A Letter from a South Korean Sex Worker
Once again, Charlie Spice invited me onto his show. This time around, the show continued the discussion of the previous edition about “Rape And Other Violent Acts Against Sex Workers”. As discussants were invited Bella Robinson, founder of Coyote RI, Maxine Doogan, founder of the Erotic Service Providers Union, Billie Jo McIntire, executive director at Sex Work Alliance and Network(ing) in Colorado, and Cris Sardina, co-director at the Desiree Alliance.
In preparation for the show, Hyeri Lee, a sex worker and an activist with Giant Girls – Network for Sex Workers’ Rights, had written a letter about her experiences as a sex worker in South Korea. She gladly agreed for me to read it to the participants and the audience of the Charlie Spice Show.
Listen to the powerful statement of Hyeri Lee and learn about the stigma attached to sex work and the prejudices faced by sex workers in South Korea. Please note that due to minor sound distortions, a few sentences were removed from the audio file. I would like to direct your attention especially towards Ms Lee’s statements about the recent police crackdowns on the sex industry and the effect they had on sex workers.
A Letter from a South Korean Sex Worker*
Hello! My name is Hyeri. I’m a sex worker from South Korea. I was born in 1980, I’m a mother of two children, and I have worked in the sex industry for 3 years. In South Korea, there is a social stigma attached to sex work and there are many prejudices against sex workers.
That is why sex workers in Korea don’t want to reveal their occupation, and feel ashamed of what they do. Only a small number of sex workers think of their work as a form of labour. In Korea, the public isn’t familiar with the term ‘sex worker’. Instead, sex workers are referred to with terms like ‘whore’, ‘prostitute’, or ‘몸파는년 (mom paneun nyeon / body-selling bitch)’.
People look down on sex workers, and the sex industry itself is illegal due to the ‘Special Law Against Prostitution’, which in turn exposes sex workers to violence and rape.
Sex workers are not protected by the law, and I, too, have experienced multiple cases of violence from clients. Even if a sex worker reports them to the police, the criminal case won’t stand because of the illegality of sex work. The police thinks, sex work is illegal, and since the sex worker received money for sex, she should have sex even if she doesn’t like the client or what he demands.
The concept of selling sex-related services and one’s time does not exist in Korea, and sex workers are all referred to as ‘body-selling bitches’. Even when it comes to rape and assault on sex workers, some people believe that since sex workers are illegal and chose to live outside the law, they have to put up with violence and bad behaviours by their clients. I believe that’s what the majority in Korea believes.
Revealing one’s occupation requires a lot of courage, and there are very few people who would understand the type of work that sex workers do. There are prevalent prejudices that only those become sex workers who are poor, ignorant, or have somehow failed in their lives. Another prejudice is that sex workers waste away the money that they earned through opening their legs. That is why I get asked questions like “Did you finish college? You look smart enough to do something else.” It may sound funny, but this is the reality of how things are in Korea.
In my case, there are a lot of friends who support me and treat me as an equal human being. But one of my sex worker friends had to end one of her friendships after she came out. That friend called her ‘dirty’. I didn’t tell my family that I am working as a sex worker, and I probably won’t tell them in the future. They will not perceive sex work as an occupation, and it would come to them as nothing but a shock.
It is safe to assume that the majority of Koreans is afraid of sex workers and what their work entails. The people at the kindergarten where my kids go to know me as a make-up artist, which is my previous occupation. That is why they are nice to my kids, and give me compliments about their looks and talents. But what would happen if they knew what I do for living? They would talk behind my back and gossip, and only say bad things about my children. It’s too tough to even imagine that. Because of my children, I don’t allow any photos to be taken when I’m doing an interview. My life would be heavily affected if my photo were to go public. In Korea, sex workers are at the bottom of the social level.
I have taken up all kinds of part time jobs to raise my children and was always on a tight budget. When I picked up sex work, my life got better financially. However, due to the presidential election year, the police crackdowns got much worse, and I earned almost nothing. Due to the increase in crackdowns, most of the clients sex workers are left with are the nasty ones. Last year I mentally suffered a lot due to all the violence I had to endure, and I took some time off and started dating my current boyfriend.
Average Korean men doe not see sex work as an occupation of their spouse or partner. It is more a past that should be forgotten and left behind. I met my boyfriend when I was feeling vulnerable, and I stopped working for a while because he demanded it. He believes that I have quit sex work for good and will not pick it up in the future, and he refuses to talk about anything related to sex work. Other sex workers lie about what they do, but I don’t want to lie and so I rather save my breath. Even my boyfriend doesn’t see my work as an ‘occupation’ but considers it as deviant. He believes, “My sweet Hyeri is not the kind of women who would work as a sex worker”.
I think it’s fair to say that life is hell for sex workers in South Korea. The government sees you as a criminal, and you aren’t guaranteed basic human rights. People look down on you and ignore you. There are no such things as sex workers’ rights in Korea. My dream is to live abroad, even if I have to change my career. It is too hard to live in Korea. And these circumstances contribute to the fact that only one tenth of the people working in pro-sex work groups are sex workers.
Seoul, January 12th, 2013
*The translation from the Korean original by Research Project Korea was approved by the author, whose name was changed to protect her privacy.
Please leave a comment below for my courageous friend!
Rape And Other Violent Acts Against Sex Workers, Part 1 + 2
Charlie Spice Show
The Charlie Spice Show is a weekly one-hour talk show, which addresses all types of controversial issues related to sex, sex work, sex workers and the sex trade. The show gives the audience an in-depth look at the business, social, political, legal, health and economic issues related to this industry which is considered “taboo” but continues to intrigue people on both sides of the fence. The show is broadcast on BlogTalkRadio.
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