Sex Work and Human Rights

Posts tagged “Amnesty International

Event: Asia-Pacific Sex Workers’ Rights Forum

Asia-Pacific Sex Workers’ Rights Forum

Giant Girls invites you to the Asia-Pacific Sex Workers’ Rights Forum

Date: Saturday, 28th November 2015
Location: Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), 6th Fl. Kyunghyang Daily News Bldg., 22 Jeong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea 100-702
Entrance Fee: KRW 10,000


11.00 – 12.00 Film screening of ‘Grace Period’ by Caroline Key & KIM KyungMook (see trailer below)

12.00 – 16.30 Asia-Pacific Sex Workers’ Rights Forum with representatives of Scarlet Alliance (Australia), SWASH (Japan), COSWAS (Taiwan) and Giant Girls (Korea)

16.30 – 19.30 Film screening of ‘Red Maria 2’ by Kyung-soon (see interview with Kyung-soon here)

국제앰네스티 ‘성노동전면비범죄화’ 결정을 환영하며 <아시아태평양 성노동자 인권 포럼>을 마련했습니다. 이번 주 28일 토요일 오전 11시 민주노총 금속노조 사무실에서 참가비 1만원으로 진행됩니다. <유예기간>과 <레드 마리아2> 영화 상영과 함께, 스칼렛 얼라이언스(호주), 스와시(일본), 코스와스(대만), 그리고 지지(한국)에서 ‘아시아태평양 지역 성노동자의 인권과 성매매 정책’을 주제로 포럼을 열고자 하니 많은 관심 바랍니다.




“Thank you, Amnesty, for having been so brave”

[Starts at 36:15] Statement by Lucien Lee, a trans* female sex worker activists from South Korea, in response to Amnesty International’s sex work policy decision,* read out by N’jaila Rhee on episode 61 of This Week in Blackness TWiB! AfterDARK.

Image by Lucien Lee @spermicus All Rights Reserved“This is Lucien Lee from South Korea. I’m a trans woman and at work, I either put on a strap-on and get behind my male clients or receive their penises in me. I’ve been doing this since November 2012. Sex work has given me hope that one day, I will be able to pay for my sex reassignment surgery and lead a life like any other ordinary lesbian. But as it is in the US, sex work is still criminalised in South Korea. If I ever get caught by the police, the fine or bribe I would have to pay would be too much for me. Recently, somebody reported my website, where I advertise my services to potential sex buyers, to the authorities. I was terrified when I got a message from a police officer. The police have never been there for me, like when I was sexually assaulted by a teenager who couldn’t afford to pay for my services. After the incident, I couldn’t go to the police because he threatened to report me for being a prostitute.

I hate everyone who criminalises my work, lets me get raped, and cockblocks my efforts to be a part of the lesbian sisterhood. I’ve been donating monthly to Amnesty for years, and I was thrilled this organisation that has been advocating for all the people in jail who stood up against mandatory military conscription in both Koreas now speaks in favour of all sex workers. I must say, thank you, Amnesty, for having been so brave all these years. Thank you for helping me to help myself. Thank you for protecting me from being raped again. This is Lucien Lee, a godless Seoulite.”

* [1] Global movement votes to adopt policy to protect human rights of sex workers
[2] 국제앰네스티, 성노동자 인권 보호를 위한 정책 채택

“It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.” – or: Putting SWERFs’ abuse to better use

Peak-Meter 2015 - Image by Research Project KoreaClick image to enlarge

Sex work stigma

If you read any of the articles published in the days before and after Amnesty International’s decision to support decriminalising sex work, e.g. this one by Luca Stevenson and Agata Dziuban, you are now hopefully aware of the immense stigma sex workers are faced with in their everyday lives, affecting not only them but also their families and friends. To a much lesser degree, the stigma can also affect sex workers’ clients, although at worst, they might be faced with ridicule or ostracism, not violent attacks. However, the stigma might well play a role in why clients are rarely seen sacrificing their anonymity to stand up for the rights of sex workers whose services they enjoy. As a researcher, I don’t feel any tangible impact by the stigma attached to sex work research, but I certainly experience my fair share of verbal abuse. Following the Twitter battle before and after Amnesty’s decision, I’ve updated the above peak meter, which I created a couple of years ago, to include the latest labels others have attached to or hurled at me.

