Sex Work and Human Rights

Stop the stigma | Messages on the eve of the SWFF

On the eve of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, I would like to share several messages. One is from KANG Hyun Joon, Director-General of the Han Teo National Union of Sex Workers in South Korea; the second is from a Korean sex worker who sadly cannot participate in the festival; and based on both of their statements I would also like to share a message of my own.

I am often asked what I wish to accomplish with my research project. Some people simply happen to know very little about the subject of sex workers’ rights, others might question my motives or morality, and yet again others might wonder why I am doing this research in South Korea. In the following, I will explain one of the factors that motivate me, and it’s the same that also renders my research considerably difficult at times.

Think globally (sometimes), act locally

I usually try to avoid making generalising statements about Koreans. Firstly, it is never wise to make general assumptions about a large group of people, and secondly, Korean society is in a state of constant and rapid changes, which I have been able to witness over the last ten years, four of which I have been living in South Korea.

If you visit Korea, it will be virtually impossible for you not to come across the words ‘international’ and ‘global’ on a regular basis. You will find them on banners and brochures of universities, research organisations, government agencies or private corporations who all use those words to give their dealings the semblance of being interconnected with like-minded partners in other parts of the world.

My experience tells me, however, that this global link is more often than not in name only, regardless of how genuine the intention to establish it may be. Korean activists, while very apt when organising protests within Korea, are no exception to this rule. [1]

Raising awareness about sex workers in Korea

Raising awareness about the situation of sex workers in South Korea is therefore one of the factors that continue to motivate me. I will not pretend that the lack of an international network doesn’t pose a significant challenge sometimes. But it makes me want to engage with Korean sex workers even more to encourage them – where necessary – to increase their network with sex work activists in other countries and to make their voices heard beyond the Asian realm. [2]

The evening before I boarded my flight to Kolkata, I met with KANG Hyun Joon, Director-General of the Han Teo National Union of Sex Workers, at a café in Seoul’s red-light district in Yeongdeungpo. Kang founded Han Teo in September 2002 and the organisation soon represented 20,000 brothel-based sex workers. Following the Special Law on Sex Trade of 2004 and increased government crackdowns on brothels, membership has since dropped to approx. 8,000, as an estimated 100,000 Korean sex workers opted to move abroad, the majority of them to Japan and the United States.

Message from Korean Sex Workers’ Union Han Teo to the SWFF

Towards the end of our talk, I asked KANG Hyun Joon if he would like me to pass on a message to the participants of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, seeing that on this occasion, Han Teo wouldn’t send a delegate to the conference. He replied the following.

“Since we don’t have frequent contact with people in the sex industry at the international level, I can’t say much about it, to be honest with you. However, if I were to talk about the situation in Korea, I’d like to say that I hope the day comes soon where sex workers in Korea work without shame and speak up with confidence in their own country.”

“그 쪽분들은 제가 접촉이 없기 때문에 뭐라고 말씀드리기 힘들지만 한국 사정으로 봤을 때 이 업에 종사한다고 해서 부끄러워하지 말고 떳떳하게 자기 국가에서 목소리 내면서 노동자로 인정받을 수 있는 날이 빨리 왔으면 좋겠습니다.”

Stop and listen! 

While the immense stigma attached to sex work represent a problem for sex workers worldwide, the traditionally strict gender roles still alive in modern Korean society greatly exacerbate it. In a recent meeting with a sex worker in Seoul, we talked about the common rhetorical ploy by prostitution abolitionists to ask whether or not one would wish for one’s own children to become prostitutes. Her comment was that she would indeed try everything to prevent her child from working as a prostitute, but the reason she gave for that was not the nature of the work, but the stigmatisation that goes along with it, and that is causing her great distress and has her keep a distance from her parents to avoid having to lie to them about her work. [3]

Stigmatisation and discrimination have been the most commonly given answers I received when talking to Korean sex workers about difficulties they experience in their daily lives.

And so my message on the evening before the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival is directed to those readers unsure about the subject of sex workers’ rights.

To change laws and improve the rights of sex workers will take a lot of time and effort. But to open your mind, you only have to stop and listen, even if some of it might make you feel uncomfortable. I like to encourage you to stop believing the one-dimensional rhetoric of prostitution abolitionists and to listen instead to the experiences shared by those who know best, and those are sex workers themselves.

One of them is Maggie McNeill, a retired call girl, who writes about how she sees the world on her blog ‘The Honest Courtesan’.

“Those who wish to control others, to attack consensual actions with criminal laws, and to eliminate options which make them uncomfortable, believe that morality is set in stone; they think that right and wrong are as separate and distinct as black and white, and that they and only they have the direct proclamation from Godhead about which is which. Rational people, however, understand that morality is a process of weighing out various factors, comparing the relative right and wrong of each, in order to come to the most just, least harmful decision possible.” [4]

 

Notes

[1] The protests against the naval base on Jeju Island are a significant exception to the rule. The Korean government responded to the appearance of 2012 Nobel Peace Prize nominee Angie Zelter (UK) and Benjamin Monnet (France) on the scene by arresting the two non-violent peace activists. While they eventually deported without any formal judicial procedure, three US citizens, members of US Veterans for Peace, were outright forbidden to land in Korea, discouraging further interference from the outside. Case in point.

[2] To avoid any misunderstanding, I would like to clarify that I do not wish to imply that Korean sex workers aren’t capable of making themselves heard, as this video greatly illustrates. In the recent past, Korean sex workers have more frequently participated in meetings and conferences outside Korea. As KANG Hyun Joon’s quote illustrates, however, contacts to sex work activists are still very limited, especially when it comes to links outside East Asia.

[3] The interviewee consented to having her views published. The photo was taken from a twitter account of a Korean sex worker.

[4] A Different View by The Honest Courtesan

4 responses

  1. Maxine Doogan

    Oh its just beautiful to hear what others have to say. Thanks so much for bringing their voice forward and thanks for keeping us abreast of your adventure. With you all in spirit.

    July 21, 2012 at 9:28 am

    • Thank you, too, Maxine, for your support and for keeping in touch. Mucho appreciado!

      July 22, 2012 at 5:47 pm

  2. Thanks for this interesting and well thought-out piece.

    July 24, 2012 at 2:43 am

    • Thank you, Karen.

      July 25, 2012 at 6:54 pm

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