Sex Work and Human Rights

In the Lion’s Den: An Evening among Abolitionists

Special Report

The Event

In the first half of December, I attended an exhibition and a workshop titled Liberating Herstories, Seeking Justice for ‘Comfort Women’ through Art, “dealing with issues of sexual slavery, human trafficking, and violence and oppression against women”. The event was organised by the House of Sharing International Outreach Team to highlight the issue of the so-called ‘Comfort Women’, a euphemism used to describe women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. The remaining survivors, often referred to as halmonis (grandmothers), campaign every week in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, demanding ample compensation from the Japanese government for their suffering.

Korean ‘Comfort Women’ Protest (Photo: AP/Ahn Young-joon)

While I am sympathetic to the cause of the halmonis, I do not draw the same connection to the contemporary sex industry as the organisers of the workshop did in the description of their event. Before attending there, I was aware that the organisers and the majority of participants would likely be drawn from among the ‘sex work abolitionist’ camp, who consider all sex work (prostitution) as exploitative and more often than not focus on (the rescue of) women and minors only, a view that I do not support. Still, since the workshop was titled “Sex Industry in Korea today”, I decided to attend there to listen and to try to engage in some meaningful discussions afterwards.


In a recent conversation, a Korean friend expressed that to her, my statements that “I am sympathetic to the cause of the halmonis” and that “the failure of the Japanese government to compensate the surviving halmonis” is a just cause for public protest appear more like lip service than genuine sentiment. For that reason, I would like to add the following paragraph.

I do not deny the experiences and the great suffering of the women who were abused as sex slaves during the period of the Japanese occupation of South Korea. The issue of the compensation of the ‘Comfort Women’, however, is highly complicated and in my opinion, the governments of Japan and South Korea are both at fault to not resolve this matter by making the interest of the surviving halmonis their top priority. I do not agree that the ‘Comfort Women’ issue should be conflated with the contemporary sex industry in South Korea, and I only mentioned it as part of my analysis of the presentation by Jin Kyeong CHO.

For those interested in the problems surrounding the compensation of the ‘Comfort Women’, I recommend further reading, starting at the following links. | | |

[Added on April 15th, 2012]

The Talk

The talk was given by anti-prostitution activist Jin Kyeong CHO (조진경), former director of the Dasi Hamkke Center (다시함께센터), a non-government organisation and government collaboration agency she helped establish in 2003. The centre “helps victims/survivors of sex trafficking in coming out of the sex trade” and “raises public awareness about the sex trade through campaigns and other projects”. (Quotes from the centre’s website and Facebook page) Cho actively promoted South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Law (성매매특별법, Seongmaemae Tteukbyeolbeob), that was adopted in 2004 and punishes both buyers and sellers of sexual services with prison sentences and considerable fines.

Credit to the organisers, the event was bilingual, with an interpreter present both for the talk and the Q&A session afterwards. Despite the title, Sex Industry in Korea today, the presentation began with a detailed historical sketch of prostitution in Korea, and it appeared to me that Cho was suggesting that it was a phenomenon that could predominantly be connected to the deeds of foreign military personnel in Korea. Even though Cho later went on to highlight the growth and size of the domestic market for sexual services, I felt that she had either willingly or unwittingly appealed to the nationalist sentiment underlying the issue of prostitution in Korea, diverting the blame to foreigners, when in fact, the contemporary sex industry in Korea serves primarily Korean clients.

The failure of the Japanese government to compensate the surviving halmonis, and the SOFA agreement between Korea and the U.S. that states that U.S. courts will have jurisdiction over crimes committed by American military personnel are in itself just causes for public protest. Yet, in my opinion, these issues are frequently hijacked by nationalists to heighten anti-foreign sentiment, and therefore, I found Cho’s remarks unfortunate at the very least.

US Troops (Photo: AFP)

As it turned out, however, Cho seemed not so much driven by xenophobic sentiment, but by her belief that the ‘Comfort Women’ system under the Japanese colonial government, the ‘Camptown Prostitution’ system outside U.S. military bases in Korea, and modern ‘sex trafficking’ all share the same features, resulting from a patriarchal society that needs to be abolished, and that all acts of prostitution represent violence against women.

