A noble cause? I think not.
Today, I came across an article written by Erin Campeau, a woman volunteering “for about three months now” at the Salim Women Shelter in Busan, South Korea, that “provides legal support, medical services, and consultation and vocational training to victims of prostitution”.
The Noble Cause: Salim Women’s Shelter | HAPS Magazine URL
While I wouldn’t automatically dispute what may be a sincere desire in people to help victims of violent abuse, I will in the following refute the fallacies in Campeau’s article, in turn leading me to seriously question her motives, and highlight the negative impact of misleading and biased information on “anti-trafficking” legislation and those affected by it. Ironically, it is Campeau herself who singles out biased information as a major problem.
The Law of the Land
“In 2004 the Korean government passed strict anti-trafficking laws establishing penalties for traffickers.”
Campeau mistakes Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Law with a comprehensive anti-trafficking law that the country continues to lack, just as it fails to provide appropriate services to trafficking victims, as this excerpt from the 2012 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report by the U.S. State Department documents.
“The [Korean] government did not institute formal procedures to identify proactively trafficking victims and refer them to available services. [It should] [e]nact drafted comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation that defines and prohibits trafficking in persons; increase efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict trafficking offenders, including those involved in labor trafficking”. 2012 TIP Report (pp. 210-211) URL
For further information about the TIP Report, I recommend reading the letter to Luis CdeBaca, Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the US State Department, sent to him by the scholars of the Interdisciplinary Project on Human Trafficking, a collaboration between the Harvard Law School and the American University’s College of Law in Washington. The letter is co-signed by Dr. Sealing Cheng, who has done extensive research with sex workers in South Korea.
“[W]e are concerned that the Obama Administration has produced a document that asserts as matters of proven fact a number of statements, which, given the state of information on both trafficking and prostitution worldwide, are unsupported or unproven by valid research methods and data. We are deeply concerned that the document is illogical, misleading and therefore potentially damaging to on-going efforts globally to prevent trafficking and protect the rights of trafficked persons. … We are deeply concerned that these assumptions are not proven in any empirically meaningful way, and believe that they only serve to deflect attention away from the structures and actors that in fact lead to trafficking of women, men and children. The proposals and statements in the document threaten to divert precious resources from protecting victims of trafficking who urgently need help into a politically contested and futile anti-prostitution campaign.”
To return to the existing Korean law, here is an excerpt of what Campeau claims are “anti-trafficking laws establishing penalties for traffickers.”
1. Anyone who sells sex or buys sex shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than 1 year or by a fine, detention, or minor fine not exceeding 3,000,000 won.
Act on the Punishment of Procuring Prostitution and Associated Acts (Page 10) URL
Article 21 thus criminalises not just traffickers, but all sex workers and their clients, regardless of coercion being involved. So let’s call a spade a spade. South Korea has a law aimed to eradicate not human trafficking but the sex trade, hence the law’s name, including consensual acts between sex workers and their clients.
South Korea does not yet have comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation in place. Judging from the Anti-Sex Trade Law it is nothing to look forward to as the legislator follows the lead of the US government, which, as the experts explained above, uses unproven facts and flawed research to create illogical and misleading reports that in turn lead to laws that fail to address human trafficking and instead further a futile anti-prostitution campaign. Sex workers’ rights become collateral damage in the process.
Stereotypes and Biased Information
Campeau fails to elaborate what “the stereotypes behind sex work” are, that according to her, have to change, and she doesn’t explain what “biased information” the public is given that somehow manages to keep women in the sex trade.
One stereotype that I continuously encounter when talking to Koreans about sex work, is that they feel sorry for sex workers and surprised when they learn that sex workers strongly disagree with their portrayal as victims unable to make informed decisions.
If Campeau feels there is a lack of unbiased information for the public, I recommend reading this piece published in the Hankyoreh on the eve of Korean Sex Workers’ Day.
“나는 스스로 성매매를 선택했다” [I chose sex work myself] | Hankyoreh
URL (Korean) | Google Translate URL (English)
Left: “I’m not a hooker. I’m a sex worker!” | Right: “Don’t stigmatise us! Don’t oppress us!”
Based on interviews with Korean sex workers, the article highlights, among other facts, that a great number of sex workers was forced to move abroad as a result of the Anti-Sex Trade Law.
