Sex Work and Human Rights

Media Critique

Lies & Truths about the German Prostitution Act

Research Project Germany

An Introduction for the Uninitiated

Stamp from Deutsche Post AG from 2001, Pinocchio Source Wiki CommonsThe myths that circulate about German prostitution legislation are a perfect example of how lies and misconceptions become accepted as “truths” if only they are repeated often enough. Since political actors and anti-prostitution activists in many countries frequently cite Germany as an example where the legalisation of sex work has allegedly failed, the following list will look at some of the common claims made about the German Prostitution Act of 2002. The list is by no means exhaustive and well-informed readers will find nothing new in it. Its sole purpose is to reiterate evidence to contradict the common misconceptions, which sadly find their way into countless media reports time and time again.

Lie: Sex work was legalised in Germany in 2002.

Truth: Sex work was legal in Germany for most of the 20th century. The goal of the Prostitution Act of 2002 (ProstG) was to…

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Save My Seoul? Save Us From Saviours!

Coming soon: Questionable documentary about “sex trafficking”

Please note: This article is from September 2014. The film was released online in July 2017. The “facts” presented below still remain on the updated website of the filmmakers. Several links have been added to the below which readers are encouraged to follow.

Beware of Wolves in Sheep's ClothingNot a day goes by without another lurid news report, blog article, petition, or film project about “sex trafficking” surfacing. Last week, Jason and Eddie Lee, two Korean-American brothers who founded the Jubilee Project, and Jean Rheem, a native Korean living in the US, published a trailer for their upcoming documentary “Save My Seoul”, which aims to uncover “prostitution and sex trafficking in Seoul”.

Although the documentary has not yet been released, the details that have already emerged raise serious concerns over the three film makers’ grasp of the subject in general, and the harms caused by the conflation of sex work and human trafficking in particular. The following will examine the “facts” they present on their website and in the trailer, in order to highlight the problems that arise when presumably well-intended do-gooders choose to create ostensibly objective accounts about “sex trafficking”.

The “Facts”

Save My Seoul - Factoid 1

Apart from the fact that, ranging from 500,000 to more than double that number, it doesn’t even qualify as a guesstimate, this figure, which the film makers attribute to the Korean Feminist Association, was first spread more than ten years ago and before the adoption of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws in 2004. It has since been quoted in news reports time and time again, which is par for the course for such figures, but considering that even the South Korean government isn’t able to produce any reliable research on the subject (see next paragraph), the figure is highly questionable. It doesn’t bode well that the film makers label an outdated and inaccurate figure as a “fact”, and without providing a link to the actual report, but their other claims are no less problematic.

Save My Seoul - Factoid 2

Eddie Byun is a Chicago-born pastor at Onnuri Community Church in Seoul. He “fights against modern-day slavery” through HOPE Be Restored, an extension of Onnuri’s English Ministry “that seeks to bring freedom for the oppressed and restoration to lives that have been effected by human trafficking in Korea and around the world”. His book, “Justice Awakening: How You and Your Church Can Help End Human Trafficking”, includes tips how to “teach and preach sermons on human trafficking” and “rally men’s and women’s ministries to educate and actively engage in the fight against trafficking by helping anti-trafficking and after-care programs”. It doesn’t come as a surprise that among those praising his book is Gary Haugen, president and CEO of the International Justice Mission, an organisation “whose reliance on headline-grabbing brothel raids conducted with police to “rescue” sex workers have drawn criticism from human rights advocates around the world.” (Continue reading: Melissa Gira Grant – U.S. Policy and the Unjust Approach to Human Trafficking of the International Justice Mission)

While it is perhaps understandable that the Christian film makers felt they could trust the words of a pastor, Eddie Byun supports his claim by citing a report from November 2007 that was published by the South Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF) but produced by the Korean Women’s Development Institute (KWDI).

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 (emphasis added).

