Sex Work and Human Rights

A noble cause? I think not.

Today, I came across an article written by Erin Campeau, a woman volunteering “for about three months now” at the Salim Women Shelter in Busan, South Korea, that “provides legal support, medical services, and consultation and vocational training to victims of prostitution”.

The Noble Cause: Salim Women’s Shelter | HAPS Magazine URL

While I wouldn’t automatically dispute what may be a sincere desire in people to help victims of violent abuse, I will in the following refute the fallacies in Campeau’s article, in turn leading me to seriously question her motives, and highlight the negative impact of misleading and biased information on “anti-trafficking” legislation and those affected by it. Ironically, it is Campeau herself who singles out biased information as a major problem.

The Law of the Land

“In 2004 the Korean government passed strict anti-trafficking laws establishing penalties for traffickers.”

Campeau mistakes Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Law with a comprehensive anti-trafficking law that the country continues to lack, just as it fails to provide appropriate services to trafficking victims, as this excerpt from the 2012 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report by the U.S. State Department documents.

“The [Korean] government did not institute formal procedures to identify proactively trafficking victims and refer them to available services. [It should] [e]nact drafted comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation that defines and prohibits trafficking in persons; increase efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict trafficking offenders, including those involved in labor trafficking”. 2012 TIP Report (pp. 210-211) URL

For further information about the TIP Report, I recommend reading the letter to Luis CdeBaca, Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the US State Department, sent to him by the scholars of the Interdisciplinary Project on Human Trafficking, a collaboration between the Harvard Law School and the American University’s College of Law in Washington. The letter is co-signed by Dr. Sealing Cheng, who has done extensive research with sex workers in South Korea.

“[W]e are concerned that the Obama Administration has produced a document that asserts as matters of proven fact a number of statements, which, given the state of information on both trafficking and prostitution worldwide, are unsupported or unproven by valid research methods and data. We are deeply concerned that the document is illogical, misleading and therefore potentially damaging to on-going efforts globally to prevent trafficking and protect the rights of trafficked persons. … We are deeply concerned that these assumptions are not proven in any empirically meaningful way, and believe that they only serve to deflect attention away from the structures and actors that in fact lead to trafficking of women, men and children. The proposals and statements in the document threaten to divert precious resources from protecting victims of trafficking who urgently need help into a politically contested and futile anti-prostitution campaign.”

To return to the existing Korean law, here is an excerpt of what Campeau claims are “anti-trafficking laws establishing penalties for traffickers.”

Article 21 (Penal Provisions)

1. Anyone who sells sex or buys sex shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than 1 year or by a fine, detention, or minor fine not exceeding 3,000,000 won.

Act on the Punishment of Procuring Prostitution and Associated Acts (Page 10) URL

Article 21 thus criminalises not just traffickers, but all sex workers and their clients, regardless of coercion being involved. So let’s call a spade a spade. South Korea has a law aimed to eradicate not human trafficking but the sex trade, hence the law’s name, including consensual acts between sex workers and their clients.

South Korea does not yet have comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation in place. Judging from the Anti-Sex Trade Law it is nothing to look forward to as the legislator follows the lead of the US government, which, as the experts explained above, uses unproven facts and flawed research to create illogical and misleading reports that in turn lead to laws that fail to address human trafficking and instead further a futile anti-prostitution campaign. Sex workers’ rights become collateral damage in the process.

Stereotypes and Biased Information

Campeau fails to elaborate what “the stereotypes behind sex work” are, that according to her, have to change, and she doesn’t explain what “biased information” the public is given that somehow manages to keep women in the sex trade.

One stereotype that I continuously encounter when talking to Koreans about sex work, is that they feel sorry for sex workers and surprised when they learn that sex workers strongly disagree with their portrayal as victims unable to make informed decisions.

If Campeau feels there is a lack of unbiased information for the public, I recommend reading this piece published in the Hankyoreh on the eve of Korean Sex Workers’ Day.

나는 스스로 성매매를 선택했다” [I chose sex work myself] | Hankyoreh
URL (Korean) | Google Translate URL (English)

Left: “I’m not a hooker. I’m a sex worker!” | Right: “Don’t stigmatise us! Don’t oppress us!”

