Sex Work and Human Rights

A Letter from a South Korean Sex Worker

Once again, Charlie Spice invited me onto his show. This time around, the show continued the discussion of the previous edition about “Rape And Other Violent Acts Against Sex Workers”. As discussants were invited Bella Robinson, founder of Coyote RI, Maxine Doogan, founder of the Erotic Service Providers Union, Billie Jo McIntire, executive director at Sex Work Alliance and Network(ing) in Colorado, and Cris Sardina, co-director at the Desiree Alliance.

In preparation for the show, Hyeri Lee, a sex worker and an activist with Giant Girls – Network for Sex Workers’ Rights, had written a letter about her experiences as a sex worker in South Korea. She gladly agreed for me to read it to the participants and the audience of the Charlie Spice Show.

Read (or listen below) to the powerful statement of Hyeri Lee and learn about the stigma attached to sex work and the prejudices faced by sex workers in South Korea. Please note that due to minor sound distortions, a few sentences were removed from the audio file. I would like to direct your attention especially towards Ms Lee’s statements about the recent police crackdowns on the sex industry and the effect they had on sex workers.

A Letter from a South Korean Sex Worker*

Hello! My name is Hyeri. I’m a sex worker from South Korea. I was born in 1980, I’m a mother of two children, and I have worked in the sex industry for 3 years. In South Korea, there is a social stigma attached to sex work and there are many prejudices against sex workers.

That is why sex workers in Korea don’t want to reveal their occupation, and feel ashamed of what they do. Only a small number of sex workers think of their work as a form of labour. In Korea, the public isn’t familiar with the term ‘sex worker’. Instead, sex workers are referred to with terms like ‘whore’, ‘prostitute’, or ‘몸파는년 (mom paneun nyeon / body-selling bitch)’.

People look down on sex workers, and the sex industry itself is illegal due to the ‘Special Law Against Prostitution’, which in turn exposes sex workers to violence and rape.

Sex workers are not protected by the law, and I, too, have experienced multiple cases of violence from clients. Even if a sex worker reports them to the police, the criminal case won’t stand because of the illegality of sex work. The police thinks, sex work is illegal, and since the sex worker received money for sex, she should have sex even if she doesn’t like the client or what he demands.

The concept of selling sex-related services and one’s time does not exist in Korea, and sex workers are all referred to as ‘body-selling bitches’. Even when it comes to rape and assault on sex workers, some people believe that since sex workers are illegal and chose to live outside the law, they have to put up with violence and bad behaviours by their clients. I believe that’s what the majority in Korea believes.

Revealing one’s occupation requires a lot of courage, and there are very few people who would understand the type of work that sex workers do. There are prevalent prejudices that only those become sex workers who are poor, ignorant, or have somehow failed in their lives. Another prejudice is that sex workers waste away the money that they earned through opening their legs. That is why I get asked questions like “Did you finish college? You look smart enough to do something else.” It may sound funny, but this is the reality of how things are in Korea.

In my case, there are a lot of friends who support me and treat me as an equal human being. But one of my sex worker friends had to end one of her friendships after she came out. That friend called her ‘dirty’. I didn’t tell my family that I am working as a sex worker, and I probably won’t tell them in the future. They will not perceive sex work as an occupation, and it would come to them as nothing but a shock.

It is safe to assume that the majority of Koreans is afraid of sex workers and what their work entails. The people at the kindergarten where my kids go to know me as a make-up artist, which is my previous occupation. That is why they are nice to my kids, and give me compliments about their looks and talents. But what would happen if they knew what I do for living? They would talk behind my back and gossip, and only say bad things about my children. It’s too tough to even imagine that. Because of my children, I don’t allow any photos to be taken when I’m doing an interview. My life would be heavily affected if my photo were to go public. In Korea, sex workers are at the bottom of the social level.

I have taken up all kinds of part time jobs to raise my children and was always on a tight budget. When I picked up sex work, my life got better financially. However, due to the presidential election year, the police crackdowns got much worse, and I earned almost nothing. Due to the increase in crackdowns, most of the clients sex workers are left with are the nasty ones. Last year I mentally suffered a lot due to all the violence I had to endure, and I took some time off and started dating my current boyfriend.

Average Korean men doe not see sex work as an occupation of their spouse or partner. It is more a past that should be forgotten and left behind. I met my boyfriend when I was feeling vulnerable, and I stopped working for a while because he demanded it. He believes that I have quit sex work for good and will not pick it up in the future, and he refuses to talk about anything related to sex work. Other sex workers lie about what they do, but I don’t want to lie and so I rather save my breath. Even my boyfriend doesn’t see my work as an ‘occupation’ but considers it as deviant. He believes, “My sweet Hyeri is not the kind of women who would work as a sex worker”.

