Sex Work and Human Rights


Pinned Post: Copyright Notice

“Receiving credit for an image we created is a given, not compensation, and credit is not a substitute for payment.” – Tony Wu, Photographer

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.Credit is also not a substitute for asking for permission to use an image. Unfortunately, there have been several cases of photos from this or my other blogs being used elsewhere without my express permission and at times without respecting the Creative Commons License. Unless credited otherwise, all photos on this blog are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Any use, in particular any commercial use, requires my prior permission. The use of Yeoni Kim’s photos on this blog is prohibited. If you wish to use them, please contact me to facilitate communication with her.

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“Camptown Prostitutes” sue Korean Government for Compensation*

The following is a translation of an article that appeared in Korean daily Kyunghyang Shinmun on June 25, 2014. The image below is property of Yonhap News.

“U.S. Military Camp towns were providing comfort women for U.S. troops” – 112 Women file for compensation against the South Korean government

Camptown Prostitutes sue Korean Government for Compensation. Photo by Yonhap News.

The Korean government’s tolerance and supervision of camp towns was illegal.

Women who were involved in prostitution near US army bases filed for compensation against the Korean government. They submitted a petition to the Seoul Central District Court asking for a compensation of ten million won (approx. US$ 9,900) per person. The plaintiffs, comprised of 112 women, held a press conference on the 25th of June at Seoul Women’s Plaza, and stated, “The Korean government’s policy to keep military camp towns was nothing short of providing comfort women to US troops.” They went on to demand “an apology and compensation for every victim of the comfort women system within military camp towns”.

Plaintiffs also stated, “South Korean comfort women were not only in Japan. The Korean government created a ‘U.S. army comfort women’ system and supervised it.” “No one from the government protected us; instead they used us to earn foreign currency.” They continued, “Poverty resulting from the Korean War or human trafficking brought us to the military camp, and we experienced various forms of violence committed by U.S. soldiers. We tried asking the police for help in order to escape the camp, but it was the police themselves who brought us back there.”

Plaintiffs pointed out that the government not only tolerated prostitution, which was illegal, but also overlooked the abuse committed by the soldiers. They went on to say, “The government should reveal the history of comfort women in U.S. military camps, investigate the harm done to them, and take legal responsibility.” The press conference and the submission of the petition was hosted by the “United Korean Women’s Association” and “Solidarity for Human Rights of Gijichon Women”.*

Source: Park Eun Ha, Kyunghyang Shinmun. Click here to read the original article in Korean.

* Gijichon (기지촌) is the Korean term for U.S. military camp towns.

Recommended Reading

Sealing Cheng – On the Move for Love: Migrant Entertainers and the U.S. Military in South Korea (UPenn Press)

* With regards to the title, it was pointed out to us that the term “camptown prostitutes” was, in that person’s view, “arbitrary” and “not fair”. The exchange of sex for money in the vicinity of U.S. military bases in South Korea is generally referred to as “camptown prostitution” and the women involved therein as “camptown prostitutes”. The corresponding Korean term for the latter is gijichon yeoseong (기지촌 여성), which literally means “military base village women” but is generally translated as “camptown prostitutes”. To our knowledge, the suit brought forward by the 112 plaintiffs is the first occasion where these women compare their situation to those women who are often referred to as “comfort women” (위안부, wianbu), a euphemism to describe women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. We decided to publish the translation of the above article because of the significance of this change, and we always used scare quotes when using the terms “camptown prostitutes” and “comfort women” to indicate that they represent special terminology used in this discourse. Where “camptown prostitution” is concerned, it remains unclear to what extent some, most or all women involved were forced to provide sex. The title above is not intended to dismiss the veracity of the claims brought forward by the plaintiffs, nor is it intended to express any opinion on the matter. It simply used, in scare quotes, the term these women are generally referred to.

Event: Korean Sex Workers’ Day 2014

Join Giant Girls and SWASH on Korean Sex Workers’ Day 2014!

What: Presentations, Discussion, Performance!
When: Sunday 29 June 2014 1pm
Where: Alternative Visual Culture Factory i-Gong
2F 330-8 Seogyo-dong Mapo-gu Seoul Korea (121-836)
Entrance fee: ₩5,000
Language: This event is held in Korean and Japanese
Click here to join the event on Facebook

GG Korean Sex Workers Day English Poster 1GG Korean Sex Workers Day English Poster 2

June 29th Korean Sex Workers’ Day

On this day, the National Solidarity of Sex Workers Day was organized, after the Special Anti-Sex Trade Law [which includes a Prevention Act and a Punishment Act] was passed in 2004. Since then, we commemorate this day as Sex Workers Day to honour all sex workers who have contributed to the struggle against discrimination over the years.