Based on interviews with Korean sex workers, the article highlights, among other facts, that a great number of sex workers was forced to move abroad as a result of the Anti-Sex Trade Law.

According to KANG Hyun Joon, Director of the Han Teo National Union of Sex Workers, the number of brothel-based sex workers that seek representation through Han Teo has declined significantly in the aftermath of the Anti-Sex Trade Law. This is not because prostitution magically disappeared but because sex workers have moved abroad, the majority of them to the United States, Japan and Australia, or were pushed underground. Both developments have forced sex workers into unfamiliar environments that expose them to greater risks and cut them off from their networks.

While Campeau talks about “physical threats” and “emotional abuse” that sex workers endure she fails to mention the abuse suffered by sex workers at the hands of law enforcement officers, by no means uncommon occurrences. Since (used) condoms are used as evidence in criminal proceedings, sex workers sometimes have no other option but to endanger their health and swallow them, only for police officers forcing them to regurgitate them.

“Victims are often unaware of their rights and are shunned by a global society that tends to think of prostitution as a choice.”

In my view, this statement demonstrates the limitations of Campeau’s insight and her ignorance of the diversity of factors that has women, men and transgender people choose to work in the sex industry. Here is what Korean sex workers have to say about that.

“Sex work is work. We have the right to choose our work and to lead our lives without fear and harassment.” Joint statement of Giant Girls (Korean Network for Sex Workers’ Rights) and the Scarlet Alliance

Who sounds like a victim unable to make choices and unaware of their rights and who sounds like someone furthering stereotypes and spreading biased information? You’ll be the judge.


“The goal of Salim is to empower women who were once victims of this dehumanizing, underground industry.”

What this statement does it to further the narrative that all women working in the sex industry are victims and that sex work is dehumanising. None of the sex workers I have ever encountered agrees with either of these notions or feels empowered by them. To the contrary.

“If the women want to study at a college or university, their qualification exam fees and first semester are covered.”

Tertiary education is both expensive and essential in Korea’s increasingly competitive job market. Higher education is also a great tool for empowerment. But what happens when the women the organisation helped entering university cannot pay for their tuition fees beyond the first semester? Campeau explains that the organisation lacks sufficient funding. Wouldn’t it be more useful then to create a programme that is sustainable?

It is admirable that the “women have access to room and board at the shelter for up to 18 months and at a group home for up to three years”. However, judging from the limited information provided, the organisation seems to lead women who choose to enter university into situations where they are bound to either drop out or have to resort to sex work, if they wish to continue their degree programmes. One can hardly earn a living and pay one’s tuition fees for as long as the minimum hourly wage in South Korea is US$ 4.25 – and more often than not employers pay even less than that.

No bad whores, just bad laws

Since Campeau conflates sex work, sex trafficking, and human trafficking, I can only assume her final note, that by informing the public “an end to sex trafficking may finally be in sight”, indicates her belief that prostitution can be eradicated. Everybody has a right to their opinion. I personally agree with the scholars of the Interdisciplinary Project on Human Trafficking that anti-prostitution campaigns are futile. Instead, legal frameworks are to be put in place that protect the rights of sex workers, in order to reduce violence as well as the stigma and discrimination surrounding sex work, to effectively prevent the spread of infectious diseases, and to allow sex workers to earn their livelihood to ensure the best possible future for their families.

“Give us rights, don’t stigmatise us!”

Proposition 35, also known as CASE Act (Californians Against Sexual Exploitation), is just one example of many, where the climate created by anti-prostitution campaigners leaves lawmakers few alternatives but to sanction seriously flawed laws that do little to nothing to prevent human trafficking, but everything to criminalise sex workers, rob them of their rights, and inflate statistics of alleged successes in the fight against human trafficking.

Freedom of expression means that anyone has the right to campaign against prostitution. But they should not deceive others by falsely labelling their agenda as anti-trafficking campaign. Articles such as Campeau’s, complete with the typical imagery, further a climate in which laws will be passed that fail to prevent human trafficking and fail to protect real victims of human trafficking.

Helping victims of violent abuse is a noble cause indeed. Furthering an agenda that misleads the public is not.

