Sex Work and Human Rights

Debate

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

(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.

Continue Reading

[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.”


Sex worker criticises Alice Schwarzer’s view of women as commodity

 

“I just want to say that what bothers me is the view of women as commodity. I am a service provider. Of course there a social hardships. What bothers me is to take it all out of context, that we don’t say: A, there has to be a secure income, we need to get women out of poverty; that is the context. And then (sexual) services should be recognised, the status of women’s oldest profession enhanced and general conditions created, where women aren’t viewed as children, neither on an individual nor on a societal level, but as independent, clear-thinking subjects.”

(The above translation is as close to the original as possible. Due to low sound quality, some passages were a little hard to understand.)

Recorded at the presentation of anti-prostitution activist Alice Schwarzer’s book “Prostitution – A German Scandal” on November 14th, 2013, at Urania Berlin. Video by Research Project Korea.


Sex, Lies, and Abolitionists

How prostitution abolitionists defame sex workers’ rights activists

The following comment was left on my blog last night.

Are you actually interested in the suffering of women who were forced into prostitution and who are hard up? If yes, you could read the following: Your Justifications are Killing Us
– Sophie

Rather than replying in the comment section only, I chose to respond more publicly in this post, to highlight the defamation that proponents of sex workers’ rights frequently have to endure.

Dear Sophie,

I do indeed take an interest in forced prostitution, though without your apparent limitation to women. I already knew the text you sent me. Even though I do not wish to deny the personal experiences of the author, I do take issue with the message she aims to convey with her text as well as with the blatant lies she spreads. In the following, I will respond to selected paragraphs of her post and thus, to your comment.

“Too much of the Left is made of male-thought, and in this thinking it not surprising that the Left has always justify the sex trade, and ignore the reality of life for the prostituted.” – Rebecca Mott

To give but one example to challenge her view, I shall name the German prostitution law (ProstG), which was an initiative by the female members of the German Green Party who by no means ignored the reality of sex workers. The ProstG abolished the statutory offence of the „promotion of prostitution” and made it possible to create better working conditions for sex workers without rendering oneself liable to prosecution.

Since the author mentions her view about which groups dominate the prostitution discourse, how about we take a look at the spectrum of prostitution abolitionists? In my view, those are predominantly radical feminists or members of faith-based organisations.

They are the ones who ignore the realities of sex workers, since their opinions often rest on their own concepts of morality and disproven research. I have no problem with anyone who doesn’t consider sex work as a desirable occupation or wishes to write about it and try to have others think about it, too. That falls under freedom of expression. That, however, is not what prostitution abolitionists are content with.

“If you scream and shout that you’re not a victim you are suffering from a false consciousness. And if you try to convince them that you’re not even suffering from a false consciousness, they will say: ‘Well you’re not representative'”.
– Pye Jacobsson, Swedish sex worker and activist URL

The term „prostituted“ supports the notion that sex workers lack agency and aren’t able to make informed decisions. “to be prostituted” is a passive term that supports the notion that one cannot actively choose to work as sex worker. Is a construction worker “constructed” then?

“I am tired of everyone letting the left off the hook – I tired of waiting for the Left to get on board with abolition – I tired of men who Leftist making their porn stash and their consumption of the prostituted is somehow better than right-wing men who do exactly the same.” – Rebecca Mott

I, on the other hand, am tired that forced prostitution and pornography are conflated time and again, and that those who oppose the criminalisation of sex work are branded as proponents of sexual exploitation.

“In this post, I will speak of the many leftist cliches that have said to me, or I have read, or had fed to me by the media.” – Rebecca Mott

I don’t know which media the author refers to here, but I cannot support her view that the media are currently engaged in a campaign for the rights of sex workers. Rather, prostitution abolitionists frequently dominate the discourse and silence any dissenters. (See my previous post about a German talk show in featuring prominent prostitution abolitionist Alice Schwarzer) URL

The following statement is a typical example for that.

“Much of the poison-speech by the Left is the language of pimps and punters – men who are not pimps and punters parrots their words without questioning. I was consumed by many Leftist punters who justify all their tortures – I had profiteers selling me who imagine they were on the Left, hell they were sexual outlaws, they were empowering women, they were model-day freedom fighters.” – Rebecca Mott

If you don’t agree with them, prostitution abolitionists will denounce you as pimp, punter, torturer or – here – will-less parrot.

“I write to the Left, for my heart is exploring with pain and grief – silence round the Left betraying the prostituted class is killing the prostituted every day.” – Rebecca Mott

Again, the author conveys that the left ignored the reality. I would like to know whom she is talking about, but that she fails to elaborate on. I suppose that according to current criteria, you can call me leftist, and where I am concerned, I did seek the dialogue with prostitution abolitionists several times, only to be faced with attempts to defame me, distort my views into the opposite, or shout me down.