In the following paragraphs, I will outline some excerpts from her presentation to provide an impression of the overall mood Cho created and the narrative she promoted.

The Murder of Yun Geum-I

Cho opened her talk by introducing the murder of the prostitute Yun Geum-I (윤금이) by Private Kenneth Lee Markle, a notorious case in which “Markle, who belonged to the U.S. Army Second Division, bludgeoned Yun and then sodomized her with several foreign objects on October 28, 1991”. (Source: The Hankyoreh)

Rape (2011) by Azi, Iranian Artist, Open Art Studio

She went on to suggest to the audience to search the internet for the photo taken at the crime scene, which had served as the first spark that would lead Cho to take an interest in the lives of prostitutes in South Korea.

I have since followed her suggestion and cannot recommend for you to do the same. Instead, I will provide you with a link to a summary of the case on Wikipedia that doesn’t use any imagery, though I believe that the above description is detailed enough. Click here if you wish to learn more details of the brutal murder of Yun Geum-i.

“Drinking Shit Water”

The second case Cho mentioned was the first case she handled as a member of staff at a government organisation helping victims of violent abuse.**

On her first day on the job, a distressed father called and asked Cho to help him find his daughter. She had left the family home a week before and hadn’t returned, but instead, had called from a cell phone that belonged to one of the clients at the brothel where she had ended up. Working her way through the red tape of Korean bureaucracy and law enforcement, the client and the brothel were eventually tracked down and the daughter was found.

She refused to leave, however, unless the police would also rescue a disabled woman that she claimed was forced to work as a prostitute at the brothel. The police threatened to punish the daughter if they found she was lying, but the woman insisted she was telling the truth. Thus, the police searched the premises and located the disabled woman. She refused to leave, however, and claimed she had not sold sex and that the owners were treating her like her own “mother and father”.

During the 13 hours of questioning that ensued, the attitude of the woman shifted between being “furious” at the young woman for wrongfully reporting her, and being “coquettish” towards the police officers. According to Cho, the woman simply had “no reason to trust” her or the officers present.

The daughter, however, when questioned what type of abuse she had witnessed, told of beatings with soap bars wrapped in newspaper and stuck in socks, and of hot metal chop sticks being poked through the hair and onto the scalp of the woman, thus concealing any abuse marks. She added that the woman had only received leftovers to eat and was forced to serve the most repulsive clients only. On one occasion, she had witnessed her being forced to “drink shit water” (liquid manure), which had caused her to vomit.

Finally, on the second day of questioning, Cho had won sufficient trust from the woman who told of her escape from domestic violence at her family home and how she had earned a living at the brothel. When Cho assured the woman of further assistance by her organisation, the woman finally confirmed the claims by the younger woman, and so the two women left the brothel together with Cho.

Altercation with a Pimp

In connection to the same story, Cho also told of an altercation she had with one of the pimps of that brothel.

Pimp: “Who do you think you are? What the fuck?“
Cho: “How dare you talk to me this way, even though you abused these disabled women?”
Pimp: “I took these useless women and fed them and gave them a place to live and work.”
Cho: “You think that you are providing social welfare here?!”
Pimp: “Yes, I am.“

An Inconclusive Conclusion

Cho ended her talk by stating that in all the years she had worked in this field, she had encountered nothing but conditions similar to the examples she had described, and that they represented “experiences [that] are shared by all women who work in the sex industry”.

I already admitted that I do not follow the common rationale employed by sex work abolitionists; but to hear from a native Korean expert with many years of field experience that she hadn’t been able to find any positive examples of successful prostitutes in Korea, left me with no choice but to question the credibility of her research efforts.

I am a white male with limited Korean skills. When I encounter sex workers in Korea, I am much more likely to appear to them as a potential client than as a researcher. One might expect that as a result, finding sex workers willing to be interviewed by me should pose quite a challenge. Yet, after investing only a few months into my research project, I already know of sex workers who earn more than a foreign English teacher in Korea, a very profitable profession, and whose main complaint is about the stigma attached to their work.

The claim made by Cho that only white sex workers would make good money in the sex industry can therefore be dismissed.