This blog post may appear somewhat self-referential but I would actually like to use the labels, good and bad, as vehicles to point readers to several interesting articles, some of which were written by sex workers, others by researchers, not that the two are mutually exclusive, and yet again others by sex worker-exclusionary radical feminists (SWERFs). Please note that the below is by no means intended to compare my experience to the stigma and its consequences faced by sex workers.

Red Labels

[-10] John / Pimp Apologist

Trying to shame sex workers or sex workers’ rights advocates by labelling them “johns” is very common, although it doesn’t really make much sense. After all, if someone believes that consenting adults should be allowed to buy and sell sexual services, being called a “john”, although buying sex carries its own stigma, is pretty much the same as being called a customer, which is hardly an insult.

Page 29 - John's VoiceClick image to read a report by Chris Atchison about sex buyers in Canada

A prostitution prohibitionist using the pseudonym Stella Marr once called me a “pimp apologist” before later deleting her comment. Although she set her own blog to “private” after she was outed, you can still read her libellous article “Pimps Posing as Sex Worker Activists” at the “Anti-Porn Feminists”-blog, in which she slanders veteran sex worker activists Maxine Doogan, Norma Jean Almodovar and the late Robyn Few, founders of the Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project (ESPLER), the International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture and Education (ISWFACE), and the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA (SWOP-USA) respectively.

[-30] Pornstitutionist / Useless A**hole / Sexist Propagandist

Francois Tremblay, in his own words a “pessimistic feminazi, radical whackjob and antinatalist”, responded to a blog post of mine with one of his own, in which he labelled me a “pornstitutionist”, a term, as he explained, “for people who oppose abolitionism in prostitution and pornography”. His post “The strange connection between pornstitutionists and lying” is still online. He later added a postscript with the above mentioned expletive.

After I had posted a series of memes to mock the Hollywood celebrities who had gullibly believed the false claims by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) and co-signed a letter to oppose Amnesty‘s draft policy, a self-declared radical feminist tweeted that my memes were “sexist propaganda” and that I should quit insulting women’s intelligence – although my post includes memes mocking male celebrities, too. I wouldn’t usually mock spelling mistakes, but, well…

2015 08 09 Kaera Wolf @Isis7wolf quit quite “sexist propaganda” [1]

[-50] Sleazeball etc.

All of these are comments left about me underneath a post at the “Anti-Porn Feminists”-blog. To get an idea about the barrage of abuse that sex workers are regularly faced with, please read the Storify entry #whenantisattack, gathered by a group of current and former sex workers to highlight the silencing, shaming, abuse and insults by those who oppose sex work.

[-70] Pimp / Trafficker

In 2013, an Irish-based tabloid re-posted a video that YouTube had previously removed since it violated its terms and conditions. In the video, an undercover reporter of the tabloid filmed and outed a sex worker without her consent. In the comment thread underneath the video, a troll called me both a pimp and a trafficker.A Guide to respectful reporting and writing on sex work While that video was a particularly extreme example, media reports regularly add to the stigma attached to sex work, which is why in December 2014, four South African organisations jointly published “A guide to respectful reporting and writing on sex work”. An article about the guide was published in Open Democracy‘s excellent series Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. To download the complete guide as PDF please click here.

The term “pimp lobby” is frequently used by sex worker-exclusionary radical feminists (SWERFs) to slander “anyone who advocates anything but the full criminalization of sex work”. Apart from watching the video below, I recommend reading “Hanging out in the Pimp Lobby” by Jemima, “Everything You Need To Know About The Pimp Lobby” by Charlotte Shane, and “I Am the Pimp Lobby” by Jes Richardson. 

Perhaps the worst insult I’ve experienced was one during the Amnesty #ICM2015 twitter battle, when a Canadian anti-prostitution activist accused me of using the murder of Swedish sex worker activist Petite Jasmine to further my alleged agenda to legalise “sexual slavery”.

2015 08 10 Jem Kim @Im2old4thisship “personal agenda”

Black + Green Labels

[0] Diplomat

A French sex worker activist once told me I wrote even “more politely than English people”. I believe that any movement needs different types of activism and writing. Some of it needs to be fierce; at other times, it’s better to be diplomatic. I’m always up for creating satirical memes, but in my writing, I prefer to be very diplomatic, although when faced with ideologues like Rhoda Grant or Mary Honeyball, that’s not always possible.

