Sex Work and Human Rights


Stop the stigma | Messages on the eve of the SWFF

On the eve of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, I would like to share several messages. One is from KANG Hyun Joon, Director-General of the Han Teo National Union of Sex Workers in South Korea; the second is from a Korean sex worker who sadly cannot participate in the festival; and based on both of their statements I would also like to share a message of my own.

I am often asked what I wish to accomplish with my research project. Some people simply happen to know very little about the subject of sex workers’ rights, others might question my motives or morality, and yet again others might wonder why I am doing this research in South Korea. In the following, I will explain one of the factors that motivate me, and it’s the same that also renders my research considerably difficult at times.

Think globally (sometimes), act locally

I usually try to avoid making generalising statements about Koreans. Firstly, it is never wise to make general assumptions about a large group of people, and secondly, Korean society is in a state of constant and rapid changes, which I have been able to witness over the last ten years, four of which I have been living in South Korea.

If you visit Korea, it will be virtually impossible for you not to come across the words ‘international’ and ‘global’ on a regular basis. You will find them on banners and brochures of universities, research organisations, government agencies or private corporations who all use those words to give their dealings the semblance of being interconnected with like-minded partners in other parts of the world.

My experience tells me, however, that this global link is more often than not in name only, regardless of how genuine the intention to establish it may be. Korean activists, while very apt when organising protests within Korea, are no exception to this rule. [1]

Raising awareness about sex workers in Korea

Raising awareness about the situation of sex workers in South Korea is therefore one of the factors that continue to motivate me. I will not pretend that the lack of an international network doesn’t pose a significant challenge sometimes. But it makes me want to engage with Korean sex workers even more to encourage them – where necessary – to increase their network with sex work activists in other countries and to make their voices heard beyond the Asian realm. [2]

The evening before I boarded my flight to Kolkata, I met with KANG Hyun Joon, Director-General of the Han Teo National Union of Sex Workers, at a café in Seoul’s red-light district in Yeongdeungpo. Kang founded Han Teo in September 2002 and the organisation soon represented 20,000 brothel-based sex workers. Following the Special Law on Sex Trade of 2004 and increased government crackdowns on brothels, membership has since dropped to approx. 8,000, as an estimated 100,000 Korean sex workers opted to move abroad, the majority of them to Japan and the United States.

Message from Korean Sex Workers’ Union Han Teo to the SWFF

Towards the end of our talk, I asked KANG Hyun Joon if he would like me to pass on a message to the participants of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, seeing that on this occasion, Han Teo wouldn’t send a delegate to the conference. He replied the following.

“Since we don’t have frequent contact with people in the sex industry at the international level, I can’t say much about it, to be honest with you. However, if I were to talk about the situation in Korea, I’d like to say that I hope the day comes soon where sex workers in Korea work without shame and speak up with confidence in their own country.”

“그 쪽분들은 제가 접촉이 없기 때문에 뭐라고 말씀드리기 힘들지만 한국 사정으로 봤을 때 이 업에 종사한다고 해서 부끄러워하지 말고 떳떳하게 자기 국가에서 목소리 내면서 노동자로 인정받을 수 있는 날이 빨리 왔으면 좋겠습니다.”

Stop and listen! 

While the immense stigma attached to sex work represent a problem for sex workers worldwide, the traditionally strict gender roles still alive in modern Korean society greatly exacerbate it. In a recent meeting with a sex worker in Seoul, we talked about the common rhetorical ploy by prostitution abolitionists to ask whether or not one would wish for one’s own children to become prostitutes. Her comment was that she would indeed try everything to prevent her child from working as a prostitute, but the reason she gave for that was not the nature of the work, but the stigmatisation that goes along with it, and that is causing her great distress and has her keep a distance from her parents to avoid having to lie to them about her work. [3]

Stigmatisation and discrimination have been the most commonly given answers I received when talking to Korean sex workers about difficulties they experience in their daily lives.

And so my message on the evening before the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival is directed to those readers unsure about the subject of sex workers’ rights.

To change laws and improve the rights of sex workers will take a lot of time and effort. But to open your mind, you only have to stop and listen, even if some of it might make you feel uncomfortable. I like to encourage you to stop believing the one-dimensional rhetoric of prostitution abolitionists and to listen instead to the experiences shared by those who know best, and those are sex workers themselves.

One of them is Maggie McNeill, a retired call girl, who writes about how she sees the world on her blog ‘The Honest Courtesan’.

“Those who wish to control others, to attack consensual actions with criminal laws, and to eliminate options which make them uncomfortable, believe that morality is set in stone; they think that right and wrong are as separate and distinct as black and white, and that they and only they have the direct proclamation from Godhead about which is which. Rational people, however, understand that morality is a process of weighing out various factors, comparing the relative right and wrong of each, in order to come to the most just, least harmful decision possible.” [4]



[1] The protests against the naval base on Jeju Island are a significant exception to the rule. The Korean government responded to the appearance of 2012 Nobel Peace Prize nominee Angie Zelter (UK) and Benjamin Monnet (France) on the scene by arresting the two non-violent peace activists. While they eventually deported without any formal judicial procedure, three US citizens, members of US Veterans for Peace, were outright forbidden to land in Korea, discouraging further interference from the outside. Case in point.

[2] To avoid any misunderstanding, I would like to clarify that I do not wish to imply that Korean sex workers aren’t capable of making themselves heard, as this video greatly illustrates. In the recent past, Korean sex workers have more frequently participated in meetings and conferences outside Korea. As KANG Hyun Joon’s quote illustrates, however, contacts to sex work activists are still very limited, especially when it comes to links outside East Asia.

[3] The interviewee consented to having her views published. The photo was taken from a twitter account of a Korean sex worker.

[4] A Different View by The Honest Courtesan

Update #4 | On the way to India!

I am now on my way from Seoul to Kolkata, currently on a stopover at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. Thanks to some extremely generous donations, in particular by one American donor, I am able to take my research project on the road to attend the XIX International AIDS Conference Hub, dubbed the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, in Kolkata, India. I will continue to post updates throughout this exciting conference, both on this blog and via Twitter.

Click on the button on the right-hand column (below the Facebook box) to follow ResearchProjectKorea on Twitter or read my tweets on this page. You can also follow the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival via Twitter. Click here to follow @SWFF_2012.

Once again, I would like to thank everyone for your great support. This goes especially to my team and my interviewees who have helped me greatly throughout the last months. I would also like to wish all of those currently travelling to Kolkata a safe journey and pleasant arrival! See you at the SWFF!

Update #4.1

Safely arrived in Kolkata.


Giant Girls go to India!

Please Support Korean Sex Workers

Giant Girls – Network for Sexworkers’ Rights (성노동자권리모임 GG) is currently raising funds to send up to three of their members to the Sex Worker Freedom Festival aka the Alternative International AIDS Conference (IAC 2012 Kolkata). At the time of writing, their fundraiser has reached nearly 80% of their target of 3,000,000 KRW (approx. US$2,620). Please consider a donation towards their fundraiser to ensure the participation of Korean sex workers at the Sex Worker Freedom Festival.


In Pictures: Korean Sex Workers’ Day

Photos taken at the Yeongdeungpo red light district on Korean Sex Workers’ Day, June 29th, and at the Cultural Festival & Potluck Party at Project Space LAB39 on July 1st, organised by GG Network for Sex Workers’ Rights. All photos © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved. Published with kind permission by sex worker representatives in the respective locations.

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Working? Working!

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My Friend’s Rights are Human Rights!

“I am not a hooker. I’m a sex worker!” (left)
“Don’t stigmatise us! Don’t oppress us!” (right)

As I was about to write “Sex Workers Rights are Human Rights” as a title for this photo, I thought about what my friend Hyeri and I talked about last night, when I stuttered as I was about to say the word ‘성노동자’ (seongnodongja, Korean für ‘Sexworker’) for the zillionth time that day. When I said that I don’t think it’s right anyway to use this term over and over again when I talk about a friend, she agreed with me and commented that first and foremost, she wants to be perceived as a human being, and not just as a sex worker. Or do you usually address your friends with their job titles?

6.29 Korean Sex Workers’ Day

In Commemoration of the 8th Anniversary
of the National Solidarity of Sex Workers Day

6.29 Sex Workers Day – Cultural Festival & Potluck Party ☂

2012.07.01 Sunday
@ Mullae Arts Village | Project Space LAB 39
OPEN/2.00pm – CLOSE/7.00pm (Times changed!)

The event is held to commemorate Sex Workers’ Day (June 29th) and to discuss the human rights situation of marginalised populations, including sex workers who are oppressed in this society. We will also have a Potluck Party. Please bring 1-2 servings of food, if you like to participate.

Message from Giant Girls – Network for Sex Workers’ Rights

Do you like to party? Then come to Project Space LAB 39 on July 1st! In celebration of Korean Sex Workers’ Day, Giant Girls is hosting a small party!

The dress code is “Flower”. If you don’t have any flowery clothes, wear a flower in your hair. 🙂

Since we will be having a potluck party, please bring a little food along! Those who participate should bring enough food for one person 🙂 Giant Girls will prepare canapés, salads, rice balls and more. Anything is welcome, cookies, fruit etc. (There is no place to buy food near LAB39. HomePlus at Mullae Station is the closest place to buy food.)

Programme – A variety of things to see and do and plenty of exciting stories!

  • Photo Exhibition: Work and Everyday Life of Sex Workers
  • Exhibition about the Sex Work Movement and various other materials
  • Fashion Show: Holbok (Sex Workers’ Outfits)
  • Chat, Dance, Poetry and Novel Recitals and much, much more…

Be sure to come! We’d like to see everyone again, especially those we haven’t seen for a long time!

What’s the story of June 29th?

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.

Update #3 | You sent me to India!

Registration Complete!

This week, I received word from the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), co-organisers of the Sex Worker Freedom Festival, that I am most welcome at the conference! As for my participation at the conference, a few details remain to be clarified, and the visa application process seems a little complicated given that I’m a German national with a non-permanent residence in Korea. But the bottom line is: I will go to where the pepper grows and I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for your great support, both morally and financially. I continue to be amazed by you and will do my best to honour the trust you set in me.

The fundraiser remains open for the time being as I am still seeking support to cover basic expenses (food & transport) while in India. To help complete my fundraiser, please click on the DONATE NOW button!

Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee

‘Durbar’ is a Bengali word that means unbeatable or unstoppable. The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee represents 65,000 male, female and transgender sex workers in India and is active in identifying and challenging the underlying socio-structural factors that help perpetuate the stigmatisation, material deprivation and social exclusion of sex workers. For more information about DMSC, please click here.

Did you know? In 2001, the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee designated March 3rd as annual International Sex Workers’ Rights Day. Click here to find out more.

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Update #2 | Send me to India! | Almost there

Update | Send me to India! | Fundraiser at 20%*

Sex Worker Freedom Festival | IAC 2012

Where the pepper grows | Send me to India!

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The Sex Worker Freedom Festival is an Official International AIDS Conference 2012 Hub. Supported by Open Society Foundation – Sexual Health and Rights Program, UNAIDS, Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UNFPA, HIVOS, AIDS Fonds and AIDS 2012 conference secretariat.