Sex Work and Human Rights

Posts tagged “Prostitution

“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


Sex workers in the Netherlands are making history

Sex worker protest in Amsterdam on April 9, 2015 © PROUD

Sex worker protest in Amsterdam on April 9, 2015 © PROUD

Guest post by Frans van Rossum [1]

Summary

As sex workers fight back against the Mayor of Amsterdam’s attempt to “legalise” violating their privacy rights, they receive some unexpected and unprecedented support from Magda Berndsen-Jansen, a member of parliament for left-centrist party D66. Her parliamentary enquiry, which demands answers to the very questions raised by newly founded sex worker organisation PROUD, proves that sex workers are finally being heard, and that in just over three months since its founding, PROUD has made itself a power to be reckoned with.

“Legalising” the violation of sex workers’ privacy rights? 

On February 23, 2015, Amsterdam’s mayor Eberhard van der Laan wrote a letter to Ivo Opstelten, then still in office as Dutch Minister of Security and Justice. [2] In essence, the mayor asked him to create a legal instrument that would allow city administrations nationwide to collect and, if needed, share personal data about sex workers, which the Dutch Privacy Protection Law explicitly prohibits to be collected and shared. The mayor argued the need for this exemption with two policy goals: firstly, “to combat human trafficking effectively” and secondly, “to promote the self-reliance of prostitutes.” [Click here for an English translation of van der Laan’s letter or here for the Dutch original] [3]

When this letter surfaced, Mariska Majoor, chairwoman of PROUD Nederland, the newly founded Dutch Union for Sex Workers, wrote a scathing response to the mayor on behalf of the sex workers’ collective, protesting the attempt to encourage legislation against the current law exclusively with regard to sex workers, and accusing him of using double standards. In public, he pretended to be in open conversation with sex workers, while behind their backs, he discriminated them by “advocating the violation of sex workers’ right to privacy.” Indeed, if this were to happen, all sex workers could consider themselves de facto outlaws despite the fact that sex work as such has been legal in the Netherlands since 1811, and still is. [4] Majoor also sent a copy of this letter to all parliament members. [Click here for an English translation of Mariska Majoor’s letter or here for the Dutch original] 

Sex workers speak and lawmakers listen

Consequently, on April 25, 2015, Magda Berndsen-Jansen, member of the lower house of the Dutch parliament for left-centrist party D66, submitted a parliamentary enquiry, listing eleven questions to Ard van der Steur, the newly appointed Minister of Security and Justice. [5] Berndsen-Jansen’s questions reiterate all points of protest from Majoor’s letter to the mayor, asking the minister to formulate and share with parliament his opinion on each of them. [Click here for an English translation of her enquiry or here for the Dutch original] 

In recent Dutch parliamentary history, it is unique that a parliament member, a 65-year old woman to boot, is so openly-supportive of sex workers’ rights, and in such detailed words. Berndsen-Jansen’s lingo is parliamentary but she is calling a spade a spade and demands no less than that sex workers are being treated equally under the law, just as anyone else.  

In my view, this represents a watershed moment in the history of the struggle for sex workers’ rights in the Netherlands – the moment that the voices and opinions of sex workers are finally being heard. A member of parliament uses a heavy parliamentary instrument not because advocates but sex workers themselves collectively stand up to Amsterdam’s mayor for their rights, social status and livelihood. 

And then the Saints went marching in…

This development came right after the events of April 9, when some 230 of them, together with hundreds of supporters, walked in protest to Amsterdam’s city hall and handed the mayor a well-formulated petition with nine demands for normalising sex work and the consultation process between the city and sex workers [Click here for an English translation of the petition or here for the Dutch original]. 

On behalf of them all, Felicia Anna, a Romanian migrant sex worker and activist working in the very red light district under siege, addressed the mayor in public, and the mayor returned the honour, said a few words, and shook hands with her. All this happened under the relentless eyes of cameras, phone cameras and the international press. 

[Click here to view an impressive list of media reports by the Dutch and international press, compiled on Felicia Anna’s English-language blog.]

For three impressive galleries with photos
from the protest please click here, here and here.

It was only in mid-February of this year, that PROUD, the Dutch Union for Sex Workers, was founded and introduced to press and public during a festivity in Amsterdam’s brothel-museum Yab Yum. Now, a mere three months later, the organisation has established itself as a power to be reckoned with. This means that after 15 very tough years, since organised prostitution became legal in the Netherlands, formally enabling sex workers to leave the shadowy underbelly of society, sex workers as a social entity have now undeniably risen to a status where society at large cannot overlook or neglect them any longer. [Click here for a video clip from the event by Dutch TV station SBS6. It might not play depending on your location.]