[+10] Researcher

What I do.

[+30] Idealist / Activist

What an American and a Turkish friend in South Korea called me. Justice Himel from the Ontario Court of Justice found that anti-prostitution activist Melissa Farley had allowed her advocacy to permeate her opinions. Although Farley’s work has been frequently discredited, anti-prostitution activists continue to cite her in support of sweeping claims about sex work, just as the notorious Cho/Dreher/Neumayer study is constantly rolled out to back up the argument that legalising sex work leads to greater human trafficking inflows, despite the seriously flawed data used to make that argument. I believe on both sides of the divide, it’s sometimes difficult to remain detached when people close to oneself experience violent abuse. When it comes to activism for the rights of sex workers, I believe it’s important to acknowledge what you don’t know and stay clear of problematic arguments. And that’s true regardless of whether you are a sex worker, a researcher, a journalist, an artist, a writer, or any combination of these.

[+50] Sex Worker Ally / Great Partner

What sex workers have called me. Recommended reading on the subject: How to be an ally to sex workers by SWOP Chicago + Want to be a hero for sex workers? Try listening by Tilly Lawless.

[+70] Fabulous / Friend

What the above mentioned French and a South Korean sex worker activist have called me.


My preferred way of dealing with SWERF attacks is to create memes and share them with the #sexwork community or respond with counter evidence to the most ludicrous claims, like the one about sex workers’ rights advocates allegedly living in a land of milk and honey, when actually, it’s faux anti-trafficking organisations who rake in the dough.

2015 08 09 @NoAmnesty4Pimps Claim about funding

Should you experience verbal abuse because you publicly stated your support for policies to safeguard sex workers’ human rights, try not to let it get to you. As American comedian W.C. Fields once put it, “it ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to”.

“Sex workers have the same rights as everyone else” – Press Release by Voice4Sexworkers

Research Project Germany

Voice4Sexworkers Header

Amnesty International supports the human rights of sex workers and calls for the decriminalisation of sex work

Please click here to view the German original.

At the conclusion of its International Council Meeting in Dublin on August 11th, 2015, Amnesty International voted to henceforward support sex workers’ human rights and call for the decriminalisation of sex work.

Voice4Sexworkers, an NGO by and for sex workers, welcomes the long overdue decision by Amnesty International, as the global sex workers’ rights movement has demanded the very same since decades already.

In Germany, for instance, abolishing the pimping law [§181a of the German Criminal Code] was already suggested in 1973, since labour exploitation and taking advantage of the plight of third parties are already prohibited in accordance with the human trafficking law [§233 of the Criminal Code].*

People who work in the sex trade are not helped by destroying its logistics and…

View original post 494 more words

SWERFs discover Amnesty supports decriminalising sex work

#pledgedecrim - Photo by English Collective of Prostitutes#pledgedecrim (© English Collective of Prostitutes. Used with kind permission.)

Preface: Long live the humour!

“First and foremost, humour is a means to counter the seriousness of life and at best, to cope with it. The more serious the situation, the more important humour becomes. Humour creates a distance to depressing events, it allows to speak improperly about matters which are properly unbearable [and] for a moment, it disarms the seriousness. And that might well be the reason why fanatics despise humour. They contend a dead serious, eternal truth, and jokes – however clever or funny they may be – threaten this truth. Long live the humour. The clever one. The silly one. Anyone who finds enough people who laugh about it. And for all those who don’t like it, it should apply now more than ever: tolerate it or ignore it. You won’t be able to control humour!” – Tim Wolff, Chief Editor of German satire magazine TITANIC (Translated excerpt from his article “You won’t be able to control humour!”. Published with kind permission.)


As the Twitter battle between supporters and opponents of Amnesty’s draft policy to decriminalise sex work heated up, a current sex worker from the UK published a Downfall meme titled “SWERFs discover Amnesty are supporting decrim”. (SWERF is an acronym for sex worker-exclusionary radical feminists.)

“The Downfall meme, also known as “Hitler Finds Out…” or “Hitler Reacts To…”, is a series of parody-subtitled videos based on a pinnacle scene from Der Untergang (2004), a German WWII drama revisiting the last ten days of Adolf Hitler’s life and eventual suicide in his Berlin underground bunker.”

