“I am neither a hooker, nor a prostitute or a slut. I’m a sex worker. Winter is especially harsh for sex workers. While there are parties everywhere to celebrate the end of the year, there is also an avalanche of crackdowns on brothels. More and more forceful crackdowns are taking place in order for the police to reach its performance targets.
Winter is always like walking on a tightrope. Sex workers’ workplaces are intruded, pictures of their naked bodies are taken as evidence, sex workers swallow (used) condoms to prevent them from being used as evidence against them, and the police beat up and choke sex workers to make them vomit the condoms back out.
This winter, when protesting railway workers are being fired and protesters are defined as illegal and violently persecuted, social obedience is assumed a normality and the weak are marginalised and discriminated against.
How can we be well in this cold, harsh place where it’s always winter?
We need to talk about the welfare of those who speak against unjustness now.
It is high time that we ask each other how we are doing, so that the winter doesn’t freeze us, so that the sex workers freely can talk of unjustifiable violence, and so that the marginalised can raise their voice.”
김연희 Yeoni Kim, Sex Workers’ Rights Activist, Seoul
More often than not, the ideas that people have about sex work result from the narratives created by the media or anti-prostitution activists and have little to do with reality. Therefore, it gives me great pleasure to present to you a photo series by Yeoni Kim, a South Korean sex worker and activist with Giant Girls, Network for Sex Workers’ Rights. I would like to express my deepest gratitude and appreciation to Ms Kim for kindly providing her photos and statement to bring people – in her own words – “closer to sex workers”.
Please note that the copyright for the photos and statement lies with Yeoni Kim and is not licensed under a Creative Commons License. Please share the link to this post with others but kindly refrain from downloading the photos and posting them out of context elsewhere. I would also like to ask bloggers to refrain from re-blogging this post. Should you wish to share Yeoni Kim’s work with your audience, please feel free to use the cover image and link to this post.
The reality is that unless you are a client, sex worker or middleman, it is not easy to gain access to the working environment of sex workers.
성노동자들이 어떠한 환경에서 어떻게 일을 하고 있는지, 구매자나 성노동자, 중개업자가 아니면 우리는 쉽게 접근할 수가 없는 것이 현실이다.
The shop that granted us the permission to take these photos is classified as ‘Hyugetel’, which usually have signboards that read “College Girl Massage” or “Gentlemen’s Massage”.
사진 촬영을 허가한 이 업장은 ‘휴게텔’이라 분류되는 업장이며 보통 ‘여대생 마사지’, ‘남성전용 마사지’라는 간판을 달고 있다.
The process starts with washing the client, applying gel on the client’s body while being naked, and then rubbing against the slippery body. This is also known as “riding the body”. After “riding the body” is performed, you wash and towel-dry the client, and then lay the client down in bed. Caressing and petting starts from the neck to the knees, both in the front and the back of the client’s body.
손님을 씻기고, 알몸으로 손님의 몸에 젤을 발라 미끌미끌하게 부벼 주는 일명 ‘바디 타기’ 후, 다시 손님을 씻기고, 수건으로 닦아주고 침대에 뉘여 목부터 무릎까지 등판과 앞을 전부 애무한다.
Intercourse is the last stage. When the client ejaculates, you remove the condom, wash the client again, dress him and send him on his way. The photos sum up the process.
그 다음 섹스가 이루어지고, 사정 후 콘돔을 정리하고 손님을 다시 씻기고 옷을 입혀 내보내는 이 과정들을 몇몇의 사진들로 축약해 보았다.
A lot of the process has been omitted in the photos, since it was hard to modulate the level of exposure. The pictures were taken to let people understand that sex work is more than “lying down with your legs open”, and perhaps bring the audience closer to sex workers.
노출의 강조를 어떻게 해야 할 지 고민이 되어 일하는 모습들을 생략한 부분이 많지만, 이 사진들을 통해 아주 조금은 성노동자들과 가까워지고 그들의 노동이 단지 ‘다리 벌리고 누워있는 것’ 이상임을 이해할 수 있기를 바라는 마음으로 찍어보았다.
Yeoni Kim / 김연희
Please click on the cover image to view the photos as slide show. Press Escape to exit.
The above video is an excerpt from the South Korean talk show WITH, which discusses social and economic issues from the perspectives of women. The topic of this issue was the constitutional review of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Law.  The moderator is Seung Yeon Oh, a professor at Korea University. In this video, she is speaking with Yeoni Kim, a sex worker activist with Giant Girls, Network for Sex Workers’ Rights. To allow a wider audience to learn first-hand about the situation of sex workers in South Korea, Research Project Korea provides you with an English translation of this video with kind permission by Yeoni Kim.
