Sex Work and Human Rights

Posts tagged “Anti-Sex Trade Law

South Korea: Sex workers fighting the law and law enforcement | Reblogged from Open Democracy

Film Still from Grace Period (2015) Courtesy of Caroline Key + KIM KyungMook. All Rights Reserved.

Film still from Grace Period (2015). Courtesy of Caroline Key and Kim KyungMook.

By YuJin, Popho E.S. Bark-Yi, and Matthias Lehmann

South Korea introduced a raft of new laws against sex work in 2004. These repressive policies are now up for constitutional review due to the intense reaction by sex workers there.

First-time visitors to South Korea may easily assume that selling sex is legal there, as major train stations are typically engulfed by an array of neon signs inviting patrons to enter massage parlors, noraebangs (lit. a ‘singing room’, essentially the same as a Japanese karaoke bar), and brothels. Media reports frequently quote statistics about the alleged net worth of the South Korean sex industry. However, laws repressing sex work are almost as ubiquitous as commercial sex venues themselves, particularly after 2004, when South Korea adopted the anti-sex trade Laws.

Between 2000 and 2002, a series of fires in Korea killed 24 sex workers, exposing the poor conditions in parts of its sex industry. In response, the government vowed to eradicate prostitution and embarked on an aggressive campaign against businesses facilitating it. Riding the wave of public outrage, women’s rights activists campaigned for a legal reform and their proposals eventually served as blueprints for the two-tiered anti-sex trade laws, which criminalise both buyers and sellers of sexual acts, except for anyone coerced into selling sex.

The new legislation reversed decades of de facto toleration of sex work by regulators and law enforcement. The anti-sex trade laws of 2004 replaced the Law Against Morally Depraved Behaviors (prostitution) of 1961, which wasn’t enforced homogeneously, and previously, even the government had actively engaged in organising commercial sex venues to cater to US military personnel stationed on the Korean peninsula.

The anti-sex trade laws have caused many negative, allegedly unintended consequences. According to a 2012 UN report, “police crackdowns from 2004-2009 resulted in [the] arrest of approximately 28,000 sex workers, 150,000 clients, and 27,000 sex business owners”, and 65,621 arrests were reported for 2009 alone. As researcher Sook Yi Oh Kim states, “the average prosecution rate of sex workers is 26.3%, higher than that of sex buyers, and none of the sex workers arrested are treated as victims”. Police crackdowns have led to an overall reduction of red-light districts. Of 69 red-light districts that existed in 2002, 44 remained by 2013. This represented a slight increase from 2007, when a government-commissioned report had located 35.

Police raids are often carried out very violently, and in November 2014, a 24-year old single mother died after jumping out of a motel room to escape arrest by an undercover police officer posing as client. In stark contrast to their usual reporting, most Korean media remained distinctively silent about the case. The continued repression has forced an increasing number of sex workers to work underground, resulting in lower incomes, poorer working conditions, and an increase in violence perpetrated against them. Sex workers worry more about police raids than about screening their clients, an essential measure, as violence or mistreatment from clients are very common. A substantial number migrates to sell sex abroad, at times under exploitative conditions, as they calculate that conditions in Korea threaten them at least to the same extent but yield considerably lower earnings.

The trailer for Grace Period, which documents sex worker life and collective resistance in a South Korean brothel district.

Giant Girls and Hanteo against the law

Two organisations actively campaign for the rights of sex workers and against the laws. One is Hanteo, the National Union of Sex Workers, and the other is Giant Girls. Hanteo, which means ‘common ground’, was founded in 2004 and represents 15,000 sex workers as well as some brothel owners. Giant Girls, or GG, was founded in 2009 by a group of feminists along with a number of sex worker activists. GG aims at building a stronger sex worker movement to mobilise against the criminalisation of sex work, in part by working to remove the social stigma attached to sex work.

Yujin started selling sex online five years ago, in order to afford his tuition fees. YuJin self-identifies as a gay sex worker and is a member of GG. Prior to his entrance into the business he had never met anybody who was ‘out’ as a sex worker, and he knew nothing about how to work. Since all aspects of sex work are illegal in Korea, beginners often feel isolated and lack basic work and safety information. Yujin decided to tweet about his experience soon after he started working, which brought him into contact with other sex workers. Like him, these other sex workers did not ‘act immorally to earn easy money’, as the prejudice would have it, but worked hard, albeit without being respected as workers and citizens.

In 2005, sex workers established 29 June as the national day of solidarity with sex workers, coinciding with the date on which the laws were passed. Resistance from sex workers has taken many other forms. Protests organised by Hanteo in 2011 gained worldwide notoriety, as they culminated in dramatic scenes at the Yeondeungpo red-light district in Seoul, where some activists threatened to self-immolate as the confrontation with the police escalated. The events are well documented in the film Grace Period by Caroline Key and KyoungMook Kim.

In 2013, District Court Judge Won Chan Oh submitted a request for a constitutional review of the laws after accepting the argument made by sex worker Jeong Mi Kim that sex work fell under her right to self-determination. Therefore, in sentencing her for selling sex the state had violated article 10 of the Korean constitution, which holds that “all citizens shall be assured of their human worth and dignity and shall have the right to pursue happiness”.

This opened a window for a phase of much more intense sex worker activism. In April 2015, sex workers and activists staged a protest in front of the constitutional court where a public hearing was held as part of the review. They submitted a petition signed by nearly 900 sex workers arguing that the government had no right to “use criminal punishment to discourage voluntary sex among adults”. The following June, GG organised a forum to draw further attention to the fact that “these laws are not simply laws that aim to punish buyers and sellers of sexual services, but have far wider implications … encompass[ing] social issues including sexual morality, sexual self-determination, and the right to choose one’s vocation”.

Sex worker activist Yeoni Kim once said in an interview with Matthias (one of the present authors) that, “the Swedish model is terrible, violates sex workers’ rights, and adds to the stigmatisation of sex work. But, frankly speaking, one could almost say it would be better to have that terrible law than having to continue fearing arrests and police violence under the anti-sex trade laws.” Hearing one of the most seasoned Korean sex worker activists prefer a slightly less terrible law over another should put all talk about ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ into perspective.

In September 2015, Hanteo staged a larger protest in downtown Seoul. Around 1,500 sex workers demanded an end to the government’s repression, shouting slogans and holding up signs in Korean and English that read “Repeal the anti-sex trade laws!”, “we are workers!” or “adopt Amnesty’s declaration!”.

Last year, when the constitutional court struck down the 62-year-old adultery law, it cited “the country’s changing sexual mores and a growing emphasis on individual rights”. Similar logic should govern the decision on the anti-sex trade laws, which is still pending, however some women’s rights and social conservative groups are continuing to stage protests to prevent a decision against the laws, citing fears over human trafficking and minors engaging in sex work.

The battle slogan... Image by Open Democracy

Migration from Asian countries to South Korea has increased in recent years, and nobody suggests that the country is immune to migrant smuggling or human trafficking. Marriages between comparatively affluent Korean men and poorer southeast Asian women remain common in rural areas, as do the problems arising from illegal practices by marriage brokers or from violence perpetrated by Korean men against their foreign wives, whom they sometimes appear to seek only for reproductive purposes and household or farm labour.

There have also been occurrences of migrants being trafficked into commercial sex venues, but it is crucial to separate human trafficking from consensual adult sex work. Cases of human trafficking or exploitation of migrants have been detected in numerous industries, including in the fishing, agricultural, or manufacturing industries. Migrants of all genders, as well as Korean citizens, are affected by conditions amounting to forced labour. It is therefore disingenuous to suggest that the problem is limited to women who are forced to sell sex, and to thereby disregard the experiences of trafficked persons and migrants in other industries, which include sexualised violence.

We are opposed to any form of violence. Sex and sexualised violence, however, are not the same. Consensual sadomasochistic sexual practices and actual violence are different, just as consensual sex work and being trafficked into the sex industry are different. People may choose to engage in sex work because they experience stigma as single mothers or due to their sexual orientation, or if other factors limit their options on the formal labour market.

Sex work itself is not violence Image by Open Democracy

Sex work itself is not violence and to suggest otherwise dilutes the meaning of violence. If we really want to curb human trafficking, we have to address the systemic circumstances that marginalise people and render them vulnerable. As sex workers’ rights activists, we have a stake in seeing human trafficking effectively addressed. The battle slogan ‘prostitution is violence against women’ harms both sex workers and trafficked persons as it drives the creation and perpetuation of precisely those failed laws and policies that enable traffickers to prey on vulnerable populations.


About the authors

YuJin self-identifies as a gay sex worker and is a member of Giant Girls, one of two organisations actively campaigning for the rights of sex workers in South Korea.

Popho E.S. Bark-Yi is a feminist researcher and activist in South Korea. Her work focuses on sexuality and on basic income.

Matthias Lehmann is a German researcher and activist, currently focusing on sex work regulations in Germany. His prior research dealt with human rights violations against sex workers in South Korea. He is an active member of ICRSE.

Sex workers speak - Who listens - Open Democracy + Prospol Headers

This article was first published by Open Democracy as part of the ‘Sex workers speak: who listens?’ series on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, generously sponsored by COST Action IS1209 ‘Comparing European Prostitution Policies: Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance’ (ProsPol). ProsPol is funded by COST. The University of Essex is its Grant Holder Institution. Please note: this article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. If you have any queries about republishing please contact Open Democracy. Please check individual images for licensing details.


Kommentar zum taz-Artikel „Debatte um Prostitution in Südkorea: Frau Kim kämpft um ihren Job“

Sex workers and allies protest in front of the South Korean Constitutional Court. © 2015 Research Project Korea. All Rights Reserved.

Sexarbeiter*innen und Unterstützer*innen protestieren vor dem südkoreanischen Verfassungsgericht. In der Mitte: Frau Kim Jeong Mi. © 2015 All Rights Reserved.

Due to time constraints, this article will not be translated into English. Please see a short summary at the bottom.

Kommentar zum Artikel „Debatte um Prostitution in Südkorea: Frau Kim kämpft um ihren Job“ von Fabian Kretschmer (taz, Politik/Asien, 1.8.2015).

Titel: Gut.

Prostitution wird als „Job“ bezeichnet, damit also Sexarbeit als Arbeit anerkannt.

Foto: Gut.