The subtitles are excellent as they are not only funny but also list a number of figures from both sides of the divide. But while I agree with Tim Wolff‘s words above, Nazi analogies are problematic depending on one’s respective cultural context, which is why I requested the permission to publish the subtitles as text-only version along with links to the cited sources. The different characters in the video are listed as PAPA SWERF, BRAINY SWERF, and SWERFETTE.

“Laughing in the face of the awful”

[The following paragraphs were composed by the sex worker who created the video.]

What is humour? On one level it is always something that transgresses, in order to be funny, a rule somewhere, even if it is a rule of grammar, must be broken. As children, our first comedy is that of bodily functions, as we explore the taboos society insists we must comply to. Indeed, there is probably a good essay somewhere, or waiting to be written, on how all types of humour fit into Freud’s stages of development, from the scatalogical to the cerebral.

In a particular British context, the taboo has so often been one of class and status. The Lord of Misrule, the Fool, the Wife of Bath mocking the Knight – our comedy is rooted in laughing at those with power and authority over us. This tradition carried on through the prints of Hogarth and the pages of Punch. In recent years this has been described as punching up, not punching down.

It is a delicate line between offending power and simply being offensive. Does the Downfall meme cross this line? I think in fact it is the archetype writ large, by mocking someone so terrible, with so much power we are following on from Hogarth, from the fool. We are asserting our power, that the power to show tyranny for what it is still remains. Sometimes laughter is the only power we have, and sometimes laughing in the face of the awful is, in itself, a radical act.

SWERFs discover Amnesty supports decriminalising sex work

BRAINY SWERF: “It’s true. Meghan Murphy has just called. Amnesty is supporting sex workers. Apparently, they travelled around the world actually speaking to sex workers.”

PAPA SWERF: “But I wrote at least four editorials. How can this be happening?”

BRAINY SWERF: “The Lancet has produced its own editorial supporting Amnesty.”

PAPA SWERF: “We can still win this. Get me Woman’s Hour on the phone.”

BRAINY SWERF:Woman’s Hour…they say if this is debated, a current sex worker has to be on the show. Even the Guardian printed a column by a current sex worker.”

PAPA SWERF: “Anyone who has read ‘Playing the Whore’ leave the room now. … How the f*** has this happened?! We called them pimps, we called them privileged, we outed them! The World Health Organisation I could understand. UNAIDS – who cares. But Amnesty? They’re supposed to be our kind of liberals. What the f*** are they doing collecting evidence? Get me Lena Dunham now. I need people who refuse listening to scientific research. Get me some Hollywood anti-vaxers. What is the point of feminism if people go around listening to oppressed women! Has no one read Germaine Greer? What’s the point in Julie Burchill threatening to shoot prostitutes if they aren’t scared into silence?”

BRAINY SWERF: “Don’t you mean prostituted women?”

PAPA SWERF: “I know what I mean. F***ing whores! Put lipstick on a pig and it’s still a pig. What happened to blaming the pimp lobby?”

BRAINY SWERF: “No one believes in the pimp lobby anymore.”

PAPA SWERF: “I told Bindel this. I f***ing told her! But no, she wanted to crowdfund her latest book. If people start listening to sex workers, who will publish us? I have tenure. Do you know how hard it is out there for an academic? Do you expect me to find a new professorship at my age? Get me Melissa Farley! … Distorted study after distorted study, for what? For Amnesty to commission their own! We have Sweden, Canada and Northern Ireland. We managed to convince Christian bigots to stand with us. Do you know how many anti-abortion fundraisers I had to go to? I even sat through a Christian rock concert. And for what? For people to collect their own f***ing evidence! … Do you know what Christian soft rock is like? But I did it, because with the fundamentalists we could make sure no one ever listened to the whores. And Amnesty went out and did their own research! The whole point was that no one was meant to ask sex workers what they wanted. Now they have gone and asked people who live under the Swedish Model how it harms them. No one is meant to know about that! We hid that by publishing it in Swedish and no one cares enough to translate Swedish. You can’t just go and ask the Rose Alliance how it harms them! What next? Will they ask migrant sex workers what they want? Next thing we know they will ask trans* sex workers what would protect them from abuse!

SWERFETTE: “It’s okay. The public hates trans people more than sex workers, even if they do ask.”