More on Proposition 35

I Despise Human Trafficking, but I Oppose the Badly Drafted Prop 35 URL
Stephen Munkelt (California Attorneys for Criminal Justice) votes No on Proposition 35 URL
Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project URL

6 responses

  1. Stephanie Savage

    You make some important points about the problems with the Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Law. Unfortunately, such insight is overshadowed by your diatribe against Ms. Campeau. From her article, it is very apparent that she is discussing not prostitution in general, but FORCED prostitution. I think we can agree that forced prostitution and willful prostitution are very different situations. Your final assumption that her hope that “an end to sex trafficking may finally be in sight”, indicates her belief that prostitution as a whole can be eradicated is totally absurd and illogical. You have made an inductive fallacy of hasty generalization, and in doing such have attacked her motives without cause. A life of sexual slavery is one of the worst existences I could imagine, and I salute both Ms. Campeau and the Salim Women’s Shelter for their hard work and dedication to a very important cause. I hope you realize your error in reasoning and offer Ms. Campeau the apology she deserves.

    August 22, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    • I’m afraid we have to agree to disagree. Content on the website of the Salim Women’s Shelter does equate sex work and forced slavery, and I did not find it “very apparent” that Erin viewed things differently. She has since clarified her remarks, however, while also stating that she actually agreed with everything I said and offering to further discuss this in private – which we already have. (Click here to see her comment below the original article)

      As for attacking her motives, I wrote the following in my comment to Calvin.

      Could I have left out the passage about “seriously questioning her motives”? Yes, I could have. Could her article have been written better? Yes, it could have. And with that, I would like to leave Erin in peace, as she and I have discussed this in private.

      August 23, 2012 at 2:13 am

  2. Calvin H

    It appears you have no comments on this post, which makes me question whether you are publishing people’s opinions on your piece. Even so I will give you mine. I am interested to read what you’ve written as you appear to have a solid background in this area. And I do not entirely disagree with you. However, I find your attack on the BusanHaps author uncomfortable and cheap. There are many stories from victims and the liberated on issues of prostitution, sex-trafficking and the societal implications.The (short) BusanHaps article tells one story. How can you expect the full story in 5 paragraphs? You response contains some interesting points, but it’s swimming in self-indulgance and ego which makes it even more unpleasant to read.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    • Hi Calvin,

      I spent last night from dusk till dawn talking with a sex worker and had a busy day today, hence I hadn’t gotten around to signing in yet. Rest assured that I publish and appreciate all comments on my blog (and don’t remove any on my Facebook page), for as long as they are respectful.

      I understand your sentiment, but I’m afraid I don’t entirely agree. I’ll give you this: there are definitely far worse articles about this subject that deserve scrutiny. I responded to this one because my research project is focused on the Korean Anti-Sex Trade Law and its impact on sex workers’ rights, and the article, in my opinion, misrepresented the laws currently in place, among other things I felt deserved to be addressed.

      Before I go further into this, I would like to say the following. When someone chooses or agrees to publish an article about a controversial issue, then in my opinion, it is wise for her or him to do a fact check. That’s not asking too much, it is plain professional and necessary. If you publish an article about any subject, be it about environmental degradation, corporate greed, or human trafficking, then you enter a discourse and you shape, to some extent, the views of those that read your article.

      Running the risk of sounding condescending, I’ll say that it appears to me that Erin has unintentionally adopted parts of the narrative of prostitution abolitionists, and that is why I dissected her article – not because of some questionable urge to attack a person I have never even met.

      Cheryl Overs is the founder of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), co-organiser of this year’s Alternative International AIDS Conference in Kolkata, dubbed the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival. She once pointed out to me that organisations ought to stop working with untrained and unaccountable volunteers to stop trafficking in Asia in environments they know nothing about. I am aware that Erin is just volunteering to teach English, just as I did at my previous job at an NGO empowering youth in the border region between Thailand and Myanmar. The problem begins when one is put into a position where one is supposed to write about a matter that one has limited knowledge of. It happens frequently when volunteers or interns are assigned the task to write reports and other documents due to staff and funding shortages.

      Could I have left out the passage about “seriously questioning her motives”? Yes, I could have. Could her article have been written better? Yes, it could have. And with that, I would like to leave Erin in peace, as she and I have discussed this in private.

      However, I would like to continue to talk about the issue itself, and like to state that none of the following passages are intended to attack or imply anything about Erin or her work, but to respond to your comment and add further information.