The gloves are now off and the fight can begin for real. The city is moving forward with its Project 1012, which dates back to 2006. [6] For sex workers, this has been a disastrous development. At the moment, the final stage of Project 1012 remains underfunded by € 40m, and on top of that, it is increasingly unpopular with the city council as well as with investors. [7] Without letting sex workers and prostitution business operators have a say, the project has already diminished the red light district and will continue to diminish this historic part of downtown Amsterdam under the hypocritical pretence of beautifying and gentrifying it.

Occupy Brothel Initiative on May 1 , 2015 © Felicia Anna

Occupy Brothel Initiative on May 1 , 2015 © Felicia Anna

Occupy Brothel Initiative

On Labour Day 2015, the city, in a move as ironical as symptomatic for its disregard for sex workers’ rights, closed another 18 windows in the red light district, assumedly temporarily, with another 76 set to follow. Cashing in on their civil rights, the affected sex workers responded by taking the city to court, another stunning first in the history of the sex workers’ movement here, and for twelve hours, they occupied one of the closed brothels to draw attention to their court case, giving the city a taste of its own medicine, which deservedly received nationwide media coverage. [Click here for an English translation of an article titled “Prostitutes at De Wallen demand their windows back” by Dutch daily Het Parool or click here for the Dutch original]

The winners of the long-term gentrification Project 1012 will be real estate developers and anti-prostitution activists who will be able to claim a symbolic victory, whereas sex workers, on the other hand, will lose safe work places, and nothing will change for actual victims of sexual exploitation. It is not five but one minute before twelve for red light districts in Amsterdam and elsewhere in the Netherlands, and for sex work as a legal profession itself. Hopefully, the gloves will have come off just in time.

“This is the stuff that history is made of.”

Equality may still be far away; social stigmatisation and intolerance are not at all things of the past; social recognition of sex work and sex workers still remains fragile; some faith-based prostitution prohibitionists and NGOs are still powerful; the media at large still favour producing sensationalist over objective reports; some parliamentarians still deliver condescending do-good speeches and pushing for moralising policies – based on unfounded facts – to rescue society from the so-called abomination of this legal profession; do-gooders still long to rescue whom they perceive as pitiful victims from their imagined harsh and cruel fate; but fact is that sex workers as a group have now taken the issue into their own hands, under the auspices and protection of the law and with the help of proper experts who are fully on their side. Together, they now fight to right the many old wrongs that society, government and authorities continue to use against sex workers with ever new tactics and methods, blatantly violating existing law, if not human rights, in the process. This is the stuff that history is made of. 


Footnotes

[1] Frans van Rossum is a life-long sex worker ally from the Netherlands who provides free practical assistance to migrant sex workers and other migrants. 

[2] During his tenure as Minister of Security and Justice, Opstelten was the driving force behind the closure of the majority of the Netherlands’ coffeeshops and growshops, effectively ending the successfully instituted experiment of the 1970s, where soft drugs were tolerated and separated from the market for hard drugs. Affiliated with the traditional conservative liberal establishment party VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), Opstelten introduced the bill in 2009 to regulate prostitution via the registration of all sex workers . [see 3] Opstelten is also responsible for the strict barrier programme for immigrants, quasi a sibling of the prostitution barrier programme in Amsterdam, specifically designed to minimize the influx of foreigners intending to work as sex workers there. This barrier programme is part of the city’s draconic anti-prostitution programme, Project 1012, whose architect is Lodewijk Asscher, formerly Alderman of Amsterdam, currently Minister of Social Affairs and Employment. (Together with the mayor, an alderman forms a municipality’s executive council with the power to implement policies.) In March, Opstelten and his deputy Fred Teeven resigned for having misinformed parliament with regard to recent revelations about a 4.7 million guilder payment by the government to a convicted drugs baron in 2001. 

Source: Dutch News “Dutch justice minister, deputy resign over drugs dealer cash deal” (English)

[3] A bill that would among others provide an instrument for the nationwide mandated registration of sex workers was introduced by the Minister of Justice in 2009. It failed to pass the legislature in November 2013 after both the State Council and the Privacy Protection Council had advised against the registration measure for not being in accordance with existing law. In April 2014, the justice minister introduced an amended proposal to regulate prostitution without mandating registration, but a year later, the procedure remains stalled. However, in August 2013, the City of Amsterdam had already implemented a city ordinance which ordered prostitution business operators – under penalty of losing their license – to collect protected sensitive data from sex workers and to share them with the city administration. After a few months, this measure was quietly put on hold when the city’s attorneys realized its ‘flaw’. The city then tried to negotiate with the Privacy Protection Council to reach a conditional exemption, but the council refused to even consider this. Therefore, the mayor then sent his letter to the justice minister as a last resort to receive the necessary legal instrument to “legalise” an illegal violation of the law, to be applied for sex workers only.