PAPA SWERF: “You know how this happened? What started this? F***ing Twitter! People started following sex workers, discovered they were human, had feelings, thoughts, opinions. They talked to sex workers and listened. Even some feminists followed sex work accounts. We called them orifices, pointed out that all penetrative intercourse is rape, mocked them for sucking dick, showed our disgust at every turn. For some reason, this made people think we are the bad guys. All we have left is the New Statesman. God have mercy on our souls.”

Over 10,000 people signed the petition to Amnesty by the Global Network for Sex Work Projects. The vote about the draft policy at Amnesty’s International Council Meeting in Dublin is scheduled for August 11th, 2015. As soon as the result will be known, this post will be updated.

+++ Update: Amnesty International delegates from around the world voted to adopt policy to protect human rights of sex workers | Click here for Amnesty’s official statement +++

I would like to thank Jane Doe for her permission to publish the text-only version of her video, for adding the paragraphs above, and for collaborating to publish this post.

Celebrating Hollywood’s “gender studies scholars”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Images* to celebrate Hollywood’s “gender studies scholars” who, after conducting “some very scientific studies”, have co-signed a letter by anti-prostitution activists to try and pressure Amnesty International into dropping plans to adopt a policy that would recommend decriminalising sex work.

Tell Amnesty to listen to sex workers!

NSWP Petition to Amnesty (Image by @photogroffee)

Please read, sign and share the petition by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) and tell Amnesty to listen to sex workers and protect their human rights!

Recommended Reading

Sarah (Tits and Sass)
A Tale of Two Petitions: CATW’s Amnesty Open Letter Fail

Luca Stevenson and Agata Dziuban (ICRSE)
Amnesty must stand firm on support for decriminalising sex work

Caty Simon (Tits and sass)
Pye Jakobsson (NSWP President) on the Amnesty International vote and holding allies accountable

Michel Sidibé (UNAIDS Executive Director)
UNAIDS Letter of Support to Amnesty International [PDF]

Sebastian Kohn (Open Society Foundations)
Why Amnesty International Must Hold Firm in Its Support for Sex Workers

Wendy Lyon (Feminist Ire)
On Amnesty and that open letter

Thomas Schultz-Jagow (Amnesty Int’l)
Response to Jessica Neuwirth’s article in the New York Times

Amnesty International
Explaining our draft policy on sex work

Kathryn Adams
18 Reasons for Decriminalisation of Sex Work
(Adapted from Amnesty International’s Draft Policy on Sex Work)

Chantawipa Apisuk (Empower Foundation Thailand)
Letter of Support to Amnesty International

Kay Thi Win (Asia Pacific Network of Sex Worker)
Please vote Yes to the policy on decriminalization of sex work

Juniper Fitzgerald (Tits and Sass)
Celebrity And The Spectacle Of The Trafficking Victim

Alison Phipps (Director, Gender Studies, University of Sussex)
‘Disappearing’ sex workers in the Amnesty International debate

James Baer (London); Barbra Moyo (Sexual Rights Centre, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe)
Guardian Letters: Amnesty International is right to take a stand on sex work

Molly Smith
In this prostitution debate, listen to sex workers not Hollywood stars

Serra Sippel (President, Center for Health and Gender Equity)
All Women, All Rights – Sex Workers Included

Rachel Vorona Cote
Celebrities Have Vital Opinions About Decriminalization of Sex Work

Jamie Peck
Sex workers tell Lena Dunham, other celebs to STFU about shit they don’t understand

…or check out #Amnesty4Sexwork on Twitter.

*All images modified by Research Project Korea/Germany (@photogroffee). Feel free to share and retweet. See image descriptions on Facebook for Twitter URLs.

Update to Rhoda Grant’s consultation process

Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex (Scotland) Bill (2) fails!

Scottish Parliament ConsultationMSP Rhoda Grant did not receive cross-party support for her recent proposal to criminalise the clients of sex workers in Scotland.

“We, the sex workers at SCOT-PEP want to say a HUGE thank you to everyone for their support over the last few months, we are ecstatic!!! Let’s hope the debate and discussion can continue and together we can work towards a legal framework and social environment that protects, supports and respects the human rights and dignity of sex workers.”

Commenting on the failure of other political parties to support her proposed bill, Highlands and Islands Labour MSP, Rhoda Grant, said

“I am disappointed that the Bill has fallen due to not achieving cross-party support when there was such overwhelming support expressed in response to my consultation from a wide range of individuals and organisations. I will continue to press for the introduction of legislation that aims to tackle the demand side of the industry and support for those who have been failed by society.”

Rhoda Grant - Disappointment TweetRhoda Grant’s comments appeared on her website but were later taken offline. Click here to view a snapshot of the page as it appeared on 28 Jun 2013 13:36:53 GMT.

Controversies surrounding the Consultation Process

Speaking of failing: when in late May, Ms Grant finally released her summary of the responses to her proposal, she failed to include several responses from opponents to her bill, including my own. While this was later rectified after other participants and I complained to Ms Grant – she blamed technical difficulties for the blunder – it appeared that curiously, no responses from proponents had been omitted. Please click here to read the press release by Scottish sex worker organisation SCOT-PEP in response to Ms Grant’s summary of responses.

In a separate controversy involving the responses to the bill, Amnesty International was forced to clarify its position on the criminalisation of sex work due to a rogue submission by its Paisley Branch, which had supported Ms Grant’s bill and given the impression on its now deleted Facebook page that Amnesty International supported Ms Grant’s proposal.

Wendy Lyon Amnesty IntlIn another press release following Rhoda Grant’s defeat, SCOT-PEP commented:

“MSP Rhoda Grant has never been accountable to any of the many responses to her consultation that suggested that she misrepresented her evidence. One academic, whose work was ‘quoted’ by Ms Grant, was moved to clarify her opposition to the Bill and her objection to Ms Grant’s distortion of her work. Amnesty International UK were forced to re-state their opposition to criminalisation after Ms Grant misrepresented their position in her summary of responses. SCOT-PEP will continue to campaign for an intelligent debate around sex work in Scotland, which must include meaningful dialogue with sex workers themselves, looking at how Scotland can protect their health and human rights.  SCOT-PEP believe this can only be achieved through full decriminalisation of sex work, sex workers, clients, management and others related to sex workers, within a human rights-based framework.”

Other Reactions

SWOU LogoLuca Stevenson, coordinator of the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) and co-founder of the Sex Worker Open University (SWOU) in the UK, commented: “Sex workers in Scotland and Europe rejoice at the news that the bill proposal did not receive cross-party support. Members of Sex Worker Open University, in collaboration with SCOT-PEP and the support of many activists, worked tirelessly to create a sex workers’ rights festival in Glasgow in April to give voices to sex workers that would have been directly affected by such law: loss of income, raids by the police, increased difficulty in screening clients, and increased stigma would have been just a few of the consequences of the criminalisation of our clients. We are very proud of what we have achieved and we hope this victory will inspire our comrades to keep fighting such law in other countries.”

Pye JacobssonUpon hearing that the proposed bill had failed to receive cross-party support, Pye Jakobsson, coordinator and international spokesperson of Swedish sex worker organisation Rose Alliance, commented: “For us in Sweden, any country NOT taking the bloody Swedish model is so important! The politicians all talk about the success, how many countries taking it etc etc, so this is very empowering for us!”

Matthias LehmannMatthias Lehmann commented: “On the day after Germany’s ruling coalition pushed a crude law to fight human trafficking and control brothels through parliament, in spite of recommendations to the contrary by experts of all shades, it is encouraging that in Scotland, reason prevailed. I would like to congratulate all sex workers in Scotland on this great success! It’s excellent news for Korean sex workers who today, on June 29th, celebrate Korean Sex Workers Day.”

@whorephobia@whorephobia commented: “This bill showed how little antis care about the women they claim to want to save. Every single piece of evidence shows that the criminalisation of clients puts us in danger. However, for them, with a moral objection to sex work, this is a price worth paying. They prefer dead women to consenting women. Today is a glorious day!”

Melanie MayMelanie May, a German sex worker and member of Sexwork Germany, a union of sex workers, which is currently in the course of formation, commented: “I am happy for my colleagues in Scotland how things turned out. Unfortunately, sex workers have to fight for their rights all over Europe these days; even here in Germany we are facing more and more serious problems. Therefore, the Scottish success gives me hope, while I have to admit that it makes me feel a little jealous, too. I wish you lots of strength and success for the future!”