Gezeigt wird nicht etwa eins der üblichen Bilder von Bordellen, in denen in Südkorea nur noch vergleichsweise wenige Sexarbeiterinnen arbeiten, sondern ein Bild vom Protest südkoreanischer Sexarbeiterinnen im Jahr 2011. Noch besser wäre gewesen, es wäre ein Bild vom Protest im April diesen Jahres vor dem Verfassungsgericht verwendet worden. (siehe oben)

Bildunterschrift: Gut.

Ein direktes Zitat von Sexarbeiterin Kim Jeong Mi.

Terminologie: Mangelhaft.

Es wird höchste Zeit, dass die taz endlich die Begriffe Sexarbeit und Sexarbeiter/Sexarbeiterin in ihr Stilbuch aufnimmt. Südkorea „exportiert“ auch keine Sexarbeiter*innen, sondern diese nehmen die vergleichsweise geringeren – aber nicht geringen – Risiken auf sich, im Ausland zu arbeiten, weil die Verdienstmöglichkeiten dort oft besser sind als in Südkorea, wo ihnen ohnehin Razzien, Verhaftungen und Strafen drohen. Der Ausdruck „exportiert“ ist also sowohl unzutreffend – weil Südkorea ja nicht direkt die Migration von Sexarbeiterinnen unterstützt, sondern die harsche Gesetzeslage und die damit einhergehenden Repressionen Sexarbeiterinnen zur Migration zwingen – als er auch unpassend ist, denn Sexarbeiterinnen sind Menschen, die migrieren, keine Ware, die exportiert wird. Auch von einem Marktwert einer Sexarbeiterin zu schreiben, zeugt nicht gerade von Fingerspitzengefühl.

Fakten-Check: Ausreichend

1. Legalisierung vs. Entkriminalisierung

Was die Forderung von Sexarbeiterinnen angeht, ist der Artikel leider zu oberflächlich. Die Forderungen divergieren: wohingegen Frau Kim und die sie unterstützende Organisation Hanteo, Nationale Vereinigung für Sexarbeiterinen, für die Legalisierung regulierter Rotlichtbezirke eintritt, da Hanteo nämlich auch Betreiber*innen angehören, fordern unabhangige Sexarbeiter*innen und Giant Girls, Netzwerk für die Rechte von Sexarbeiterinnen, die generelle Entkriminalisierung der Sexarbeit. Die Unterscheidung zwischen diesen beiden Forderungen ist sehr wichtig und etwas, das man von Journalist*innen gerne erklärt sehen würde, damit Leser*innen die Thematik besser verstehen können.

2. „Kim … verklagte den südkoreanischen Staat“

Richtig ist: Frau Kim verteidigte sich gegen ihre Anklage mit den im Artikel erwähnten Argumenten und verlangte eine verfassungsrechtliche Überprüfung des Anti-Sexhandelsgesetzes, die Oh Won Chan, der Richter der Verhandlung beim Bezirksgerichts in Nord-Seoul, daraufhin einreichte. Dass ein Richter diese Überprüfung einreichte, macht sie so bedeutend, denn vorherige Anfragen zur verfassungsrechtlichen Überprüfung des Gesetzes wurden jeweils von Privatpersonen eingereicht.

3. Zahlen im Allgemeinen und im Speziellen

Die jüngsten Schätzungen – nichts anderes sind sie – sind nicht aus dem Jahr 2007, sondern von 2010. Sie wurden Anfang 2012 schließlich veröffentlicht. Der Bericht mit dem Titel “ Umfrage zum Sexhandel 2010” wurde vom Institut für Gender-Forschung an der Seoul National University angefertigt. Im Vergleich zum Bericht von 2007 hatte das Institut einen Anstieg der Rotlichtbezirke von 35 auf 45 und der Anzahl von dort beschäftigen Sexarbeiterinen von 3.644 auf 3.917 festgestellt. Dieser Anstieg passte natürlich dem auf die Utopie einer Abschaffung der Sexarbeit hinarbeitenden Ministerium nicht, weswegen er zunächst einmal in einer Schublade verschwand.

Nach eingehendem Vergleich mit dem Artikel Choe Sang-Huns in der New York Times – Suit Has South Korea Looking Anew at Its Hard Line on Prostitution – liegt der Verdacht nahe, dass hier schlicht eine gekürzte Version in deutscher Sprache veröffentlich wurde. So stammen die in Choes Artikel erwähnten 8.600 Fälle der Prostitution, in denen Südkoreas Polizei angeblich „derzeit“ ermittelt, vom Jahr 2013, und bei der Anzahl der Sexarbeiterinnen wurde offenbar auf glatte Summen aufgerundet. Das ist so ungenau wie es unnötig ist. Ebenso unnötig ist die Aussage, Prostitution sei in Südkorea „so allgegenwärtig wie in kaum einen anderen OECD-Staat“, denn es gibt keine verlässlichen Zahlen, auf die sich solche Behauptungen stützen ließen, auch in Südkorea nicht. Die sogenannten Regierungsschätzungen sind in Wahrheit zweifelhafte Schätzungen von Forschungsinstituten.

4. Todesfälle von Sexarbeiterinnen

Gut ist, dass das Feuer in Gunsan Erwähnung findet. Allerdings war dies kein isolierter Fall. Fünf Sexarbeiterinnen starben bereits bei einem ersten Feuer in Gunsan im Jahr 2000; 2001 kamen vier weitere Sexarbeiterinnen bei einem Feuer in Busan ums Leben; dann starben wie im Artikel erwähnt 14 weitere Sexarbeiterinnen bei einem zweiten Feuer in Gunsan. Durch diese Verkettung extremer Unglücksfälle gelang es Prostitutionsgegnerinnen danach, eine Verschärfung der Prostitutionsgesetzbegung durchzusetzen.

Fazit: Befriedigend

Alles in allem ist Fabian Kretschmers Artikel einer der besseren, aber insbesondere die teils sehr unpassende Wortwahl und der unnötige Fokus auf nicht belegte, nicht aktuelle und ungenau wiedergegebene Zahlen sind sehr zu bemängeln. Es gibt einige Anzeichen, die vermuten lassen, dass hier der Beitrag von Choe Sang Hun in der New York Times „recycled“ wurde, der im Vergleich sehr viel mehr Einblicke in die aktuelle Situation von Sexarbeiterinnen in Südkorea bot. So wäre besonders eine genauere Erklärung wünschenswert gewesen, für welche Rechte sich Sexarbeiterinnen in Südkorea engagieren, da dies auch in Hinsicht auf die aktuelle Debatte in Deutschland interessant ist. Zum anderen wäre es angebracht gewesen, das südkoreanische Prostitutionsgesetz genauer zu beleuchten, von dem Prostitutionsgegner*innen wiederholt behaupten, es ähnelte dem Schwedens, was eine glatte Lüge ist. In dem Zusammenhang hätten weitere Einzelheiten über Menschenrechtsverletzungen bei Polizeirazzien in Südkoreas Rotlichtbezirken erwähnt werden können. Positiv zu erwähnen ist die gute Wahl des Titels, des begleitenden Fotos und der Bildunterschrift, und dass überhaupt über dieses Thema berichtet wird. Angesichts der üblichen Berichterstattung über Sexarbeit bzw. über Südkorea ist dies nämlich durchaus keine Selbstverständlichkeit.


The above are a few quick comments about Fabian Kretschmer’s article “Debate about prostitution in South Korea: Miss Kim is fighting for her job”. While overall, the article is informative and provides some of the key points of the current debate in South Korea, the terminology used is inept and a quick fact check reveals several inaccuracies and crucial omissions. As is often the case, Mr Kretschmer (or his editor) seem to have felt the need to include statistics, although no reliable data about sex work in South Korea is available, not even in the reports commissioned by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. Positive are the choice of title, photo and caption, all of which are by no means a matter of course, and the fact that a German newspaper reported at all about the ongoing constitutional review of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Law.


The Anti-Sex Trade Laws – are they unconstitutional?

Giant Girls (GG) Sex Workers Day 2015 Event

2015 Panel Discussion commemorating Sex Workers’ Day

“On April 9th, 2015, a public hearing was held at South Korea’s constitutional court regarding the constitutionality of the Anti-Sex Trade Laws. These laws are not simply laws that aim to punish buyers and sellers of sexual services, but have far wider implications. The laws encompass social issues including sexual morality, sexual self-determination, and the right to choose one’s vocation. In this light, Giant Girls Network for Sex Workers’ Rights will hold a panel discussion to review the aforementioned public hearing. The event will be held on Sunday, June 28th, 2015. Thank you for your interest and participation.”

“2015년 4월 9일 성매매특별법 위헌제청 공개변론이 열렸습니다. 성특법은 단순히 성구매자와 판매자의 처벌에 관한 법률이 아닙니다. 이 법에는 우리 사회의 성도덕, 성적 자기결정권의 국가 개입, 직업선택권 등의 복잡한 문제가 얽혀 있습니다. 성노동자권리모임 지지는 이 공개변론이 성특법에 대한 논의에서 중요한 역할을 했음에도 불구하고 공론화 되지 못함을 안타깝게 생각하여 6월 28일 일요일 공개간담회를 열고자 합니다. 많은 분들의 관심과 참여를 부탁드립니다.”

Event Details

Chair: Sa Misook 사미숙 (Giant Girls)

Panellists:

Jeong Gwan Yeong 정관영 (Attorney)
Prof. Park Gyeong Shin 박경신 (Korea University, argues that the laws are unconstitutional)
Prof. Oh Gyeong Sik 오경식 (Kangrengwonju University, argues the laws are constitutional)
Jang Sehee 장세희 (Vice President, Hanteo National Union of Sex Workers)
Prof. Go Jeong Gaphee 고정갑희 (Hansin University)
Kim Yeoni 김연희 (Sexworker/Activist)

Date/Time: June 28, 2015 Sunday 13:30~15:30
Address: Bunker 1, Seoul Jongno-gu Dongsung-dong No 199-17 Floor -1 Danzzi Ilbo
서울특별시 종로구 동숭동 199-17번지 지하1층 딴지일보
Organiser: Giant Girls Network for Sex Workers’ Rights 성노동자권리모임 지지
Contact: Oh Gyeong Mi 오경미 010-4812-3350
Entrance is free. This event will be held in Korean.


Further Information

Anyone unfamiliar with the ongoing constitutional review of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws might find it helpful to read Choe Sang-Hun’s recent summary in the New York Times. Please note that this recommendation does not represent an endorsement of the terminology used therein.