I think it’s fair to say that life is hell for sex workers in South Korea. The government sees you as a criminal, and you aren’t guaranteed basic human rights. People look down on you and ignore you. There are no such things as sex workers’ rights in Korea. My dream is to live abroad, even if I have to change my career. It is too hard to live in Korea. And these circumstances contribute to the fact that only one tenth of the people working in pro-sex work groups are sex workers.

Hyeri Lee
Seoul, January 12th, 2013

*The translation from the Korean original by Research Project Korea was approved by the author, whose name was changed to protect her privacy.

Please leave a comment below for my courageous friend!


Rape And Other Violent Acts Against Sex Workers, Part 1 + 2

Click here to listen to Part 1 in your default player or right-click here to download the podcast.

Click here to listen to Part 2 (feat. A Letter from a South Korean Sex Worker) in your default player or right-click here to download the podcast.

Charlie Spice Show

Charlie Spice Show LogoThe Charlie Spice Show is a weekly one-hour talk show, which addresses all types of controversial issues related to sex, sex work, sex workers and the sex trade. The show gives  the audience an in-depth look at the business, social, political, legal, health and economic issues related to this industry which is considered “taboo” but continues to intrigue people on both sides of the fence. The show is broadcast on BlogTalkRadio.

Click here to read about the previous times I was invited onto the Charlie Spice Show.

Related Posts

Should we accept sex work?

Sex Work and the Law in South Korea

In Pictures: Korean Sex Workers’ Day

My Friend’s Rights are Human Rights!

14 responses

  1. Shreya Sen

    I volunteered as a tutor for children of sex workers in Kolkata. The kinds of social exclusions they faced in all kinds of spaces starting from schools to the organizations that are supposedly “working” “for” them was heartbreaking to watch. You are a brave parent and an even braver human being. Thank you for sharing your experiences. More power to you.

    January 20, 2013 at 12:03 am

  2. Nancy

    I am a sex worker based in Australia. I am passionate about fighting for the rights and choices of my sex worker peers everywhere in the world, regardless of the tolerable or terrible conditions that we work under. The beauty, strength and achievements of Korean sex workers, in the face of oppression and discrimination, are increasingly well known amongst many of the communities I share in Australia. Thank you for sharing your story with me! We are all in this together!

    January 22, 2013 at 6:16 am

  3. Thank you for sharing your stories to raise awareness about sex worker’s human rights, as well as the human rights of children and family members of sex workers who may also face social stigmatization. I think we need to carefully consider human rights and the social and legal position of sex workers and their families, and also those trafficked into the sex industry. The current law and social attitude needs revision. 당신의 이야기를 알려주셔서 감사합니다. 우리는 여성인권, 성노동자하고 그들의 아들의 인권과 법적인 사회지위, 그리고 인신매매에 대하여 더 신중히 문제를 고찰해야한다고 생각합니다. 인권생활에 대해 잘 알려주셔서 감사합니다. 새해 복 많이 받으시기 바랍니다 *^^*

    January 23, 2013 at 3:08 pm

  4. Calum

    It used to be like that in NZ as well. Then in around 1993 or 95, the police finally prosecuted someone for raping a sex worker. This was after NZPC had been making representations to the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and the Police. The move was slow, but gained. A sex worker organisation working with those government organisations helped to change attitudes. This led, eventually, to decriminalisation. I hope that the police and the Ministries wake up to the fact that sex workers suffer violence as a result of their inaction, and that this, too, eventually leads to decriminalisation.

    January 24, 2013 at 10:12 pm

  5. Pingback: Korean Gender Reader, Feb. 9-15 | The Grand Narrative

  6. Janice

    There are many influences as to why women would Choose to stay in the sex industry. This young lady is hurting deeply. She is providing for her children. Sex makes lots of money, however, I really don’t hear that she has peace of mind, peace in her soul or has experienced real love. God wants to set her free from the mind set that this is a job. I pray she will come to know Jesus Christ, the one who created her for His glory. Many women are being abused and made to feel they are lower than animals. This is not not ever was God’s purpose for her life! Or really any woman’s life to live in the sex industry. God help this woman to be set free and know what true love is through you ! God did not create women just to be used for sex. Sex was always intended to be between one man and one woman for marriage and for pleasure. Not a job. There is no judgement, my heart breaks for women who have chosen to do this and believe its considered employment. Yes , sex sells… But lives of these women are in high risk. Drugs, disease, disowned by family, death. That is no way to live.