I do not doubt that the experiences Cho recounted happened. Nor do I doubt that similar events can unfold today. I have reasonable doubt, however, that Cho’s conclusion is accurate that they represent experiences “shared by all women who work in the sex industry”, because all sex workers that I have so far talked to tell me differently.

The Narratives of Sex Work Abolitionists

Sex work abolitionists often use narratives of violence and dramatic rescues to create images of powerless victims and powerful heroes. By doing so, they successfully arouse compassion among their listeners and encourage them to join their cause, gathering an ever-growing community of supporters that follows their ideology instead of investigating the growing body of evidence to the contrary.

Even if some words might have been lost in translation, it is probably fair to assume that the pimp in the above story was at least complicit in the physical abuse of these women. But once again, Cho uses a worst case to reinforce a stereotype – that of the violent pimp with no respect for human life whatsoever.

Anti-Prostitution Campaign Poster*

I said above that I did not doubt that the events Cho had described had in fact happened, nor that they could happen elsewhere; but violence occurs in many places, often enough in people’s own families.

Whoever suggests that murder, brutality, and degradation is commonplace in the sex industry is either motivated by the disgust invoked by witnessing gross human rights violations, or uses these examples deliberately to instil fear to provoke and persuade others to sign on to their agenda – the eradication of all sex for money exchanges.

I am under the impression that a majority of anti-prostitution activists belongs to the second group, and that through the selective use of shocking images and disturbing stories, they aim to reinforce the stereotype of the sex worker as incapacitated victim bereft of agency.

At the same time, through their powerful influence on public opinion and lawmakers, they successfully move governments towards the creation of legal frameworks that render more and more aspects of the sex industry illegal. By doing so, they drive the sex industry further underground, with detrimental effects to the people working in it.

“This victim status is a tool to silence us and justify our incapacity. Sex workers never matter in the debate. We are treated like children who need protection or pathologised with false statistics about child abuse, rape and post traumatic syndromes. We are said to be alienated in a false consciousness as long as we are “in prostitution”, and only once we are rehabilitated, we realise our past of self-harm. … Why do some politicians want to criminalise consenting sex between adults while they do nothing to stop rape?”

(Source: Thierry Schaffauser, Photo: Philippe Leroyer)

It isn’t easy to accuse someone like Jin Kyeong Cho of the deliberate use of shocking images and disturbing stories. After all, isn’t she just there to help?

Altruism, however, is not the primary agenda of sex work abolitionists. Instead, it is to propagate the belief that prostitution is intrinsically exploitative and that prostitutes are without exception victims that require rescue regardless of their stated choice to work in the sex industry.

The right to work, as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states that “[e]veryone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment”.

By equating consensual sex for money exchanges with human rights abuses, sex work abolitionists not only deprive sex workers of their right to work, they also aim to drown out critics of their agenda, as I was to experience later on the same night of Cho’s presentation.

Diction, Part I

A rose is a rose is a rose, but is sex trafficking equal to human trafficking and equal to prostitution?

A rose Is a rose Is a rose (Photo: Maureen Costantino)

In this paragraph, I will demonstrate that the rhetoric of sex work abolitionists is not just a war of words; it pushes an agenda that does not prevent but furthers a climate in which human rights abuses occur.

These days, most anti-trafficking or anti-prostitution activists as well as the media use these terms as if they were interchangeable, when in fact, they are not describing the same issues. ‘Sex trafficking’ is often used to describe ‘sex work/prostitution’. However, working as a sex worker/prostitute is not the same as being trafficked as per definition by the 2000 UN Trafficking Protocol, when the elements of deception, coercion, or the movement within or across national borders are not present.

Playing it fast and loose with the terms ‘sex trafficking’ and ‘human trafficking’ suggests that they are one and the same issue, when in fact, ‘sex trafficking’ only describes ‘human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation’, which represents the minority of all human trafficking cases. The majority of cases involve human trafficking for the purpose of forced labour in the manufacturing sector, the construction industry, or in fisheries, and the trafficking and exploitation of domestic workers.

