Sex Work and Human Rights

Janice Raymond and the South Korean Model

VRR Event Poster DetailOn November 30th, 2013, an event was held at the Vancouver Public Library to remember the victims of the 1989 massacre at L’École Polytechnique. According to Hilla Kerner, spokeswoman for Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, which sponsored the event, its purpose was not only to “remember those 14 women in the political and historical context that this man killed them”, but also “to use the day to talk about violence against women now, to reveal the different forms of male violence against women, and to celebrate women’s resistance. … We do see prostitution as one form of male violence against women.”

In the run-up to the event, the invitation of Janice Raymond had sparked a controversy. Raymond is an American radical feminist author and activist, and a professor emerita of Women’s Studies and Medical Ethics at the University of Massachusetts (UMass). Between 1994 and 2007, Raymond served as a co-executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), where she is currently on the Board of Directors. She campaigns against the legalisation of prostitution and for the penalisation of the clients of sex workers. Her academic credibility has been called into question, among others by Ronald Weitzer, professor of Sociology at George Washington University, known for his publications on the sex industry. [1]

At the event, Raymond gave a talk under the heading “Prostitution: Not a Job, not a Choice”, in which she referred to the “South Korean Model”, i.e. the Anti-Sex Trade Law, as a “miracle” that “truly empowers the women”. Below, I will respond to Raymond’s claims and describe an interesting response I received in an online forum.

Responding to Janice Raymond’s claims 

[Raymond] “Basically, the Republic of South Korea in the year 2004 passed a zero tolerance law, that’s what it was called, targeting, among other things, the demand for prostitution.”

What Raymond refers to here are the Special Laws on Sex Trade (성매매 특별법, Seongmaemae tteukbyeol beob) – that is what they are called – and what she omits is that one of the “other things” the laws are targeting is the selling of sexual acts. The Punishment Act penalises both buyers and sellers of sexual acts with up to one year in prison or fines of up to 3 million won (approx. £1,715/€2,075/$2,825), except for those who were coerced into selling sex.

[Raymond] “When I met with service organizations in Korea that provided this assistance to women, they told me that the most gratifying part of the law was the 56% decrease of women in prostitution that was reported several years after the law was passed. That was from a government study, that was the Ministry of Gender Equality that conducted that study in Korea. So a 56% decrease in women in prostitution, and that the number of sex districts had decreased also, by about 40%.”

The cited “government study” is a report from November 2007 that was published by the South Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (여성가족부, MOGEF) but produced by the Korean Women’s Development Institute (한국여성정책연구원, KWDI), and its research methodology seems questionable at best.

The report, which is only available in Korean, is titled: “National Survey on the current conditions of the Sex Trade in Korea” (전국성매매실태조사). KWDI chose altogether 8 business types from government registries of businesses they suspected as most likely to facilitate transactional sex. Those were: serviced pubs, clubs, smaller pubs, tea and coffee houses, noraebangs (karaoke places), barber shops, massage parlours, and beauty shops/wellness places. People living or working in red light districts were interviewed and the findings were based on their impressions.

The cited 56% decrease only refers to the number of remaining red light districts (39 in 2007, down from 69 in 2002), not the number of “women in prostitution” and not the number of businesses – just the number of red light districts, some of which disappear(ed) due to gentrification and redevelopment. According to the report, the number of sex workers working in those 39 red light districts decreased by 40% (3,644 in 2007, down from 9,092 in 2002), and the number of “full-time brothels” (전업형) in those 39 red light districts decreased by 49% (1,443 in 2007, down from 2,938 in 2002). However, these numbers do not account for sex workers and businesses outside of these 39 red light districts or for the influence the internet has had on the sex industry.

Thus, any conclusions drawn from the KWDI report only apply to these specific red light districts, and it is important to note that the report’s time frame began in fact two years prior to the introduction of the Anti-Sex Trade Law, which means that the decrease cannot be attributed to the law alone, even where the conditions in red light districts are concerned.