‘Is the Anti-Sex Trade Law unconstitutional?’
Panellist: Yeoni Kim, Sex Worker Activist at Giant Girls, Network for Sex Workers’ Rights Link
Moderator: Seung Yeon Oh, Professor at Korea University
TV Station: MBC; Air Date: January 21st, 2013
Seung Yeon Oh: Could you explain to us why you started working as a sex worker?
Yeoni Kim: I left home before I finished high school and I started working while I was a university student. The usual part time jobs that college students can take required too many working hours and paid too little and it was impossible for me to continue working and studying at the same time. I looked for a job with more flexible hours and a higher income and that is why I started to work at the Miari Texas red light district. As time went on, I began to like working as a sex worker, and it gave me some kind of pride. Then I quit college and started working as a sex worker full-time.
Oh: The term ‘sex worker’ sounds foreign to the general public. Is there a particular reason why you refer to yourself using the term ‘sex worker’?
Kim: It may seem strange to others, but the change in the term is important to me. The word  was first used in Korea in 2005 during a sex workers’ convention. Sex workers wanted to change the terminology in use. I first came across the term ‘sex worker’ in 2010. Before that, I actually stigmatised myself by using terms that referred to me as a second-class human being. Now I feel proud of myself and I am content with what I do, and the only reason I am covering my face with a mask when I’m on TV is to protect the people who are close to me. Usually, I show my face in public when I give lectures or participate in protests.
Oh: So the word ‘prostitution’ stigmatises people?
Kim: We are trying to change all the words that carry social stigma.
Oh: To what degree do you think sex workers are being discriminated in the society?
Kim: One example are bank loans. Banks ask for your occupation when they process one’s loan application, and when you reply, “I am a sex worker.”, you will be asked to explain what that means. If you explain that sex work is selling sex to earn money, the application will be refused even if your credit history is excellent. The same goes for insurances. Sex work is seen as a highly hazardous occupation, and so sex workers are denied insurance coverage.
Oh: What do you think about the constitutional appeal?
Kim: I think of it as a first step. Gradually, the clients of sex workers and brothel owners should be decriminalized, too. There are many concerns surrounding this matter. Male and transgender sex workers should be included in the discussion.
Oh: Thank you for your time.
 At the time of this publication, South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Law was under constitutional revision. For further details, please refer to the following post.
Outcome of Constitutional Review | Research Project Korea URL
Korea’s sex trade in legal limbo | Asian Correspondent URL (old)
Appeal on anti-prostitution law filed with Korea`s top court | Donga Ilbo URL (old)
 Refers to ‘seongnodongja’, the Korean term for ‘sex worker’.
Once again, Charlie Spice invited me onto his show. This time around, the show continued the discussion of the previous edition about “Rape And Other Violent Acts Against Sex Workers”. As discussants were invited Bella Robinson, founder of Coyote RI, Maxine Doogan, founder of the Erotic Service Providers Union, Billie Jo McIntire, executive director at Sex Work Alliance and Network(ing) in Colorado, and Cris Sardina, co-director at the Desiree Alliance.
In preparation for the show, Hyeri Lee, a sex worker and an activist with Giant Girls – Network for Sex Workers’ Rights, had written a letter about her experiences as a sex worker in South Korea. She gladly agreed for me to read it to the participants and the audience of the Charlie Spice Show.
Read (or listen below) to the powerful statement of Hyeri Lee and learn about the stigma attached to sex work and the prejudices faced by sex workers in South Korea. Please note that due to minor sound distortions, a few sentences were removed from the audio file. I would like to direct your attention especially towards Ms Lee’s statements about the recent police crackdowns on the sex industry and the effect they had on sex workers.
A Letter from a South Korean Sex Worker*
Hello! My name is Hyeri. I’m a sex worker from South Korea. I was born in 1980, I’m a mother of two children, and I have worked in the sex industry for 3 years. In South Korea, there is a social stigma attached to sex work and there are many prejudices against sex workers.
That is why sex workers in Korea don’t want to reveal their occupation, and feel ashamed of what they do. Only a small number of sex workers think of their work as a form of labour. In Korea, the public isn’t familiar with the term ‘sex worker’. Instead, sex workers are referred to with terms like ‘whore’, ‘prostitute’, or ‘몸파는년 (mom paneun nyeon / body-selling bitch)’.