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. (Continue reading: Janice Raymond and the South Korean Model)

The report’s research methodology is questionable at best, and while Byun and the film makers take the figures therein at face value, the authors actually admit that their estimates are based on conjecture.

Save My Seoul - Factoid 3

For this claim, the film makers provide as source a “Korean Municipal Government” and the accompanying link leads to an article by Jennifer Chang on Al Jazeera, where the news channel deemed it necessary to inform its readers that some of the NGO figures Chang quoted “are not supported by any official data and are impossible to verify”, which casts doubts on the article’s overall credibility.

Al Jazeera DisclaimerAn extraordinary disclaimer by Al Jazeera, added on top of Changs article

According to Chang, the report (by the Seoul Metropolitan Government) cited figures from the police estimating that 200,000 youths run away from home each year, and “a survey of 175 female teen runaways by the municipal government found half had been led into the sex industry.”

Chang’s article, which focuses entirely on female runaways selling sex, appears to be based on this survey, which engaged with less than 0.1% of the total estimate of teenage runaways, and on interviews she conducted with female youths she met with the help of Hansorihoe (United Voice). Hansorihoe is an umbrella organisation of NGOs working towards the “eradication of sex trafficking in a society where all human rights are met”, promoting “anti-sex trafficking campaigns”, and “advocating for polices”. These campaigns – click here for a selection of them – not only frequently objectify women but regularly conflate sex work and human trafficking, which leads not only to “harm to sex workers on the ground, but also to conflicts that undermine HIV prevention”. (Continue reading: Richard Steen et al – Trafficking, sex work, and HIV: efforts to resolve conflicts)

If Chang’s report were an academic paper, it wouldn’t get past any peer-review. But in a news story, one can easily make claims that remain largely unchallenged and are subsequently cited as evidence by others.

Save My Seoul - Factoid 4

The same applies to this claim in the trailer. No source is given and the statement does not appear on the “Save My Seoul” website.

Save My Seoul - Factoid 5

Eddie Byun, the pastor the film makers cited above, writes in his book that “up to thirty million people are in slavery around the world” (page 12). Later, he writes that there are “more than thirty million slaves” (page 58), before he states “there are between 20 and 30 million people who are enslaved throughout the world” (page 155), and finally, that there are “approximately 20 million people are victims of human trafficking” (page 166; emphases added). The final figure is based on the Global Estimate of Forced Labour 2012 by the International Labour Organisation, which stated that “20.9 million people are victims of forced labour at any point in time”, 4.5 million (22 per cent) of which are said to be victims of forced sexual exploitation. The film makers, however, chose to stick with the oft-quoted figure of 27 million human trafficking victims, which dates back to 1999.

“That number was developed was developed by a “trafficking” fanatic named Kevin Bales using media reports multiplied by arbitrary numbers of his own devising; the more the hysteria, the higher the number of articles and thus the higher Bales’ number grows. … Bales starts with an “estimate” of unknown derivation, “adjusts” it by a factor based on media reports (which often repeat each other and obviously increase dramatically during a moral panic), presumes without evidence that the proportion of reports to actual incidents is low, multiplies the result by guesses from prohibitionists with an anti-whore agenda, then rounds up.” (Continue reading: Maggie McNeill – Held Together With Lies. See also: Dr Ron Weitzer – Miscounting human trafficking and slavery)

Rights not rescue – and no voyeurism either!

The above explanations are by no means exhaustive but they illustrate the use of flawed data and misrepresentations to promote the upcoming documentary “Save My Seoul”. There are two possibilities: either the film makers lack the necessary understanding of the very subject matter they hope to shed light on, or they deliberately cherry-picked statistics that fit into their sensationalist agenda. A quick glance at the comments underneath their trailer shows that they certainly know their audience. The most common response smacks of voyeurism: “Can’t wait (to see it)”.