The numbers in the KWDI report don’t always add up either. The 2007 figures in the report list 39 red light districts, 1,443 brothels, 3,644 sex workers, 2,510,000 clients per year, and an average of 5.8 clients per brothel and day. However, if one multiplies 5.8 x 1443 x 365 (clients per brothel and day x brothels x 1 year), one arrives at 3,054,831 client visits, a discrepancy of 544,831. It probably explains why MOGEF stated they wouldn’t take any responsibility for the figures in the report.

MOGEF-Disclaimer

“This report was commissioned by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and the research was conducted by the Korea Women’s Development Institute. The result of this research and the content of the report are solely the opinions of the researchers, of which no official position of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family is to be inferred.”

[Raymond] “Included in that legislation were added resources to assist the women in prostitution. … The assistance package, that was really, very much funded by the government, which provided counselling, job retraining, medical treatment, a monthly stipend, and legal support. And to qualify for that, women had to demonstrate in some way, through the assistance organizations, who certified this, that they had been harmed or that they suffered from addictions or other disabilities or were underage. Thousands of women took advantage of that provision and subsequently exited prostitution.”

According to government sources, the  bare minimum sufficient to survive in South Korea is approx. 600,000 won for a 1-person household. For a 3-person household (e.g. single parent + 2 kids), it is approx. 1,300,000 won. People who receive government benefit also receive medical and educational support and have their TV license fees waived. As a comparison, a person working at minimum wage would earn 1,080,000 Won (before taxes).

Therefore, one can safely assume that a monthly stipend of 400,000 won, which is part of the assistance package Raymond referred to, does not represent a sufficient incentive to exit prostitution, since one wouldn’t be able to survive on it, and since in order to receive it, third parties are required to certify that one actually deserves it. In addition, the sustainability of said assistance seems questionable (see ‘Empowerment’).

Double Standards

When I posted much of the above commentary and some figures of a different report in a comment thread on Meghan Murphy’s blog Feminist Current, one reader responded as follows.

Feminist Current - Comment by 'sporenda'

Earlier, however, the same person wrote:

Feminist Current - Comment by 'sporenda' [2]

One can agree that asking the “wo(man) in the street” about her or his opinion is likely to produce “vague impressions, rumors and popular myths”. What the report I cited showed – and nothing else I had suggested – was how the majority of respondents viewed the implementation of the Anti-Sex Trade Law, with the key word being “viewed”. Nobody claimed they represented “reliable figures on prostitution”.

Janice Raymond, however, cited a government study of which she didn’t know who actually conducted it, a law of which she didn’t know the correct name, and figures that were not only derived via a dubious research methodology but which she also managed to confuse. (Raymond confused the respective percentages of the decreases in red light districts and the number of sex workers working in them.)

It speaks volumes then, that if a sex worker organisation commissions a research institute to do a survey, their results are denounced as “idiotic”, but when a government body commissions a research institute to do a survey, their results are viewed as “solid facts”, just so long as they support the desired narrative.

The “South Korean Model” is no more a “miracle” than the Swedish Model. The difference between the two is that the former states outright that it criminalises sex workers, while the latter claims it doesn’t.

Sex Workers demand: “Repeal the ‘Special Laws on Sex Trade’”

A constitutionality review of the Anti-Sex Trade Law, submitted in January 2013 by Criminal Law Judge OH Won Chan from the District Court in Northern Seoul, was scheduled to conclude six months later. A year on, however, no decision has been announced and the persecution of sex workers continues.

Since the adoption of the Anti-Sex Trade Law in 2004, sex workers have demanded to reform or repeal the law time and again, most famously in September 2011, when an estimated 1,500 sex workers gathered in Seoul to protest against the law.

If you want reliable information about the current conditions in South Korea’s sex industry, they are the people to go to.

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(All images by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

*The author would like to thank El Feministo for transcribing Janice Raymond’s talk and for bringing it to my attention.