June 29th ☂ Korean Sex Workers’ Day 

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

 

“Red Light Research” – Interview by Malte Kollenberg

Sex workers and allies protest in front of the South Korean Constitutional Court. © 2015 Research Project Korea. All Rights Reserved.

Sex workers and allies protest in front of the South Korean Constitutional Court.
© 2015 Research Project Korea. All Rights Reserved.

Summary

In May, I accepted an interview request by Malte Kollenberg, a freelance journalist producing a series about Germans living in South Korea for KBS World Radio. After several negative experiences with the Korean media, it was refreshing to meet a sincere journalist willing to go the extra mile to communicate before, during and after our encounter to ensure that the subject of sex work would be dealt with appropriately.

Listen to the interview in German or read the translated transcript below.

Please note that the copyright for the interview recording lies with KBS World Radio and is not licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Interview

Introduction by Malte Kollenberg

Matthias Lehmann’s research deals with a stigmatised occupation. He currently works on his dissertation about sex work regulations in Germany at Queen’s University Belfast. Over the last years, he’s created his own niche. Starting from his interest in North and South Korea, and later in human trafficking prevention in Thailand, he presented in 2013 the results of a privately funded research project about the impact of the South Korean Anti-Sex Trade Laws on sex workers’ human rights. And South Korea is still on his mind. Lehmann actively engages for improved working conditions for sex workers. For the “Meeting of Two Worlds”, we’ve met Lehmann in Busan and spoke with him about his research, the differences between Germany and South Korea, and his critique of the media.

Malte Kollenberg: Mr Lehmann, what brought you to South Korea?

Matthias Lehmann: I first came to Korea was in 2002. I majored in Korean Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and the first time I came here was as a visitor, and then I returned later as an exchange student. Back in Berlin, my home town, I had quite a few Korean friends, and that’s how I came in contact with Korean culture, especially with Korean music, and of course with Korean films. My family’s history was shaped by the German division. I was born and grew up in West Berlin, but I also had relatives in East Berlin and other, smaller cities, all the way down to Saxony, and often visited the former GDR. That’s why the history of the Korean division is both a very interesting and emotional issue for me, and that was one of main reasons why I got into the field of Korean Studies.

MK: In the meantime, your research field is an entirely different one, however, and has little to do with the Korean division.

ML: Right. During my previous studies, and also for some time after that, I was particularly interested in North Korea and the role of the United States in the so-called North Korean nuclear crisis. Afterwards, I first shifted my focus onto the field of human trafficking. I did my master’s degree here in Korea and the subject I then wanted to focus on, sex workers’ rights and prostitution laws, which is the subject I am also dealing with now, I couldn’t get approved by the faculty at my university here, and I guess I can understand that. That was why I continued to focus on human trafficking prevention for my M.A. thesis, but of course that included illustrating how laws that should actually fight human trafficking, like here in Korea, negatively affect the rights of sex workers, especially of migrant sex workers. So, that’s how my research interest developed: first Korea, then human trafficking, then sex work. And although I first focused on Thailand, I later returned to South Korea to focus more closely on the situation here after the huge protests in Seoul in 2011.

MK: You also did research about this subject from a German perspective. Generally speaking, are there great differences between how sex work/prostitution is regulated by law in Germany and South Korea?

ML: Yes, there’s a huge difference. I’ve now begun to focus on Germany for my doctoral degree, and it’s exciting for me to do research about my own country for the first time. In Germany, sex work has been legal for a very long time. The media often report that Germany legalised prostitution in 2002 but that is actually incorrect. Prostitution was already legal for most of the 20th century, with the exception of the Nazi period. What changed in 2002 was that a law was created to strengthen the legal and social rights of sex workers, and that the operating of brothels was permitted. That’s what changed. But sex work was already legal, both the buying and the selling of sexual services.

And that’s exactly what is prohibited in Korea, which means that brothel operators, people who facilitate contacts, for example escort agencies, and also sex workers themselves are all prosecuted here. And it does happen! I’ve often experienced that both Koreans and foreigners living in Korea say that they believe nothing is being done and that the police is always looking the other way. And that really isn’t true. It might only be a drop in the bucket – but that drop hits the target. In fact, there are many raids here, and since last year, they’ve actually increased again. People are arrested and sentenced, people have to appear before the court, and last November, a woman even died as a result of a raid, because she panicked and jumped out of a window to escape the police.

That was a very interesting case and that’s where we come to the media. If any “prostitution ring” or human trafficking case is uncovered in Korea or abroad, where Korean sex workers are involved, or victims of human trafficking, which of course can also occur, then the Korean media always report about it immediately and extensively in their English editions and on their English websites, because that’s “sexy” news. But when that woman died last November – absolute silence! Nobody wanted to report in English that this sort of thing also happens. Of course there were some reports about it in Korean, but they were not good and very disrespectful. In one of them, there was a cartoon that showed two police men looking down from a tall building and a dead woman lying below. How one can even have such an idea is a mystery to me. Of course there isn’t always such extreme harm involved, but raids do happen and the human rights of sex workers here in Korea are being violated. That’s a big problem.

MK: You just said that the media are keen on such “sexy” news. And that’s exactly how it is. Sex always sells in the media. You must be flooded with media requests.

ML: Indeed. With the exception of September 11, I’ve never experienced such an avalanche of media reports as in the last 18 months, both in Germany, but also in the UK. In Germany, that’s because there’s an ongoing discussion about changing the prostitution law. There’s a new bill but it has already been in the works for quite a while and no final decision has yet been made. The ruling coalition will probably just push it through parliament since they have such great majority there. In Northern Ireland, Scotland and also in the British House of Commons, different attempts were made to introduce laws to criminalise the purchase of sexual services. [In Northern Ireland, a law criminalising sex workers’ clients has come into force on June 1st, 2015.] And in Korea, there are also a lot of media reports, especially due to the ongoing constitutional review concerning the Korean anti-prostitution law.

MK: What might be the outcome of that?

ML: I didn’t really look very deeply into the adultery law, which was recently changed here so that adultery is now no longer punishable by law, but in the wake of that decision, it is of course possible that the constitutional judges, they’re eight men and one woman, will take the next step and say that the prostitution law also needs changing. But I don’t quite believe it yet. There have been constitutional reviews of the law in the past, but those weren’t submitted by a judge. However, two years ago, a Korean sex worker stood before the courts because she had sold sex, and she insisted on her right of self-determination, which resulted in the presiding judge at the Seoul Northern District Court submitting a request for a new constitutional review of the law.

The review should have been concluded already, but these things take a lot of time. In the case of the adultery law, for example, it took four years. The first public hearing was in April and the process will continue. The experts I’ve heard giving evidence so far represent a mixed bag. Sex workers are not sufficiently included. It’s bad enough in Germany, but here, it’s even worse. Although there are two different sex workers’ rights organisations, sex workers haven’t presented evidence so far. Instead, that was done by lawyers, researchers, and other experts, so that at the hearing, sex workers themselves weren’t heard. At least in Germany, even if that was merely a fig leaf, we did have a sex worker presenting evidence in front of the justice committee of the German parliament. But here, nothing of that sort happened.

MK: Let’s return to the media. On your blog, you published a media critique some time ago. What problems do you see when it comes to media reports about prostitution/sex work?

ML: Well, it wasn’t just one media critique but sadly, it’s a recurring issue, and it’s always a lot of work. I only focus on those that matter, for example, if there’s a detailed report from the BBC or from [German broadcaster] ARD. When it comes to reports about Korea, then what you mostly see in the German media are the latest stories to have allegedly happened in North Korea, and those stories are often trumpeted before they’re even confirmed, simply because they make for good clickbait. And when it comes to prostitution, there is no value set on fact-checking or actually speaking to members of the occupational group concerned. When the train drivers or pilots in Germany go on strike, then journalists speak with representatives of those occupational groups. Sadly, when it comes to sex work, that just doesn’t happen. Or if it happens, then they are harassed to make certain statements they don’t want to make, or do certain things they don’t want to do. I remember talking with a sex worker while I was doing my research project here in Korea, who told me that after the 2011 protests in Yeongdeungpo, that’s a red-light district in Seoul, one of the media teams insisted on filming her while she would do the dishes at a brothel. She replied to them that she never does that, so why should she do it now? Their idea was obviously to convey a message like, “Look, sex workers are normal people, just like you, doing normal things.” Maybe from a very naïve perspective, one can understand their motivation, but it’s still nonsense to try and fabricate something like that. Instead of trying to put words into their mouths, shouldn’t they actually report about what sex workers’ concerns and demands are?

Jasmine & Dora Protest in Berlin in 2013 © Research Project Korea. All Rights Reserved.

On July 19th, 2013, people gathered in 36 cities across the globe
to protest against violence against sex workers. |
Official Website

MK: The topic sex work/prostitution is so complex. Is there anything that you would like to add that you consider as particularly important?

ML: Yes, thank you. Ever since the global protest in June 2013, after two sex workers were murdered in Sweden and Turkey, the #StigmaKills hashtag is being used on Twitter. It refers to the fact that the stigmatisation of sex work and of sex workers really does result in deaths – or at the very least, it has a very negative impact on sex workers. Something I notice time and time again, especially here in Korea, is that people either feel sorry for sex workers, which they really don’t need, or they’re angry about them, which happens both in Korea or in the Korean communities in Australia, for example. They are angry because they seem to think that Korean sex workers who work abroad are giving Korea a bad image. But the reason why many Korean sex workers have migrated to work abroad is that the law, which was adopted here in 2004, criminalises them, and that the risks they’re taking by working abroad, for example in the US where sex work is also illegal, are still more predictable, or the conditions more attractive, than the risks they’d face if they were to stay and work here. People should finally listen to sex workers, and not just let off steam based on their prejudices.

MK: Thank you very much, Mr Lehmann.

ML: You’re welcome.


Please note that the copyright for the interview recording lies with KBS World Radio and is not licenced under a Creative Commons License.

Interview by Malte Kollenberg. © 2015 KBS World Radio. Translation by Matthias Lehmann. The English version differs slightly from the German original to make for easier reading. I would like to thank Malte Kollenberg for his professional attitude and sensitivity throughout our communication before, during and after the interview.