By saying that the cases of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation represent a minority, I am in no way suggesting that they are in fact minor in the sense of ‘negligible’. It is important to understand, however, that a term that helps to create a perception that ‘human trafficking’ is equal to ‘sex trafficking’ is truly harmful to establishing legislative measures that can comprehensively reduce human trafficking, as it directs attention and resources towards one aspect of the problem exclusively.

By the same token, suggesting that all acts of prostitution represent sexual exploitation is not just a mere matter of opinion; classifying the diverse situations in which people sell sexual services as intrinsically harmful, affects the discourse in which laws to prohibit sex work are adopted, which in turn leads to human rights abuses against the very target group the laws claim to help.

[The] definition of prostitution as sex work, coined by sex workers themselves, has been heavily contested by abolitionist feminists … As CATW’s [the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women] website states, “[a]ll prostitution exploits women, regardless of women’s consent. … Prostitution affects all women, justifies the sale of any woman, and reduces all women to sex. … Local and global sex industries are systematically violating women’s rights on an ever-increasing scale.” Laura Lederer, a prominent anti-pornography activist in the 1980s, founder of the anti-trafficking Protection Project, and former Senior Advisor on Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. State Department, declares: “This is not a legitimate form of labor. … It can never be a legitimate way to make a living because it’s inherently harmful for men, women, and children. … This whole commercial sex industry is a human rights abuse.”

“Sex is to be reserved for a marriage relationship where there is a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman. … “When sex becomes commerce, the moral fabric of our culture is deeply damaged.” This second statement was taken from an article titled accordingly “Sex Isn’t Work”.

[A]bolitionists not only regard commercial sexual servitude as exploitative but also as deeply damaging for people’s moral fibre. … If sex isn’t work, there can be no such thing as a consenting sex worker, with the logical consequence that abolitionists are unfit to advocate for sex workers’ rights. On the contrary, since the agenda of abolitionists includes the criminalisation of “every instance of relocation to a destination where the individual sells sex”, rendering all prostitution to be a case of “sex trafficking”, consenting sex workers are not only denied agency but also in actual danger as raids on brothels, in part resulting from laws influenced by abolitionist agenda setting, disconnect sex workers from appropriate services and therefore increase the likelihood of exploitation.

(Source: Matthias Lehmann, “Transnationalising a Thai Grassroots NGO. A Comprehensive Approach to Human Trafficking Prevention.”, pp.8-10.)

Diction, Part II

During her presentation and the question and answer session that followed, Cho employed numerous tactics of sex work abolitionists. Above, I already mentioned her false claim that only ‘white’ sex workers would earn good money in the sex industry; her questionable opening remarks that seemed to suggest that prostitution was a ‘foreign’ problem; and her encouragement to search for the image of the brutal murder of Yun Geum-i.

In this paragraph, I will evaluate a selection of Cho’s other statements, including some telling gaffes.

1. When talking about prostitutes, Cho called them “women who are still working in the sex industry”, ‘still’ being the operative word. It appears that in her view, working in the sex industry can only be regarded as a transitional phase, before exiting or being rescued from it.

2. When talking about clients who ‘slept’ with sex workers, Cho quickly corrected herself. “I cannot say ‘slept’. I should say ‘purchased’.” It appears that to Cho, sex can no longer be described in conventional terms once money enters into the equation. The above quote from the article “Sex isn’t work” comes to mind: “When sex becomes commerce, the moral fabric of our culture is deeply damaged.” However, a behaviour that is considered as immoral by some, does not necessarily represent a human rights violation.

Anti-Prostitution Campaign Poster (Detail)*

3. When she was asked about the scope of the sex industry in Korea, Cho replied, that “to estimate the sex industry is like counting the stars in the sky.” and that “wherever men exist, there are those places [brothels]”. She also asked “Is there any man here [in Korea] over 20 years who never purchased sex? “

Together with her graphic descriptions of violence and her repeated statements that they represented “experiences [that] are shared by all women who work in the sex industry”, Cho created a palpable mood of shock and disbelief, as was clear judging by the audience’s response.