Can't wait - YouTube comments under Trailer

Screenshot from Save My Seoul’s Facebook page

In 2012, three UN agencies compiled a comprehensive report in collaboration with numerous sex worker organisations in the Asia-Pacific region about laws, HIV and human rights in the context of sex work. The report examined laws, policies and law enforcement practices in 48 countries of the region with regards to their impact on the human rights of sex workers and the effectiveness of HIV responses.

If the film makers would have read this report, they would have been aware that “police crackdowns from 2004-2009 resulted in arrest of approximately 28,000 sex workers” in South Korea alone, and that the conflation of sex work and human trafficking often results in migrant sex workers living “with the constant threat of being reported, arrested and deported”, creating “a real barrier to accessing health and welfare services”. (Continue reading: UNDP – Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific)

Sex worker organisations and human rights groups, such as the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) or the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), have long since denounced the harms caused by anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking laws, and sex workers around the world demand rights, not rescue. But even in the absence of rights: the last thing sex workers or any people in exploitative labour situations need are voyeurs or do-gooders grandstanding as saviours. Not without reason do sex workers frequently declare: save us from saviours!

Save Us From Saviours - Image by Vamp

Photo: Sex worker collective Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP)

Journalists’ Ongoing Human Trafficking Problem

Feminist Ire

Guest post by Matthias Lehmann

More often than not, advocacy for sex workers’ rights and the acceptance of sex work as work puts one at odds with members of that part of the anti-human trafficking movement that rejects these ideas, considers prostitution as inherently harmful, and brands anyone disagreeing with them as a member of some imaginary pimp lobby. Another group one finds oneself at odds with are journalists who report about – and, like the former, conflate – human trafficking and prostitution, as their articles frequently include false, inaccurate or misrepresented information.

Chimpanzee Typing - Image by New York Zoological Society (1907)

As sex workers and their allies will confirm, one could easily spend all day writing rebuttals to counter the influence on public opinion of the many sensationalist reports, but one has to pick and choose. The following is a response to Kyla Ryan’s article “Cambodia’s Ongoing Human Trafficking Problem” in The Diplomat. Before I start, however, I…

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Poverty Porn

In Response to Lucy Williamson, BBC Seoul Correspondent


“Love” – Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.*

On June 10th, 2014, the BBC published a report by its Seoul correspondent Lucy Williamson about elderly prostitution in South Korea. The report, which quickly went viral, is titled “The Korean grandmothers who sell sex” and deals with “women in their 50s, 60, even their 70s” who sell sex to elderly male clients in the area around Jongmyo Park, a popular hangout for Korean seniors located right in front of the Jongmyo Royal Ancenstral Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

On Age, Dignity and the Police

In April 2013, Korean daily The Hankyoreh had published a 2-part report about the same subject and titled it matter-of-factly “Elderly prostitution at Jongmyo Park”. Lucy Williamson – or her editor – instead chose a more sensationalist title to fit the tone of the report. While it’s conceivable that all women Williamson interviewed had in fact grandchildren, the underlying implication is quite obvious: grandmothers shouldn’t sell sex but grow old with dignity. And Williamson quickly confirms that suspicion, as she writes: “At an age when Korean grandmothers are supposed to be venerated as matriarchs, some are selling sex.” In her opinion, being venerated and selling sex are obviously mutually exclusive.

One of the interviewees Williamson quotes is a 71-year-old woman selling energy drinks on the steps of a subway station near Jongmyo Park, but she doesn’t “go out with the grandpas and earn money from them” like others she points at. Nevertheless, she worries about the police who are always watching her, as “they don’t differentiate” between her and those selling sex.

Williamson seems less worried because her report leaves out the police almost entirely, apart from mentioning that some officers “privately say this problem will never be solved by crackdowns” and that “policy needs to change”. Important views, but they fade into the background of Williamson’s narrative. “Law-enforcement isn’t the only problem”, she simply concludes, as if the frequent police crackdowns had no impact on sex workers – or their clients, for that matter. She also fails to mention the recent announcement by the government to pay informants rewards of up to one hundred million won (US$98,000) for tip-offs about prostitution activities, a plan which drew strong criticism from Korean sex workers.

