Sex Work and Human Rights


Why feminists (or anyone, really) should choose their words, images¹ and fonts² wisely

Why feminists should... Image by Research Project Korea (@photogroffee)

(click here to enlarge image)

Response to an image posted by user A (@BigEasy_A, see below) in the comment thread underneath Susan Sarandon’s somewhat surprising, yet welcome about-face (she had previously lend her support to Cambodian prostitution abolitionist Somaly Mam, disgraced in 2014 for fabricating stories to raise funds).

Sources used for the above image include “Language Matters: Talking About Sex Work” by Chez Stella, “The Decriminalisation of Third Parties” by NSWP, and “Unfair labour arrangements and precarious working conditions in the sex industry” by ICRSE.

[Photo] Queer Sex Workers’ Lives Matter

[97b] Queen Sex Workers' Lives Matter © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.

Torsos only for privacy reasons. © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.

Despite a military crackdown on gay servicemen, politicians refusing to enact anti-discrimination legislation, and fundamentalist faith groups engaging in “Homosexuality Countermeasures”, South Korea has just witnessed its biggest-ever queer parade. Korean sex workers’ rights activist Yeoni Kim and others carried a message on their T-shirts that still needs plenty of amplifying, not only but especially in Korea: Queer Sex Workers’ Lives Matter! LGBT 성노동자도 함께 합니다!

Please click here to continue reading.

Event: Korean Sex Workers’ Day 2014

Join Giant Girls and SWASH on Korean Sex Workers’ Day 2014!

What: Presentations, Discussion, Performance!
When: Sunday 29 June 2014 1pm
Where: Alternative Visual Culture Factory i-Gong
2F 330-8 Seogyo-dong Mapo-gu Seoul Korea (121-836)
Entrance fee: ₩5,000
Language: This event is held in Korean and Japanese
Click here to join the event on Facebook

GG Korean Sex Workers Day English Poster 1GG Korean Sex Workers Day English Poster 2

June 29th Korean Sex Workers’ Day

On this day, the National Solidarity of Sex Workers Day was organized, after the Special Anti-Sex Trade Law [which includes a Prevention Act and a Punishment Act] was passed in 2004. Since then, we commemorate this day as Sex Workers Day to honour all sex workers who have contributed to the struggle against discrimination over the years.

Pinned Post: Copyright Notice

“Receiving credit for an image we created is a given, not compensation, and credit is not a substitute for payment.” – Tony Wu, Photographer

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.Credit is also not a substitute for asking for permission to use an image. Unfortunately, there have been several cases of photos from this or my other blogs being used elsewhere without my express permission. All photos published on this blog or on my Facebook pages or Twitter account are my own unless credited otherwise. Upon request, I may grant permission to use them but ask for credit to be given as ‘Matthias Lehmann/Matt Lemon Photography’. Once you publish my photos or videos on your blog or website, I expect you to share the link with me. Especially if you wish to use any of my photos in commercial or print publications, you must contact me prior to doing so. Before contacting me, I recommend reading Tony Wu’s Reasons Why Professional Photographers Cannot Work for Free.

All permissions are given for non-profit use only. I retain all rights of my photography and videography work. The use of Yeoni Kim’s photos on this blog is prohibited. If you wish to use them, please contact me to facilitate communication with her. Unless credited otherwise, all other photos on this blog are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. The above also applies for any use of text from this blog, should you wish to use any part or entire entries elsewhere: if a text is marked as not falling under the Creative Commons License, anyone wishing to republish it is expected to request permission from the respective copyright holders. If they cannot reach them, please contact me to facilitate communication with them.

Jasmine and Dora 4-Ever

End Violence Against Sex Workers

This video chronicles the efforts of sex worker communities and their allies to memorialise Dora Özer and Petite Jasmine. Dora was a 24-year-old trans sex worker in Turkey, Jasmine was a 27-year-old sex worker in Sweden. Both were murdered in a matter of days in July 2013.

This video is launched at a time when the European Parliament debates about and votes on whether to recommend EU member states to criminalise the clients of sex workers and the buying of sexual services. This system is known as the Swedish Model, which numerous studies, e.g. by member organisations of the United Nations or the World Health Organisation, have found to have serious consequences for the health and safety of sex workers.

“Laws that criminalize sex work and the sex industry should be reviewed, taking into account the adverse impact of these laws on public health and the human rights of sex workers. To enable sex workers to fully enjoy legal rights to health and safety at work requires decriminalization. Decriminalization of sex work requires the repeal of: a. laws explicitly criminalizing sex work or clients of sex workers…” – UNAIDS, UNDP, UNFPA. “Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific” (UNDP, 2012)

The “criminalization of sex work contributes to an environment, in which violence against sex workers is tolerated, leaving them less likely to be protected from it”. – WHO “Violence against sex workers and HIV prevention” Information Bulletin Series, Number 3 (2005)

In the aftermath of the murders of Dora and Jasmine, sex workers and allies organised protests in front of Swedish and Turkish embassies in 36 cities on 4 continents. The video includes impressions from these protests as well as an interview with Petite Jasmine by Carol Leigh and Pye Jakobsson during the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington.

“Often when I talk about what I think is important, that people who sell sex should be accepted and have a place in society like everybody else, there are many that say that it would never be accepted by society. But it wasn’t long ago that people said the same thing about unwed mothers, gays, transsexuals – pretty much everyone that was outside this frame of normality. I think, if we all tried real hard not to discriminate, like we have done with other minorities, things will develop pretty fast, like it has with other groups. That’s what I believe in.” – Eva Marree Smith Kullander (Petite Jasmine)

For further information, please click here to visit the official website for the “International Day of Protest to End Violence Against Sex Workers – In memoriam of Jasmine and Dora”. The protests were coordinated by the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE).

To view a photo album about the global protests for Jasmine and Dora, please click here.

This video was posted with kind permission from Carol Leigh. For further details, please click here to view the video and a statement by Carol Leigh on Vimeo.

(Im)moral Authority

Following a report in news magazine DER SPIEGEL, Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s leading anti-prostitution activist and advocate of the Swedish Model, admits to tax evasion, then accuses DER SPIEGEL of “character assassination”. Click here to read more.

(Un)Moralapostolin: Nachdem DER SPIEGEL berichtete, dass die führende Prostitutionsgegnerin systematisch Steuern hinterzog, gibt Alice Schwarzer dies zunächst zu, nur um dann den SPIEGEL des Rufmords zu bezichtigen. Hier weiterlesen.

Ineffective and in dire need of reform: South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Law

“The biggest contributor to pushing sex work underground are the authorities.” A banner – previously used at the press conference by the Hanteo National Union of Sex Workers – hangs forlorn between two brothels in Yeongdeungpo, Seoul, as the red light district is closed on Korean Sex Workers’ Day 2012. (Photo by Matthias Lehmann)

Report on Public Opinion of Anti-Trade Sex Law

Hyundai Research Institute LogoIn 2011, the Hyundai Research Institute published the findings of a survey commissioned by the Hanteo National Union of Sex Workers. It examined “the changes in public opinions on sex trade after the enactment of the Anti-Trade Sex Law” in South Korea based on interviews with 1,000 adults from different age groups and all walks of life in a nationwide telephone survey.

The report, a copy of which I had received by Hyun Joon KANG, Director-General of Hanteo, has now been translated into English from the Korean original by Yeon Ju OH, Research Fellow at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Yeon Ju OH is a co-editor of Cyberfeminism 2.0 and has been researching women in technology, the relationship between gender and new media technologies, and feminist knowledge production. Her interests include the transnationalisation of feminist knowledge.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Ms Oh who volunteered to translate the report to make it accessible to a wider audience and help to further a better knowledge exchange between the global south and north.

Please click here to download the translated report incl. annotated tables in English. Click here, if you wish to download a scanned version of the original report in Korean.

South Korean Model: The Anti-Trade Sex Law

In September 2000, the notorious Gunsan Brothel Fire killed five women who had been held captive. Their tragic deaths exposed the conditions in Korea’s sex industry and triggered a campaign by women’s rights activists to reform the country’s prostitution laws. Their proposals became the blueprint for the Special Laws on Sex Trade (성매매 특별법, Seongmaemae tteukbyeol beob), enacted in 2004, which include a Protection and Prevention Act and a Punishment Act, which penalises both buyers and sellers of sexual acts with up to one year in prison or fines up to 3 million won (approx. £1,715/€2,075/$2,825), except for those who were coerced into selling sex. Those who force others to sell sex are subject to up to 10 years in prison or fines of up to 100 million won (approx. £57,000/€70,000/$94,000).

The Anti-Sex Trade Law of 2004 replaced the Law Against Morally Depraved Behaviours (Prostitution) of 1961  (윤락행위등방지법, Yullak haengui deung bangji beob). Interestingly, the new law replaced the term “prostitution” (윤락) with “sex trade/sex trafficking” (성매매) as the former was found to imply the “moral corruption of the engaged women” while the latter was deemed to be neutral in value. What this illustrates, however, is the law’s disregard of sex work as an act of self-determination and the definition of transactional sex, i.e. the receipt of monetary or other material benefits in exchange for sexual acts, as inherently exploitative.

By passing the Anti-Sex Trade Law, the government vowed to eliminate prostitution and protect victims of exploitation and violence in the sex industry, drawing inspiration from the so-called Swedish Model that criminalises the buyers of sexual acts. Although representatives of the Swedish government continue to claim that the law successfully reduced prostitution and human trafficking, a 2011 report by the Swedish police found that between 2008 and 2010, all those criminal offences the Sex Purchase Act from 1999 was supposed to tackle had actually increased, including a number of human trafficking offences, the purchase of sexual services and even the purchase of sex acts with children. In November 2013, Equality Minister Maria Arnholm voiced her concern that “prostitution in Sweden today is more affected by trafficking, compared to seven years ago” and announced to further examine the effects of Sweden’s prostitution law.

The Ministry of Gender Equality celebrated the Anti-Sex Trade Law legislation as a milestone achievement that would “vigorously strengthen the protection of the human rights of women in prostitution”. However, others criticised the legislation’s discriminatory attitude towards sex workers, who remain criminalised unless they claim to be victims. This “distinction between victims and those who [voluntarily] sell sex is actually one between protection and punishment” and categorises women into “good women who are worthy of help” and “bad ones who need to be punished”, thus continuing the stigmatisation of women who sell sex.

Challenges of the Anti-Sex Trade Law

In June 2006, the Korean Constitutional Court ruled 8:1 to uphold the law in the “So-called Brothel Building Provider Case”. A complainant who owned buildings in a red light district had argued that since his properties could not be leased out for any purpose other than brothels, regulating and punishing the leasing out as thus excessively infringed upon his right to property. The judges dismissed his complaint arguing that “the public good that may be achieved by preventing the deep-seated abuse and infringement of human rights of sexual traffic in the brothel area, and ultimately closing down the brothel area itself” was of greater importance “than the short term private losses suffered by the complainant”.

In January 2013, Criminal Law Judge OH Won Chan from the District Court in Northern Seoul accepted the request of a 41-year-old sex worker, surnamed Kim, for the legal examination of the Anti-Sex Trade Law and referred the case to the Constitutional Court for judgement. Kim had been fined 500,000 won (approx. £285/€345/$470) for selling sex in violation of the laws. The request is based on the premise that in the absence of coercion or exploitation, sex work should fall within an individual’s right to self-determination and that adults have the right to engage in consensual sexual acts without the state’s interference.

Korean legal experts appear to agree with that notion. According to HAN Sang Hee, professor at Konkuk University Law School in Seoul, “the policy approach to sex work in South Korea has centred on regulation [punishment], viewing it simply as an ‘evil’. The significance of this constitutionality review request is that it positions sex work as a matter of women’s rights and provides a starting point for a debate on expanding women’s rights to self-determination.” And according to HOH Il Tae, professor at Dong-A University Law School in Seoul, “criminal punishment should be a last resort. The state needs to refrain from interfering in personal matters that do not involve sexual acts with minors. The responsibility of the state is to monitor, protect, and/or provide appropriate education for the women who engage in sex work to earn money and the men who purchase their services.”

Public Opinion: An ineffective law in dire need of reform

The survey by the Hyundai Research Institute revealed that 23.2% of respondents believed sex trade* had increased since the enactment of Anti-Sex Trade Law, while 8.9% thought it had declined. The highest percentage (49.9%) thought the law had made “no difference”. While 29.3% of the respondents thought, the abolition of red-light districts had a positive impact on efforts to eradicate sex trade, in most respondent groups, the percentage of those who felt it had neither a positive nor a negative impact was higher. In addition, 58.8% believed that covert sex trade had increased since the enactment of the Anti-Sex Trade Law, while 7.4% said it had decreased (No difference: 24.9%). 46.1% of respondents answered that the number of sex workers travelling to work abroad had increased since the enactment of law, while 3.3% said the number had decreased. (No difference: 21.3%, Do not know/Unanswered: 29.3%)

These answers clearly indicate that the majority of respondents did not view the implementation of the Anti-Sex Trade Law as effective in reducing sex trade. It comes as no surprise then that 39.6% of the respondents did not agree that the law had been implemented in accordance with its original purpose and that 73.3% said the law should be reformed, mirroring what sex workers in South Korea have been campaigning for ever since the law was introduced. The constitutionality review of the Anti-Sex Trade Law was scheduled to conclude six months after the submission of the request. A year on, however, no decision has been announced and the persecution of sex workers continues.

*These passages are quoted and paraphrased from the English translation of the report. As mentioned above, the term “성매매 (seongmaemae)” can be translated as either “sex trade” or “sex trafficking”. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family uses the translation “sexual traffic”.

Recommended Reading

1. Jordan, Ann “The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A failed experiment in social engineering”
2. Dodillet; Östergren “The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Claimed Success and Documented Effects”
3. Swedish National Police Board – “Trafficking in humanbeings for sexual andother purposes”
4. Lyon, Wendy “Sex trafficking in Sweden, according to the Swedish police”
5. Lehmann, Matthias “Criminalising the payment for sexual services”
6. The Hankyoreh – “Judge seeks constitutional review of law that criminalizes prostitution”

Presentation at the Urania

Symposium at the Urania © Andrew Levine

Symposium at the Urania © Andrew Levine

“Facts and Figures about Prostitution that might surprise you”

To view this post in German, please click here.

On December 9th, 2013, an event was held at the Urania Berlin with the title “I thought it was all different! – Facts and Figures instead of Black-And-White-Thinking”. Its goal was to allow politicians, the general public and those affected by potential changes to the German Prostitution Act a comprehensive insight into the subject matter. The event was organised by Felicitas Schirow, since 1997 owner of the brothel “Café Pssst!” in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, Berlin. The decision by the Berlin Administrative Court on December 1st, 2000, to declare the withdrawal of her pub license as unlawful is widely seen as precedent that triggered the adoption of the German Prostitution Act that came into effect on January 1st, 2002.

Among the panellists were Percy MacLean, retired Chief Judge at the Berlin Administrative Court and recipient of the 2004 Carl von Ossietzky Medal by the International League for Human Rights (ILHR); Heike Rudat, Director of the unit dealing with organised crime at the Berlin State Office of Criminal Investigation (LKA); criminologist Prof. emer. Dr. Monika Frommel, former director of the Institute of Sanction Law and Criminology at the University of Kiel; Ilona Hengst, a social worker with 25 years of experience working with sex workers, who previously held positions at several district offices in Berlin; Gesine Agena, newly appointed spokeswoman for women’s rights and member of the federal board of the German Greens; Evrim Sommer, spokeswoman for women’s rights and member of the Berlin parliament for the Left Party (Linkspartei); and sociologist Christiane Howe from the Institute for Social Studies at Humboldt University Berlin.

I had the honour to join this impressive panel to speak about the effects of prostitution and anti-trafficking laws on sex workers’ human rights, with a focus on Europe and the Asia-Pacific region.

Among other topics, my presentation dealt with the recent raids in Soho, Central London, the findings of the UN report “Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific” and the demonstrated negative effects of the much-discussed sex purchase ban in Sweden.

Lecture Manuscript

Since several guests approached me after the event with the request for a copy of my lecture manuscript, I subsequently made it available. Please click here to retrieve the manuscript in English translation as a PDF file.

copyrightPlease note: This manuscript must not be cited or otherwise publicised without express permission by the author. Although several authors as well as titles of cited sources are mentioned in the text, it contains no links or a bibliography as customary for academic articles. In addition, not all quotes are highlighted as such.

The text includes passages from press releases by the English Collective of Prostitutes and the Sex Worker Open University. Should you wish to cite this transcript or encounter difficulties to locate the respective sources, please send an email to Matthias Lehmann at yongsagisa[at]gmail[punkt]com.

Invitation to the Urania

Das habe ich mir ja ganz anders vorgestellt

Invitation to a double bill about the German Prostitution Act

For the German version, please click here.
Bitte hier klicken für die deutsche Version.

I would like to cordially invite you to the event “I thought it was all different!” at the Urania Berlin on December 9th, 2013. Please note, however, that the event is held in German. (Should you not live in Berlin: the entire event will be recorded. The recordings will be made available at a later point in time.)

Due to the current political situation in Germany, this event will allow the general public as well as those affected by potential changes to the German Prostitution Act of 2002 to gain a comprehensive insight into the subject matter. Please click here to read a flyer with further information (in German only), incl. details about experts from the fields of justice, police, social work and social sciences, which I have the honour to join.

ProstG Urania„Das habe ich mir ja ganz anders vorgestellt!“
Dezember 9th, 2013 – 6:00 pm
Humboldt Hall, Urania Berlin
An der Urania 17, 10787 Berlin

I invite you to join one or both parts of the event at the Urania on Monday to learn more about the complex subjects that also form part of the coalition agreement between the prospective government of Conversatives and Social Democrats, which I wrote about in my article A sham of the “forced coalition” – Human Trafficking and Prostitution in the coalition agreement.

I would also like to direct your attention once more to the Appeal to strengthen the rights of sex workers and to improve their living and working conditions by the Trade Association Erotic and Sexual Services (Berufsverband erotische und sexuelle Dienstleistungen) in Germany. It has already been signed by nearly 1,500 individuals and organisations, incl. numerous counselling centres for sex workers or victims of human trafficking as well as the German AIDS Service Organisation (Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe). Members of the German parliament and other politicians, a great number of social scientists and other experts, as well as sex workers and private individuals have also signed the appeal.

I would be very glad if you would read and sign the appeal, which naturally, I support, too, and I look forward to meet you at the Urania on Monday.

Warm regards,
Matthias Lehmann

Links to social media sites concerning the event:

Facebook Event Page

Facebook Page

Tumblr Blog (incl. media articles)


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.

Appeal FOR Prostitution*

*To strengthen the rights of sex workers and to improve their living and working conditions

The following is the English version of an Appeal FOR Prostitution by the Trade Association Erotic and Sexual Services (Berufsverband erotische und sexuelle Dienstleistungen) in Germany. It is a response to an appeal by leading German anti-prostitution activist Alice Schwarzer and her magazine Emma.

Please read, spread and sign the appeal to support German sex workers!

#PROstitutionProstitution is not slavery. Prostitution is an occupation, where sexual services are offered in exchange for payment. Such transactions are based on the voluntariness of the parties involved. Without consent to sexual activities, there is no prostitution, since sex against a person’s will is rape. The latter is a criminal offence, even if money changes hands.

Prostitution is not a synonym for human trafficking. Not only German but also migrant sex workers are predominantly working as sex workers self-determinedly and by choice. To flatly label sex workers, regardless of their ethnicity, as victims is an act of discrimination.

Although often described as the world’s oldest profession, prostitution is hardly anywhere recognised as work. To the contrary: in most parts of the world, sex workers are persecuted, ostracised, and excluded from society. That is why sex workers around the world demand the decriminalisation of sex work and its recognition as an occupation.

The German parliament adopted this idea when it passed the Prostitution Act of 2002 (ProstG). Their legal recognition improved the situation of sex workers in Germany. They are now able to sue employers for lost wages and have access to the social security and health care system. In addition, the provision of good working conditions and rooms are no longer punishable as “procurement of prostitution”. However, the law did not change the right of the police to enter premises used for prostitution at any time, and the number of raids has increased ever since.

The Prostitution Act of 2002 has some weaknesses and requires a reform. The main problem, however, isn’t the law itself but the lack of implementation in specific federal states.

Contrary to common claims, the Prostitution Act has not led to an increase in human trafficking in Germany. As progress reports by the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) have shown, the number of identified victims of human trafficking has even decreased since the adoption of the law. In New Zealand, where prostitution is recognised as work since 2003, no increase in human trafficking has been registered either.

Among the factors that abet human trafficking are global inequality, restrictive migration laws as well as the lack of rights by parties affected. A successful fight against human trafficking requires comprehensive structural reforms on a global level and a human rights based approach.

The criminalisation of customers who make use of erotic services is unsuitable to solve these problems. While the so-called “Swedish Model” has displaced visible street prostitution, there is no evidence that it has reduced prostitution itself or human trafficking. Meanwhile, the working conditions for sex workers have worsened and Denmark and Scotland have already rejected the adoption of the “Swedish Model”.

Therefore we demand:

● The involvement of sex workers in political processes that deal with the subject of prostitution

● No further expansion of policing powers and no supervision by the State or curtailing of civil liberties

● No criminalisation of our customers under the Swedish Model or any other law

● Information instead of prohibition, government-funded further education for sex workers

● Campaigns against stigmatisation and for respect for sex workers

● Right of residence, compensation and comprehensive support for people affected by human trafficking


Click here to see the list of signatories and sign the appeal.

Fill in your name, and add your occupation/organisation (Beruf/Organisation) and location (Ort) if you wish. If you wish to receive the BesD newsletter (German), please add your email address, too.

Berufsverband erotische und sexuelle Dienstleistungen
(Trade Association Erotic and Sexual Services)
Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Translation: Matthias Lehmann. Research Project Korea.


RPK Raffle

Sex Work Short Films

This Saturday, the 8th Berlin Porn Film Festival at the Moviemento Cinema in Berlin will feature a selection of short films about sex work. Research Project Korea is giving away 1 free ticket for the screening.

How to win

All you need to do is send us your favourite article about sex work and explain why you like it. Please include the title, author(s) and, if applicable, a link to the article. The articles can be from any source you wish (academic, blogs, newspaper etc.).

To win the ticket, send an email to yongsagisa[at] with the subject line ‘RPK Raffle’ or tweet to @photogroffee using the hashtag #RPK_Raffle. I will pick a random person from all participants and notify you at midnight today. The clock is ticking!

For more information about the films, please click here.

Address: Moviemento Kino. Kottbusser Damm 22. 10967 Berlin.
Google Maps | |

The short films will also be shown on Sunday, October 27th, at 8.45pm.

Message to the Swedish Government

Press Release by Research Project Korea

It’s high time to jointly and publicly condemn the Swedish government for their so-called Swedish Model, which Prof. Ann Jordan from the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American University Washington College of Law rightly condemned as a failed experiment in social engineering. It is cynical that the Swedish government pretends to protect sex workers when in fact it spurns them, as the circumstances that led to the murder of Eva-Marree Tabitha Smith Kullander aka Petite Jasmine clearly illustrate.

The claimed success of the Swedish Sex Purchase Act is not supported by the available facts or research. Its alleged success story is based on a biased English summary of the Swedish government’s evaluation report, as Swedish researchers Susanne Dodillet and Petra Östergren documented. The Swedish Model has to be abolished and its aggressive export into other countries needs to be stopped.

Justice for mothers like Petite Jasmine! Justice for trans sex workers like Dora Özer! Justice for all sex workers – everywhere!

Presseerklärung vom Forschungsprojekt Korea

Es ist höchste Zeit, die schwedische Regierung aufs schärfste zu verurteilen für ihr sogenanntes schwedisches Modell, das von Prof. Ann Jordan vom Zentrum für Menschenrechte und Humanitäres Recht am College of Law der American University, zurecht als „ein gescheitertes Experiment des sozialen Engineerings“ verurteilt wurde. Es ist zynisch, dass die schwedische Regierung sich als Beschützer von Sexarbeiter_innen aufspielt, ihre Rechte aber in Wirklichkeit mit Füßen tritt, wie die Umstände, die zu der Ermordung von Eva-Marree Tabitha Smith Kullander alias Petite Jasmine führten, mehr als deutlich machen.

Das schwedische Gesetz hat keine nachweislichen Erfolge erzielt. Seine angebliche Erfolgsstory basiert auf einer verzerrten englischen Zusammenfassung des Bewertungsbericht der schwedischen Regierung, wie die beiden schwedischen Forscherinnen Susanne Dodillet and Petra Östergren belegt haben. Das schwedische Modell gehört abgeschafft und sein aggressiver Export in andere Länder muss gestoppt werden.

Gerechtigkeit für Mütter wie Petite Jasmine! Gerechtigkeit für transsexuelle Sexarbeiter_innen wie Dora Özer! Gerechtigkeit für alle Sexarbeiter_innen – überall!

Matthias Lehmann
Research Project Korea
Sex Work and Human Rights
JUly 19th, 2013

Join the Protest! 30+ Cities! 4 Continents!

End Violence Against Sex Workers

Click here or on the above image to visit the official website of the International Day of Protest against the violent Abuse and Murders of Sex Workers.

On July 19th, 2013, people are gathering across the globe to protest against violence against sex workers.

Following the murders of Dora Özer and Petite Jasmine on the 9th and 11 of July 2013, sex workers, their friends, families, and allies are coming together to demand an end to stigma, criminalisation, violence and murders. In the week since the two tragedies occurred, the feelings of anger, grief, sadness and injustice – for the loss of Dora and Jasmine, but also for the senseless and systemic murders and violence against sex workers worldwide – have brought together people in more than 25 cities from three continents who agreed to organise demos, vigils, and protests in front of Turkish and Swedish embassies or other symbolic places.

JOIN US on Friday the 19th at 3 pm local time and stand in solidarity with sex workers and their loved ones around the world!

Even if you can’t make it, you can help spread the word by trending ‪#‎stigmakills‬ on Twitter at 8am, 12pm and 10pm.

Justice for Dora! Justice for Jasmine!
Justice for all sex workers who are victims of violence!


Rest in Peace, Jasmine!

The below is a letter from Astrid Renland, a criminologist and the manager of Prostituertes interesseorganisasjon i Norge (PION), a sex workers’ rights organisation in Norway. Astrid has kindly agreed for me to publish her letter on this blog.

Rest in Peace, Jasmine!

Eva-Marree Smith KullanderOn July 11th, 2013, the Swedish sex-worker activist Jasmine died after being stabbed to death by her ex-husband. Jasmine had finally been able to meet her two children again after a long battle against her violent ex-husband and Swedish social services over the custody of her children. Why did she have to fight for her own children? Because she was discriminated against as a sex worker.

I have had the pleasure of meeting Jasmine several times. She was among the most decent people I’ve ever met, and also one of the strongest. Jasmine used her own lived experiences in her activism for sex worker’s rights. Her ex-husband, on the other hand, used her work against her to keep her away from her children.

Social services had initially deemed her unfit as a mother and caregiver, because Jasmine worked as a sex worker. Although she was later awarded shared custody of her children, her ex-husband denied her access to her children, until eventually, she lost custody at a trial last February, as the court now found her lacking a connection with her children. During the final trial, Jasmine’s right to see her children was reinstated. But the second meeting with her son ended with death, despite supervision by a social worker.

Before she died, Jasmine posted comments on Facebook about how wonderful it was to meet her children. She had dreaded to meet them because she was afraid they would reject or not recognise her – a fear that turned into an incredibly happy reunion for both mother and the children. But the next message was from Jasmine’s mother who reported that she was stabbed to death. She was 27 years old. Two young children without a mother have now, like the rest of their family, friends, work colleagues and activists, lost someone they will continue to love and value highly.

Jasmine will end up in the statistics of domestic violence. Her death is an unimaginable tragedy, but it is also a story of Swedish authorities’ prejudices and discrimination against sex workers.

The same could have happened in Norway; to work as a sex worker is widely seen as incompatible with being a caregiver. If someone is found to sell sex during ‘raids and rescuing’ activities, they will automatically be reported to the local child care offices by the police. There are cases where there are no signs of child neglect or other issues that may affect children’s wellbeing, but nevertheless they end up as child care case, often justified by nothing more than social stigma and prejudice against women who work as sex workers.

Prostitution research shows that many sex workers experience more violence in their private lives than they do as sex workers. This is mainly a result of their partner’s knowledge that the threshold to report violence is higher because of the women’s type of work. Many sex workers report that their work is used against them in cases of divorce and battle for child custody. As a result, the majority of sex workers in Norway use a lot of energy to keep the work hidden from family, friends and public authorities.

Rest in Peace Jasmine; may your story result in reflection, regret, anger and solidarity.

– Astrid Renland
Oslo, 15th of July 2013


Click on the banner to visit the website of PION

International Day of Protest against the violent Abuse and Murder of Sex Workers | Call for Action by ICRSE

ICRSE Protest July 19thThe International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers (ICRSE) in Europe is calling all its member organisations, individuals, sex workers and allies to stand together and protest against the recent murders of Jasmine and Dora, the violent attack against Ela, and all violence against sex workers in Europe and worldwide.


This week, Turkey and Sweden were the stage of violent murders of sex workers – but the violence is constant. Three sex workers were murdered in Italy since the beginning of this year. In France, Kassandra and Karima were murdered and committed suicide respectively. In Turkey, Dora, a trans sex worker, was killed this week, and Ela, another trans sex worker, got shot and her arm is unlikely to function again. Dora was the 31st transgender victim of violent and deadly attacks in Turkey since 2008.

We are calling all our friends and families, to protest against the Swedish model that took away the children of Jasmine and gave custody to her violent ex-husband who finally murdered her. Social workers and the Swedish state refused to listen to Jasmine. Why listen to a sex worker who doesn’t know what is good for her? It was that criminal system that cost Jasmine her life. We also protest against the systemic transphobic murders and violence in Turkey and worldwide.

In every country in Europe and around the world, sex workers are being murdered because our lives are seen are less worthy than others. We are not seen as equal citizens and this state-sanctioned discrimination justifies the stigma and violence we have to endure. It’s time to say

NO to all violence against sex workers!
NO to silencing our voices!
NO to taking away our children!
NO to attacks, rape and murders!

Protests will happen in many countries around the world on Friday the 19th of July at 3 pm. We encourage ICRSE members and all organisations and individuals to organise demonstrations, protests, and actions in front of Turkish, Swedish, and Italian embassies, or in front of other symbolic places.

We will update our event page with infos about the protests, an ICRSE press release, pictures you might need etc. If you need help in any way, please ask on the page and maybe someone can offer you support.

In solidarity,
Luca Stevenson
ICRSE Coordinator

Open Letter to Rhoda Grant

Rhoda Grant responded. See update below.

The following is an open letter I have sent today to Rhoda Grant, Member of the Scottish Parliament, in response to her decision to remove all responses to the consultation process about her proposal to criminalise the clients of sex workers in Scotland. (see earlier posts)J'accuse

Ms Grant,

I am sure you are a busy person, but if you were to look back at our previous correspondence, I believe you would find that I always addressed you respectfully, even though I found your proposed bill, your public statements about the subject matter, and the handling of the consultation process by your office more than questionable.

In politics as well as in academia it is commonplace to disagree on a wide range of issues, and at times, we might disagree a little more and even find opponents to our own views annoying. That’s just human. But that you went as far as to remove all responses to your consultation without prior notice is a new low, even for you, and it strikes me with disbelieve that an elected public servant would behave in such a manner. That is, by the way, in addition to the fact that you continued to omit at least one response, that of the Philippine Sex Workers Collective, although their members took time out of their schedules to participate in your consultation.

I strongly suggest that you restore access to all responses to your consultation immediately and that you add the above mentioned response and any other responses that were omitted.

I have today requested access to all responses from the Scottish Parliament via the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 and already received an acknowledgement of that request.

It is certainly your prerogative to remove your comments about your failure to receive cross-party support for your bill from your website. But to omit opponents’ responses, to publish a biased summary of responses, to paint a picture as if Amnesty International supported your bill, and now to remove all responses without prior notice – is this really the conduct that you believe is appropriate for a member of the Scottish Parliament?

I believe it is not and I will, like others, lodge an official complaint about your conduct. If publicity is what you were aiming for, you got it. I am nothing short of disgusted to witness this blatant abuse of power on your part.

I should be sorry for being so blunt but I am not. Shame on you, Ms Grant!

Matthias Lehmann
Research Project Korea
Berlin, July 11th, 2013

Update! (July 12th, 2013)

Rhoda Grant has responded to my letter. She stated that she wasn’t obliged in the first place to make the responses available online and that they were available on her website from the time they were published to the time her proposed bill failed to achieve the necessary cross-party support required to proceed. She also stated that they were published to allow for scrutiny of the proposed legislation but since the bill wasn’t proceeding, they have been removed from the site. All responses have been lodged with the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) and the Scottish Parliament as required. Other than that, Ms Grant made no comments whatsoever about the other issues raised in my letter.

In support of Ye Haiyan


June 13th | Ye Haiyan was released on June 12th. Click here.
June 30th | Click here to read about Ye Haiyan’s continued battle sex workers’ rights.
July 6th | Ye Haiyan was evicted from her home by Guangdong police. Click here

Postcard campaign in support of Ye Haiyan

Chinese activists have started a postcard campaign in support of sex worker activist Ye Haiyan, who was detained days after protesting against officials’ failure to tackle child abuse. To learn more about this story, please refer to the articles listed below.


Please support sex worker activist Ye Haiyan

To express your support or just send Haiyan a nice message, please participate in the campaign.

Here is how:

1. Find a postcard you like, e.g. one where you’re from.

2. Write your own text on the postcard: you can ask for the release of Ye Haiyan, write a message of support to Ye Haiyan, or anything else you want to say.

3. Please send the postcard to Bobai Detention Center at the below address.

4. When you mail the postcard, please take a picture of yourself at the post box or post office, holding the postcard. You can of course cover your face or choose to only display the postcard and post office.

You can also ask a passerby to take your photo. It’s a good occasion to let people know about Ye Haiyan’s case and about the international sex workers’ rights movement.

5. Please send the picture to jiazimaili[at] Activists will post the pictures to their Weibo accounts, a Chinese microblogging service akin to Twitter, to document the cards being sent to Bobai Detention Center.

Mailing address for postcards:

博白县拘留所 Bobai County Detention Center
广西壮族自治区玉林市博白县兴隆西路 Xinglong West Road, Bobai County,
Yulin City, Guangxi Province, China.
邮政编码:53769 Post code: 53769

The above text was mostly taken from the Facebook page of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers.

Articles about Ye Haiyan’s detention

The Guardian | Chinese police refuse to release activist who campaigned against child abuse

According to Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “The whole thing looks like a set-up so they could detain her for 15 days.”  He added: “There is a history of using proxies to unlawfully assault human rights defenders. There is a long history of lawyers or activists being attacked by ‘thugs’ or ‘gangsters’ in fact acting at the behest of the government.  “She is the victim here: she was attacked and she documented what was happening. If police have convincing evidence showing otherwise they should come forward with it. The fact she is now detained seems to be a transparent ploy to silence her on the issue of sexual assault of school children.”

South China Morning Post | School sexual abuse protester Ye Haiyan beaten up in her own home

Gender rights activist Ye Haiyan was assaulted and detained by Guangxi public security officials yesterday after returning from Hainan province, where she had protested against the sexual abuse of schoolgirls. Ye appealed for help three times on her microblog around noon yesterday, saying her apartment had been raided by about 10 women and one man while she was alone with her daughter.

Two Beijing-based lawyers who joined Ye in the Hainan protest earlier this week said Ye was summoned for questioning by police in Guangxi’s Bobai county yesterday after she was accused of physical assault while fending off her attackers. Her supporters said they believed the attack was an attempt to silence Ye after she launched an online anti-child-abuse campaign that has received massive public support.

Shanghaiist | Sex-worker activist Ye Haiyan imprisoned after chasing off three intruders

Tang Jitian, a Beijing-based rights lawyer, said “[Ye] has also been seen as a thorn in the side of local authorities obsessed with maintaining social stability. This is not the first time she has been harassed.”

Photos accompanying the original article in Chinese can be found here.

Global Times | Police hold activist Ye Haiyan for 13 days, reject release request

Local police in Bobai county, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, have rejected an  application from women’s and sexual rights activist Ye Haiyan’s lawyers to suspend her 13-day administrative detention for intentional injury, her lawyer told the Global Times Sunday.  “The local police called me around noon to say the application was rejected, saying Ye should apply for the suspension herself, and there should be a guarantor. However, Ye’s daughter is only 13 years old, which means she can’t be a guarantor,” lawyer Wang Quanping said. He submitted the application at midday Saturday.

Please release Ye Haiyan - Research Project Korea

Working? Working!

More often than not, the ideas that people have about sex work result from the narratives created by the media or anti-prostitution activists and have little to do with reality. Therefore, it gives me great pleasure to present to you a photo series by Yeoni Kim, a South Korean sex worker and activist with Giant Girls, Network for Sex Workers’ Rights. I would like to express my deepest gratitude and appreciation to Ms Kim for kindly providing her photos and statement to bring people – in her own words – “closer to sex workers”.

copyrightPlease note that the copyright for the photos and statement lies with Yeoni Kim and is not licensed under a Creative Commons License. Please share the link to this post with others but kindly refrain from downloading the photos and posting them out of context elsewhere. I would also like to ask bloggers to refrain from re-blogging this post. Should you wish to share Yeoni Kim’s work with your audience, please feel free to use the cover image and link to this post.

Working, Working - Yeoni Kim - All Rights Reserved

Artist’s Statement

The reality is that unless you are a client, sex worker or middleman, it is not easy to gain access to the working environment of sex workers.

성노동자들이 어떠한 환경에서 어떻게 일을 하고 있는지, 구매자나 성노동자, 중개업자가 아니면 우리는 쉽게 접근할 수가 없는 것이 현실이다.

The shop that granted us the permission to take these photos is classified as ‘Hyugetel’, which usually have signboards that read “College Girl Massage” or “Gentlemen’s Massage”.

사진 촬영을 허가한 이 업장은 ‘휴게텔’이라 분류되는 업장이며 보통 ‘여대생 마사지’, ‘남성전용 마사지’라는 간판을 달고 있다.

The process starts with washing the client, applying gel on the client’s body while being naked, and then rubbing against the slippery body. This is also known as “riding the body”. After “riding the body” is performed, you wash and towel-dry the client, and then lay the client down in bed. Caressing and petting starts from the neck to the knees, both in the front and the back of the client’s body.

손님을 씻기고, 알몸으로 손님의 몸에 젤을 발라 미끌미끌하게 부벼 주는 일명 ‘바디 타기’ 후, 다시 손님을 씻기고, 수건으로 닦아주고 침대에 뉘여 목부터 무릎까지 등판과 앞을 전부 애무한다.

Intercourse is the last stage. When the client ejaculates, you remove the condom, wash the client again, dress him and send him on his way. The photos sum up the process.

그 다음 섹스가 이루어지고, 사정 후 콘돔을 정리하고 손님을 다시 씻기고 옷을 입혀 내보내는 이 과정들을 몇몇의 사진들로 축약해 보았다.

A lot of the process has been omitted in the photos, since it was hard to modulate the level of exposure. The pictures were taken to let people understand that sex work is more than “lying down with your legs open”, and perhaps bring the audience closer to sex workers.

노출의 강조를 어떻게 해야 할 지 고민이 되어 일하는 모습들을 생략한 부분이 많지만, 이 사진들을 통해 아주 조금은 성노동자들과 가까워지고 그들의 노동이 단지 ‘다리 벌리고 누워있는 것’ 이상임을 이해할 수 있기를 바라는 마음으로 찍어보았다.

Yeoni Kim / 김연희

Please click on the cover image to view the photos as slide show. Press Escape to exit.


Sex Work and the Law in South Korea

Cover Photo: Korean sex workers, wearing traditional costumes, attend a protest against the police crackdown on brothels in Chuncheon, about 100 km (62 miles) northeast of Seoul May 31, 2011. Reuters/Lee Jae Won.

Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific

The United Nations published a new report that investigates laws, HIV and human rights in the context of sex work. The report is a collaboration of UNDP and UNFPA, in partnership with UNAIDS, the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) as well as other community sex worker organizations and individuals.*

“The report is intended to provide an evidence-base for: policy makers working in government, regional and multilateral organizations; parliamentarians; members of the judiciary; civil society organizations; donor agencies; and sex workers and their organizations engaged in advocacy to improve the legal and policy enabling environment for HIV responses. The study focuses on 48 countries of the Asia-Pacific region, with an emphasis on low and middle-income countries.” – Page 9

Click here to download the report as PDF file or visit the website of the Asia-Pacific Regional Centre’s Publication Library.

Sex Work and the Law in South Korea (pp. 110-112)

5.8 Republic of Korea (South Korea)

5.8.1 Laws

All forms of sex work are criminalized. Prior to 2004, the law defined sex workers as morally degenerate and imposed penalties for ‘protection of sexual morality’. However, this law was rarely enforced. In 2004, more severe penalties were introduced by the Act on the Punishment of Acts of Arranging Sexual Traffic and Enforcement Decree of the Act on the Prevention of Sexual Traffic and Protection, etc. of Victims Thereof.

The Act on the Punishment of Acts of Arranging Sexual Traffic defines sexual traffic to include sexual intercourse in exchange for money or goods (Article 2). Therefore, sex work is defined as a form of trafficking. The penalty for anyone who has been engaged in sexual traffic is imprisonment for not more than one year or a fine not exceeding 3 million won (Article 21). This provision criminalizes both sex workers and their clients. Persons who are coerced into providing sexual services are not liable to be punished (Article 6(1)).

Other offences include soliciting, arranging, enticing, recruiting and providing premises for the purposes of sex work (Articles 2 and 19). Advertising a sexual traffic business shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than 3 years or by a fine not exceeding 30 million won (Articles 19(1) and 20).

The penalty for operating a sexual traffic business is imprisonment for not more than 7 years or a fine of not more than 70 million won (Article 19 (2)).

In 2006 the Constitutional Court referred to prostitution as ‘a low and mean occupation’ that is harmful to public morals. The Court upheld criminal penalties relating to recruiting people to work in the sex industry.

The Constitutional Court has also declared that the offence of providing a place for the purpose of trafficking in sex is constitutional, citing the UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, which the Korean government signed in 1962. The Constitutional Court in 2011 ruled that adults engaged in ‘sexual traffic’ are subject to punishment because they are able to earn a living by means of a variety of occupations except for sex work.

5.8.2 Law enforcement practices

From 1984-2004, the government tolerated the sex industry provided that sex workers registered with health authorities and operated in specific red-light areas. Sex workers were required to be tested for STIs periodically and for HIV every six months. The government authorized the Korean Tourist Association to license bars or kisaeng (professional entertainer) houses near U.S. military bases and tourist enclaves. The government provided the workers based at these licensed entertainment establishments with STI and HIV testing. After the introduction of the anti-trafficking law that criminalized sex work in 2004, this practice ended and sex workers became reluctant to register for STI testing and treatment due to fear of prosecution. Data on sex workers registered for STI examinations show a rapid decrease from 5,922 in 2003 to 2,632 in 2004. In 2006 only 1,914 sex workers were registered, a reduction of nearly 70 percent since 2003. There was also a reduction in the overall number people seeking testing and treatment for STIs. The number of people seeking STI treatment at health offices declined from 156,000 in 2003 to 117,000 in 2006.

Police crackdowns from 2004-2009 resulted in arrest of approximately 28,000 sex workers, 150,000 clients, and 27,000 sex business owners. It is estimated that 4 percent of the arrested people were sentenced to imprisonment. The Ministry of Justice operates schools for convicted male clients of sex workers who may attend seminars in lieu of punishment.

The Ministry of Justice reported that 99,958 men were sent to the ‘john school’ programme as an alternative to prosecution from 2005 to 2009. The programme aims to prevent clients from reoffending.

The Korean sex workers organization, Giant Girls**, describes the adverse effects of criminalization as follows:

Strict enforcement of regulations and severe punishment for the sexual traffic makes sex workers even more vulnerable in a relationship with business owners or clients. For instance, sex workers, in a legally disadvantageous position, can be forced to have sexual intercourse without using a condom by clients who would threaten to report to the police unless sex workers comply with their unfair request. Sex workers cannot easily report to the police if they become victims of assault or deception by clients or sex business owners. In other words, they are not under protection of the laws. Sex workers can be abused physically and verbally if they are taken to the police. Police sometimes take their naked photos or sex photos under the pretext of collecting and securing evidence.

‘Red-light districts’ (where brothels are densely concentrated) are being closed down and demolished in redevelopment areas, in the process of reinforcing elimination of the sexual traffic. In 2011, 42 brothels located in Yongdeungpo, Seoul were designated for removal, which triggered sex workers’ intense resistance.

5.8.3 Efforts to improve the legal environment

The Korean Sex Workers Network (Giant Girls) was established in 2009 by a group of sex workers who advocate for decriminalization of sex work. The group collaborates with human rights activists to campaign against the criminalization of sex work. The group also works to remove the social stigma associated with sex work through media interventions.

(End of excerpt. Please view the report for all annotations.)


“New UN report takes a stark look at links between sex work, HIV and the law in Asia and the Pacific”
— UNDP Press Release URL

* Shishuder Jonno Amra and Tree Foundation, Bangladesh; Women’s Network for Unity (WNU), Cambodia; China Sex Worker Organization Network Forum, China; Survival Advocacy Network, Fiji; Durbar Mahila Samanwya Committee (DMSC), India; Indonesian Social Changes Organization (OPSI), Indonesia; Asia-Pacific Transgender Network (APTN) Malaysia; Population Services International Targeted Outreach Program (PSI/TOP), Myanmar; Blue Diamond Society (BDS) and Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh (JMMS), Nepal; Friends Frangipani PNG; Empower and SWING, Thailand.

** Visit the Giant Girls website (Korean only) or like them on Facebook.

In the Lion’s Den: An Evening among Abolitionists

Special Report

The Event

In the first half of December, I attended an exhibition and a workshop titled Liberating Herstories, Seeking Justice for ‘Comfort Women’ through Art, “dealing with issues of sexual slavery, human trafficking, and violence and oppression against women”. The event was organised by the House of Sharing International Outreach Team to highlight the issue of the so-called ‘Comfort Women’, a euphemism used to describe women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. The remaining survivors, often referred to as halmonis (grandmothers), campaign every week in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, demanding ample compensation from the Japanese government for their suffering.

Korean ‘Comfort Women’ Protest (Photo: AP/Ahn Young-joon)

While I am sympathetic to the cause of the halmonis, I do not draw the same connection to the contemporary sex industry as the organisers of the workshop did in the description of their event. Before attending there, I was aware that the organisers and the majority of participants would likely be drawn from among the ‘sex work abolitionist’ camp, who consider all sex work (prostitution) as exploitative and more often than not focus on (the rescue of) women and minors only, a view that I do not support. Still, since the workshop was titled “Sex Industry in Korea today”, I decided to attend there to listen and to try to engage in some meaningful discussions afterwards.


In a recent conversation, a Korean friend expressed that to her, my statements that “I am sympathetic to the cause of the halmonis” and that “the failure of the Japanese government to compensate the surviving halmonis” is a just cause for public protest appear more like lip service than genuine sentiment. For that reason, I would like to add the following paragraph.

I do not deny the experiences and the great suffering of the women who were abused as sex slaves during the period of the Japanese occupation of South Korea. The issue of the compensation of the ‘Comfort Women’, however, is highly complicated and in my opinion, the governments of Japan and South Korea are both at fault to not resolve this matter by making the interest of the surviving halmonis their top priority. I do not agree that the ‘Comfort Women’ issue should be conflated with the contemporary sex industry in South Korea, and I only mentioned it as part of my analysis of the presentation by Jin Kyeong CHO.

For those interested in the problems surrounding the compensation of the ‘Comfort Women’, I recommend further reading, starting at the following links. | | |

[Added on April 15th, 2012]

The Talk

The talk was given by anti-prostitution activist Jin Kyeong CHO (조진경), former director of the Dasi Hamkke Center (다시함께센터), a non-government organisation and government collaboration agency she helped establish in 2003. The centre “helps victims/survivors of sex trafficking in coming out of the sex trade” and “raises public awareness about the sex trade through campaigns and other projects”. (Quotes from the centre’s website and Facebook page) Cho actively promoted South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Law (성매매특별법, Seongmaemae Tteukbyeolbeob), that was adopted in 2004 and punishes both buyers and sellers of sexual services with prison sentences and considerable fines.

Credit to the organisers, the event was bilingual, with an interpreter present both for the talk and the Q&A session afterwards. Despite the title, Sex Industry in Korea today, the presentation began with a detailed historical sketch of prostitution in Korea, and it appeared to me that Cho was suggesting that it was a phenomenon that could predominantly be connected to the deeds of foreign military personnel in Korea. Even though Cho later went on to highlight the growth and size of the domestic market for sexual services, I felt that she had either willingly or unwittingly appealed to the nationalist sentiment underlying the issue of prostitution in Korea, diverting the blame to foreigners, when in fact, the contemporary sex industry in Korea serves primarily Korean clients.

The failure of the Japanese government to compensate the surviving halmonis, and the SOFA agreement between Korea and the U.S. that states that U.S. courts will have jurisdiction over crimes committed by American military personnel are in itself just causes for public protest. Yet, in my opinion, these issues are frequently hijacked by nationalists to heighten anti-foreign sentiment, and therefore, I found Cho’s remarks unfortunate at the very least.

US Troops (Photo: AFP)

As it turned out, however, Cho seemed not so much driven by xenophobic sentiment, but by her belief that the ‘Comfort Women’ system under the Japanese colonial government, the ‘Camptown Prostitution’ system outside U.S. military bases in Korea, and modern ‘sex trafficking’ all share the same features, resulting from a patriarchal society that needs to be abolished, and that all acts of prostitution represent violence against women.

In the following paragraphs, I will outline some excerpts from her presentation to provide an impression of the overall mood Cho created and the narrative she promoted.

The Murder of Yun Geum-I

Cho opened her talk by introducing the murder of the prostitute Yun Geum-I (윤금이) by Private Kenneth Lee Markle, a notorious case in which “Markle, who belonged to the U.S. Army Second Division, bludgeoned Yun and then sodomized her with several foreign objects on October 28, 1991”. (Source: The Hankyoreh)

Rape (2011) by Azi, Iranian Artist, Open Art Studio

She went on to suggest to the audience to search the internet for the photo taken at the crime scene, which had served as the first spark that would lead Cho to take an interest in the lives of prostitutes in South Korea.

I have since followed her suggestion and cannot recommend for you to do the same. Instead, I will provide you with a link to a summary of the case on Wikipedia that doesn’t use any imagery, though I believe that the above description is detailed enough. Click here if you wish to learn more details of the brutal murder of Yun Geum-i.

“Drinking Shit Water”

The second case Cho mentioned was the first case she handled as a member of staff at a government organisation helping victims of violent abuse.**

On her first day on the job, a distressed father called and asked Cho to help him find his daughter. She had left the family home a week before and hadn’t returned, but instead, had called from a cell phone that belonged to one of the clients at the brothel where she had ended up. Working her way through the red tape of Korean bureaucracy and law enforcement, the client and the brothel were eventually tracked down and the daughter was found.

She refused to leave, however, unless the police would also rescue a disabled woman that she claimed was forced to work as a prostitute at the brothel. The police threatened to punish the daughter if they found she was lying, but the woman insisted she was telling the truth. Thus, the police searched the premises and located the disabled woman. She refused to leave, however, and claimed she had not sold sex and that the owners were treating her like her own “mother and father”.

During the 13 hours of questioning that ensued, the attitude of the woman shifted between being “furious” at the young woman for wrongfully reporting her, and being “coquettish” towards the police officers. According to Cho, the woman simply had “no reason to trust” her or the officers present.

The daughter, however, when questioned what type of abuse she had witnessed, told of beatings with soap bars wrapped in newspaper and stuck in socks, and of hot metal chop sticks being poked through the hair and onto the scalp of the woman, thus concealing any abuse marks. She added that the woman had only received leftovers to eat and was forced to serve the most repulsive clients only. On one occasion, she had witnessed her being forced to “drink shit water” (liquid manure), which had caused her to vomit.

Finally, on the second day of questioning, Cho had won sufficient trust from the woman who told of her escape from domestic violence at her family home and how she had earned a living at the brothel. When Cho assured the woman of further assistance by her organisation, the woman finally confirmed the claims by the younger woman, and so the two women left the brothel together with Cho.

Altercation with a Pimp

In connection to the same story, Cho also told of an altercation she had with one of the pimps of that brothel.

Pimp: “Who do you think you are? What the fuck?“
Cho: “How dare you talk to me this way, even though you abused these disabled women?”
Pimp: “I took these useless women and fed them and gave them a place to live and work.”
Cho: “You think that you are providing social welfare here?!”
Pimp: “Yes, I am.“

An Inconclusive Conclusion

Cho ended her talk by stating that in all the years she had worked in this field, she had encountered nothing but conditions similar to the examples she had described, and that they represented “experiences [that] are shared by all women who work in the sex industry”.

I already admitted that I do not follow the common rationale employed by sex work abolitionists; but to hear from a native Korean expert with many years of field experience that she hadn’t been able to find any positive examples of successful prostitutes in Korea, left me with no choice but to question the credibility of her research efforts.

I am a white male with limited Korean skills. When I encounter sex workers in Korea, I am much more likely to appear to them as a potential client than as a researcher. One might expect that as a result, finding sex workers willing to be interviewed by me should pose quite a challenge. Yet, after investing only a few months into my research project, I already know of sex workers who earn more than a foreign English teacher in Korea, a very profitable profession, and whose main complaint is about the stigma attached to their work.

The claim made by Cho that only white sex workers would make good money in the sex industry can therefore be dismissed.

I do not doubt that the experiences Cho recounted happened. Nor do I doubt that similar events can unfold today. I have reasonable doubt, however, that Cho’s conclusion is accurate that they represent experiences “shared by all women who work in the sex industry”, because all sex workers that I have so far talked to tell me differently.

The Narratives of Sex Work Abolitionists

Sex work abolitionists often use narratives of violence and dramatic rescues to create images of powerless victims and powerful heroes. By doing so, they successfully arouse compassion among their listeners and encourage them to join their cause, gathering an ever-growing community of supporters that follows their ideology instead of investigating the growing body of evidence to the contrary.

Even if some words might have been lost in translation, it is probably fair to assume that the pimp in the above story was at least complicit in the physical abuse of these women. But once again, Cho uses a worst case to reinforce a stereotype – that of the violent pimp with no respect for human life whatsoever.

Anti-Prostitution Campaign Poster*

I said above that I did not doubt that the events Cho had described had in fact happened, nor that they could happen elsewhere; but violence occurs in many places, often enough in people’s own families.

Whoever suggests that murder, brutality, and degradation is commonplace in the sex industry is either motivated by the disgust invoked by witnessing gross human rights violations, or uses these examples deliberately to instil fear to provoke and persuade others to sign on to their agenda – the eradication of all sex for money exchanges.

I am under the impression that a majority of anti-prostitution activists belongs to the second group, and that through the selective use of shocking images and disturbing stories, they aim to reinforce the stereotype of the sex worker as incapacitated victim bereft of agency.

At the same time, through their powerful influence on public opinion and lawmakers, they successfully move governments towards the creation of legal frameworks that render more and more aspects of the sex industry illegal. By doing so, they drive the sex industry further underground, with detrimental effects to the people working in it.

“This victim status is a tool to silence us and justify our incapacity. Sex workers never matter in the debate. We are treated like children who need protection or pathologised with false statistics about child abuse, rape and post traumatic syndromes. We are said to be alienated in a false consciousness as long as we are “in prostitution”, and only once we are rehabilitated, we realise our past of self-harm. … Why do some politicians want to criminalise consenting sex between adults while they do nothing to stop rape?”

(Source: Thierry Schaffauser, Photo: Philippe Leroyer)

It isn’t easy to accuse someone like Jin Kyeong Cho of the deliberate use of shocking images and disturbing stories. After all, isn’t she just there to help?

Altruism, however, is not the primary agenda of sex work abolitionists. Instead, it is to propagate the belief that prostitution is intrinsically exploitative and that prostitutes are without exception victims that require rescue regardless of their stated choice to work in the sex industry.

The right to work, as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states that “[e]veryone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment”.

By equating consensual sex for money exchanges with human rights abuses, sex work abolitionists not only deprive sex workers of their right to work, they also aim to drown out critics of their agenda, as I was to experience later on the same night of Cho’s presentation.

Diction, Part I

A rose is a rose is a rose, but is sex trafficking equal to human trafficking and equal to prostitution?

A rose Is a rose Is a rose (Photo: Maureen Costantino)

In this paragraph, I will demonstrate that the rhetoric of sex work abolitionists is not just a war of words; it pushes an agenda that does not prevent but furthers a climate in which human rights abuses occur.

These days, most anti-trafficking or anti-prostitution activists as well as the media use these terms as if they were interchangeable, when in fact, they are not describing the same issues. ‘Sex trafficking’ is often used to describe ‘sex work/prostitution’. However, working as a sex worker/prostitute is not the same as being trafficked as per definition by the 2000 UN Trafficking Protocol, when the elements of deception, coercion, or the movement within or across national borders are not present.

Playing it fast and loose with the terms ‘sex trafficking’ and ‘human trafficking’ suggests that they are one and the same issue, when in fact, ‘sex trafficking’ only describes ‘human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation’, which represents the minority of all human trafficking cases. The majority of cases involve human trafficking for the purpose of forced labour in the manufacturing sector, the construction industry, or in fisheries, and the trafficking and exploitation of domestic workers.

By saying that the cases of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation represent a minority, I am in no way suggesting that they are in fact minor in the sense of ‘negligible’. It is important to understand, however, that a term that helps to create a perception that ‘human trafficking’ is equal to ‘sex trafficking’ is truly harmful to establishing legislative measures that can comprehensively reduce human trafficking, as it directs attention and resources towards one aspect of the problem exclusively.

By the same token, suggesting that all acts of prostitution represent sexual exploitation is not just a mere matter of opinion; classifying the diverse situations in which people sell sexual services as intrinsically harmful, affects the discourse in which laws to prohibit sex work are adopted, which in turn leads to human rights abuses against the very target group the laws claim to help.

[The] definition of prostitution as sex work, coined by sex workers themselves, has been heavily contested by abolitionist feminists … As CATW’s [the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women] website states, “[a]ll prostitution exploits women, regardless of women’s consent. … Prostitution affects all women, justifies the sale of any woman, and reduces all women to sex. … Local and global sex industries are systematically violating women’s rights on an ever-increasing scale.” Laura Lederer, a prominent anti-pornography activist in the 1980s, founder of the anti-trafficking Protection Project, and former Senior Advisor on Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. State Department, declares: “This is not a legitimate form of labor. … It can never be a legitimate way to make a living because it’s inherently harmful for men, women, and children. … This whole commercial sex industry is a human rights abuse.”

“Sex is to be reserved for a marriage relationship where there is a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman. … “When sex becomes commerce, the moral fabric of our culture is deeply damaged.” This second statement was taken from an article titled accordingly “Sex Isn’t Work”.

[A]bolitionists not only regard commercial sexual servitude as exploitative but also as deeply damaging for people’s moral fibre. … If sex isn’t work, there can be no such thing as a consenting sex worker, with the logical consequence that abolitionists are unfit to advocate for sex workers’ rights. On the contrary, since the agenda of abolitionists includes the criminalisation of “every instance of relocation to a destination where the individual sells sex”, rendering all prostitution to be a case of “sex trafficking”, consenting sex workers are not only denied agency but also in actual danger as raids on brothels, in part resulting from laws influenced by abolitionist agenda setting, disconnect sex workers from appropriate services and therefore increase the likelihood of exploitation.

(Source: Matthias Lehmann, “Transnationalising a Thai Grassroots NGO. A Comprehensive Approach to Human Trafficking Prevention.”, pp.8-10.)

Diction, Part II

During her presentation and the question and answer session that followed, Cho employed numerous tactics of sex work abolitionists. Above, I already mentioned her false claim that only ‘white’ sex workers would earn good money in the sex industry; her questionable opening remarks that seemed to suggest that prostitution was a ‘foreign’ problem; and her encouragement to search for the image of the brutal murder of Yun Geum-i.

In this paragraph, I will evaluate a selection of Cho’s other statements, including some telling gaffes.

1. When talking about prostitutes, Cho called them “women who are still working in the sex industry”, ‘still’ being the operative word. It appears that in her view, working in the sex industry can only be regarded as a transitional phase, before exiting or being rescued from it.

2. When talking about clients who ‘slept’ with sex workers, Cho quickly corrected herself. “I cannot say ‘slept’. I should say ‘purchased’.” It appears that to Cho, sex can no longer be described in conventional terms once money enters into the equation. The above quote from the article “Sex isn’t work” comes to mind: “When sex becomes commerce, the moral fabric of our culture is deeply damaged.” However, a behaviour that is considered as immoral by some, does not necessarily represent a human rights violation.

Anti-Prostitution Campaign Poster (Detail)*

3. When she was asked about the scope of the sex industry in Korea, Cho replied, that “to estimate the sex industry is like counting the stars in the sky.” and that “wherever men exist, there are those places [brothels]”. She also asked “Is there any man here [in Korea] over 20 years who never purchased sex? “

Together with her graphic descriptions of violence and her repeated statements that they represented “experiences [that] are shared by all women who work in the sex industry”, Cho created a palpable mood of shock and disbelief, as was clear judging by the audience’s response.

4. Apart from her analysis of prostitution in Korea, Cho also shared her view that with few exceptions, Korean women who married US citizens and moved to the States lived unhappy lives, caused by factors incl. domestic violence, drug abuse by their husbands, or because they were forced into prostitution. Upon saying so, Cho quickly added that she did not mean that “every single woman” was unhappy. “I need to be careful. There are of course some people who are still happy.” Considering her dubious opening remarks, this sweeping generalisation added to the impression that in her perception, bad things happen to women not only at the hands of men, but specifically due to the actions of foreign men.

The Whartons, a Korean American family (Photo: Josh Douglas Smith)

5. When a participant asked her what she thought about the different legal models that exist in countries like New Zealand, Sweden, or the Netherlands, Cho responded that this would be a very difficult question. She then started by saying, “I went to Germany in 2007 where sex trafficking is legalized…er…where the sex trade is legalised.” To be fair, this gaffe might have been caused by the fatigue of the translator. But the fact remained that Cho was playing it fast and loose with the terminology on more than just this one occasion.

She went on to explain that Germany requires sex workers to pay taxes and that Germans consider prostitutes as dirty, neither of which expressed any thought she had on legal systems other than outright prohibition of sex work. She quoted a survey among over 3,000 sex workers in Germany that had found that only 1% had “registered”, but again did not go into any details, e.g. what she meant by ‘registration’, why sex workers weren’t registering, or which report she was referring to.

In November 2005, the German government issued its final “Report on the Impact of the Act Regulating the Legal Situation of Prostitutes (Prostitution Act)”, following 18 months of research commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. The research team interviewed 305 sex workers and found that only 1% “stated that they had a contract of employment”. (p.17, English version)

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)

Other non-material concerns that sex workers voiced with regards to labour contracts included the social stigma resulting from being stripped of one’s anonymity, the loss of autonomy and self-determination, and the loss of absolute freedom over the amount of working hours and the choice of practices and customers, all of which represent highly valued advantages of unregulated employment. To give these up in favour of more safety meant for many sex workers that the costs outweighed the benefits of labour contracts. (p.257)

Whether or not Cho was referring to the same report, I shall leave to the reader’s imagination, but what is significant is that the report listed a great variety of reasons why sex workers had chosen not to enter into official labour contracts. Clearly, any survey among ten times as many sex workers would have shed some light on this issue.

The only part of Cho’s comment to the original question that could be considered an actual answer was that she said, “I don’t think legalisation is the right way”, and that she believed it would result in violence. Yet again, she did not back her claim with any facts whatsoever.

The use of unverifiable, inaccurate or nebulous data, next to the use of graphic descriptions of violence, is one of the most common rhetorical tools of sex work abolitionists. They state as facts what is often based on little more than anecdotal evidence, newspaper clippings, or research about which no information exists as to its methodology or its scope and limitations.

Common is, too, to use those facts to make sweeping generalisations for utterly diverse contexts, something Cho did throughout her presentation. According to her, the women she met “had all [had] similar experiences” that were “shared by all women who work in the sex industry”. The ‘Comfort Women’, the ‘Camptown Prostitutes’ and the women working in the sex industry – they all share the same oppression originating from a “patriarchal society that needs to be abolished”. Therefore, “all people should support this type of [prohibitive] law”. I frankly lost count over how many times Cho used the word ‘all’.

6. At the very end of the Q & A session, I raised my hand to ask one question.

“Thank you very much for your presentation and for sharing you experiences with us. I would like to make one comment and ask one question. First of all, I would like to comment on your statement that only white sex workers earn good money in the sex industry. I would like to refute that claim. I know of local prostitutes in Thailand and South Korea that earn a lot of money, so that makes at least two countries were your assumption is incorrect.

Secondly, I would like to say that I have no reason to doubt that the gruesome stories you shared here today are not true. I would like to ask you, however, how you explain the existence of the global sex workers’ rights movement. The sex workers’ rights movement exists not only in rich developed Western nations but also in countries such as South Africa, India, Cambodia, and even in South Korea. I am aware that on occasion, sex workers might be coerced to participate in rallies to protest for sex work to be decriminalised or legalised. I know of many sex workers, however, who participate voluntarily in such protests. If the situation is, as you stated, everywhere as bad as you described it, then how do you explain that sex workers protest for their right to continue to work under such conditions?”

Sex Workers protest in Seoul on September 22, 2011 (Photo AP)

Jin Kyeong Cho responded to my question like the professional that she is. She started by saying that my question would be a “very important” one, but then went off on a tangent, just as she had done when asked for her opinion about legislative alternatives to prohibition.

This time, she described the case of a Korean orphan that had been treated inhumanely by her foster parents and hadn’t received any school education. As she got older, she started to work as a maid, and later was tricked into prostitution. When she refused to work, she was gang-raped by a group of pimps. Within two years, however, she had transformed and become a “top-class” prostitute that provided any service that was requested and made a lot of money. (Hadn’t Cho previously said that only white prostitutes earned good money?) When she had accumulated enough money to pay off the brothel owner and regain her freedom, a pimp tricked her into a bad investment and as a result, she lost all her money.

At this point, Cho got agitated and stated that women like the one in her example had no other choice but to do this type of work. “We can’t say if they want to work like that” if they have no other choice. “This is not only an issue in South Korea. Elsewhere it’s worse.”

In all fairness, Cho had stopped short of accusing me of promoting sex work, an otherwise common reaction by sex work abolitionists when someone refutes their claims or suggests that anyone might actually prefer to sell sex. Her answer served the same purpose, however. By using another worst case to illustrate the abominable conditions in the sex industry, she sidestepped my question to drive home the message once more that the sex industry is intrinsically exploitative and that prostitutes, without exception, are “always abuse victims” that require rescue.

White men can’t jump to conclusions

After the session had ended and Cho had left, I approached the woman who had asked her about the legislative models in other countries. She turned out to be an Asian Canadian and a friend of one of the organisers of the event. According to herself, she had “worked on this issue for many years”. I told her that I thought she had posed a good question and that I felt, Cho hadn’t answered my question. She responded, “Well, she didn’t really answer to mine either.” With regards to my question, she stated that she was “aware of how contentious this issue is” and that “sex workers in Canada [were] very vocal” in their protest for sex workers’ rights. We continued to discuss about her view that “selling my body objectifies me” and that “the problem [of prostitution] is demand-driven”.

When she started to mention statistics, I enquired about her sources and tried to explain my view that, when it comes to informal sectors such as the sex industry, statistics almost always represent extrapolations of research that is all too often questionable and limited (see 5.), as well as potentially biased, depending on the sponsor. As I tried to make my point, however, she repeatedly interrupted me and finally, turning towards another participant, said jokingly, “Please come and help me.”, and, “Oh god, it’s come so far that I am seeking rescue from a white man.“

The ‘white man’ turned out to be Tom Rainey-Smith from New Zealand, coordinator of Amnesty G48, an official chapter of Amnesty International Korea. He was in the process of leaving, and, looking into another direction, said dryly: “No, thanks. I don’t want to waste my time.”

When I calmly asked him why he would say that, he began to admonish me, asking me how I could “come here as a man” and talk the way I had done. When I asked him if by that he meant that I would have no right to voice my opinion based on my gender, he back-pedalled. (Maybe he remembered that Amnesty International promotes freedom of expression and opposes discriminating someone because of their gender.)

To try to engage him in a discussion, I mentioned my previous work for a grassroots NGO that empowers youth in the rural north of Thailand, which he acknowledged. But when I returned to the subject of the evening and explained that I found it strange to connect the sex industry today with the forced prostitution during a war 60 years prior, he reacted indignantly and asked me why I would talk about “the 1% where things were different”.

Whether or not he meant the 1% of sex workers that had labour contracts in Germany or maybe 1% of sex workers worldwide that he assumed were voluntary sex workers, I had no chance to ask, but it seemed in itself an interesting point from a human rights activist to ask me why I didn’t want to ignore human rights abuses against a minority.

As I tried to respond, the two continued to vent their indignation, and when I finally pointed it out to them, I was ridiculed. “Oh, is the man not able to finish his sentence?” At this point, the organisers let it be known that the venue was closing, and so I decided to leave it at that.

Cho had successfully set the scene and she couldn’t have asked for more faithful followers.

Sex Workers’ Rights Organisations (Image: Matthias Lehmann)


To avoid further hassle, I chose a different route to the subway station. But sure enough, when I changed from one subway line to another, I ran into the Asian Canadian woman again. She smiled awkwardly and said, “Oh, we are on the same train.” to which I smirkingly replied, “Well, that sure isn’t meant metaphorically.”

*Passages in quotation marks, where not otherwise noted, represent quotes from the translation of the presentation, recorded during the event.

**Since the event was held in Korean with English interpretation, some details were lost in translation. I had no chance to find out if the organisation in question was the same, which she later became the director of.