4. Apart from her analysis of prostitution in Korea, Cho also shared her view that with few exceptions, Korean women who married US citizens and moved to the States lived unhappy lives, caused by factors incl. domestic violence, drug abuse by their husbands, or because they were forced into prostitution. Upon saying so, Cho quickly added that she did not mean that “every single woman” was unhappy. “I need to be careful. There are of course some people who are still happy.” Considering her dubious opening remarks, this sweeping generalisation added to the impression that in her perception, bad things happen to women not only at the hands of men, but specifically due to the actions of foreign men.

The Whartons, a Korean American family (Photo: Josh Douglas Smith)

5. When a participant asked her what she thought about the different legal models that exist in countries like New Zealand, Sweden, or the Netherlands, Cho responded that this would be a very difficult question. She then started by saying, “I went to Germany in 2007 where sex trafficking is legalized…er…where the sex trade is legalised.” To be fair, this gaffe might have been caused by the fatigue of the translator. But the fact remained that Cho was playing it fast and loose with the terminology on more than just this one occasion.

She went on to explain that Germany requires sex workers to pay taxes and that Germans consider prostitutes as dirty, neither of which expressed any thought she had on legal systems other than outright prohibition of sex work. She quoted a survey among over 3,000 sex workers in Germany that had found that only 1% had “registered”, but again did not go into any details, e.g. what she meant by ‘registration’, why sex workers weren’t registering, or which report she was referring to.

In November 2005, the German government issued its final “Report on the Impact of the Act Regulating the Legal Situation of Prostitutes (Prostitution Act)”, following 18 months of research commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. The research team interviewed 305 sex workers and found that only 1% “stated that they had a contract of employment”. (p.17, English version)

As the main obstacle, sex workers named the uncertainty whether or not labour contracts would actually provide any social and material benefits for them, and to what extent they might be faced with unexpected disadvantages.

The most common answer was that they simply could not imagine how such contracts should work.

“I think that labour contracts wouldn’t really be helpful for any prostitute. You have to be very careful with labour contracts, because through contracts, there could also arise possibilities of a very different type of exploitation. Okay, you get a labour contract, but then you have to do [oral sex] or have to offer any service, that the customer wants. If that’s price that women are offered to pay for social insurance, then I would advise each and every woman not to do that.” (p.55, Translated from the German version)

Other non-material concerns that sex workers voiced with regards to labour contracts included the social stigma resulting from being stripped of one’s anonymity, the loss of autonomy and self-determination, and the loss of absolute freedom over the amount of working hours and the choice of practices and customers, all of which represent highly valued advantages of unregulated employment. To give these up in favour of more safety meant for many sex workers that the costs outweighed the benefits of labour contracts. (p.257)

Whether or not Cho was referring to the same report, I shall leave to the reader’s imagination, but what is significant is that the report listed a great variety of reasons why sex workers had chosen not to enter into official labour contracts. Clearly, any survey among ten times as many sex workers would have shed some light on this issue.

The only part of Cho’s comment to the original question that could be considered an actual answer was that she said, “I don’t think legalisation is the right way”, and that she believed it would result in violence. Yet again, she did not back her claim with any facts whatsoever.

The use of unverifiable, inaccurate or nebulous data, next to the use of graphic descriptions of violence, is one of the most common rhetorical tools of sex work abolitionists. They state as facts what is often based on little more than anecdotal evidence, newspaper clippings, or research about which no information exists as to its methodology or its scope and limitations.

Common is, too, to use those facts to make sweeping generalisations for utterly diverse contexts, something Cho did throughout her presentation. According to her, the women she met “had all [had] similar experiences” that were “shared by all women who work in the sex industry”. The ‘Comfort Women’, the ‘Camptown Prostitutes’ and the women working in the sex industry – they all share the same oppression originating from a “patriarchal society that needs to be abolished”. Therefore, “all people should support this type of [prohibitive] law”. I frankly lost count over how many times Cho used the word ‘all’.

6. At the very end of the Q & A session, I raised my hand to ask one question.

“Thank you very much for your presentation and for sharing you experiences with us. I would like to make one comment and ask one question. First of all, I would like to comment on your statement that only white sex workers earn good money in the sex industry. I would like to refute that claim. I know of local prostitutes in Thailand and South Korea that earn a lot of money, so that makes at least two countries were your assumption is incorrect.

