are subsequently cited as evidence by others.
The same applies to this claim in the trailer. No source is given and the statement does not appear on the “Save My Seoul” website.
Eddie Byun, the pastor the film makers cited above, writes in his book that “up to thirty million people are in slavery around the world” (page 12). Later, he writes that there are “more than thirty million slaves” (page 58), before he states “there are between 20 and 30 million people who are enslaved throughout the world” (page 155), and finally, that there are “approximately 20 million people are victims of human trafficking” (page 166; emphases added). The final figure is based on the Global Estimate of Forced Labour 2012 by the International Labour Organisation, which stated that “20.9 million people are victims of forced labour at any point in time”, 4.5 million (22 per cent) of which are said to be victims of forced sexual exploitation. The film makers, however, chose to stick with the oft-quoted figure of 27 million human trafficking victims, which dates back to 1999.
“That number was developed was developed by a “trafficking” fanatic named Kevin Bales using media reports multiplied by arbitrary numbers of his own devising; the more the hysteria, the higher the number of articles and thus the higher Bales’ number grows. … Bales starts with an “estimate” of unknown derivation, “adjusts” it by a factor based on media reports (which often repeat each other and obviously increase dramatically during a moral panic), presumes without evidence that the proportion of reports to actual incidents is low, multiplies the result by guesses from prohibitionists with an anti-whore agenda, then rounds up.” (Continue reading: Maggie McNeill – Held Together With Lies)
Rights not rescue – and no voyeurism either!
The above explanations are by no means exhaustive but they illustrate the use of flawed data and misrepresentations to promote the upcoming documentary “Save My Seoul”. There are two possibilities: either the film makers lack the necessary understanding of the very subject matter they hope to shed light on, or they deliberately cherry-picked statistics that fit into their sensationalist agenda. A quick glance at the comments underneath their trailer shows that they certainly know their audience. The most common response smacks of voyeurism: “Can’t wait (to see it)”.
In 2012, three UN agencies compiled a comprehensive report in collaboration with numerous sex worker organisations in the Asia-Pacific region about laws, HIV and human rights in the context of sex work. The report examined laws, policies and law enforcement practices in 48 countries of the region with regards to their impact on the human rights of sex workers and the effectiveness of HIV responses.
If the film makers would have read this report, they would have been aware that “police crackdowns from 2004-2009 resulted in arrest of approximately 28,000 sex workers” in South Korea alone, and that the conflation of sex work and human trafficking often results in migrant sex workers living “with the constant threat of being reported, arrested and deported”, creating “a real barrier to accessing health and welfare services”. (Continue reading: UNDP – Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific)
Sex worker organisations and human rights groups, such as the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) or the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), have long since denounced the harms caused by anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking laws, and sex workers around the world demand rights, not rescue. But even in the absence of rights: the last thing sex workers or any people in exploitative labour situations need are voyeurs or do-gooders grandstanding as saviours. Not without reason do sex workers frequently declare: save us from saviours!
Photo: Sex worker collective Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP)