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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“Your protection is oppression” – Further details about Germany’s looming Prostitutes Protection Law

Originally posted on Research Project Germany:

Sex workers protest in Nuremberg, August 2014. Photo by Voice4Sexworkers. All Rights Reserved.“Your protection is oppression” – In August 2014, sex workers protested in Nuremberg, Bavaria, as Family Minister Manuela Schwesig, chief proponent of toughening Germany’s prostitution law, visited a counselling centre for sex workers.  | Photo:Voice4Sexworkers

About this text

The below is a translation of an agreement of Germany’s ruling coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, which sets out additions to the agreed upon key issues paper from August 2014 for a “Prostitutes Protection Law” (ProstSchG), which would supplement the German Prostitution Act of 2002 (ProstG).

Translation by Matthias Lehmann. Research Project Germany. Every effort has been made to translate the legal terms in such a way, that the translation remained virtually verbatim while also being intelligible. Squared parentheses in the text include additional clarifications and comments. Click here to download the original version of the document in German. Any questions, comments or suggested edits are welcome.


View original 547 more words

“People clearly don’t know what’s going on” – Interview with Hyeri Lee, sex worker in Daegu

Yeogwan in Daegu [1] - Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.Neon sign of a motel in Daegu © 2015 Matt Lemon Photography All Rights Reserved

In early 2013, I published A Letter from a South Korean Sex Worker, written by Hyeri Lee [an alias to protect her anonymity]. Recently, I had the chance to meet her again in Daegu, South Korea’s third largest metropolitan area. After a few days of sightseeing and trying out the local cuisine, we sat down at a coffee shop near her home to talk about her experiences over the last few years. The following is a transcript of our conversation, which Ms Lee authorised me to publish.

Please note that the copyright for this transcript lies with Research Project Korea and is not licensed under a Creative Commons License.


While Korean police lament the lack of sufficient resources to clamp down on prostitution businesses, police crackdowns and undercover sting operations are actually more frequent than the public believes. During the five years that Ms Lee has worked in different cities across South Korea, she has never encountered anyone being forced to sell sex, which is not to say that working conditions or clients are always pleasant. While there are people under the age of 18 who sell sex in South Korea, all sex workers Ms Lee encountered were between their 20s and 50s. Migrant sex workers she met came from China and North Korea, as well as from Russia and Uzbekistan. Police crackdowns and unruly clients take a serious toll on sex workers’ mental health. In light of that, it’s unfortunate that Ms Lee is no longer involved in sex worker activism as she has lost trust in organisations advocating for sex workers’ rights.

The Interview

Matthias: How long has it been now since you started to work as a sex worker and where did you work before moving to Daegu?

Hyeri: It’s been five years and apart from Seoul and Incheon, I’ve worked in Bucheon and Yangju in Gyeonggi Province, and in Cheonan and Taean County in South Chungcheon Province. I’ve also worked at other locations but only for a short time.

Matthias: Why did you move to Daegu?

Hyeri: I’ve moved here last July because of my boyfriend.

Matthias: How did you two meet?

Hyeri: We first met on Twitter and later got to know each other more over the phone. I thought he was quite cool and we often happened to agree on quite many things, including our personal relationships. Whenever either of us felt down, we called each other to cheer the other one up. Actually, I felt suicidal a number of times and he always happened to call then to check in on me, as if he knew. It felt like a miracle.

Matthias: What made you feel suicidal? You’ve never mentioned that to me before today.*

Hyeri: I was just so tired of terrible clients and of sting operations by the police in Incheon, Bucheon and Taean.

Matthias: I’ve come across quite many comments online where people expressed they didn’t believe the Korean police was doing anything. What would you respond if someone said that to you?

Hyeri: I would probably just laugh. They clearly don’t know what’s going on. Incheon and Bucheon were the worst. The police was around almost all the time, day and night. There were many crackdowns but I managed to escape them. I left before they could arrest me.

Matthias: How do those sting operations work?

Hyeri: At first, they just act like clients. They’d come into our shop and say, ‘I’ll decide and pay later once I’ve chosen a girl.’ So they enter the room, talk to a woman and pay her, which makes her think this is actually a client. But once she takes the man into a separate room and takes out a condom, he’d arrest her. Just the fact that we have condoms is enough for the police to arrest us.

Matthias: You said before that you sometimes have terrible clients. Could you explain more about that?

Hyeri: The worst ones I had in Taean. They have no manners at all. They’d ask me stuff like ‘Why do you use condoms?’ or ‘Why can’t I use my finger?’

Matthias: I remember you told me one day about a client who had penetrated you with his finger although you had explicitly told him that was off-limits. How often do you have such clients?

Hyeri: Maybe around two out of ten clients try that. When I tell them I don’t want it, some even have the nerve to ask me ‘Why not? What’s the matter?’ What the f***! In other cities, maybe one or two out of ten clients ask for unprotected sex. But in Taean, it was almost every single one of them, so I fought a lot with clients there. Another client I remember from that time was an elementary school teacher. He was really smelly but at least he wasn’t as bad as the others and he was actually a repeat client. But he always made some condescending remarks about how much he paid for my service, like I had to be grateful. Such a show-off.

Matthias: I can only guess but people like him might feel ashamed about buying sex so they perhaps say those things to feel better about themselves.

Hyeri: Exactly. They want to have sex but have no partner, so they come to us and pay us for it. But they still think we are beneath them, like they are somehow better than us. But we’re human, just like them, and have the same rights – no grades, no levels. In fact, some sex workers are smarter than those lowlife clients. Well, maybe not all of them. (laughs) By the way, in Taean, I’ve also had some police officers among my clients.

Matthias: How did they treat you?

Hyeri: They acted pretty normal. Actually, I was more comfortable with them than with some of my other clients. But one of them was bad. All women hated and avoided him but I didn’t care as long as he paid. One day he asked me, ‘Aren’t you afraid of me?’, and when I asked him why, he replied ‘All other girls are afraid of me.’ He then told me that he was a police officer and that his life was boring as his wife was working in another city. I guess he told me because he saw that I wasn’t afraid of him. But at other times, he would get angry, talk trash and yell at me. He was a really loud person. But I just felt kind of sorry for him. He wanted to appear really strong but he seemed quite unhappy and like he just needed someone to care about him.

Matthias: If you look back over the last five years, how would you rate your clients? How many were nice, how many were average, and how many did you have bad experiences with?

Hyeri: The nice ones were just ten percent, maybe a little below that. Half of them were so-so, not bad. The rest behaved badly or worse.

Matthias: So, the majority was average or good, but that’s quite many bad ones. Do you keep records of the bad clients?

Hyeri: Absolutely. I avoid them and tell them that I don’t want them as clients. Some ask me then ‘Why? I paid you, it’s your job.’ Dealing with those clients makes me feel depressed and gloomy. Sometimes, I just want to evaporate. It also burdens me to juggle my work and my family, so sometimes I cry a lot and feel suicidal.

Matthias: Does your mother know about your work?

Hyeri: No, she doesn’t. She does know I work in shops [brothels] but she thinks I am only taking care of the books and help the women with their make-up.

Matthias: And she doesn’t mind that?

Hyeri: No. It’s just one of the jobs out there and she doesn’t care. But if she knew I was a sex worker – she wouldn’t want that.

Matthias: How do you feel about living away from your children?

Hyeri: It’s my one and only regret. Actually, it’s not a regret. But I worry about them.

Matthias: Does your boyfriend have a problem with your work? And do you think you’ll move back to the north together?

Hyeri: No, he’s fine with my work. But Sung Woo [name changed] is a Daegu person through and through. He doesn’t like other cities and he certainly doesn’t like Seoul, so I don’t think we’ll move there. He’s been there for me every time I felt down, even when we were just friends. In Korea, usually just lovers hug each other, but whenever we met, we were hugging each other even when we still thought we were just friends. But then last year, I got unfairly fired from a shop in brothel…

Matthias: Oh, why was that?

Hyeri: The working conditions there weren’t good, so I argued a lot with the owner during the two months I worked there and eventually, he fired me. So I went on a short trip to Busan and Daegu. My plan was just to stay two days in Daegu, but then I met Sung Woo and felt really comfortable with him, so I stayed a day longer, and I visited him several times over the following months. Finally, in July, I started to live here. Actually, people in Daegu prefer a Seoul agashi [young lady; miss] so I have more clients here.

Matthias: Does that mean you can charge your clients more? How long are your sessions usually?

Hyeri: Yes. My sessions last between 60 and 90 minutes and clients have to pay between 100-150,000 Won (approx. £60-90 | US$ 90-140 | €80-120).

Matthias: How does it compare to your previous job in Yangju?

Hyeri: I worked at a room salon there and they had a system called jogeon mannam [lit. condition meeting], where the price depends on the duration as well as the service. What do I do and what don’t I do. There, sessions last for at least two hours or even longer, depending on what the client wants. The client then pays the owner and the owner pays me. Per hour, I earned 30-60,000 Won (approx. £18-36 | US$ 27-55 | €24-48). At the room salon, clients can choose which women they like. Most Korean men prefer thinner girls, so some clients rejected me. Sometimes, I would go a whole day without a single client.

Matthias: And you wouldn’t earn anything then?

Hyeri: That’s right. And whenever I told the owner that I wanted to take a rest, he would ask me, ‘How long?’ It felt more like dealing with a pimp, not with a manager.

Matthias: How about Daegu?

Hyeri: It’s much better here. I got more clients so I can more easily choose which clients I want. In Yangju, I worked pretty much every day but here, I only work 10-14 days per month. If I want to work, I work, and if I don’t, I don’t. (laughs)

Matthias: Very good. Where do you meet your clients here?

Hyeri: I first chat with them via one of two smartphone apps [names withheld] and then I meet them at a yeogwan [small hotel or inn].

Matthias: How much are the rooms there? Does the client have to pay for that?

Hyeri: Yes, sure. For two to three hours, they cost 20-30,000 Won (approx. £12-18 | US$ 18-28 | €16-24), but usually, 20,000 Won.

Matthias: Do you meet them in this neighbourhood?

Hyeri: Yes, I’m not travelling across the city. When clients call me, I tell them I’m from Seoul and don’t know my way around Daegu. (laughs) So, they have to come here and pick me up.

Matthias: What safety precautions do you take? Could they just drive you anywhere they want?

Hyeri: No, I never get into a car with a client. We just meet in front of a motel and then we go in. And they got to pay me first. I also screen my clients in advance. I test how patient they are. When I tell them I can only see them later or the next day, or that they have to come here if they want to see me, some swear at me, so of course I don’t meet them then.

Yeogwan in Daegu [2] - Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.Reflection of a motel in Daegu © 2015 Matt Lemon Photography All Rights Reserved

Matthias: Do you have many repeat clients?

Hyeri: Yes, about 60-70% of my clients are repeat clients. They like my Seoul accent and think I’m kind and sophisticated.

Matthias: Are the motel owners aware that sex workers use their premises? And how about the police? Do they check on the motels in the area?

Hyeri: The owners know, as does the police, but the police doesn’t do anything because we just look like normal couples.

Matthias: Do you have contact to other sex workers in Daegu?

Hyeri: At first, I worked at a noraebang [lit. singing room, Korean for karaoke bar] for a short time as a doumi [lit. helper; doumis sing and drink with customers, who then later also pay them for sexual services at nearby motels if they come to an agreement]. But I didn’t have much in common with the other doumis there. They didn’t think about the job like other sex workers I’ve met. They think of it just as a part-time job or a secondary job, and that they will only do it to earn more money within a shorter period of time and then stop it altogether. Some of them don’t care about using condoms or whether or not clients use their fingers.

Matthias: How old are the sex workers you’ve met over the years? Did you ever encounter any persons below 18 who sold sex?

Hyeri: No, those I’ve met where always in their 20s at least but I’ve also met sex workers who were in their 50s.

Matthias: At all the shops you’ve worked at over the last five years, did you ever come across any cases where you felt people were forced to work there?

Hyeri: No, not at all.

Matthias: Did you meet any sex workers from other countries?

Hyeri: Not here in Daegu but I’ve met Chinese sex workers in Bucheon, Incheon and Taean. There were also Russian und Uzbek sex workers in Bucheon, and I’ve met some from North Korea in Yangju.

Matthias: Do you know how those from North Korea got to work there?

Hyeri: One of them told me she married some older Chinese man who paid her 20-30 million Won (approx. £12-18,000 | US$ 18-27,000 | €16-24,000). She lived with him for almost two years, got pregnant and had a baby, but then she escaped alone via Thailand to South Korea.

Matthias: Did she choose to do all that?

Hyeri: Yes, she wanted to help her parents in North Korea so she got the money and gave it to them. I would call it ‘self-trafficking’. It’s very common for Chinese men to pay for a bride.

Matthias: Finally, I would like to ask you about sex worker activism. You told me before that you resigned as a member of Giant Girls [an organisation of sex workers and allies to support sex workers’ rights]. But I often notice that you post messages about other labour activists on Facebook and Twitter or join them for protests or vigils. Do you still engage in sex worker activism?

Hyeri: I resigned from GG last August and I want to stay independent. There were just too many disagreements. I love some of the members at GG. Some work at a hospital, some are lawyers, and they were really helpful. I don’t necessarily think that it’s a problem that there were more non-sex workers than sex workers at GG but their way of thinking was a problem.

Matthias: Maybe that is because they’re not sex workers? I feel that’s the same with many researchers, journalists or politicians I’ve encountered. Even among those who say they support sex workers’ rights, and let’s suppose they really mean it, there are still many who don’t fully accept sex work as work and hope sex workers would quit and do something else. If there would be a new sex worker-only organisation in South Korea, would you join?

Hyeri: Never. I hate organisations and frankly, I don’t want to meet with other sex workers anymore.

Matthias: Do you have anything else on your mind that you would like to say?

Hyeri: I still think that life is hell for sex workers in South Korea.

Matthias: Yes, it sure sounds tough. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experiences with me and thanks for showing me Daegu. I had a great time.


* Since those who do not recognise sex work as work are often prone to use cherry-picked facts to support their arguments, I would like to point out that South Korea has the highest suicide rate among all OECD countries. [1] “Last year, data showed that 29.1 people per 100,000 took their own lives ― more than triple the OECD average.” [2] So, without meaning to trivialise in any way the impact of police crackdowns and mistreatment by clients on sex workers’ mental health, one needs to acknowledge that suicide is a broader problem in South Korean society, and not limited to its sex worker population.

[1] Korea’s suicide rate remains top in OECD, Korea Herald
[2] On the frontlines of Korea’s suicide epidemic, Korea Times

Related Reading

A Letter from a South Korean Sex Worker

Working? Working! – A Photo Series by Yeoni Kim


“I feel used” – Behind the scenes of Groove Korea’s cover story

Cover of January issue. Photo by Groove Korea. All Rights Reserved.

Cover photo of Groove Korea’s January Issue © Groove Korea Magazine 2014. All Rights Reserved.


The January issue of Groove Korea, an English language magazine published in Seoul, featured an editorial and a cover story about the fight of sex workers for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Korea. Although overall, it is one of the better articles on the subject, it left a bitter taste in the mouths of the sex workers interviewed for the piece, as well as mine. Coming in the immediate aftermath of the negative experience with the Wall Street Journal, it left me wondering if journalistic ethics is in fact a contradiction in itself. The description of what happened behind the scenes is not intended as a hatchet job or to publicly cry over spilled milk but to illustrate which problems occurred and why, and how journalists could avoid misrepresenting and offending the very people who provide them with information for their articles.

“Every human deserves safety”

Sex workers defend their labor, health and civil rights

Editorial By Yeoni Kim, sex worker and activist
Please click here to view it as PDF (with kind permission from Groove Korea)
Alternatively, you can read it here.

“I sell sex and I have rights, too”

Sex workers fight for a work environment that’s safe, decriminalized and free of trafficking

Article by Anita McKay, journalist
Edited by Elaine Ramirez, Editorial Director
Please click here to view it as PDF (with kind permission from Groove Korea).
Alternatively, you can read it here.


While I usually refrain from using the personal pronoun “we” when writing about matters that concern sex workers, on this occasion, Yeoni Kim, Lucien Lee and myself were all interviewed for the article in question and thus jointly affected by the treatment we received from Groove Korea. Although we criticise the latter, we do appreciate that by inviting Yeoni Kim to write the editorial and by featuring Anita McKay’s article as cover story, Groove Korea has directed much-needed attention to the struggle of sex workers in South Korea to have their rights respected and voices heard. However, we feel that on several occasions, we were treated unfairly and disrespectfully, both of which could and should have been avoided, especially in light of the lengthy run-up to the publication and the great amount of time invested by us.

Main grievances

Firstly, none of us were informed that the photographer for the photo shoot was not from Groove Korea but hired externally, with implications that will be outlined below. Secondly, we were given an extremely short time span in which to check the draft of Anita McKay’s article, which contained numerous problematic passages. Thirdly, the layout added an unnecessary sensationalising overtone to the article. (Please download the PDF above to view the article as it appeared in the print issue.) We also found the problem management of Groove Korea’s staff inadequate, and finally, a message by the editor, posted publicly on Facebook, grossly disrespectful.

Photo shoot

Due to the stigma attached to sex work, it goes without saying that sex workers are not always comfortable to appear in the media, which is why they often use masks to hide part of all of their faces. Since Anita McKay appeared (and was made) well aware of the sensitivity of the subject matter of her article, it remains a mystery to us how Groove Korea could not consider it important to inform us that they would not use an in-house photographer. The fact that they hired someone externally caused two problems.

Firstly, it had been agreed that apart from taking photos to be used for the article, the photographer would also take photos, which could then be used for a video project by Voice4Sexworkers, scheduled to be published on December 17th, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Although the photos were taken, Ms Kim and Ms Lee were later informed that they could only use them if they would purchase them from the photographer, who, as they then learnt, was hired externally.

Needless to say that they had gladly taken time out of their days to meet Ms McKay for the interviews, and meet a second time for the photo shoot, and we certainly all appreciate that Ms Kim was invited to write the editorial. However, asking them to pay for the photos, which we had actually considered a nice gesture in return for the time spent, was less than discourteous. Not enough with that, we were also given the runaround in trying to obtain this information, as nobody from Groove Korea tried to address this issue proactively.

The more serious problem stems from the fact that said photographer now has a number of photos of Ms Kim and Ms Lee in his possession, and since the communication went as dissatisfactory as it did, there is no way of knowing if the files are stored securely or if they were destroyed to avoid their accidental dissemination.

Recommendation: When interviewing sex workers, journalists should be forthcoming in informing them who will be present during interviews or photo shoots, and any sensitive files should not be held by external third parties. If so, however, it is the responsibility of the journalists in question to ensure that they are stored securely or destroyed afterwards.

Proofreading (Part I)

Journalists frequently blame inaccuracies and other problems in their articles on time constraints due to tight deadlines. While Ms McKay did her best to accommodate the schedules of Ms Kim and Ms Lee, it was agreed from the onset that we would be permitted to review the entire article prior to publication. When I checked my emails on the last Sunday before Christmas, I found that Ms McKay had sent the draft at 5am that morning, requesting our feedback by “5pm Sunday”. Although I started reviewing the article immediately, I only managed to find out by noon if she in fact meant “5pm today” – and she did.

Anita McKay had first contacted me at the end of May 2014, and between then and December, we had exchanged nearly 70 long and short emails, had a Skype interview for over two hours, and engaged in chats filling over ten pages. Ms Kim and Ms Lee, on their part, had also spent several hours responding to her questions in writing, and met her for an interview and for the photo shoot.

Regardless of Ms Kim and Ms Lee’s command of the English language, it is simply an audacity to send the draft during the small hours and expecting feedback a mere twelve hours later, when it was previously agreed that we would be given time to review it. In addition, the article was only sent to Ms Kim and myself, although by comparison, Ms Lee has the superior command of the English language necessary to review an article of that length, which Ms McKay would have been well aware of, having met both of them. The only explanation we received was that Ms Lee had never requested to receive the article prior to publication. As I stated previously, writing about sex work requires going the extra mile to avoid misrepresentations that may negatively affect public opinion and subsequently policy makers. In our view, Ms McKay gave up after a few hundred yards.

Proofreading (Part II)

The following examples from the draft are not intended to discredit Ms McKay but to illustrate how necessary thorough reviews are and how easily errors can occur, even if journalists might have the best intentions, which Ms McKay definitely had.

1. Kim admits that her story isn’t representative of a typical sex worker.

Lucien Lee responded that, “even though it is correct that Yeoni is not representative, since nobody is, saying that she is not a representative sex worker takes away credibility from her story.” The idea that there is some ‘representative’ sex worker experience is widely criticised by sex workers and others as the experiences of sex workers are extremely diverse. To Ms McKay’s credit, the sentence was changed and then properly reflected what Ms Kim had expressed: “Kim admits that not all sex workers had the choices that she did to enter the industry. While she took the job for the economic stability and flexibility it can offer, others had few alternatives.”

2. When sex workers are victimized by violence, they are treated as suspects. Society doesn’t think of us as victims of a crime.

Ms Lee explained that “Yeoni did say that but the translator stopped her from talking and then she translated parts of sentences to [Ms McKay]. The context should have been that “criminalization and social stigma often lead to violence towards sex workers but it’s difficult to report it. Even if a report is made, we become the suspects.” While the published version of the article no longer highlighted the above quote in a larger font, the actual quote remained unchanged, i.e. without the addition of the necessary context. Since the article mentions that some believe sex work per se to represent violence against women, it is disappointing that Ms McKay did not acknowledge the need to change this passage to better reflect Ms Kim’s statement.

3. But to those who join the sex industry by choice, the real danger stems largely from laws that put all forms of sex work, including trafficking, under one umbrella.

When I first saw this sentence, I stared at it in disbelief. At no point had anyone suggested that ‘trafficking’ was a form of sex work. To the contrary. When Ms McKay sent additional questions to me in December, my responses included detailed information about the harms caused by the conflation of sex work and human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. To see this in a final draft simply made me speechless.

As I learnt later, however, the sentence had not appeared in Ms McKay’s original draft but was inserted during the editing process, for which Elaine Ramirez was responsible, Groove Korea’s editorial director. Again to Ms McKay’s credit, the sentence was later removed, but it serves as a striking example of how editors, who in most cases will be less familiar with a given subject than the author who did the actual research, can obscure or misrepresent crucial information.

4. By fusing sex work with sex trafficking, [Matthias Lehmann] says, they are refusing to recognize sex work as work.

The term ‘sex trafficking’ originally appeared nine times in Ms McKay’s article, although I had explained in great detail, both in writing and during our interview, why I reject the term and instead always use the admittedly long-winded moniker ‘human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation’. Using it anyway was certainly Ms McKay’s prerogative, but I frankly do not understand why she chose to ignore my concerns. Putting the very term in my mouth, however, goes beyond mere negligence, and in addition, she also used the term when she cited the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW). When I contacted a colleague there to verify my belief that the term never appeared in any of the organisation’s publications, she sent me the following passage, which I subsequently forwarded to Ms McKay. It summarises my own objections perfectly.

“Some GAATW members and allies have also made a deliberate choice not to use the term ‘sex trafficking’ based on concerns that all human rights violations against trafficked persons across all occupational sectors should be addressed, not just the sexual aspects of trafficked persons’ experiences. There is also a worry that the term “sex trafficking’ encourages voyeurism by directing public attention to the sensationalistic aspects of what women were forced to do rather than the full range of human rights violations women experienced and the human rights protections they are entitled to. A sole focus on trafficking for the purposes of prostitution can also divert attention and urgently needed resources from human rights violations in other sectors, e.g. labour exploitation or the ‘trafficking-like’ effects of particular government overseas labour programs.” – Excerpt from the GAATW Working Paper “Exploring Links between Trafficking and Gender” by Julie Ham. See also “Hey, mind your language” by Borislav Gerasimov.

While Ms McKay eventually modified her article, she included the term once because, as she explained, it was a direct quote from a government website. What’s curious about that is that direct quotes are usually put in quotation marks, while paraphrased passages are not. But while she didn’t add quotation marks here, she added them in a passage where she paraphrased a statement by Yeoni Kim about “physical and emotional” services in exchange for money. I had pointed out to Ms McKay that adding quotation marks only to those three words actually added an air of scepticism, rather than indicating it as a quote, but it remained unchanged.

There were other problems in the draft, such as the definition of sex work as “any exchange of sex services for material compensation, whether voluntary or involuntary” – involuntary sex is rape, and thankfully, the passage was later changed – or the inclusion of the contentious US Trafficking in Persons Report, but there simple wasn’t enough time to address all of them. To her credit, Ms McKay corrected quite a few passages, but others she ignored. It is frustrating that after all the time invested by everyone involved, the final article still contains problematic passages, which could have easily been avoided.

Recommendation: Writing about sex work does require going the extra mile to avoid misrepresentations that may negatively affect public opinion and subsequently policy makers. Therefore, if sex workers or others grant interviews, journalists should allow sufficient time to discuss their drafts with them to ensure they appropriately relayed the information provided to them.


Groove Korea article Layout

In addition to the problems detailed above, I was taken aback by the dark, and in my view, sensationalising layout of the article, which is why I discussed it with a colleague who is both a sex worker activist and a web designer. She commented,

“The layout makes the article look like an obituary, especially the first black-rimmed page and those pages that only feature text. It seems to paint a picture of sex work as a pit of eternal darkness from which there is no escape. Any graphic designer worth her or his salt knows which colour creates what kind of mood. There’s a reason why dramatic movies, for example, use big white letters on dark backgrounds – just as this articles does.”

I asked Ms McKay why such a dark colour scheme had been chosen, also pointing out that in the past, articles about South Korea’s LGBT community, for example, had not been featured in such a manner. Ms McKay didn’t answer my question but replied that she had requested for the layout to be altered. She was told, however, that it was too late for any changes, to which my colleague responded,

“That’s nothing. A graphic designer does that in a few minutes.”

The black layout remained, but changes were in fact made. My request to add a description to Yeoni Kim’s photo series ‘Working? Working!’ was accommodated, but interestingly, the highlighted quotes in the article were changed, too. As mentioned above, the quote by Yeoni Kim that lacked the proper context remained unchanged, but at least it was no longer emphasised. In addition, Lucien Lee’s quote was exchanged for another.

Quote of Lucien Lee [Draft version]Draft Version

Quote of Lucien Lee [Published version]Published Version

In both quotes Ms Lee calls for the decriminalisation of sex work but in the previously used one, she emphasised that the decriminalisation should extend to sex workers’ business partners and clients. This difference is important, as politicians and anti-prostitution activists continue to claim that the Swedish Model somehow ‘decriminalises’ sex workers. Exchanging the quote seems suspicious, but even if it were purely coincidental, questions remain why it was changed and why we were told that changes to the layout could no longer be made.

Quote of Matthias Lehmann  [Draft version]Draft Version

My own quote, previously featured prominently in the draft, was no longer highlighted in the published version. Frankly, I do not need to see my name in the papers, but I couldn’t help but wonder why the message was suddenly no longer considered noteworthy. Honi soit qui mal y pense – shamed be he who thinks ill of it.

It’s interesting, however, that on the same page, featuring a photo of Yeoni Kim, later a statement by Kang Ja Kim was highlighted. Kang Ja Kim is a former senior police officer who played a key role in the creation of the Anti-Sex Trade Laws and in abolishing red-light districts. While it is important to note that she has in the meantime spoken out in favour of allowing brothels to operate in designated areas, she remains a proponent of doing so only in limited areas and under strict regulations, which research has shown does not benefit the rights of sex workers.

“Licensing or registration of the sex industry has been of limited benefit in terms of public health and human rights outcomes for sex workers. … Licensing or registration systems are usually accompanied by criminal penalties for sex industry businesses and individual sex workers who operate outside of the legal framework. Licensing or registration models may provide some health benefits to the small part of the sex industry that is regulated, but do not improve health outcomes for the broader population of sex workers.” – Excerpt from  “Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific” by UNDP

And while it’s commendable that Kang Ja Kim at least acknowledges now that a different legal approach is necessary, the reasons for her shift in opinion misrepresent the diversity of sex workers’ clients, who, in her view, are “the disabled, illegal immigrants and widowers”  as well as “men who are incapable of controlling their [sex] drives”. It certainly would have been more appropriate to feature a quote from Yeoni Kim together with the photo of her than one of a former “anti-prostitution crusader”.

Recommendation: Regardless of how good the content of any given article may be, a poorly chosen title, layout, or image can easily diminish its value. More often than not, journalists have no say in these matters. Editors should ensure that their choices do not undermine the voices of sex workers, who should be given the opportunity to review not only the content but also the layout of articles they were interviewed for.

Conclusion: Journalistic ethics – A contradiction in itself?

“I have no obligation to send a copy of the article to the sources before it gets published. In fact, it’s against the policy of many news organisations.” – Statement by a journalist

Writing about sex work certainly is a minefield and making everybody happy is a difficult task to accomplish for both journalists and academic researchers. However, if the above statement a journalist once made in an email to me is anything to go by, then one must wonder why journalists think their sources should oblige their interview requests. Time constraints and a lack of influence over the layout are one thing, but misrepresentations that can negatively affect and offend the very people they interview is another.

As I wrote to Anita McKay, one should certainly not mistake journalists for minute takers who will merely document verbatim what was said in their presence or expect journalistic articles to be advocacy pieces. But the fact that Anita McKay’s article is overall one of the better ones still doesn’t mean that the end justified the means. And it certainly didn’t justify this status update by Groove Korea’s editorial director Elaine Ramirez.

Facebook post by Groove Korea’s editorial director Elaine Ramirez

Note that Ms Ramirez didn’t celebrate that she had managed to prominently feature a story about sex worker’s rights but that she “put a prostitute on the cover of a magazine”. As illustrated above, Ms Ramirez doesn’t appear to pay much attention to using appropriate terms, or else she would have been aware that – both in English and Korean – Yeoni Kim always refers to herself as ‘sex worker’, rather than using the stigma-laden term ‘prostitute’.

“The term ‘prostitute’ does not simply mean a person who sells her or his sexual labour (although rarely used to describe men in sex work), but brings with it layers of ‘knowledge’ about her worth, drug status, childhood, integrity, personal hygiene and sexual health. When the media refers to a woman as a prostitute, or when such a story remains on the news cycle for only a day, it is not done in isolation, but in the context of this complex history.” – Excerpt from “Dehumanising sex workers: what’s ‘prostitute’ got to do with it?” by Lizzie Smith, Research Officer at La Trobe University. See also “The P-Word: A 101” by Caty Simon

Upon seeing Ms Ramirez status update, Yeoni Kim wrote to me:

“That sentence makes me feel used by her and as if I am some second class citizen, not worthy of the same respect as other human beings.”

Yeoni Kim thus summed up the root problem of most media reports about sex work. As long as journalists refuse to treat sex workers with the respect they deserve, they frankly do not deserve to be given the time of day.

Tweet by the Philippine Sex Workers Collective


In light of the avalanche of sensationalising media reports that spread myths about sex work as well as human trafficking, I consider it very necessary for sex workers and researchers to engage with journalists in order to refute these frequent misrepresentations. It is impossible to do so all the time, since it is both unpaid and tiring, but over the last year, I invested a great deal of time in assisting journalists with their research. Looking back, I cannot help but to feel that it wasn’t worth it.

In my view, the fundamental difference between journalists and researchers who write about sex work is that researchers have a vested interest in establishing a trusting relationship with sex workers for the long term, while journalists can (and do) simply move on to the next story and worry less about that.

Whenever I write media critiques or leave comments on journalistic articles, some people respond by accusing me of being vindictive or trying to promote myself.  These people never know, however, what happened behind the scenes, which is why I choose to illustrate that from time to time. Addressed to anyone feeling the need to question my motives for writing the above, I’ll just say: let’s see how you will like it when, after investing countless hours of unpaid work, you see facts misrepresented, words twisted, and people you care about as well as yourself treated with disrespect.

Recommended Reading

A guide to respectful reporting and writing on sex work 
By Marlise Richter, Ntokozo Yingwana, Lesego Tlhwale and Ruvimbo Tenga

Prostitution abolitionists violate our rights!

Real Woman Support Sex Worker Rights. Photo by Zoccole Dure, All Rights Reserved.Photo by Zoccole Dure. All Rights Reserved.

Italian feminist blogger Eretica Whitebread recounts her conversation with an Italian sex worker living and working in Germany.

Originally posted on Research Project Germany

Clicca qui per la versione italiana di “Le abolizioniste della prostituzione violano i nostri diritti!”. Please note that the copyright for this article lies with Abbatto i Muri and is not licensed under a Creative Commons License.

By Eretica Whitebread

I wrote this article after a conversation I had with F., an Italian sex worker living in Germany. She works at a place that is perfectly legal and pays taxes. She has a son from a previous relationship and her current partner is a woman. A few years ago, she moved away from Italy, where she had been charged with abetting ‘exploitative prostitution’. At the time, she was sharing an apartment with another sex worker. They had intended to help each other in order to work more safely. But under Italian laws, merely living with a sex worker can put you in trouble and see you charged with ‘exploiting the prostitution of others’.

After she served her sentence, F. chose to relocate to Germany, but currently, she feels quite unsettled there. Having already suffered due to the unfair legal charge in Italy, which made her the victim of a law that criminalised her without reason, a law not intended to support her in any way, she now learnt from the news that fanatic feminists want to make sex work illegal, thus driving sex workers underground. F. is afraid that she might again face a law that will criminalise her job.

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Prostitution: Beyond an infantilising feminism

Matthias Lehmann:

“The last twelve years have shown that sex workers want to work independently and do not wish to be forcibly outed.”