Related Posts

Articles tagged “Media Critique” on Research Project Korea

A fair deal? – South Korean sex workers’ earnings at home and abroad

In Pictures: Sex workers protest in front of South Korea’s Constitutional Court

Lies & Truths about the German Prostitution Act – An Introduction for the Uninitiated

Distorting MIRROR: The media’s fear of the truth [SPIEGEL Critique]

Does legal prostitution really increase human trafficking in Germany? [SPIEGEL Critique]

[Video in German] “Sex Crime” or “Sexual Self-Determination”? Prostitution discourses in South Korea


Re-blogged: Will South Korea’s queer movement embrace or abandon MTF transgender sex workers?

Lucien Lee at the 2014 Korea Queer Festival in Seoul. Photo by KQCF (left) and Lucian Lee (right) All Rights Reserved.

Lucien Lee at the 2014 Korea Queer Festival in Seoul.
Photo © KQCF (left) and © Lucian Lee (right). All Rights Reserved.

By transgender sex worker Lucien Lee in Seoul

한국어 원본을 보시려면 여기를 누르세요.
Please note that the different copyrights for the respective photos.

Homosexuals once used to be outlaws, persecuted by the police and at the mercy of powerful justice systems in countries we now refer to as advanced. However, many places remain where homosexuals continue to be persecuted and even killed. In South Korea, however, homosexuals have never been outlaws. Unless a homosexual male engages in sexual activities with another person of the same gender while on leave from his mandatory military service, in which case the infamous Article 92 (6) of the Military Criminal Code, also known as “Sodomy Law”, applies, South Korea does not outlaw homosexuality. [1]

That may have been the reason why South Korea’s queer community had great difficulties to accept it when sex workers, who are criminals according to the 2004 Anti-Sex Trade Laws, joined the 2013 Korean Queer Festival and identified themselves as sexual minorities oppressed by sexual morality. Comments like “What are you whores doing here?” came as no surprise because nobody would want to mingle with outlaws.

When I joined the Korea Queer Festival a year later as a transgender sex worker together with other sex workers, the reactions from people were quite different. Maybe that was because they couldn’t easily other me as a non-queer “whore” because I am a male to female transgender person. That day, we handed out a thousand copies of “A letter from independent sex worker ‘T’ to the LGBAIQ community”. [2] But other than that, sex workers’ rights are still not considered a part of queer issues.

Various research reports provide data about the ratio of sex workers among transgender people but those figures vary widely due to their limited sample sizes. It is undeniable, however, that those working at Itaewon’s transgender bars are the most visible group of South Korea’s transgender community.

On May 23rd, 2015, South Korean daily Dong-a Ilbo featured an article about transgender sex workers, which revealed the particular locations, times, and how much money is required to buy sexual services. But even before that article, it was impossible to hide transgender sex workers from the public view, and this visibility, together with a greater awareness among the cis-straight society in general, will likely result in police raids specifically targeting transgender sex workers, just as they targeted and demolished red light districts before.

A taxi driver interviewed for the abovementioned article said, “I’ve been a taxi driver for almost twenty years, and they [transgender sex workers] were already here when I started.” Traditionally, sex work is often the only viable source of income for male-to-female transgender people. We cannot survive economically if such a transgender-specific persecution occurs. We cannot easily change our jobs.

Sex workers and activists protest in front of South Korea's Constitutional Court. © 2015 Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.

Sex workers and activists protest in front of South Korea’s Constitutional Court.
© 2015 Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.

On April 9th, 2015, a first public hearing was held at South Korea’s constitutional court in the ongoing review to determine whether the 2004 Anti-Sex Trade Laws are unconstitutional. Article 21 (1) of the Anti-Sex Trade Laws Punishment Act penalises sellers of sexual acts with up to one year in prison or fines of up to 3 million won (approx. £1,765/€2,485/$2,735), except for those who were coerced. The article is not gender-specific and therefore applies to male and transgender sex workers, too.

The female sex worker, whose arrest and subsequent trial led to the constitutional review, standing in the middle of the above photo, argues in favour of the decriminalisation of sex work limited to female sex workers only. However, members of South Korean feminist organisations, who used to advocate for what they referred to as “decriminalising female prostitutes”, have spoken out against this woman as they fear that if the article were to be ruled unconstitutional, buying sexual acts would also no longer be criminalised. Even if one were to accept their opinion that female sex workers are victims of a capitalist system, and hence innocent, whereas male buyers are guilty, their insistence on keeping the 2004 Anti-Sex Trade Laws makes no sense, as it punishes innocent people.

Korean anti-prostitution activist. © 2015 Matt Lemon Photography. All Right Reserved.

Anti-prostitution activist holding up signs saying
“There are things in the world that cannot be traded.”
© 2015 Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.

Despite the importance of this review, none of the LGBT organisations has so far made their stance on this issue publicly known. That is one of the reasons why, although the sexual minority movement is often referred to as “LGBT” or “queer” movement, in reality, it is more considered as a “homosexual” movement by the public.

Police raids targeting transgender sex workers would force transgender people to organise demonstrations in the same way as sex workers working at the Yeongdeungpo red light district did to protect their right to survive. If such protests were to happen, I wonder what stance LGBT organisations would take. Would they abandon transgender sex workers or stand together with them? Let us all take this very seriously and think about it together. See you all at the 2015 Korea Queer Festival.


Footnotes

[1] While engaging in sexual activities on military premises is generally forbidden, Article 92 (6) of the Military Penal Code states that “anal intercourse or other harassment against any person … shall be punished by imprisonment of up to two years” even if it occurs while on leave. LGBT rights’ activists argue that this paragraph is used to single out sexual relations between members of the same sex.

[2] A small clarification for readers less familiar with the acronyms: LGBTAIQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual, intersex, and queer, and the T was here purposefully left out as ‘T’ addressed the LGBAIQ community.


Translation by Lucien Lee. Edited by Matthias Lehmann. I would like to thank Lucien Lee for her permission to reblog this article. The English version differs slightly from the Korean original and features two different photos. Footnotes were added for further clarification.


In Pictures: Sex workers protest in front of South Korea’s Constitutional Court

Sex workers and activists protest in front of South Korea's Constitutional Court © 2015 Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.Photos taken on April 9th, 2015, as sex workers and activists gathered in front of South Korea’s Constitutional Court in Seoul ahead of a public hearing, part of the ongoing review of the country’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws. The sex workers depicted in these photos consented to them being published online. All photos © 2015 Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.

+++ Update Sept. 23rd, 2015 | Please read E. Tammy Kim’s article for Al Jazeera America, titled Korean sex workers demand decriminalization of their labor +++

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“People clearly don’t know what’s going on” – Interview with Hyeri Lee, sex worker in Daegu

Yeogwan in Daegu [1] - Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.Neon sign of a motel in Daegu © 2015 Matt Lemon Photography All Rights Reserved

In early 2013, I published A Letter from a South Korean Sex Worker, written by Hyeri Lee [an alias to protect her anonymity]. Recently, I had the chance to meet her again in Daegu, South Korea’s third largest metropolitan area. After a few days of sightseeing and trying out the local cuisine, we sat down at a coffee shop near her home to talk about her experiences over the last few years. The following is a transcript of our conversation, which Ms Lee authorised me to publish.

Please note that the copyright for this transcript lies with Research Project Korea and is not licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Summary

While Korean police lament the lack of sufficient resources to clamp down on prostitution businesses, police crackdowns and undercover sting operations are actually more frequent than the public believes. During the five years that Ms Lee has worked in different cities across South Korea, she has never encountered anyone being forced to sell sex, which is not to say that working conditions or clients are always pleasant. While there are people under the age of 18 who sell sex in South Korea, all sex workers Ms Lee encountered were between their 20s and 50s. Migrant sex workers she met came from China and North Korea, as well as from Russia and Uzbekistan. Police crackdowns and unruly clients take a serious toll on sex workers’ mental health. In light of that, it’s unfortunate that Ms Lee is no longer involved in sex worker activism as she has lost trust in organisations advocating for sex workers’ rights.

The Interview

Matthias: How long has it been now since you started to work as a sex worker and where did you work before moving to Daegu?

Hyeri: It’s been five years and apart from Seoul and Incheon, I’ve worked in Bucheon and Yangju in Gyeonggi Province, and in Cheonan and Taean County in South Chungcheon Province. I’ve also worked at other locations but only for a short time.

Matthias: Why did you move to Daegu?

Hyeri: I’ve moved here last July because of my boyfriend.

Matthias: How did you two meet?

Hyeri: We first met on Twitter and later got to know each other more over the phone. I thought he was quite cool and we often happened to agree on quite many things, including our personal relationships. Whenever either of us felt down, we called each other to cheer the other one up. Actually, I felt suicidal a number of times and he always happened to call then to check in on me, as if he knew. It felt like a miracle.

Matthias: What made you feel suicidal? You’ve never mentioned that to me before today.*

Hyeri: I was just so tired of terrible clients and of sting operations by the police in Incheon, Bucheon and Taean.

Matthias: I’ve come across quite many comments online where people expressed they didn’t believe the Korean police was doing anything. What would you respond if someone said that to you?

Hyeri: I would probably just laugh. They clearly don’t know what’s going on. Incheon and Bucheon were the worst. The police was around almost all the time, day and night. There were many crackdowns but I managed to escape them. I left before they could arrest me.

Matthias: How do those sting operations work?

Hyeri: At first, they just act like clients. They’d come into our shop and say, ‘I’ll decide and pay later once I’ve chosen a girl.’ So they enter the room, talk to a woman and pay her, which makes her think this is actually a client. But once she takes the man into a separate room and takes out a condom, he’d arrest her. Just the fact that we have condoms is enough for the police to arrest us.

Matthias: You said before that you sometimes have terrible clients. Could you explain more about that?

Hyeri: The worst ones I had in Taean. They have no manners at all. They’d ask me stuff like ‘Why do you use condoms?’ or ‘Why can’t I use my finger?’

Matthias: I remember you told me one day about a client who had penetrated you with his finger although you had explicitly told him that was off-limits. How often do you have such clients?

Hyeri: Maybe around two out of ten clients try that. When I tell them I don’t want it, some even have the nerve to ask me ‘Why not? What’s the matter?’ What the f***! In other cities, maybe one or two out of ten clients ask for unprotected sex. But in Taean, it was almost every single one of them, so I fought a lot with clients there. Another client I remember from that time was an elementary school teacher. He was really smelly but at least he wasn’t as bad as the others and he was actually a repeat client. But he always made some condescending remarks about how much he paid for my service, like I had to be grateful. Such a show-off.

Matthias: I can only guess but people like him might feel ashamed about buying sex so they perhaps say those things to feel better about themselves.