“The major one is that if you unionise the sex trade, then it will be fine and dandy. I agree with unions for workers – but there we the major flaw – being embedded in the sex trade is not work, the prostituted class are not workers. They are in the conditions of slavery, of having their human rights stripped from them – they are not workers. To frame it as work, where all that need to be done putting in basic health and safety regulations, all that need to be done is to get a shop steward who go to the sex trade profiteer and speak of working rights for the prostituted. Think a little, and you will see this is nonsense.” – Rebecca Mott

Sex worker unions are indeed no cure-all. However, the notion that sustainable improvements could be achieved without them is a misconception. The interests of sex workers are best represented by sex workers themselves. Those include fighting forced prostitution and violence, by the way. But for as long as prostitution abolitionists fight against sex work itself, a collaboration with sex workers is hardly in the cards. Sex work is work. Forced prostitution is forced sexual labour.

“When there are unions for the prostituted – they always are dominated by the profiteers, punters and those who support painting the myth that the sex trade is safe.” – Rebecca Mott

That is a blatant lie. Information about sex worker organisations can be easily obtained. I recommend the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) as a starting point.

“Unions that exist do not include the prostitute who is trapped in a brothel, do not include women in the porn that is daily torture, do not include the under-aged prostitute trapped in a room with lines of men consuming her.” – Rebecca Mott

While it is true that those forced into prostitution usually have no access to sex worker organisations, it is also true that forced prostitutes represent the minority of sex workers. So what is the answer? To defame sex workers, who like any other working person work on their own accord, and defame their organisations, including the services and assistance they offer? Among others, those include assistance to exit sex work, counselling (e.g. when suffering from sex worker burnout), or the opportunity to report suspected cases of forced prostitution. Does doing away with those sound like a good plan?

“No, unions are not for the ordinary and average woman or girl – for those unions have no intention to stop the routine rapes, the routine beating ups, the routine throwing away of the prostituted. No, the purpose of these unions is to whitewash away all the normal male hate and violence that underpins all aspects of the sex trade.” – Rebecca Mott

See above. One can easily learn about the objectives of sex worker organisations. The supposed “intentions” that the author describes are brazen defamations.

“Do not back any sex trade union – they do not give a damn about the prostituted, they care about pimps and punters.” – Rebecca Mott

This statement demonstrates that the author is not in the least interested in the rights of sex workers.

“It is a union run and controlled by managers, but more by managers who view the prostituted as goods and never as humans. Your belief in unions is killing the prostituted every day.” – Rebecca Mott

The author fails again to disclose what union(s) she is talking about. Her statement is a general condemnation of all sex worker organisations that aims to defame their members and work. Therefore, I will not respond to all further paragraphs, but only to a few additional points.

Sex workers protest against police crackdowns in Seoul [Photo: AP/Lee Jin-man]

“I would see punters who had brutalise me and other prostitutes on marches, in meetings or part of liberal religions – fighting with all the might for rights and dignity of all humans.” – Rebecca Mott

I heard people raise suspicions that sex workers in South Korea were forced to participate in demonstrations. I discussed this with Korean sex workers who I suppose the author would claim belong to this “leftist riff-raff”. None of them was able to confirm this suspicion.

“That when I learnt the lesson I have never lost – these men did not fight for the dignity and rights of the prostituted foe we were not and cannot be classed as humans – we were just goods for them to use to consume and throw away.” – Rebecca Mott

I believe that the information that I published on this blog and via Facebook speak for themselves and refute the author’s portrayal of “these men” as a homogeneous group.

“We were not given access to human rights” – Rebecca Mott

Here I agree. The rights of sex workers are indeed frequently violated and only unagitated discussions about possible countermeasures will lead to a sustainable reduction of such violations. Not only should sex worker participate in these discussions – they should be the protagonists in them.

“Please question your Leftist views if they discard the prostituted class.” – Rebecca Mott

Please question your views if they undermine the rights of sex workers. Failing to safeguard sex workers’ rights, will prevent fighting forced prostitution and violence in sex work effectively.

Sex Workers’ Freedom Rally in Kolkata, India [Photo by Matt Lemon Photography]


Is sex work objectifying?

Please note: this entry is from May 2012.

http://tinyurl.com/6tqaojk

Following the previous debates about anti-traffickers and legalisation, I once more move a private conversation into the open. This time, I am publishing an excerpt of an email to me by Norma Jean Almodovar (with her kind permission). Norma Jean is a veteran sex worker rights activist and director of the L.A. chapter of Coyote (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), an American sex worker activist organisation.

Earlier this year, Norma Jean and I had exchanged emails, following the debate on the Facebook page of Melissa Farley’s organisation ‘Prostitution Research & Education’, where I had posted a link to my article about the rhetoric of sex work abolitionists. I had asked Norma Jean about her thoughts with regards to the frequently made claim that selling sex is objectifying those who sell it, an argument commonly used to support the notion that sex work is harmful both on an individual and societal level. Please read Norma Jean’s below statement and join the debate on Facebook.