People look down on sex workers, and the sex industry itself is illegal due to the ‘Special Law Against Prostitution’, which in turn exposes sex workers to violence and rape.
Sex workers are not protected by the law, and I, too, have experienced multiple cases of violence from clients. Even if a sex worker reports them to the police, the criminal case won’t stand because of the illegality of sex work. The police thinks, sex work is illegal, and since the sex worker received money for sex, she should have sex even if she doesn’t like the client or what he demands.
The concept of selling sex-related services and one’s time does not exist in Korea, and sex workers are all referred to as ‘body-selling bitches’. Even when it comes to rape and assault on sex workers, some people believe that since sex workers are illegal and chose to live outside the law, they have to put up with violence and bad behaviours by their clients. I believe that’s what the majority in Korea believes.
Revealing one’s occupation requires a lot of courage, and there are very few people who would understand the type of work that sex workers do. There are prevalent prejudices that only those become sex workers who are poor, ignorant, or have somehow failed in their lives. Another prejudice is that sex workers waste away the money that they earned through opening their legs. That is why I get asked questions like “Did you finish college? You look smart enough to do something else.” It may sound funny, but this is the reality of how things are in Korea.
In my case, there are a lot of friends who support me and treat me as an equal human being. But one of my sex worker friends had to end one of her friendships after she came out. That friend called her ‘dirty’. I didn’t tell my family that I am working as a sex worker, and I probably won’t tell them in the future. They will not perceive sex work as an occupation, and it would come to them as nothing but a shock.
It is safe to assume that the majority of Koreans is afraid of sex workers and what their work entails. The people at the kindergarten where my kids go to know me as a make-up artist, which is my previous occupation. That is why they are nice to my kids, and give me compliments about their looks and talents. But what would happen if they knew what I do for living? They would talk behind my back and gossip, and only say bad things about my children. It’s too tough to even imagine that. Because of my children, I don’t allow any photos to be taken when I’m doing an interview. My life would be heavily affected if my photo were to go public. In Korea, sex workers are at the bottom of the social level.
I have taken up all kinds of part time jobs to raise my children and was always on a tight budget. When I picked up sex work, my life got better financially. However, due to the presidential election year, the police crackdowns got much worse, and I earned almost nothing. Due to the increase in crackdowns, most of the clients sex workers are left with are the nasty ones. Last year I mentally suffered a lot due to all the violence I had to endure, and I took some time off and started dating my current boyfriend.
Average Korean men doe not see sex work as an occupation of their spouse or partner. It is more a past that should be forgotten and left behind. I met my boyfriend when I was feeling vulnerable, and I stopped working for a while because he demanded it. He believes that I have quit sex work for good and will not pick it up in the future, and he refuses to talk about anything related to sex work. Other sex workers lie about what they do, but I don’t want to lie and so I rather save my breath. Even my boyfriend doesn’t see my work as an ‘occupation’ but considers it as deviant. He believes, “My sweet Hyeri is not the kind of women who would work as a sex worker”.
I think it’s fair to say that life is hell for sex workers in South Korea. The government sees you as a criminal, and you aren’t guaranteed basic human rights. People look down on you and ignore you. There are no such things as sex workers’ rights in Korea. My dream is to live abroad, even if I have to change my career. It is too hard to live in Korea. And these circumstances contribute to the fact that only one tenth of the people working in pro-sex work groups are sex workers.
Seoul, January 12th, 2013
*The translation from the Korean original by Research Project Korea was approved by the author, whose name was changed to protect her privacy.
Please leave a comment below for my courageous friend!
Rape And Other Violent Acts Against Sex Workers, Part 1 + 2
Charlie Spice Show
The Charlie Spice Show is a weekly one-hour talk show, which addresses all types of controversial issues related to sex, sex work, sex workers and the sex trade. The show gives the audience an in-depth look at the business, social, political, legal, health and economic issues related to this industry which is considered “taboo” but continues to intrigue people on both sides of the fence. The show is broadcast on BlogTalkRadio.
Click here to read about the previous times I was invited onto the Charlie Spice Show.
Looking back on a year of independent research* and looking forward to a meeting with Korean sex workers and a graphic artist to start creating a graphic novel about sex workers in South Korea.
Matthias Lehmann, independent researcher from Germany, at his favourite bakery in Gyeongnidan
*Research Project Korea is unaffiliated to any university or organisation and exclusively funded by myself and limited private donations. Please contact me should you have any questions, be it about the nature of my project or its funding, about the media I publish, or about my personal background. Find more details in the About section.