Secondly, I would like to say that I have no reason to doubt that the gruesome stories you shared here today are not true. I would like to ask you, however, how you explain the existence of the global sex workers’ rights movement. The sex workers’ rights movement exists not only in rich developed Western nations but also in countries such as South Africa, India, Cambodia, and even in South Korea. I am aware that on occasion, sex workers might be coerced to participate in rallies to protest for sex work to be decriminalised or legalised. I know of many sex workers, however, who participate voluntarily in such protests. If the situation is, as you stated, everywhere as bad as you described it, then how do you explain that sex workers protest for their right to continue to work under such conditions?”

Sex Workers protest in Seoul on September 22, 2011 (Photo AP)

Jin Kyeong Cho responded to my question like the professional that she is. She started by saying that my question would be a “very important” one, but then went off on a tangent, just as she had done when asked for her opinion about legislative alternatives to prohibition.

This time, she described the case of a Korean orphan that had been treated inhumanely by her foster parents and hadn’t received any school education. As she got older, she started to work as a maid, and later was tricked into prostitution. When she refused to work, she was gang-raped by a group of pimps. Within two years, however, she had transformed and become a “top-class” prostitute that provided any service that was requested and made a lot of money. (Hadn’t Cho previously said that only white prostitutes earned good money?) When she had accumulated enough money to pay off the brothel owner and regain her freedom, a pimp tricked her into a bad investment and as a result, she lost all her money.

At this point, Cho got agitated and stated that women like the one in her example had no other choice but to do this type of work. “We can’t say if they want to work like that” if they have no other choice. “This is not only an issue in South Korea. Elsewhere it’s worse.”

In all fairness, Cho had stopped short of accusing me of promoting sex work, an otherwise common reaction by sex work abolitionists when someone refutes their claims or suggests that anyone might actually prefer to sell sex. Her answer served the same purpose, however. By using another worst case to illustrate the abominable conditions in the sex industry, she sidestepped my question to drive home the message once more that the sex industry is intrinsically exploitative and that prostitutes, without exception, are “always abuse victims” that require rescue.

White men can’t jump to conclusions

After the session had ended and Cho had left, I approached the woman who had asked her about the legislative models in other countries. She turned out to be an Asian Canadian and a friend of one of the organisers of the event. According to herself, she had “worked on this issue for many years”. I told her that I thought she had posed a good question and that I felt, Cho hadn’t answered my question. She responded, “Well, she didn’t really answer to mine either.” With regards to my question, she stated that she was “aware of how contentious this issue is” and that “sex workers in Canada [were] very vocal” in their protest for sex workers’ rights. We continued to discuss about her view that “selling my body objectifies me” and that “the problem [of prostitution] is demand-driven”.

When she started to mention statistics, I enquired about her sources and tried to explain my view that, when it comes to informal sectors such as the sex industry, statistics almost always represent extrapolations of research that is all too often questionable and limited (see 5.), as well as potentially biased, depending on the sponsor. As I tried to make my point, however, she repeatedly interrupted me and finally, turning towards another participant, said jokingly, “Please come and help me.”, and, “Oh god, it’s come so far that I am seeking rescue from a white man.“

The ‘white man’ turned out to be Tom Rainey-Smith from New Zealand, coordinator of Amnesty G48, an official chapter of Amnesty International Korea. He was in the process of leaving, and, looking into another direction, said dryly: “No, thanks. I don’t want to waste my time.”

When I calmly asked him why he would say that, he began to admonish me, asking me how I could “come here as a man” and talk the way I had done. When I asked him if by that he meant that I would have no right to voice my opinion based on my gender, he back-pedalled. (Maybe he remembered that Amnesty International promotes freedom of expression and opposes discriminating someone because of their gender.)

To try to engage him in a discussion, I mentioned my previous work for a grassroots NGO that empowers youth in the rural north of Thailand, which he acknowledged. But when I returned to the subject of the evening and explained that I found it strange to connect the sex industry today with the forced prostitution during a war 60 years prior, he reacted indignantly and asked me why I would talk about “the 1% where things were different”.