Hyeri: Exactly. They want to have sex but have no partner, so they come to us and pay us for it. But they still think we are beneath them, like they are somehow better than us. But we’re human, just like them, and have the same rights – no grades, no levels. In fact, some sex workers are smarter than those lowlife clients. Well, maybe not all of them. (laughs) By the way, in Taean, I’ve also had some police officers among my clients.

Matthias: How did they treat you?

Hyeri: They acted pretty normal. Actually, I was more comfortable with them than with some of my other clients. But one of them was bad. All women hated and avoided him but I didn’t care as long as he paid. One day he asked me, ‘Aren’t you afraid of me?’, and when I asked him why, he replied ‘All other girls are afraid of me.’ He then told me that he was a police officer and that his life was boring as his wife was working in another city. I guess he told me because he saw that I wasn’t afraid of him. But at other times, he would get angry, talk trash and yell at me. He was a really loud person. But I just felt kind of sorry for him. He wanted to appear really strong but he seemed quite unhappy and like he just needed someone to care about him.

Matthias: If you look back over the last five years, how would you rate your clients? How many were nice, how many were average, and how many did you have bad experiences with?

Hyeri: The nice ones were just ten percent, maybe a little below that. Half of them were so-so, not bad. The rest behaved badly or worse.

Matthias: So, the majority was average or good, but that’s quite many bad ones. Do you keep records of the bad clients?

Hyeri: Absolutely. I avoid them and tell them that I don’t want them as clients. Some ask me then ‘Why? I paid you, it’s your job.’ Dealing with those clients makes me feel depressed and gloomy. Sometimes, I just want to evaporate. It also burdens me to juggle my work and my family, so sometimes I cry a lot and feel suicidal.

Matthias: Does your mother know about your work?

Hyeri: No, she doesn’t. She does know I work in shops [brothels] but she thinks I am only taking care of the books and help the women with their make-up.

Matthias: And she doesn’t mind that?

Hyeri: No. It’s just one of the jobs out there and she doesn’t care. But if she knew I was a sex worker – she wouldn’t want that.

Matthias: How do you feel about living away from your children?

Hyeri: It’s my one and only regret. Actually, it’s not a regret. But I worry about them.

Matthias: Does your boyfriend have a problem with your work? And do you think you’ll move back to the north together?

Hyeri: No, he’s fine with my work. But Sung Woo [name changed] is a Daegu person through and through. He doesn’t like other cities and he certainly doesn’t like Seoul, so I don’t think we’ll move there. He’s been there for me every time I felt down, even when we were just friends. In Korea, usually just lovers hug each other, but whenever we met, we were hugging each other even when we still thought we were just friends. But then last year, I got unfairly fired from a shop in brothel…

Matthias: Oh, why was that?

Hyeri: The working conditions there weren’t good, so I argued a lot with the owner during the two months I worked there and eventually, he fired me. So I went on a short trip to Busan and Daegu. My plan was just to stay two days in Daegu, but then I met Sung Woo and felt really comfortable with him, so I stayed a day longer, and I visited him several times over the following months. Finally, in July, I started to live here. Actually, people in Daegu prefer a Seoul agashi [young lady; miss] so I have more clients here.

Matthias: Does that mean you can charge your clients more? How long are your sessions usually?

Hyeri: Yes. My sessions last between 60 and 90 minutes and clients have to pay between 100-150,000 Won (approx. £60-90 | US$ 90-140 | €80-120).

Matthias: How does it compare to your previous job in Yangju?

Hyeri: I worked at a room salon there and they had a system called jogeon mannam [lit. condition meeting], where the price depends on the duration as well as the service. What do I do and what don’t I do. There, sessions last for at least two hours or even longer, depending on what the client wants. The client then pays the owner and the owner pays me. Per hour, I earned 30-60,000 Won (approx. £18-36 | US$ 27-55 | €24-48). At the room salon, clients can choose which women they like. Most Korean men prefer thinner girls, so some clients rejected me. Sometimes, I would go a whole day without a single client.

Matthias: And you wouldn’t earn anything then?

Hyeri: That’s right. And whenever I told the owner that I wanted to take a rest, he would ask me, ‘How long?’ It felt more like dealing with a pimp, not with a manager.

Matthias: How about Daegu?

Hyeri: It’s much better here. I got more clients so I can more easily choose which clients I want. In Yangju, I worked pretty much every day but here, I only work 10-14 days per month. If I want to work, I work, and if I don’t, I don’t. (laughs)

Matthias: Very good. Where do you meet your clients here?

Hyeri: I first chat with them via one of two smartphone apps [names withheld] and then I meet them at a yeogwan [small hotel or inn].

Matthias: How much are the rooms there? Does the client have to pay for that?

Hyeri: Yes, sure. For two to three hours, they cost 20-30,000 Won (approx. £12-18 | US$ 18-28 | €16-24), but usually, 20,000 Won.

Matthias: Do you meet them in this neighbourhood?

Hyeri: Yes, I’m not travelling across the city. When clients call me, I tell them I’m from Seoul and don’t know my way around Daegu. (laughs) So, they have to come here and pick me up.

Matthias: What safety precautions do you take? Could they just drive you anywhere they want?

Hyeri: No, I never get into a car with a client. We just meet in front of a motel and then we go in. And they got to pay me first. I also screen my clients in advance. I test how patient they are. When I tell them I can only see them later or the next day, or that they have to come here if they want to see me, some swear at me, so of course I don’t meet them then.

Yeogwan in Daegu [2] - Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.Reflection of a motel in Daegu © 2015 Matt Lemon Photography All Rights Reserved

Matthias: Do you have many repeat clients?

Hyeri: Yes, about 60-70% of my clients are repeat clients. They like my Seoul accent and think I’m kind and sophisticated.

Matthias: Are the motel owners aware that sex workers use their premises? And how about the police? Do they check on the motels in the area?

Hyeri: The owners know, as does the police, but the police doesn’t do anything because we just look like normal couples.

Matthias: Do you have contact to other sex workers in Daegu?

Hyeri: At first, I worked at a noraebang [lit. singing room, Korean for karaoke bar] for a short time as a doumi [lit. helper; doumis sing and drink with customers, who then later also pay them for sexual services at nearby motels if they come to an agreement]. But I didn’t have much in common with the other doumis there. They didn’t think about the job like other sex workers I’ve met. They think of it just as a part-time job or a secondary job, and that they will only do it to earn more money within a shorter period of time and then stop it altogether. Some of them don’t care about using condoms or whether or not clients use their fingers.

Matthias: How old are the sex workers you’ve met over the years? Did you ever encounter any persons below 18 who sold sex?

Hyeri: No, those I’ve met where always in their 20s at least but I’ve also met sex workers who were in their 50s.

Matthias: At all the shops you’ve worked at over the last five years, did you ever come across any cases where you felt people were forced to work there?

Hyeri: No, not at all.

Matthias: Did you meet any sex workers from other countries?

Hyeri: Not here in Daegu but I’ve met Chinese sex workers in Bucheon, Incheon and Taean. There were also Russian und Uzbek sex workers in Bucheon, and I’ve met some from North Korea in Yangju.

Matthias: Do you know how those from North Korea got to work there?

Hyeri: One of them told me she married some older Chinese man who paid her 20-30 million Won (approx. £12-18,000 | US$ 18-27,000 | €16-24,000). She lived with him for almost two years, got pregnant and had a baby, but then she escaped alone via Thailand to South Korea.

Matthias: Did she choose to do all that?

Hyeri: Yes, she wanted to help her parents in North Korea so she got the money and gave it to them. I would call it ‘self-trafficking’. It’s very common for Chinese men to pay for a bride.

Matthias: Finally, I would like to ask you about sex worker activism. You told me before that you resigned as a member of Giant Girls [an organisation of sex workers and allies to support sex workers’ rights]. But I often notice that you post messages about other labour activists on Facebook and Twitter or join them for protests or vigils. Do you still engage in sex worker activism?

Hyeri: I resigned from GG last August and I want to stay independent. There were just too many disagreements. I love some of the members at GG. Some work at a hospital, some are lawyers, and they were really helpful. I don’t necessarily think that it’s a problem that there were more non-sex workers than sex workers at GG but their way of thinking was a problem.

Matthias: Maybe that is because they’re not sex workers? I feel that’s the same with many researchers, journalists or politicians I’ve encountered. Even among those who say they support sex workers’ rights, and let’s suppose they really mean it, there are still many who don’t fully accept sex work as work and hope sex workers would quit and do something else. If there would be a new sex worker-only organisation in South Korea, would you join?

Hyeri: Never. I hate organisations and frankly, I don’t want to meet with other sex workers anymore.

Matthias: Do you have anything else on your mind that you would like to say?

Hyeri: I still think that life is hell for sex workers in South Korea.

Matthias: Yes, it sure sounds tough. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experiences with me and thanks for showing me Daegu. I had a great time.

Notes

* Since those who do not recognise sex work as work are often prone to use cherry-picked facts to support their arguments, I would like to point out that South Korea has the highest suicide rate among all OECD countries. [1] “Last year, data showed that 29.1 people per 100,000 took their own lives ― more than triple the OECD average.” [2] So, without meaning to trivialise in any way the impact of police crackdowns and mistreatment by clients on sex workers’ mental health, one needs to acknowledge that suicide is a broader problem in South Korean society, and not limited to its sex worker population.

[1] Korea’s suicide rate remains top in OECD, Korea Herald
[2] On the frontlines of Korea’s suicide epidemic, Korea Times

Related Reading

A Letter from a South Korean Sex Worker

Working? Working! – A Photo Series by Yeoni Kim

 


Response from the Wall Street Journal

Update to the previous post “Journalism that harms, not helps: A response to Yewon Kang”

Journalism that harms, not helps - Research Project KoreaAfter contacting the Wall Street Journal’s Asia Editor Paul Beckett to request a review of Yewon Kang’s article, I received an email from South Korea Bureau Chief Alastair Gale, from which he permitted me to quote here. With regards to the statements by Yeoni Kim, Mr Gale wrote:

“I have discussed this with Ms. Kang, who has notes of the comments made to her by Mr. [sic] Kim in the interview. It is not clear to me why Ms. Kim would’ve changed her story but it appears to me she has.”

As I responded to him, I have been in close contact with Ms Kim for several years, and in my view, it simply made no sense that she would suddenly turn around and tell a journalist she didn’t even know the complete opposite of what she’s told me on numerous occasions, i.e. that she exclusively works in establishments with managers, which is exactly what she said in her comments included in the critique.

