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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Giant Girls invites you to the Asia-Pacific Sex Workers’ Rights Forum
Date: Saturday, 28th November 2015
Location: Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), 6th Fl. Kyunghyang Daily News Bldg., 22 Jeong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea 100-702
Entrance Fee: KRW 10,000
11.00 – 12.00 Film screening of ‘Grace Period’ by Caroline Key & KIM KyungMook (see trailer below)
16.30 – 19.30 Film screening of ‘Red Maria 2’ by Kyung-soon (see interview with Kyung-soon here)
국제앰네스티 ‘성노동전면비범죄화’ 결정을 환영하며 <아시아태평양 성노동자 인권 포럼>을 마련했습니다. 이번 주 28일 토요일 오전 11시 민주노총 금속노조 사무실에서 참가비 1만원으로 진행됩니다. <유예기간>과 <레드 마리아2> 영화 상영과 함께, 스칼렛 얼라이언스(호주), 스와시(일본), 코스와스(대만), 그리고 지지(한국)에서 ‘아시아태평양 지역 성노동자의 인권과 성매매 정책’을 주제로 포럼을 열고자 하니 많은 관심 바랍니다.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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.  “Last year, data showed that 29.1 people per 100,000 took their own lives ― more than triple the OECD average.”  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.
Statement by Korean Sex Worker Organisation Giant Girls
We condemn the South Korean government for denying sex workers their human rights and criticise the government’s plan to pay rewards of up to one hundred million won to prostitution informants.
On May 20th 2014, the South Korean Government announced that they will pay rewards of up to one hundred million won (US$98,000 | £58,000 | €70,000) to informants who provide important leads to crime investigations, notably organised crime and prostitution. This announcement exhibits the government’s indifference, ignorance, and incompetency.
Since 2005, the government has successfully ignored the voices of sex workers, their cry against stigmatisation and discrimination, their fight for their right to survive, and the apparent link between sex work and women’s poverty. Instead of putting prostitution on the same level of criminal offences like organized crime, one should consider why people choose to enter and stay in prostitution.
What sex workers face is not limited to prostitution. Prostitution and sex work reflect the Korean society’s policies and attitudes towards minorities and workers, and also how strong the social safety net is. What people think of prostitution, how the sex industry is created and maintained, what the public opinion says about it, and how the government copes with it, all reflect the general problem of our society.
The government doesn’t think that prostitution is a result of inequalities in Korean society. Instead, it tries to blame prostitution for all sorts of social problems. Poverty and the failure to acknowledge the human rights of sex workers are key problems that sex workers face. It those problems remain unresolved, the controversy about prostitution will continue.
Prostitution is already illegal in Korea. That is why sex workers cannot ask for protection during their work. Rather than protecting sex workers, the police violate their human rights during crackdowns. Amidst all this, this new policy will pose a new threat to the survival of sex workers. With bounty hunters at large, sex workers will have to hide in the shadows where there is neither safety nor a regular income. This policy is also dangerous as it may direct public frustration at the Park administration’s incompetency, incapacity and dishonesty towards sex workers by defining sex workers as the delinquent “others”. Stigmatising minorities as criminals and putting them into dangerous circumstances represents nothing short of a witch hunt.
To most of male, female and transgender sex workers, sex work is a matter of survival. Before asking sex workers why would they go into this business, the government should reflect on the circumstances that renders sex work inevitable. A weak social safety net, prejudices within Korean society, and the attitude of Korean society towards poverty should be held accountable. Sex workers constantly have to be afraid and will have no access to workers’ rights and human rights as long as prostitution is deemed a crime and “prostitutes” as filthy.
We, the members of Giant Girls, the Network for Sex Workers’ Rights, express our outrage over this incompetent and irresponsible government announcement and declare that we will take every measure against the situation.
May 20th, 2014
Giant Girls, the Network for Sex Workers’ Rights
Author: Giant Girls, Network for Sex Workers’ Rights (성노동자권리모임 지지)
Translation: Research Project Korea, with kind permission by Giant Girls
Please click here for the Korean version.
“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.
Cover Photo: Korean sex workers, wearing traditional costumes, attend a protest against the police crackdown on brothels in Chuncheon, about 100 km (62 miles) northeast of Seoul May 31, 2011. Reuters/Lee Jae Won.
Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific
The United Nations published a new report that investigates laws, HIV and human rights in the context of sex work. The report is a collaboration of UNDP and UNFPA, in partnership with UNAIDS, the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) as well as other community sex worker organizations and individuals.*
“The report is intended to provide an evidence-base for: policy makers working in government, regional and multilateral organizations; parliamentarians; members of the judiciary; civil society organizations; donor agencies; and sex workers and their organizations engaged in advocacy to improve the legal and policy enabling environment for HIV responses. The study focuses on 48 countries of the Asia-Pacific region, with an emphasis on low and middle-income countries.” – Page 9
Sex Work and the Law in South Korea (pp. 110-112)
All forms of sex work are criminalized. Prior to 2004, the law defined sex workers as morally degenerate and imposed penalties for ‘protection of sexual morality’. However, this law was rarely enforced. In 2004, more severe penalties were introduced by the Act on the Punishment of Acts of Arranging Sexual Traffic and Enforcement Decree of the Act on the Prevention of Sexual Traffic and Protection, etc. of Victims Thereof.