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[1] Weitzer, George “Flawed Theory and Method in Studies of Prostitution”

When discussing two of her previous studies of sex trafficking, “Raymond provides no information on where she located the women, how she gained access to them, how diverse or representative they are, and whether they saw themselves as victims. Moreover, none of the interview questions [are] revealed to the reader. … It is a canon of academic research that authors situate their findings in the related scholarly literature to highlight similarities and differences in findings and build on prior work— something that Raymond opted not to do.”

11 responses

  1. Great post. How much do you want to bet that same Feminist Current commenter thinks Kuosmanen’s survey of Swedish men is a reliable barometer of demand?

    January 28, 2014 at 9:03 am

  2. But of course the antis don’t want accuracy in anything because when there are real numbers – not estimates or guesstimates – their arguments fall flatter than a crepe (a very thin pancake). Janice and her cohort victim pimps will say anything to impose their agenda on our bodies!

    January 28, 2014 at 6:43 pm

  3. Very insightful article. Thanks for the efforts. The world’s oldest profession (as called by many) needs social, economic and political empowerment interventions in which law should play a role of upholding the rights and dignity from a perspective of being humans. A sex worker is primarily a human, women and then she does what she wants for her livelihood. Until decriminalization of sex work happens, nothing much can be achieved. If ‘Law was the panacea for all problem’, then we shouldn’t have had any problem, as we have laws that covers every aspects of human life. Then why do we still have problem?
    Keep you the good work on highlighting the subject. Thank You.

    February 10, 2014 at 9:19 am

    • Thank you for your kind feedback, Chandra, and for supporting the decriminalisation of sex work.

      February 10, 2014 at 12:05 pm

  4. Pingback: Journalism that harms, not helps: A response to Yewon Kang | Research Project Korea

  5. Pingback: Janice Raymond’s modus operandi | Research Project Korea

  6. Pingback: Kommentar zum taz-Artikel „Debatte um Prostitution in Südkorea: Frau Kim kämpft um ihren Job“ | Research Project Korea

  7. I was in Korea in 2007, and I witnessed firsthand how local Korean officials would turn a blind eye toward the human trafficking of Philippine women as sex slaves in bars frequented by American service members. This is to say nothing of the US Army itself.

    Anyone trying to hold up South Korea as an example to the world on the sex trade, regardless of the ideology being pushed, is tragically misinformed. They may have stigmatized and eliminated the “native” sex trade, but it’s only been supplanted by something much darker and oppressive toward women.

    And to add a little context to those subsidy figures, 600,000 [corrected] Won averages out to about 600 US Dollars, depending on the exchange rate at any given time. Living expenses in South Korea are often greater, relative to the value of their currency, than in the United States.

    When they say bare minimum, they mean subsistence.

    September 3, 2015 at 8:20 pm

    • Anyone trying to hold up South Korea as an example to the world on the sex trade, regardless of the ideology being pushed, is tragically misinformed.

      Janice Raymond and other radfems literally could not care less about the actual impact of the laws they advocate. Having the law in place is an end in itself, to them.

      September 4, 2015 at 8:32 pm

    • Could you please provide further details about the nature of your visit in 2007, why you believe Korean officials turned a blind eye towards victims of human trafficking (not that I necessarily doubt that since South Korea had no human trafficking legislation back then apart from the Anti-Sex Trade Law), and how you arrived at the conclusion that the Philippine women you mentioned were in fact victims of human trafficking and not migrant sex workers?

      South Korean laws and law enforcement, along with the majority of the South Korean women’s rights movement sure have done their very best to keep sex work stigmatised, but their “success” does not extend to an elimination of South Koreans engaging in it. If what you meant with “dark and oppressive” were the lack of rights for migrant sex workers (or migrant workers in general), I would agree.

      And as for the 600,000 Won – you can’t live off that. I’ve tried it, and I am very frugal. Add taking care of children and (potentially sick) elderly parents into the mix, and it’s entirely impossible.

      With regards to your use of the term “sex slaves”, I strongly recommend reading my colleague Borislav Gerasimov’s article Hey! Mind your language! Bobby works for both La Strada and GAATW.

      September 5, 2015 at 12:54 am

  8. Pingback: South Korea: Sex workers fighting the law and law enforcement | Research Project Korea

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