      There are many stories from victims and the liberated on issues of prostitution, sex-trafficking and the societal implications.

      You might not have meant to, but by listing prostitution in one breath with sex trafficking and societal implications you are equating one with the other, just as you would describe women as needing the same protection as children if you were to talk about ‘protecting woman and children’. You can find plenty of feminist literature about this, but I’ll suggest you to read the following article, because it’s a rather entertaining read that uses the sinking of the Titanic to drive home the message.

      Libby Anne – “Women and Children First”: An age-old anti-feminist myth URL

      The (short) Busan Haps article tells one story. How can you expect the full story in 5 paragraphs?

      People who create sob-stories about prostitutes often try to evade criticism by saying how they had just wanted to tell this one particular story that they had happened to come across, and how they never intended to reinforce any stigma or stereotypes. Due to a longer email conversation between Erin and myself, I trust that she indeed only had in mind to write, as you put it, “one story”.

      The same cannot be said about German film-maker Doris Dörrie whose film ‘Bliss’ was recently shown at the International Women’s Film Festival in Seoul. Dan Fainaru’s review will provide you an insight into what is by no means an exception, but the rule for what stereotypes dominate the discourse.

      As for pointing out the brevity of an article to excuse its shortcomings, what does that have to do with anything? Brevity means not being able to discuss an issue in all its depth; it does not excuse being inaccurate.

      The article said that global society “tends to think of prostitution as a choice” due to being given “biased information”. Later, we learnt in the comments “that there is a very clear distinction between women who enter sex work wilfully and those who do not” and that that prostitution should not be made illegal. While I agree wiht the latter, this is inconsistent (and Erin acknowledged that, which is honourable).

      I can see how my article might have seemed like a personal attack on the author. Then again, and to the uninitiated this might sound like a conspiracy theory, there are very powerful groups involved in the global sex trafficking hysteria.

      As Ron Weitzer writes, “[t]he issue of sex trafficking has become increasingly politicized in recent years due to the efforts of an influential moral crusade.” In his article ‘The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking: Ideology and Institutionalization of a Moral Crusade’, he “examines the social construction of sex trafficking (and prostitution more generally) in the discourse of leading activists and organizations within the crusade, and concludes that the central claims are problematic, unsubstantiated, or demonstrably false” and how “the increasing endorsement and institutionalization of crusade ideology” influences U.S. government policy and practice. Ronald Weitzer (PhD Sociology, University of California, Berkeley) is a professor at George Washington University and his publications are a very good starting point if you wish to explore this subject further. Download the above mentioned article here.

      To learn more about both sides of the spectrum, you may want to read Kari Lerum’s article

      The New Abolitionists and their critics (second in a series on Anti-Trafficking efforts)

      August 23, 2012 at 1:40 am

  3. Matt

    My article has now been called a diatribe, a cheap attack, and a ‘mocking blog of Miss Campeau’ – the latter in comment on Facebook.

    As I have already responded in earlier comments and as Erin and I have discussed and settled the matter in private, I would just like to say two things.

    Firstly, I sure hope that those who came out in her defence are equally active and supportive when it comes to the rights of sex workers.

    Secondly, I firmly reject that I mocked Erin. The only aspect I mocked, in the sense of ‘imitating’, were the images used in the article that I believe were added by HAPS Magazine. I did this as I share the concern that triggered the ‘Rights! Art! Action!’ campaign by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW).

    “The Rights! Art! Action! campaign invited creative works which depict the (often overlooked) strength and resilience women demonstrate through their labour, migration and trafficking struggles. The campaign responded to GAATW’s concerns that almost without exception, anti-human trafficking campaigns use violent and distressing images of women’s fearful, ‘helpless’ faces and exploited, crouching bodies to draw people’s attention to trafficking, highlighting women’s vulnerability rather than women’s strength and women’s rights.

    GAATW was interested in exploring a different way forward, moving beyond images of women’s victimhood and vulnerability, to representations of strength and autonomy – qualities in many trafficked persons GAATW has met and worked with. GAATW sought to encourage a rights-based approach to anti-trafficking campaign material and to encourage others to do the same.”

    Click here to view the Rights Art Action Gallery

    August 23, 2012 at 2:33 am

  4. Pingback: That Was the Week That Was (#34) « The Honest Courtesan

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