With regards to the claim by Ms Kang that the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family had refused to release the results from a 2010 report, Mr Gale explained that Ms Kang was apparently referring to particular results that weren’t included in the report when it was eventually published. I maintain that at the very least, her remarks are ambiguous, since they suggest that the ministry suppressed an entire report, which is untrue.

Finally, Mr Gale stated that he discussed with Ms Kang my criticism that the story lacked “additional information and background”, when I had actually explicitly referred to Ms Kang’s failure to draw any conclusions about what changes of the law might be necessary to improve the current situation and to mention anything about the frequent violations of sex workers’ rights and the dangers caused by police crackdowns. Both were among the motivations Ms Kang had stated when she first contacted me in June of this year. Mr Gale responded,

“I’ve talked with Ms. Kang about her reporting and research and I feel the story is a fair reflection of the reality of the sex industry in South Korea, including the risks for sex workers from crackdowns by the authorities.”

Where Mr Gale found these risks reflected in Ms Kang’s article continues to elude me, as the article only contains a reference to their economic impact but none about human rights violations.

Needless to say, Ms Kim and a colleague of hers whom I discussed Mr Gale’s response with were not amused with his complete refusal to acknowledge any of the problems in Ms Kang’s article. As for Ms Kang, she never bothered to respond to the critique, but judging from her article, it hardly came as a surprise.

Recommended Reading

A guide to respectful reporting and writing on sex work
By Marlise Richter, Ntokozo Yingwana, Lesego Tlhwale and Ruvimbo Tenga


Journalism that harms, not helps: A response to Yewon Kang

Response to Yewon Kang’s article “South Korea’s Sex Industry Thrives Underground a Decade After Crackdown” at the Wall Street Journal’s Korea Real Time blog

Sex work is work. Don't silence us. - Sign by Giant Girls. Photo by Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.“Sex work is work. Don’t silence us.” Sign by Giant Girls.
Photo by Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.

Summary

In her article, Yewon Kang failed to mention anything about the repeated protests by sex workers against the Anti-Sex Trade Laws, about the frequent violations of sex workers’ rights, and about the dangers caused by police crackdowns and undercover sting operations. Instead of correctly conveying what a sex worker had told her about her work, she fabricated, misrepresented and misquoted her statements. Kang’s article adds to a public discourse already influenced by prejudices, misinformation and sensationalism, and in doing so, she harms sex workers who demand to have their rights protected, instead of having them further eroded by an increase in police crackdowns.

Foreword

When I recently wrote an email to a journalist in the Middle East, who had written about sex work and prostitution laws in his country, I was impressed by the positive and constructive exchange that developed. In his response, he thanked me for recognising that one certainly couldn’t expect journalists to be experts on every subject they write about, and added that he welcomed it when researchers and experts took the time to open up the dialogue. As a result of our exchange, he tried to convince his editor to change the photo that had accompanied his article, responded well to the points I had raised, and finally, he offered to introduce me to his contacts at local NGOs offering services to sex workers, should I wish to get in touch with them. By doing so, he singlehandedly restored some of the faith I had long lost in journalists writing about sex work.

With this article, however, Yewon Kang and her editors at the Wall Street Journal have tipped the scale back to where it was, and it adds insult to injury that it was published in the immediate aftermath of a 24-year old Korean single mother and sex worker jumping to her death to escape a police sting operation, leaving behind her baby and sick father. My response to Yewon Kang is motivated by my indignation that she deliberately chose to misrepresent and omit important facts. To make matters worse, she not only misrepresented a sex worker’s comment by taking it out of context, she even attributed a statement to her that she never made. Ms Kang had initially informed me that she wanted to convey the voices of different stakeholders to show the impact of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws on their lives and work and to explore what each of them thought would be the best model with regards to prostitution legislation. In her final email less than two weeks ago, she assured me that neither her nor her editors were trying to misrepresent anything, and that all her efforts in writing this article were to raise awareness for the ineffectiveness of the law and how it drives sex workers underground, exposing them to greater risks. Yet, she never replied after I pointed out numerous problems in her draft and explained to her why I wouldn’t want to be quoted in it.

Well-informed readers will find none of the following surprising, but since there is too little credible information available about the situation of sex workers in South Korea and since Ms Kang claimed she cares about the dangers the current laws cause for them, I take this opportunity to illustrate that regardless of whatever good intentions she claims to have had, the result is a rather hellish article.

The positives

The photos by Man Chul Kim that are used in Yewon Kang’s article show Cheongnyangni 588, a well-known red light district in Seoul. They depict clean and orderly facilities and the photographer avoided showing anyone’s face. Together with the image descriptions, which explain how the Anti-Sex Trade Laws have forced most brothels to close, and the statement by ‘Choi Min Seo’, a sex worker who is said to prefer the safety of a brothel to offering sexual services online, the overall impression is that the author indeed wanted to highlight that legalising or decriminalising sex work would lead to safer working conditions. If that is in fact her opinion, it is all the more puzzling why she chose to misrepresent so many aspects in her article.

Police crackdowns and human rights abuses

Kang mentions “crackdowns” both in the title and four more times in her article. Titles need to be catchy and “crackdown” probably seemed catchier than “adoption of Anti-Sex Trade Laws”; but titles should also be accurate and so “a decade after crackdowns intensified” would have been more appropriate, since they are ongoing and at times intensifying.

Kang writes that the “free-wheeling red-light districts that once dotted many of South Korea’s major cities have been mostly tamed” and that the few which remained “face the threat of police raids”, which she describes as “the law’s successes”. But citing “people who follow the industry”, she states that “the country’s sex trade continues to flourish underground”, and an officer from the National Police Agency knows why: “we just don’t have the manpower” to broaden the crackdowns.

Kang then cites Kim Kang Ja, a former senior police officer in Seoul, who confirms that “money and manpower allocated for tackling the sex trade has never been sufficient for a systematic approach to the issue”. Kim is also quoted as saying that “the current approach only pushes the industry further underground and makes business owners more guileful”.

What Kang omits here, however, is that in 2012, Kim Kang Ja caused quite a stir when she proposed to amend the law to allow brothels to operate in designated areas.

“No matter how hard we try to regulate prostitution and get rid of it, it will always exist. There will always be women who work in the industry and it is virtually impossible not only to crack down on all of them, but also to have a sufficient budget that will help them get out of the business. … That is why we need to allow them to continue to make a living. … Having prostitution out in the open will benefit the women who work in the industry as the government will make efforts to prevent the exploitation of them and violations of their rights, which are now rampant.” – Kim Kang Ja in September 2012

“It is a serious issue that the human rights of prostitutes are infringed upon while their most basic right to make a living is not guaranteed.” – Kim Kang Ja in October 2012

Although some of the other views Kim expressed were questionable, the fact that Kang omits her widely discussed proposal seems odd, at the very least, since she had wanted to shed a light on that very aspect.

Other than Kim’s ambiguous statement that brothel owners have become more “guileful”, Kang only refers to the economic impact of police raids, when she quotes sex worker ‘Choi Min Seo’ who states that she has to work twice as much as before to earn the same amount of money. Kang makes no mention whatsoever of human rights abuses against sex workers during police crackdowns, although she later refers to physical and verbal abuse by clients. And so I sent her the following comment.

“At no point do you mention any abuse by the police, although all sex workers I’ve ever talked to have mentioned it to me, and it was also included in my response to you. I understand that no article can include everything, but by mentioning abuse by clients and omitting abuse by the police, you perpetuate the idea that sex workers experience abuse only by clients, which is untrue.” Excerpt from an email to Yewon Kang, 22/11/2014

Kang deliberately ignored my objections and instead quoted two police sources calling for more resources for crackdowns, which she labelled a success of the Anti-Sex Trade Laws. Given the information she was given (see also next paragraph), this isn’t a mere oversight, it’s a deliberate misrepresentation, supporting the call for more resources for the police to conduct more crackdowns. And given the tragic death of a sex worker this week, who tried desperately to escape a police crackdown, it is cynical beyond belief.

Fabricating, misrepresenting, and misquoting statements

Kang writes that ‘Kim Yeo-ni’ sells sex over “over the Internet, connecting with clients through websites that are disguised as social meetup sites” and that she “prefers to work on her own, instead of in a brothel”.

When I discussed Kang’s article with Yeoni Kim, she stated the following:

“I am very angry. Yewon Kang lies in her article. I never met customers over the Internet. I don’t like it and I told her that. It is very dangerous so I never do that. I only work in shops with managers, and I told her that, too. The person she describes is not me.” – Yeoni Kim, quoted with her kind permission

In the passage already mentioned above, Kang also writes that Kim “experienced physical violence and verbal abuse by some of her clients”.

“This was taken out of context. I got beaten in an environment where there was no manager around at the time to watch out. I explicitly told her that I am worrying about the entire industry going underground and that it has become so dangerous due to all the police raids. But she didn’t mention that at all!” – Yeoni Kim, quoted with her kind permission

The fact alone that Kang deliberately fabricated, misrepresented and misquoted Yeoni Kim should suffice to raise serious doubts over her journalistic integrity. But there is more.

More factual errors

Kang quotes statistics from a “2007 report into the industry by the government’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family” (which I already discussed here) and writes that “the ministry conducted another report in 2010 but refused to release the results, saying it had grown difficult to collect reliable data because of the evolving nature of the sex trade.”

While it is certainly true that the reports are unreliable, neither report was conducted by the ministry but got commissioned to the Korea Women’s Development Institute and Seoul National University’s Institute for Gender Research respectively. The 2010 report has indeed been published, even if with a delay, and I sent her the link where she could download it from the ministry’s website. Finally, I had cautioned her that the data in both reports and in the “high-profile media report in 2012”, an article in the Joong Ang Daily, were limited to red light districts only and represented mere guesstimates.

Arguing over “conducted by” and “commissioned by” might seem nit-picky, although why she didn’t correct it eludes me. But deliberately stating that a government ministry suppressed a report despite better knowledge is a clear fabrication on Kang’s part.

Gender bias

As is common for articles about sex work, Kang focuses exclusively on women and leaves out men as well as transgender people, whether they be men, women or non-binary people, all of which are often ignored and erased in articles and debates about sex work, a fact I had raised in our email exchange. With her insistence to focus on women and her abovementioned narrow focus on abusive clients, Kang clearly throws her support behind the common female victim/male perpetrator narrative.