SCOT-PEP Logo darkKat*, a sex worker in Scotland, said, “So much evidence shows that criminalising sex work makes us more vulnerable. Where clients are criminalised, sex workers face more police and client violence, and we have nowhere to turn to if we want to report this. The Swedish government itself acknowledges that its law to criminalise clients increases stigma. Stigma is what makes us vulnerable; it means the police won’t believe or listen to us, and people who pose as clients know this, and this makes us easy targets. I’m so relieved that this bill has fallen. It would have worsened the structural violence and stigma that we face.”

SCOT-PEP Logo darkAn anonymous Scotland-based sex worker* said, “It’s been a difficult time ever since Ms Grant took over Trish Godman’s work, but thinking back I realise that I am very grateful to her. The danger of possible criminalisation helped many sex workers get together; in a society where we’re alienated by stigma I now have friends and this means a lot to me. Regardless of her motives, Ms Grant helped us break the isolation, find allies and become stronger together. We’ve learnt to defend our position, now we know we can achieve more. It was a difficult time but it was totally worth it.”

SCOT-PEP Logo darkAlice*, a Scotland-based sex worker, said, “The next step is decriminalisation. Decriminalisation in New South Wales and New Zealand has been shown again and again to tackle abuse and exploitation, fight trafficking, effectively promote condom-use and thus profoundly help the fight against HIV, and empower sex workers to access justice and labour rights. What’s not to love? New Zealand has always been at the forefront of women’s rights – it was the first country in the world to give women the vote – and its still a globally-acknowledged leader in tackling violence against women, as this brave and successful policy demonstrates.”

Coyote RIBella Robinson, founder of sex worker organisation Coyote Rhode Island, commented: “No government has ever been successful at policing prostitution, so is it even rational to think they can regulate it? There is no doubt in my mind that all these regulations will be used to harass and discriminate against these adult businesses and sex worker themselves. Other than not allowing anyone to live on the premises and requiring each worker to fill out an application, show ID to prove they are an adult and sign a contract that says they understand that they are entering sex work by choice, what is there to REGULATE? I didn’t hear much about how this would effect independent sex workers. I didn’t hear anything about what long term services do they even have in place for any victims they find. They didn’t even discuss why so many people are entering the sex trade. No mention that it’s directly linked to POVERTY, and whether a person is being threatened by a pimp or a landlord that is threatening to throw them out if they can’t make the rent that it’s basically the same thing. Why are they IGNORING the fact that long term housing and medical insurance are necessary for harm reduction as well as jobs that pay wages people can actually live on? I heard no mention of law enforcement having to take “sensitivity trainings” nor who will monitor the bad cops that exploit and rape sex workers. I did not hear about how any sex worker can report violence. They chose to ignore all the evidence that shows that criminalization creates the perfect playground for bad cops and predators to rob, rape, beat, exploit, threaten and murder sex workers. I did not hear anything about the human rights of sex workers nor the civil rights of all consenting adults. We did not hear about all the anti-trafficking groups that are nothing more than anti prostitution groups in disguise and that their main focus is to exterminate all prostitutes from the face of the earth as if we were cockroaches. No mention of how these groups are PROMOTING VIOLENCE against sex workers with this “they get what they deserve” mentality. In closing, there was no mention that criminalization and shaming people does nothing to stop anyone from buying or selling sex. There will be a next generation of sex workers, and since victims in the sex trade are in the minority, let’s get back to the SOLUTION of protecting the majority of sex workers by allowing them to report violence, and by granting them the same labor rights, civil rights and human rights as any other civilian. To hear from the mouths of 11 US sex workers themselves please watch American Courtesans.”

Frans van RossumFrans van Rossum, a former sex worker and life-long sex worker ally from the Netherlands who provides legal assistance to migrant sex workers, commented: “What a relief. Sex workers need this everywhere, because society needs sex workers, urgently, maybe more urgent than ever before. This is great news in the European corner of the globe, after this week’s shameful, embarrassing defeat in the German Bundestag, and the goings in the Netherlands where the legal freedom of sex work is eroded in a careful, well planned strategy of stigmatization, step by step. Parliament is (still) not buying it and resisting it, but city councils are slowly roped in. The victory in the Scottish Parliament is much needed. what a relief! Love to all sex workers, in Scotland and any place of the globe! You’re great human beings, and fun to boot!”

*Quoted from SCOT-PEP’s press release

What are your thoughts on the success of Scottish sex workers?
Leave a comment below and I’ll add it above.

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.