Criminal law professor Dr. Monika Frommel on conservative double standards, the dark sides of the Nordic women’s movement, and plans to reform Germany’s Prostitution Act.

Originally posted on Research Project Germany:

A relief work in Amsterdam's Oudekerksplein Photo by  J.M. LuijtBronze relief installed by an anonymous artist in Amsterdam’s Oudekerksplein (Old Church’s Square) in the heart of the city’s red-light district of De Wallen. Photo byJ.M. Luijt(cc)

Germany’s federal government is currently revising the country’s prostitution regulation. Criminal Law Professor Dr. Monika Frommel notes improvements of the one-sided debate of late, but demands regulations, which respect the reality of sex work.

By Prof. emer. Dr. Monika Frommel

Please note that the copyright for this article lies with Dr. Monika Frommel and is not licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Will federal policy makers during the current legislative period succeed to regulate prostitution adequately? If their efforts would lead to yet another blockade, it would hardly come as a surprise; feminist objections and male privileges – according to the abolitionist women’s movement, active since around 1900 – as well as diverse conservative currents agreeing on the…

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December 17th Video Campaign by Voice4Sexworkers

Originally posted on Research Project Germany:

December 17th – International Day To End Violence against Sex Workers

“This video is meant to symbolize and show the diversity in sex work. Talk TO us not just about us. #StigmaKills and thats why we are all fighting for more rights and against violence, criminalization and discrimination of sex workers all over the world.” –Voice4Sexworkers, a project by and for sex workers in Germany

“Originally conceptualized by Annie Sprinkle and initiated by the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA as a memorial and vigil for the victims of the Green River Killer in Seattle, Washington, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers has empowered workers from cities around the world to come together and organize against discrimination and remember victims of violence. During the week of December 17th, sex worker rights organizations and their allies stage actions and vigils to raise awareness about violence that is commonly…

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#IDEVASW – Messages from South Korea

Lucien Lee and Yeoni Kim - Photos by Lucien Lee. All Rights Reserved.

Lucien Lee (left), Yeoni Kim (right). Photos by Lucien Lee. All Rights Reserved.

Messages on the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

“When the US go for a war, they say they want to liberate those who they are shooting at. Abolitionists say they want to liberate sex workers by ending demand, that is, their income source. Both of those freedom fighters should stop and look at the death count achieved by their violent operations.” – Lucien Lee (이류시연), South Korean MTF transgender sex worker activist

“Sex workers are placed in harsh environments due to social stigma and difficult legal situations. South Korea’s Constitutional Court must finally rule on the constitutionality of the Anti-Sex Trade Laws, which on November 25th, claimed yet another life when a 24-year-old sex worker and single mother in Tongyeong jumped from a motel and died while trying to escape a police crackdown. Sex workers are also human beings. Sex workers also have rights. Sex workers will no longer stay in the shadows. We will rise, we will move forward, we will fight to end violence against sex workers.” – Yeoni Kim, South Korean sex worker activist – Yeoni Kim, South Korean sex worker activist

“To help raising awareness of the regularity with which violence is committed against sex workers, I share nearly every report I come across dealing with attacks on and murders of sex workers, together with the #StigmaKills hashtag first used in the aftermath of the violent murders of Petite Jasmine and Dora Özer in July 2013. More often than not, these reports are written in manners that actually contribute to the stigmatisation of sex workers, which in turn contributes to the very violence they report about. Prostitution abolitionists talk endlessly about the violence they believe clients commit by the mere fact that they pay sex workers for their services, but you never hear a peep out of them about actual violence committed by law enforcement officers, whose operations they actually support, or about the negative impact of sensationalist and inaccurate media reports on sex workers’ safety. Instead, they call for taking away sex workers’ incomes by criminalising their clients, and they support forcing sex workers to register with the police, undergo mandatory health checks, or enter diversion programmes. To end violence against sex workers, it is vital to train police officers and journalists to treat sex workers with the respect they deserve.” – Matthias Lehmann, German researcher, currently in South Korea

IDEVASW - Image by Research Project Korea

December 17th – International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was created to call attention to crimes committed against sex workers all over the world.

“Originally conceptualized by Annie Sprinkle and initiated by the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA as a memorial and vigil for the victims of the Green River Killer in Seattle, Washington, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers has empowered workers from cities around the world to come together and organize against discrimination and remember victims of violence. During the week of December 17th, sex worker rights organizations and their allies stage actions and vigils to raise awareness about violence that is commonly committed against sex workers.” – SWOP-USA – Click to continue reading.

June 29th – Korean Sex Workers’ Day

In South Korea, the key date for sex workers is June 29th. On this day, the National Solidarity of Sex Workers Day was organised, after the Special Anti-Sex Trade Laws were passed in 2004. Since then, the date is commemorated as Korean Sex Workers Day to honour all sex workers who have contributed to the struggle against discrimination over the years.

Click here to find out more about other important dates of the sex workers‘ rights movement

#IDEVASW – Images from around the world

Click here to view many more images (and more details about them) tweeted and shared on December 17th.

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