Exit programmes

Kang had wanted to quote my statement that “the exit programmes offered by the government, if you can call them that, are a joke”, and I had also pointed out that the Park administration’s plan “to pay rewards of up to one hundred million won for tip-offs about prostitution activities” but only 400,000 Won as an incentive to exit prostitution “would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.”

As I wrote here, the bare minimum sufficient to survive in South Korea is approx. 600,000 Korean Won for a 1-person household. For a 3-person household, e.g. a single parent with two children, it is approx. 1,300,000 Korean Won. As a comparison, a person working at minimum wage would earn 1,080,000 Won in South Korea (before taxes).

To be fair, perhaps Kang didn’t have any other source who made a critical comment about the government’s exit programmes, after I withdrew my permission to be quoted, and the fact that she provides the equivalent of the monthly stipend in US dollars should allow readers to grasp that it’s nowhere nearly enough to survive. Kang also mentions that the director of the Women’s Rights Support Division at the ministry “declined to elaborate on how effective the exit programs have been” and that the number of people making use of support centres has more than halved between 2005 and 2013. Yet, she states that “the government provides an array of assistance”.

Earlier, Kang falsely states that the ministry suppressed a report, but here, where the facts she gathered suggest that the assistance offered by the government doesn’t fit the needs of those who might otherwise make use of it, she remains silent. A glaring omission, considering we had discussed the very issue.

Conclusion

Kang claims she wanted to show the impact of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws and explore which measures would be useful to improve the current situation. However, she failed to mention anything about the repeated protests by sex workers against the laws, about the frequent violations of sex workers’ rights, and about the dangers caused by police crackdowns and undercover sting operations. Instead of correctly conveying what sex workers had told her about their work, she described them and fabricated, misrepresented and misquoted them. As Laura Agustín, an expert on sex work and migration, accurately summed it up: “Although journalists may ask to speak to ‘real sex workers’, they often just create a general identity to attribute quotations to. Ms Kim could be ‘Korea Sex Worker Everywoman’.”

Kang drew no conclusions whatsoever about what changes might be necessary to improve an untenable situation, although she had ample access to interview partners who could have, and in fact did tell her about it. The only suggestion that appears in her article is to bolster the resources of the police to increase crackdowns.

“Writing about sex work certainly is a minefield. Different people will find different issues important and making everybody happy is quite a difficult task. … Sensitive subject matters, such as the situation of sex workers or other marginalised populations, do require anyone writing about them to go the extra mile to avoid misrepresentations that can negatively affect public opinion and subsequently policy makers.” – Excerpt from emails to Yewon Kang, 17+22/11/2014

In my view, Kang has failed on almost every account. The last thing sex workers in South Korea or anywhere need are articles like hers, as it adds to a public discourse already influenced by prejudices, misinformation and sensationalism. In doing so, she harms sex workers who demand to have their rights protected, instead of having them further eroded by an increase in police crackdowns.


Epilogue

One positive is that Kang consistently uses the term ‘sex worker’, by no means a given in articles in Korean newspapers. (The only time she uses the term ‘prostitute’ is when she quotes a brothel owner.)

Besides that, however, she reverts to a narrative style that is sadly common in articles about sex workers. And while one could think that she perhaps did so unconsciously, it was in fact one of the key points when I explained my reasons for declining to be quoted in her article. In the following, I will highlight just a few examples.

“wearing only lingerie”; “Neon red and blue lights flicker in the narrow alley”; “scantily-clad women”

Police officers wear uniforms; politicians wear formal attire; sex workers wear sexy outfits, and red light districts have neon lights. Yet, you won’t find interviews with police officers or politicians where journalists first describe what they are wearing or describe the lighting at their offices. You might be unaware of it, but this paragraph is sensationalising, and “scantily-clad” is actually a term that tries to evoke pity. – Excerpt from an email to Yewon Kang, 22/11/2014

“women seeking a way out of a life of prostitution”

“a life of prostitution” suggests that if you are a sex worker, your entire life revolves around your work, and the underlying suggestion here is that anyone needs to get out of that life. Just compare it to other professions. Would one also write “life of selling insurances” or “life of politics”? No, one would write, “he wanted to get out of politics” or “she wanted to leave the insurance sector”. ‘Sex worker’ is not an identity but an occupation. – Excerpt from an email to Yewon Kang, 22/11/2014

In 2013, a journalist from German news magazine DER SPIEGEL interviewed sex worker activist Carmen Amicitiae. Although she had made it clear prior to the interview that she was not going to answer any personal questions but only those pertaining to her work and political activism, he went on to describe her as “petite woman, wearing a turtle-neck sweater and baggy trousers” in an article titled “Dark Fantasies”, of which only one fifth dealt with her political work. Amicitiae responded with a counterstatement on her blog and tweeted: “Dear Journalists, please leave my self-portrayal to me! If you want to report about me, then please write about my work or its legal status.”

Just as that SPIEGEL journalist, Kang was made aware of this, but as with everything else, she deliberately chose to ignore it.

Update | December 8th, 2014

“I feel the story is a fair reflection of the reality of the sex industry in South Korea, including the risks for sex workers from crackdowns by the authorities.” – Alastair Gale, the Wall Street Journal’s Korea Bureau Chief.

Find out more in Response from the Wall Street Journal.

Recommended Reading

A guide to respectful reporting and writing on sex work
By Marlise Richter, Ntokozo Yingwana, Lesego Tlhwale and Ruvimbo Tenga


MOGEF launches campaign to eradicate prostitution

The following text is a summary of an article on the official website of the Seoul Metropolitan Government. This post does in no way represent an endorsement of the campaign outlined therein, but is solely provided to illustrate the South Korean government’s continued refusal to acknowledge the rights of sex workers and the self-referential pat on its back for continuing to criminalise sex work, despite growing calls to decriminalise it, including from UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon.


On September 16th, South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF) launched a campaign in Seoul to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Anti-Sex Trade Laws. The campaign will be implemented nationwide “to build a healthy society by eradicating prostitution”

Anti-prostitution campaign by MOGEFThe ministry launched the campaign at Seoul’s City Hall in attendance of Kim Hee Jung, minister of MOGEF, and Kang Weol Gu, head of the Women’s Human Rights Commission of Korea (WHRCK). The event was hosted by the Women’s Human Rights Commission of Korea and the Dasi Hamkke Center*, and lasted for two and half hours. The participants distributed brochures and delivered messages to eradicate prostitution. Posters displayed the achievements of the activities to eradicate prostitution and protect victims over the last 10 years.

MOGEF will continue its campaign under the theme “sex cannot be bought and sold” in 16 cities all over South Korea. The campaign will also be joined by the US Embassy in Korea, the US Forces in Korea, and the Cambodian Government.

Minister Kim Hee Jung stated that “prostitution must be eradicated as it violates human dignity. Hence, measures to punish those involved in prostitution should be strongly enforced. People must understand that human beings cannot be traded like commodities.” MOGEF, in cooperation with other institutions, will continue the campaign using TV and other media to raise public awareness of the sexual exploitation of women and children, the minister added.


The slogan on the above poster above reads “There’s something that’s not tradable in this world.”

*The Dasi Hamkke Center is a non-governmental and governmental collaboration agency offering exit programmes and counselling for “victims of sex trafficking and women in prostitution”. The centre is administered by Hansorihoe (United Voice), an umbrella organisation of anti-prostitution NGOs that frequently collaborate with MOGEF.


Janice Raymond and the South Korean Model

VRR Event Poster DetailOn November 30th, 2013, an event was held at the Vancouver Public Library to remember the victims of the 1989 massacre at L’École Polytechnique. According to Hilla Kerner, spokeswoman for Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, which sponsored the event, its purpose was not only to “remember those 14 women in the political and historical context that this man killed them”, but also “to use the day to talk about violence against women now, to reveal the different forms of male violence against women, and to celebrate women’s resistance. … We do see prostitution as one form of male violence against women.”

In the run-up to the event, the invitation of Janice Raymond had sparked a controversy. Raymond is an American radical feminist author and activist, and a professor emerita of Women’s Studies and Medical Ethics at the University of Massachusetts (UMass). Between 1994 and 2007, Raymond served as a co-executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), where she is currently on the Board of Directors. She campaigns against the legalisation of prostitution and for the penalisation of the clients of sex workers. Her academic credibility has been called into question, among others by Ronald Weitzer, professor of Sociology at George Washington University, known for his publications on the sex industry. [1]

At the event, Raymond gave a talk under the heading “Prostitution: Not a Job, not a Choice”, in which she referred to the “South Korean Model”, i.e. the Anti-Sex Trade Law, as a “miracle” that “truly empowers the women”. Below, I will respond to Raymond’s claims and describe an interesting response I received in an online forum.

Responding to Janice Raymond’s claims 

[Raymond] “Basically, the Republic of South Korea in the year 2004 passed a zero tolerance law, that’s what it was called, targeting, among other things, the demand for prostitution.”

What Raymond refers to here are the Special Laws on Sex Trade (성매매 특별법, Seongmaemae tteukbyeol beob) – that is what they are called – and what she omits is that one of the “other things” the laws are targeting is the selling of sexual acts. The Punishment Act penalises both buyers and sellers of sexual acts with up to one year in prison or fines of up to 3 million won (approx. £1,715/€2,075/$2,825), except for those who were coerced into selling sex.

[Raymond] “When I met with service organizations in Korea that provided this assistance to women, they told me that the most gratifying part of the law was the 56% decrease of women in prostitution that was reported several years after the law was passed. That was from a government study, that was the Ministry of Gender Equality that conducted that study in Korea. So a 56% decrease in women in prostitution, and that the number of sex districts had decreased also, by about 40%.”

The cited “government study” is a report from November 2007 that was published by the South Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (여성가족부, MOGEF) but produced by the Korean Women’s Development Institute (한국여성정책연구원, KWDI), and its research methodology seems questionable at best.

The report, which is only available in Korean, is titled: “National Survey on the current conditions of the Sex Trade in Korea” (전국성매매실태조사). KWDI chose altogether 8 business types from government registries of businesses they suspected as most likely to facilitate transactional sex. Those were: serviced pubs, clubs, smaller pubs, tea and coffee houses, noraebangs (karaoke places), barber shops, massage parlours, and beauty shops/wellness places. People living or working in red light districts were interviewed and the findings were based on their impressions.