Poverty Porn

In Response to Lucy Williamson, BBC Seoul Correspondent

Love - Matt Lemon Photography - All Rights Reserved

“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.

Love Hotels

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.

Young Koreans

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.

Poverty Porn

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

Korean Sex Worker Organisation Giant Girls Condemns Witch-Hunt of Park Administration

Statement by Korean Sex Worker Organisation Giant Girls

We condemn the South Korean government for denying sex workers their human rights and criticise the government’s plan to pay rewards of up to one hundred million won to prostitution informants.

On May 20th 2014, the South Korean Government announced that they will pay rewards of up to one hundred million won (US$98,000 | £58,000 | €70,000) to informants who provide important leads to crime investigations, notably organised crime and prostitution. This announcement exhibits the government’s indifference, ignorance, and incompetency.

Giant GirlsSince 2005, the government has successfully ignored the voices of sex workers, their cry against stigmatisation and discrimination, their fight for their right to survive, and the apparent link between sex work and women’s poverty. Instead of putting prostitution on the same level of criminal offences like organized crime, one should consider why people choose to enter and stay in prostitution.

What sex workers face is not limited to prostitution. Prostitution and sex work reflect the Korean society’s policies and attitudes towards minorities and workers, and also how strong the social safety net is. What people think of prostitution, how the sex industry is created and maintained, what the public opinion says about it, and how the government copes with it, all reflect the general problem of our society.

The government doesn’t think that prostitution is a result of inequalities in Korean society. Instead, it tries to blame prostitution for all sorts of social problems. Poverty and the failure to acknowledge the human rights of sex workers are key problems that sex workers face. It those problems remain unresolved, the controversy about prostitution will continue.

Prostitution is already illegal in Korea. That is why sex workers cannot ask for protection during their work. Rather than protecting sex workers, the police violate their human rights during crackdowns. Amidst all this, this new policy will pose a new threat to the survival of sex workers. With bounty hunters at large, sex workers will have to hide in the shadows where there is neither safety nor a regular income. This policy is also dangerous as it may direct public frustration at the Park administration’s incompetency, incapacity and dishonesty towards sex workers by defining sex workers as the delinquent “others”. Stigmatising minorities as criminals and putting them into dangerous circumstances represents nothing short of a witch hunt.

To most of male, female and transgender sex workers, sex work is a matter of survival. Before asking sex workers why would they go into this business, the government should reflect on the circumstances that renders sex work inevitable. A weak social safety net, prejudices within Korean society, and the attitude of Korean society towards poverty should be held accountable. Sex workers constantly have to be afraid and will have no access to workers’ rights and human rights as long as prostitution is deemed a crime and “prostitutes” as filthy.

We, the members of Giant Girls, the Network for Sex Workers’ Rights, express our outrage over this incompetent and irresponsible government announcement and declare that we will take every measure against the situation.

May 20th, 2014
Giant Girls, the Network for Sex Workers’ Rights

Author: Giant Girls, Network for Sex Workers’ Rights (성노동자권리모임 지지)
Translation: Research Project Korea, with kind permission by Giant Girls

Please click here for the Korean version.

German Sex Worker Organisation BesD responds to Bundesrat Resolution about Prostitution Act Reform

Logo of the Trade Association Erotic and Sexual Services

Logo of the Trade Association Erotic and Sexual Services

In April, the Upper House of the German Parliament, the Bundesrat, passed a resolution calling for an objective debate and differentiated measures amid plans by the ruling coalition of Conservatives and Social Democrats to reform the German Prostitution Act of 2002 (ProstG). With kind permission of the author, Research Project Germany published an English translation of the response by the Trade Association Erotic and Sexual Services (BesD), a German sex worker organisation founded in October 2013.

Click here to continue reading at Research Project Germany.

Prostitution and Police Powers in Berlin

Mercedes Wanne Polizei Berlin. Photo by Gunnar Richter

Parliamentary Enquiry about Prostitution and Police Powers

In late March, the Berlin Senate issued a reply to a parliamentary enquiry by Evrim Sommer (Left Party) about prostitution and police powers in Berlin.

The response contradicts claims made by anti-prostitution activists and some police representatives that the Prostitution Act of 2002 (ProstG) was hindering police investigations related to combating human trafficking. According to the Berlin Police, no such hindrance exists since the ProstG came into force.

Continue reading at Research Project Germany


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