Whether or not he meant the 1% of sex workers that had labour contracts in Germany or maybe 1% of sex workers worldwide that he assumed were voluntary sex workers, I had no chance to ask, but it seemed in itself an interesting point from a human rights activist to ask me why I didn’t want to ignore human rights abuses against a minority.

As I tried to respond, the two continued to vent their indignation, and when I finally pointed it out to them, I was ridiculed. “Oh, is the man not able to finish his sentence?” At this point, the organisers let it be known that the venue was closing, and so I decided to leave it at that.

Cho had successfully set the scene and she couldn’t have asked for more faithful followers.

Sex Workers’ Rights Organisations (Image: Matthias Lehmann)


To avoid further hassle, I chose a different route to the subway station. But sure enough, when I changed from one subway line to another, I ran into the Asian Canadian woman again. She smiled awkwardly and said, “Oh, we are on the same train.” to which I smirkingly replied, “Well, that sure isn’t meant metaphorically.”

*Passages in quotation marks, where not otherwise noted, represent quotes from the translation of the presentation, recorded during the event.

**Since the event was held in Korean with English interpretation, some details were lost in translation. I had no chance to find out if the organisation in question was the same, which she later became the director of.

4 responses

  1. Jules

    Wow… work abolitionists seem to use the same tactics as global warming naysayers and creationists.

    January 28, 2012 at 5:16 pm

  2. As I read this a minute after it was posted, I probably was one of the first ones who did so, and I wonder if the other readers have questions similar to mine.

    I have three problems regarding the presentation: firstly, the way Ms [Cho] built her case, secondly, the way the two people you talked to after the presentation managed to articulate (or maybe I should say did not manage to articulate) a conversation, and thirdly, how nothing was stated about the morality of the problem.

    For the first and second point, I wonder why none of them managed to give valid arguments to your questions and instead tried to go around the answer. Maybe it is because the truth is not something they like. For example, I don’t agree with people prostituting themselves but that does not mean that I will say all of them are victims because I know for a fact that a there are also those who choose to do so voluntarily, and by exerting their free will, it means they are anything but victims. Is it moral what they are doing? In my opinion, no. But is it moral of people to treat individuals who exert their free will as victims? Of course it isn’t, because that just distracts the attention from the real victims.

    January 28, 2012 at 7:19 pm

  3. To state that most Korean women married to foreign men suffered from abuse would mean that Ms [Cho] somehow had access to those women and they specifically said they were abused, which I doubt. Did she go to the US and talked to all those women or talked to all the women in Korea married to foreigners?

    My problem with her statement, as well as with the one about prostitution in Germany, is that she did not clearly state what her sources were. If she had, it would have added validity to the argument he was trying to make. I don’t agree with prostitution and I think more effort should be put into saving victims and prevent them from becoming ones, but by messing with the truth, we can only cause more harm

    January 28, 2012 at 7:32 pm

  4. Traffic In Our Streets

    I’ve just finished reading your update and have to commend you on your thoroughness.

    I was cringing while I read about your conversation following the talk. I guess I’ve often thought that everyone in this field would be willing to work together and hear another person’s opinion, since we are all just trying to do something good… But this obviously cannot be the case when there are many individuals who are unwilling to hear someone’s opinion if it does not match their own. I have to say that that is embarrassing for any field of work.

    Additionally, when someone cannot back-up their statistics with sources, or their comments that ‘all’ sex workers are exploited, without acknowledging workers in the trade who are fighting for their rights, then they should not be able to use those examples. Who can stop such individuals when no one around them questions them about it? As you said “she couldn’t have asked for more faithful followers”.

    I do understand that she would be using the most extreme examples from her work in the field in order to ‘glorify’ the issue and attract attention to the cause, but what could be better to end sexual exploitation in the sex trade than to speak with sex workers themselves?

    This is a great clip made by a group of sex workers who state that they are against human trafficking in the sex trade.

    They believe that what must be done is to allow sex workers their rights, so they no longer have to work underground, and then can work with authorities to identify trafficking victims in the sex trade. Who better to identify victims than people already in that field of work. An interesting case that sex trade abolitionists would most likely never even consider.

    – Ali Wolf

    January 31, 2012 at 2:53 am

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