The cited 56% decrease only refers to the number of remaining red light districts (39 in 2007, down from 69 in 2002), not the number of “women in prostitution” and not the number of businesses – just the number of red light districts, some of which disappear(ed) due to gentrification and redevelopment. According to the report, the number of sex workers working in those 39 red light districts decreased by 40% (3,644 in 2007, down from 9,092 in 2002), and the number of “full-time brothels” (전업형) in those 39 red light districts decreased by 49% (1,443 in 2007, down from 2,938 in 2002). However, these numbers do not account for sex workers and businesses outside of these 39 red light districts or for the influence the internet has had on the sex industry.

Thus, any conclusions drawn from the KWDI report only apply to these specific red light districts, and it is important to note that the report’s time frame began in fact two years prior to the introduction of the Anti-Sex Trade Law, which means that the decrease cannot be attributed to the law alone, even where the conditions in red light districts are concerned.

The numbers in the KWDI report don’t always add up either. The 2007 figures in the report list 39 red light districts, 1,443 brothels, 3,644 sex workers, 2,510,000 clients per year, and an average of 5.8 clients per brothel and day. However, if one multiplies 5.8 x 1443 x 365 (clients per brothel and day x brothels x 1 year), one arrives at 3,054,831 client visits, a discrepancy of 544,831. It probably explains why MOGEF stated they wouldn’t take any responsibility for the figures in the report.

MOGEF-Disclaimer

“This report was commissioned by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and the research was conducted by the Korea Women’s Development Institute. The result of this research and the content of the report are solely the opinions of the researchers, of which no official position of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family is to be inferred.”

[Raymond] “Included in that legislation were added resources to assist the women in prostitution. … The assistance package, that was really, very much funded by the government, which provided counselling, job retraining, medical treatment, a monthly stipend, and legal support. And to qualify for that, women had to demonstrate in some way, through the assistance organizations, who certified this, that they had been harmed or that they suffered from addictions or other disabilities or were underage. Thousands of women took advantage of that provision and subsequently exited prostitution.”

According to government sources, the  bare minimum sufficient to survive in South Korea is approx. 600,000 won for a 1-person household. For a 3-person household (e.g. single parent + 2 kids), it is approx. 1,300,000 won. People who receive government benefit also receive medical and educational support and have their TV license fees waived. As a comparison, a person working at minimum wage would earn 1,080,000 Won (before taxes).

Therefore, one can safely assume that a monthly stipend of 400,000 won, which is part of the assistance package Raymond referred to, does not represent a sufficient incentive to exit prostitution, since one wouldn’t be able to survive on it, and since in order to receive it, third parties are required to certify that one actually deserves it. In addition, the sustainability of said assistance seems questionable (see ‘Empowerment’).

Double Standards

When I posted much of the above commentary and some figures of a different report in a comment thread on Meghan Murphy’s blog Feminist Current, one reader responded as follows.

Feminist Current - Comment by 'sporenda'

Earlier, however, the same person wrote:

Feminist Current - Comment by 'sporenda' [2]

One can agree that asking the “wo(man) in the street” about her or his opinion is likely to produce “vague impressions, rumors and popular myths”. What the report I cited showed – and nothing else I had suggested – was how the majority of respondents viewed the implementation of the Anti-Sex Trade Law, with the key word being “viewed”. Nobody claimed they represented “reliable figures on prostitution”.

Janice Raymond, however, cited a government study of which she didn’t know who actually conducted it, a law of which she didn’t know the correct name, and figures that were not only derived via a dubious research methodology but which she also managed to confuse. (Raymond confused the respective percentages of the decreases in red light districts and the number of sex workers working in them.)

It speaks volumes then, that if a sex worker organisation commissions a research institute to do a survey, their results are denounced as “idiotic”, but when a government body commissions a research institute to do a survey, their results are viewed as “solid facts”, just so long as they support the desired narrative.

The “South Korean Model” is no more a “miracle” than the Swedish Model. The difference between the two is that the former states outright that it criminalises sex workers, while the latter claims it doesn’t.

Sex Workers demand: “Repeal the ‘Special Laws on Sex Trade’”

A constitutionality review of the Anti-Sex Trade Law, submitted in January 2013 by Criminal Law Judge OH Won Chan from the District Court in Northern Seoul, was scheduled to conclude six months later. A year on, however, no decision has been announced and the persecution of sex workers continues.

Since the adoption of the Anti-Sex Trade Law in 2004, sex workers have demanded to reform or repeal the law time and again, most famously in September 2011, when an estimated 1,500 sex workers gathered in Seoul to protest against the law.

If you want reliable information about the current conditions in South Korea’s sex industry, they are the people to go to.

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(All images by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

*The author would like to thank El Feministo for transcribing Janice Raymond’s talk and for bringing it to my attention.

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[1] Weitzer, George “Flawed Theory and Method in Studies of Prostitution”

When discussing two of her previous studies of sex trafficking, “Raymond provides no information on where she located the women, how she gained access to them, how diverse or representative they are, and whether they saw themselves as victims. Moreover, none of the interview questions [are] revealed to the reader. … It is a canon of academic research that authors situate their findings in the related scholarly literature to highlight similarities and differences in findings and build on prior work— something that Raymond opted not to do.”


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”


Update to Small Fundraiser for Translation Job

Korean Supreme Court ⓒ 2012 Supreme Court of KoreaKorean Supreme Court ⓒ 2012 Supreme Court of Korea
Click to enlarge image | Klicken Sie auf das Bild, um es zu vergrößern

EnglishWe recently launched a small fundraiser to cover the cost for an important translation job and I am glad to report that we reached 88% of our funding target. The translation was completed on June 30th and all funds were used to pay the translator and an editor we hired to ensure that this very sensitive subject was treated accordingly. In the meantime, we have circulated the Korean version of the article among journalists in South Korea in order to place it in a Korean newspaper, and we will update you once we have further news.

I would like to thank all donors for their generous donations. We actually had a rather small circle of donors but we almost reached our funding target regardless. I was particularly happy that some sex workers supported this cause, too, either by making a donation or by forwarding our fundraiser on their Twitter and Facebook pages.

How important it is to counter claims about sex work made by the media prove the recent events in Germany, where, after a year of biased media reports, the 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. Thankfully, reason prevailed in Scotland and I hope that our article will contribute to a positive outcome for sex workers in South Korea, too, once the constitutional review of Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Law by the Korean Supreme Court concludes.

DeutschVor kurzem starteten wir eine kleine Spendenaktion, um eine wichtige Übersetzung zu finanzieren und ich freue mich, mitteilen zu können, dass wir 88% des Spendenziels erreichten. Die Übersetzung wurde am 30. Juni abgeschlossen und alle Spenden wurden verwendet, um die Übersetzerin und eine Lektorin zu bezahlen, um dieses sehr sensible Thema angemessen zu behandeln. Die koreanische Version des Artikels wurde inzwischen an Journalisten in Südkorea weitergeleitet in der Hoffnung, dass der Artikel in einer koreanischen Zeitung veröffentlicht wird. Wir werden ein Update veröffentlichen, sobald wir weitere Neuigkeiten haben.

Ich möchte mich sehr herzlich bei allen Spender*innen für ihre großzügigen Spenden bedanken. Es war insgesamt ein recht kleiner Kreis von Spender*innen, aber wir haben unser Spendenziel dennoch beinahe erreicht. Ich war besonders erfreut, dass auch einige Sexarbeiter*innen unsere Aktion unterstützt haben, sei es mit einer Spende oder damit, unsere Spendenaktion auf ihren Twitter oder Facebook-Seiten zu teilen.

Wie wichtig es ist, Behauptungen der Medien über Sexarbeit etwas entgegenzusetzen, beweisen die kürzlichen Ereignisse in Deutschland, wo die Regierungskoalition nach einem Jahr vieler tendenziöser Medienberichte das “Gesetz zur Bekämpfung des Menschenhandels und Überwachung von Prostitutionsstätten“ durch den Bundestag peitschte, obwohl es von Sachverständigen einhellig abgelehnt worden war. Glücklicherweise hat in Schottland die Vernunft gesiegt, und ich hoffe, dass unser Artikel dazu beitragen wird, dass es ein positives Ergebnis für Sexarbeiter*innen in Südkorea geben wird, sobald die Überprüfung des koreanischen Anti-Prostitutionsgesetzes durch das Verfassungsgericht vollendet ist.


“Sex Crime” or “Sexual Self-Determination”?

Verletzte Leben - Verwehrte Rechte - Programme

Announcement

This Saturday, 23rd of March, I will give a presentation at a symposium at Humboldt University of Berlin. The presentation is titled “Sex Crime” or “Sexual Self-Determination”? and deals with prostitution discourses in South Korea and their negative impacts on sex workers.

My presentation will start at 12pm in a session titled “Autonomy and Heteronomy in Sex Work”. The second presenter in this session is Ms. Noémi Katona who will give a presentation titled “Coercion, Money, and Intimacy: Hungarian Sex Workers and their Pimps/Boyfriends at Kurfürstenstraße”. Podcasts of these and other presentations will be made available in April. Please note that all presentations will be held in German only.

RPK Bulb Verletzte Leben

Matthias Lehmann
“Sex Crime” or “Sexual Self-Determination”?
March 23rd, 2012 – 12.00pm

Festsaal der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Luisenstraße 56,  10117 Berlin

“Hurt Lives – Denied Rights. Human Trafficking in the 21st Century”

Despite heightened public attention to “human trafficking”, the definition of this phenomenon remains difficult and contested. On Friday, March 22nd, and Saturday, March 23rd 2013, the symposium “Hurt Lives – Denied Rights. Human Trafficking in the 21st Century” will take place at the ballroom of the Humboldt-Universität of Berlin at Luisenstraße 56 in Berlin-Mitte. Next to academic and field experts, young researchers will showcase their work in presentations and workshops. The symposium is intended both for a professional audience as well as everyone who is interested to learn more about this subject matter.

HUG-LOGOThe symposium is sponsored by the Humboldt-Universitäts-Gesellschaft. Verein der Freunde, der Ehemaligen und der Förderer e.V. (Humboldt University‘s Association of Friends, Alumni and Sponsors)

Please click here to visit the website of the symposium. (German only)

(more…)


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.

Clarification

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. http://tinyurl.com/y4rtr8 | http://tinyurl.com/88w69l4 | http://tinyurl.com/72rw5hw | http://tinyurl.com/omeof

[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)

Epilogue

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.