It doesn’t come as a surprise then that in a report about prostitution in Seoul, Williamson also omits that for the last year and a half, South Korea’s constitutional court is mulling over the constitutionality of the country’s anti-prostitution law, ever since a Seoul court asked to review it back in January 2013. The review was supposed to be completed within 6 months, but to this day, no decision has been announced.

Sex Work and Sexual Health

Instead, Williamson writes about “one local survey, which found that almost 40% of the men tested had a sexually transmitted disease”. While she correctly points at the problem that sex education is mainly “aimed at teenagers” and that local governments have begun to respond by offering “sex education clinics especially for seniors”, it remains unclear who conducted the local study and whether or not the participants were drawn from among the men buying sex at Jongmyo Park or from the general population. But the underlying implication is once again quite obvious: apparently, selling and buying sex inevitably results in contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

The United Nations report Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific tells a different story. The study found that the criminalisation of sex work increased the vulnerability of sex workers to HIV by fuelling stigma and discrimination, by limiting access to sexual health services, condoms and harm reduction services, and by adversely affecting the self esteem of sex workers and their ability to make informed choices about their health. South Korea’s anti-prostitution law, which criminalises the selling and buying of sex, is therefore detrimental to public health, not the selling or buying sex per se.

Love Hotels

Williamson then turns her attention to love hotels, “hidden in a dingy warren of alleyways in central Seoul”. Jongno, the district where Jongmyo Park is located, is right in the middle of downtown Seoul, an area that has undergone rapid modernisation over the last ten-odd years, and while some alleyways are indeed narrow and dark, it doesn’t make them any dingier than any littered street in the UK.

Click here for images of Jongno on Flickr

But then again, everything related to selling and buying sex apparently must be described in such a way, just as love motels must be put between inverted commas and described as having “narrow corridors” and “grey rooms”, like there are no sky-high property prices that make business owners cram as many rooms as possible into their hotels, and as if there aren’t lavishly decorated love hotels all over South Korea.

Click here for images of Korean love hotels on Flickr

Of course the cheaper ones, which might be the only ones the elderly buying and selling sex around Jongmyo Park can afford, may well be less pleasant. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are as unsavoury as Williamson’s report insinuates.

If you cannot afford one of the more expensive guest houses or hotels in South Korea, love hotels are an affordable option to stay, whether one needs some privacy for sex or simply a roof over one’s head. An article published in Korean newspaper Joong Ang Daily from as early as 2005 states that love hotels’ main customers are young or married couples who want privacy, but sometimes also “students use the place to study together, relax or watch a movie”. As Lee Gil-won, a motel consultant, explains: “The recent remodeling boom by love hotels is due to a realization that to survive they have to upgrade their services and eliminate the kinds of stigmas they are associated with.” **

Williamson’s report, however, perpetuates stigmas, not just those of love hotels but, more importantly, those associated with selling and buying sex, too. And she doesn’t stop there.

Young Koreans

Williamson writes of “many young people” in South Korea as saying that “they can’t afford to support themselves and their parents in Korea’s fast-paced, highly competitive society”. How many young people she has spoken to or where else she obtained this information remains unknown.

What is known, however, is that according to 2012 data from the National Tax Service, nearly ten million South Koreans earn “less than 1.55 million won (US$1,530) a month, chiefly from labor or their own small businesses” and that “the actual median income is predicted to be even lower if individuals with relatively low earnings who were not subject to taxation – such as farmers, fisherman, and day laborers – are factored in.” In addition, youth unemployment surpassed 10 percent as of February 2014, and “for those aged 15 to 29, the employment rate is barely above 40 percent”.