    February 18, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    • omg
      Oh. My. God. Janice, you may not be aware of it but your beliefs about sex are utterly discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as well as unmarried couples. Frankly, I believe you are hardly qualified to judge about what does or doesn’t hurt Hyeri outside what she tells people in her letter, e.g. the social stigma that people like you attach to her work.

      What sex workers need is equal protection under the law and to have their rights as human beings and as workers respected. The lives of sex workers are at risk because of bad laws that criminalise sex work and add to the stigmatisation and discrimination of sex workers.

      I usually value all comments, including those I happen to disagree with, but due to the nature of yours, I feel it necessary to add that I completely distance myself from the views expressed by you and only published your comment so that people can see what opinions are out there.

      February 20, 2013 at 6:11 pm

      • Janice

        I can totally respect your view, but it doesn’t change truth. Truth stands firm, cannot be shaken, cannot be moved! My views are not negiative in fact they are very loving. I realize you can’t see that , but that is ok. It is not my place to change your views. That is up to the one who gives you breath to breathe on a daily basis. I still stand firm in my comments! I have lived a life of sexual abuse, mental abuse, emotional abuse…. Been there , done that , bought the T-shirt…. My life got set free from the sexual bondage! Sex is for one man and one women. For marriage between them. God created it for pleasure and unity. No mans words, beliefs, laws, will ever change that truth. Hope you find your I did! Married to a great guy…. Kids… Grand kids…. My story could have been so different! I am grateful to the one who created me for a purpose. I was not created to just have sex for a job. Truth… It does stand firm.

        February 20, 2013 at 7:48 pm

      • I’m afraid I cannot agree with your notion of ethical monotheism. Your personal experience is certainly valid and I am glad you no longer suffer from physical abuse and have found love and happiness.

        That does not mean, however, that your concept of sexuality or your religious beliefs are universally valid, and thankfully, there are many who not only disagree with you but work hard towards establishing laws that guarantee people’s right to sexual self-determination and aim to do away with the stigmatisation and discrimination experienced by sex workers as well as by the LGBT community.

        It is not my place either to change your views, but I will continue to make up my mind based on evidence instead of having it changed by a supernatural being.

        February 24, 2013 at 2:33 pm

      • Janice

        One day you will see…..

        February 24, 2013 at 8:54 pm

  7. Uhm, this woman raging on about sex work is not a credible representative of Christianity. Her version of Christianity is that of a narrow minded bigot with a world view completely out of sync with reality. Most of these fundamentalist, evangelical types are really in a serious need of mental health treatment. The delusion that they have some kind of magical connection to an ultimate reality and the world view that they try to impose on the rest of us is nothing short of psychosis and delusion. It’s time we pressed for religious obsession and fantastical delusion associated with fundamentalist, conservative and sectarian Christianity as a mental disease requiring treatment and psychological intervention. I really do believe that the NSWP needs to pull together a diverse group of theologians and rights based activists to explore ways in which the paradigm of rights and labour rights for sex work can be written in a way that conservative theological positions can understand and support. I think its an act of compassion that we in the sex worker rights movement can exercise to the humanely lost world of sectarian Christianity. In the meantime I’ll carry on praying for her to be rescued by a marxist or at least a rational humanist and redeem her from her enslavement to fairytales! She does no justice to the concept of Christianity and her arguments are theologically flawed!

    March 1, 2013 at 11:07 am

    • Janice

      I am not really moved by your comments. I still stand firm. I have already been rescued….. One day…. You too will see.

      March 1, 2013 at 12:07 pm

  8. Thank you all for your nice comments!!

    I only respond to people who respect others’ views. Negative comments don’t matter to me and can’t stop me. I’m so used to those views already. If some people think they can ignore what I think, I don’t care. It’s just their point of view, nothing else.

    누누이 말하지만 난 사람하고만 대화한다. 다른 사람의 의견도 존중할 줄 아는. 무시하는 부정적인 말따위, 신경쓰지도 않거니와 그런것들이 날 멈추게 할 수도 없고 그런것들때메 멈추지도 않는다. 물ㅋ논. 날 무시하고 기죽일 생각이라면 그런 시선과 폄하들엔 이미 익숙하다. 그러거나 말거나 어차피 그러는게 똥멍충이일 뿐.

    March 15, 2013 at 5:02 pm

  9. Pingback: “People clearly don’t know what’s going on” – Interview with Hyeri Lee, sex worker in Daegu | Research Project Korea

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