The Act on the Punishment of Acts of Arranging Sexual Traffic defines sexual traffic to include sexual intercourse in exchange for money or goods (Article 2). Therefore, sex work is defined as a form of trafficking. The penalty for anyone who has been engaged in sexual traffic is imprisonment for not more than one year or a fine not exceeding 3 million won (Article 21). This provision criminalizes both sex workers and their clients. Persons who are coerced into providing sexual services are not liable to be punished (Article 6(1)).
Other offences include soliciting, arranging, enticing, recruiting and providing premises for the purposes of sex work (Articles 2 and 19). Advertising a sexual traffic business shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than 3 years or by a fine not exceeding 30 million won (Articles 19(1) and 20).
The penalty for operating a sexual traffic business is imprisonment for not more than 7 years or a fine of not more than 70 million won (Article 19 (2)).
In 2006 the Constitutional Court referred to prostitution as ‘a low and mean occupation’ that is harmful to public morals. The Court upheld criminal penalties relating to recruiting people to work in the sex industry.
The Constitutional Court has also declared that the offence of providing a place for the purpose of trafficking in sex is constitutional, citing the UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, which the Korean government signed in 1962. The Constitutional Court in 2011 ruled that adults engaged in ‘sexual traffic’ are subject to punishment because they are able to earn a living by means of a variety of occupations except for sex work.
5.8.2 Law enforcement practices
From 1984-2004, the government tolerated the sex industry provided that sex workers registered with health authorities and operated in specific red-light areas. Sex workers were required to be tested for STIs periodically and for HIV every six months. The government authorized the Korean Tourist Association to license bars or kisaeng (professional entertainer) houses near U.S. military bases and tourist enclaves. The government provided the workers based at these licensed entertainment establishments with STI and HIV testing. After the introduction of the anti-trafficking law that criminalized sex work in 2004, this practice ended and sex workers became reluctant to register for STI testing and treatment due to fear of prosecution. Data on sex workers registered for STI examinations show a rapid decrease from 5,922 in 2003 to 2,632 in 2004. In 2006 only 1,914 sex workers were registered, a reduction of nearly 70 percent since 2003. There was also a reduction in the overall number people seeking testing and treatment for STIs. The number of people seeking STI treatment at health offices declined from 156,000 in 2003 to 117,000 in 2006.
Police crackdowns from 2004-2009 resulted in arrest of approximately 28,000 sex workers, 150,000 clients, and 27,000 sex business owners. It is estimated that 4 percent of the arrested people were sentenced to imprisonment. The Ministry of Justice operates schools for convicted male clients of sex workers who may attend seminars in lieu of punishment.
The Ministry of Justice reported that 99,958 men were sent to the ‘john school’ programme as an alternative to prosecution from 2005 to 2009. The programme aims to prevent clients from reoffending.
The Korean sex workers organization, Giant Girls**, describes the adverse effects of criminalization as follows:
Strict enforcement of regulations and severe punishment for the sexual traffic makes sex workers even more vulnerable in a relationship with business owners or clients. For instance, sex workers, in a legally disadvantageous position, can be forced to have sexual intercourse without using a condom by clients who would threaten to report to the police unless sex workers comply with their unfair request. Sex workers cannot easily report to the police if they become victims of assault or deception by clients or sex business owners. In other words, they are not under protection of the laws. Sex workers can be abused physically and verbally if they are taken to the police. Police sometimes take their naked photos or sex photos under the pretext of collecting and securing evidence.
‘Red-light districts’ (where brothels are densely concentrated) are being closed down and demolished in redevelopment areas, in the process of reinforcing elimination of the sexual traffic. In 2011, 42 brothels located in Yongdeungpo, Seoul were designated for removal, which triggered sex workers’ intense resistance.
5.8.3 Efforts to improve the legal environment
The Korean Sex Workers Network (Giant Girls) was established in 2009 by a group of sex workers who advocate for decriminalization of sex work. The group collaborates with human rights activists to campaign against the criminalization of sex work. The group also works to remove the social stigma associated with sex work through media interventions.
(End of excerpt. Please view the report for all annotations.)
“New UN report takes a stark look at links between sex work, HIV and the law in Asia and the Pacific”
— UNDP Press Release URL
* Shishuder Jonno Amra and Tree Foundation, Bangladesh; Women’s Network for Unity (WNU), Cambodia; China Sex Worker Organization Network Forum, China; Survival Advocacy Network, Fiji; Durbar Mahila Samanwya Committee (DMSC), India; Indonesian Social Changes Organization (OPSI), Indonesia; Asia-Pacific Transgender Network (APTN) Malaysia; Population Services International Targeted Outreach Program (PSI/TOP), Myanmar; Blue Diamond Society (BDS) and Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh (JMMS), Nepal; Friends Frangipani PNG; Empower and SWING, Thailand.
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.