But those facts wouldn’t fit into Williamson’s narrative of young Koreans who apparently care more about themselves than the elderly, a message the report hammers home with an image of an elderly woman passing by an advertisement for expensive consumer electronics.

Poverty Porn

In an earlier piece about American radical feminist Janice Raymond spreading misinformation about South Korea’s prostitution law, I wrote: “If you want reliable information about the current conditions in South Korea’s sex industry, sex workers are the people to go to.” And BBC Assignment, where you can listen to Williamson’s audio report, claims to tell “the world’s stories from the point of view of those most affected by them – the victims, the witnesses – and the perpetrators”.

I’m afraid, however, that despite Williamson’s efforts to talk with people selling and buying sex at Jongmyo Park, a few interspersed quotes fail to disguise that her report mainly reflects her own view: the title, the tone, the omission of sources on the one hand and crucial information on the other – they all add up to a quite superficial and biased view on a complex situation. And while elderly poverty and youth unemployment in South Korea are real concerns that deserve much attention, this piece of poverty porn does not.


In 2003, when Jongno’s modernisation wasn’t nearly as advanced as it is now, I spent one month living at a love motel in Jongno for lack of better options – and survived.

*To avoid using images used by the BBC to which I do not own the copyright, this post features a photo of a light fixture outside a love motel in Sinchon dictrict, Seoul. Photo: “Love” – Matt Lemon Photography (All Rights Reserved)

Articles mentioned above

Elderly prostitution at Jongmyo Park – Part I

Elderly prostitution at Jongmyo Park – Part II

Love hotels not just for secret liaisons anymore

Judge seeks constitutional review of law that criminalizes prostitution

10 million people nationwide earning only around $1,500 per month

Korea suffers youth unemployment blues

Janice Raymond and the South Korean Model

Commentaries in the international media

The following is my letter to the editor of the Japanese Times that was published on November 27th in response to the article “Germany is having second thoughts on legalized prostitution“.

Japan Times OpinionI’m a German researcher and I was a co-organizer of the protest against Alice Schwarzer’s recent event in Berlin.

The fact that many guests at the event didn’t seem to mind when Schwarzer, a privileged woman in a powerful position, dismissed critical comments by a Bulgarian sex worker as grotesque and implausible, illustrates how little Schwarzer and her followers understand about the diversity of experiences made by sex workers.

Schwarzer’s book and her appeal against prostitution have been widely criticized for using entirely unreliable data. The counter-appeal, launched by the German sex workers’ union, has been signed by numerous experts, including counseling centers for sex workers and victims of human trafficking as well as social scientists, social workers and sex workers themselves.

In opinion polls, a majority of the German public has consistently shown not to support a move to roll back the German prostitution law. Suggesting otherwise and believing Schwarzer’s and Louis’ unscientific claims is, pardon me, sloppy investigative journalism. Schwarzer’s press conference for foreign journalists has certainly been noticed by her opponents. Thankfully, there’s a currently a more diverse discourse in the German media than your article provides.

You can read a more detailed and more accurate description of the event in the news section of the International Committee for the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE).

“Sex workers protest against Alice Schwarzer’s panel discussion about prostitution in Berlin”

You can read the appeal to strengthen the rights and improve the living and working conditions of sex workers here.


The ObserverThe following is a comment I left on the article “Germany rethinks its liberal ways on sex workers“ in the Observer, written by Philip Oltermann, the Guardian and Observer’s Berlin correspondent. I am glad to report that Mr Oltermann acknowledged that his unintended choice of words could have been misinterpreted. The passages in question have now been revised.

All in all not a bad summary of the current discourses in Germany but a couple of things should be noted. It is not “Germany” that rethinks its liberal ways on sex workers. In opinion polls, a majority of the German public has consistently shown not to support a move to roll back the German prostitution law. (See recent polls by infratest or ZDF login, or even an older one conducted by SOLWODI – Solidarity with Women in Distress, whose chairwoman is one of the fiercest anti-prostitution activists around). Reports suggesting otherwise are based on Alice Schwarzer’s press conference for foreign journalists, which provided them with more of the same unscientific claims from her book.