According to KANG Hyun Joon, Director of the Han Teo National Union of Sex Workers, the number of brothel-based sex workers that seek representation through Han Teo has declined significantly in the aftermath of the Anti-Sex Trade Law. This is not because prostitution magically disappeared but because sex workers have moved abroad, the majority of them to the United States, Japan and Australia, or were pushed underground. Both developments have forced sex workers into unfamiliar environments that expose them to greater risks and cut them off from their networks.
While Campeau talks about “physical threats” and “emotional abuse” that sex workers endure she fails to mention the abuse suffered by sex workers at the hands of law enforcement officers, by no means uncommon occurrences. Since (used) condoms are used as evidence in criminal proceedings, sex workers sometimes have no other option but to endanger their health and swallow them, only for police officers forcing them to regurgitate them.
“Victims are often unaware of their rights and are shunned by a global society that tends to think of prostitution as a choice.”
In my view, this statement demonstrates the limitations of Campeau’s insight and her ignorance of the diversity of factors that has women, men and transgender people choose to work in the sex industry. Here is what Korean sex workers have to say about that.
“Sex work is work. We have the right to choose our work and to lead our lives without fear and harassment.” Joint statement of Giant Girls (Korean Network for Sex Workers’ Rights) and the Scarlet Alliance
Who sounds like a victim unable to make choices and unaware of their rights and who sounds like someone furthering stereotypes and spreading biased information? You’ll be the judge.
“The goal of Salim is to empower women who were once victims of this dehumanizing, underground industry.”
What this statement does it to further the narrative that all women working in the sex industry are victims and that sex work is dehumanising. None of the sex workers I have ever encountered agrees with either of these notions or feels empowered by them. To the contrary.
“If the women want to study at a college or university, their qualification exam fees and first semester are covered.”
Tertiary education is both expensive and essential in Korea’s increasingly competitive job market. Higher education is also a great tool for empowerment. But what happens when the women the organisation helped entering university cannot pay for their tuition fees beyond the first semester? Campeau explains that the organisation lacks sufficient funding. Wouldn’t it be more useful then to create a programme that is sustainable?
It is admirable that the “women have access to room and board at the shelter for up to 18 months and at a group home for up to three years”. However, judging from the limited information provided, the organisation seems to lead women who choose to enter university into situations where they are bound to either drop out or have to resort to sex work, if they wish to continue their degree programmes. One can hardly earn a living and pay one’s tuition fees for as long as the minimum hourly wage in South Korea is US$ 4.25 – and more often than not employers pay even less than that.
No bad whores, just bad laws
Since Campeau conflates sex work, sex trafficking, and human trafficking, I can only assume her final note, that by informing the public “an end to sex trafficking may finally be in sight”, indicates her belief that prostitution can be eradicated. Everybody has a right to their opinion. I personally agree with the scholars of the Interdisciplinary Project on Human Trafficking that anti-prostitution campaigns are futile. Instead, legal frameworks are to be put in place that protect the rights of sex workers, in order to reduce violence as well as the stigma and discrimination surrounding sex work, to effectively prevent the spread of infectious diseases, and to allow sex workers to earn their livelihood to ensure the best possible future for their families.
“Give us rights, don’t stigmatise us!”
Proposition 35, also known as CASE Act (Californians Against Sexual Exploitation), is just one example of many, where the climate created by anti-prostitution campaigners leaves lawmakers few alternatives but to sanction seriously flawed laws that do little to nothing to prevent human trafficking, but everything to criminalise sex workers, rob them of their rights, and inflate statistics of alleged successes in the fight against human trafficking.
Freedom of expression means that anyone has the right to campaign against prostitution. But they should not deceive others by falsely labelling their agenda as anti-trafficking campaign. Articles such as Campeau’s, complete with the typical imagery, further a climate in which laws will be passed that fail to prevent human trafficking and fail to protect real victims of human trafficking.
Helping victims of violent abuse is a noble cause indeed. Furthering an agenda that misleads the public is not.
More on Proposition 35
I Despise Human Trafficking, but I Oppose the Badly Drafted Prop 35 URL
Stephen Munkelt (California Attorneys for Criminal Justice) votes No on Proposition 35 URL
Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project URL