Note: you can follow the debate on Facebook even if you do not have a Facebook account. If you like to post a comment but don’t want to register with Facebook, you are welcome to leave a comment on this blog. I will then add your comment to the debate.

Is sex work objectifying? –
Thoughts from Norma Jean Almodovar

“I have much to say on this whole concept of ‘objectification’. It is one of those esoteric ideas that elitist feminist academics dreamed up because there is no way to prove or disprove that someone objectifies someone else. Equally, even if selling sex does objectify the seller, there is no way to prove if it is emotionally harmful to the objectified individual.

Objectification is the perfect straw man for feminists because there is no way to quantify the alleged psychological damage – if any – occurred. I highly doubt that objectification causes harm as everyone who is objectified by anyone else in any other profession would show some signs of this damage by now.

‘Objectification’ isn’t limited to sex and sex objects but covers a host of situations, including the objectification of domestic servants, wait persons, musicians, show business people, even athletes. We objectify actors and only see them as performers and entertainers, and even though we might want to know about their personal lives, we want them to remain fantasies, upon whom we can have crushes.

I happen to like being objectified – as an artist, writer, etc., and when I was working, I enjoyed being a sex object, because my clients were client objects – some of whom I cared about deeply as friends, but most were in my life because we had a business arrangement. I treated them with respect and dignity and they treated me with respect and dignity, something I don’t get from those fanatic prohibitionists and abolitionists!

Women objectify men, men objectify women. Because that’s the only way we can sort through a complicated life. We cannot have as close personal friends everyone with whom we come into contact, so we have to compartmentalize and objectify people who are only temporarily in our lives and whose interaction with us is very fleeting and impersonal, or sometimes even those who are in our lives regularly. We just don’t have the capacity to process all the data, emotions and feelings required to not objectify those people.

Personally, I don’t have the time or the energy to get to know as human beings those who fix my car, who sell beauty products at the beauty supply store, who clean my clothes at the dry cleaners, who wait on me at the restaurant, my mail carrier etc. And I am sure they don’t have the time or the inclination to get to know me either. So we objectify each other in order to get through a transaction. Sometimes it’s pleasant and we are more friendly toward some than toward others. While one may objectify one’s mechanic, mail carrier, sales person, or server, it does not mean that one treats any of them with disrespect.

So why on earth would a sex worker want her clients to get to know them if the sex worker doesn’t necessarily want to get to know her clients other than as a client objects?

Feminists who use the concept of objectification to argue that all sex work is inherently harmful disregard what sex workers might prefer – to be objectified – and what sex workers do to their clients –objectifying them as money objects – because they presume that sex workers have no intellectual capacity for having a preference. To those feminists, we become ‘rescue objects’ rather than the individuals we are. And we don’t prefer that sort of objectification! At least I don’t.

With all this objectification going on, why aren’t these prohibitionist feminists objecting to all those professions and situations in which somebody is objectified by someone else? Because they don’t care about anyone but themselves and their own hatred of men and of the women who sexually cater to them.”

Norma Jean Almodovar, January 2012

Do you agree or disagree with the points raised by Norma Jean Almodovar? What are your thoughts about objectification?

Please click here to join the debate!

I would like to thank Norma Jean Almodovar for her time and effort, as well as for her kind permission to publish the above excerpt from our email conversation.
____

The above image is a modified version of the poster design by Michael C. Place and his colleagues at Build for the Objectified documentary. The photo of Norma Jean Almodovar used with kind permission of her husband Victor Savant.


Does the Legalisation of Sex Work increase Trafficking?

Join the debate on Facebook!

Once again, I would like to move a private discussion into the open. This time, I invited Matt Stearner, a Phd student at the Department of Sociology at Ohio State University. Matt and I talked about a discussion he had had with a friend of his about the legalisation of sex work. I asked him if he would mind if we continued our discussion on Research Project Korea’s Facebook page so that more people could weigh in. Please click here to join the debate!

Note: you can follow the debate on Facebook even if you do not have a Facebook account. If you like to post a comment but don’t want to register with Facebook, you are welcome to leave a comment on this blog. I will then add your comment to the debate.


Can Anti-Traffickers and Sex Workers join hands?

Moving a private conversation into the open, I invited Paul, employee of a genuine anti-trafficking organisation that empowers actual victims of sexual exploitation by providing them with schooling, professional skills training and guaranteed long-term employment and development. Paul and I had talked about the Backpage controversy and after several long posts from each of us, I asked him if he would mind if we continued our discussion on Research Project Korea’s Facebook page so that more people could weigh in. Please click here to join the debate!