Speaking of “claims”: call me a nitpicker but I find it odd that Philip Oltermann let’s Alice Schwarzer and her fellow campaigners “argue” but Alexa Müller “claim” (in regards to the ’44 sex workers [who] are registered for the public health scheme’ and the fact that she regularly meets and talks to Romanian and Bulgarian prostitutes). It appears the author doubts Müller’s accounts.

Where the ’44’ are concerned, a report by the German government from as early as 2005 outlined some of the reasons. As the main obstacle, sex workers named the uncertainty whether or not labour contracts would actually provide any social and material benefits for them, and to what extent they might be faced with unexpected disadvantages. The most common answer was that they simply could not imagine how such contracts should work.

“I think that labour contracts wouldn’t really be helpful for any prostitute. You have to be very careful with labour contracts, because through contracts, there could also arise possibilities of a very different type of exploitation. Okay, you get a labour contract, but then you have to do [oral sex] or have to offer any service, that the customer wants. If that’s price that women are offered to pay for social insurance, then I would advise each and every woman not to do that.” [p.55, Translated from the German version; the English version (which doesn’t include this quote) can be found here.]

And where Eastern European sex workers are concerned, let’s hear it directly from them then.

Following an account by social worker Sabine Constabel at the book launch of Alice Schwarzer about young women from Eastern Europe who, as she claimed, are predominantly uneducated as well as diseased due to insufficient health care in their home countries, a Bulgarian sex worker commented:

„For 3 years, I worked at a brothel in Berlin, before that, 4 years at Artemis, 6 years at another business. I have never met a Bulgarian woman as you described them, who were sick. … 2 women sought protection, they [contacted the police]. Where do you meet these women?” [Video and transcript can be found here.]

A word about reliable figures. While it is true that there are no reliable figures, there are some important facts to be known.

The German Prostitution Act of 2002 has in no way impacted the powers of law enforcement. In several states (‘Bundesländer’), the police can and does control brothels and brothel-like businesses at any time. The fact of the matter is that the Prostitution Act, even 11 years after it was adopted, is still not being implemented in all of Germany, and the powers of law enforcement are interpreted differently between different states.

A recent report by the criminal office in North-Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state of Germany, stated that despite an increasing number of controls, the number of victims of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation has decreased. The report also stated that the Prostitution Act has had no visible impact on human trafficking.

And finally, there is sufficient evidence that laws banning prostitution, including those that claim to punish sex workers’ clients only, are harmful, not “only” where sex workers’ rights are concerned but also where efforts to combat actual human trafficking are concerned. (See “Criminalising the payment for sexual services – An introduction for the uninitiated”)

Germany, for all its needs to improve on the existing law, is at least on the right track.

Matthias Lehmann, Berlin

Does legal prostitution really increase human trafficking in Germany?

Der Spiegel 22.2013 Mock English - Image by Matthias LehmannIn late May, leading German news magazine DER SPIEGEL published a cover story – now published in English – on the alleged failure of the German prostitution law, which rendered the State complicit in human trafficking. The deeply flawed report failed, however, to address numerous relevant aspects of human trafficking prevention and prosecution, including victim protection. It also failed to insert much needed factual evidence into the broader global debate on human trafficking, which is also about labor rights, migration, sustainable supply chains and human rights. DER SPIEGEL thus contributed to a very narrow debate on human trafficking and to the wrong debate around sex work.

Feminist Ire, “Not your fluffy feminism”, kindly published an article by Sonja Dolinsek and myself, which critically engages with the international community on the difficult relationship between trafficking and sex work. Please click here to read the article.

The above image (click to enlarge) is not an actual SPIEGEL cover. The red umbrella is the symbol of the sex workers’ rights movement. Click here for more information. Image: Matthias Lehmann