[4] Some 600 years ago, the Netherlands encompassed many provinces that did not yet form a political nation with a centralized government under a head of state. Provinces were autonomous, and so were many cities. From the early 1400s, there were municipal ordinances regulating sex work in ‘zoned’ areas, effectively giving cities the monopoly on running brothels. In fact, the brothels were run by the police, and in turn, the revenues, a cut of the sex workers’ fees plus liquor taxes, generated substantial funds for the city’s police force. In the 1570s, when the North of the Netherlands became predominantly Protestant to add more weight to their war against the Spanish (Catholic) occupation, the cities formally outlawed sex work. However, it remained tolerated in certain venues, behind more or less closed doors. This situation stayed in effect until the French occupation made the country a kingdom under Napoleon’s younger brother and French law ruled. Between 1809 and 1811, the French re-legalised sex work under comparatively strict brothel regulations, which were rigorously enforced in most places.

Statute passed by the town council in 1413 - Image by Stadsarchief Amsterdam

This Amsterdam ‘keurboek’ (law book) dating from 1413
records a measure enacted to regulate prostitution in the city.
Image by Amsterdam City Archive (click to enlarge)

After the Netherlands had regained autonomy in 1813, legalisation remained in effect but the nationwide regulations under previous French law were dropped. For about a century, each city had the autonomy to regulate sex work in its own jurisdiction. From about 1880, faith-based political parties and the ever growing women’s movement worked towards the adoption of a new law, eventually passed in 1911, which prohibited any and all organised sex work enterprises (also known as the “brothel ban”). Sex work itself, however, remained legal. The law was never adequately enforced and authorities continued to look the other way. As brothels were widely tolerated, their number proliferated from the 1970s onwards. Subsequently, first attempts were made in the early 1980s to lift the brothel ban, but they only came to fruition in 2000. In good Dutch tradition, the central government passed on the task to regulate organised sex work to the individual municipalities, which could take measures as they saw fit.

To remedy the resulting chaos, a bill to regulate organised sex work as such on a national level was introduced in 2011, so far without success, and the continued legal vacuum serves as fertile soil for efforts such as those by Eberhard van der Laan.

[5] Van der Steur, only in office since March 15, wants to continue with the amended law proposal to implement nationwide rules for prostitution businesses. The registration for sex workers, as first proposed by his predecessor, Opstelten, has been taken out of the proposal at the explicit request of the Senate. The minister thinks that unified regulation will lead to prostitution businesses being treated equal in every city. According to van der Steur, controlling them would be easier, and thus more attention could be given to eradicate illegal practices. Van der Steur does not favour a “pimp ban” as he believes existing law already offers sufficient means to punish anyone coercing others to sell sex. For the time being, his position with regard to sex work as such remains unclear, in particular whether he still formally supports the idea that prostitution equals human trafficking, as he did as a member of parliament in 2011. At the time, Dutch Protestant Trouw daily recorded him as having said, “An estimated 50 to 70% [of sex workers] don’t work voluntarily in prostitution. This touches my Liberal heart. But the idea that politicians don’t know what is going on isn’t right. Last week, I was on the road with a trafficking team. We are really well informed; we know what the problems are. […] And what with the obligated registration that will be in the [new] law? Normally I wouldn’t support it as a VVD-party man. But now it is needed.’”

Sources: Dutch daily Het Parool “Number of brothels in Holland cut in half in past 8 years” (Dutch + English translation by Mark van der Beer); Dutch Protestant daily Trouw “VVD: Illiberal measures against prostitution are needed” (Dutch)

[6] Amsterdam’s Project 1012 is both a development and zoning plan, initiated in 2006 and scheduled to be completed in 2017. The name refers to the entire postcode 1012 area, the historic centre of the city, including but not limited to the Wallen (that in turn includes the red light district). The zoning plan names explicitly all existing sex work premises that should be re-zoned for non-sex work businesses only or residential use. The purpose of Project 1012 is to replace so-called “low-end” with upscale commerce and attract upscale residents (“gentrification”). It zones only a small section of Oudezijds Achterburgwal and some side alleys for sex work, and re-zones the entire traditional (and most intimate) sex work quarter around the Old Church for other use. (See also 7)

[7] At the last city council elections in March 2014, the party that began Project 1012 in 2006 lost its majority and isn’t even part of the ruling coalition anymore. Ever since, the mayor has remained as single champion of the project, but the coalition has made heavy cuts to its funding and decided that the city will not buy up all scheduled window properties. In addition, the mayor’s plan has stalled for a commercial company ‘1012, Inc’ to be created with private investors.

See also Laurens Buijs and Linda Duits article Amsterdam’s plan to save prostitutes is a billion euro gentrification project. Buijs and Duits are social scientists, affiliated with the University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University respectively.


Note from the author

“I would like to thank Matthias Lehmann for the invitation to report on the recent important advances of Amsterdam’s sex workers in the ongoing battle to improve their legal position. I would also like to thank him for the many suggestions to clarify for foreign readers the peculiarities of the local and national situation that sex workers in Amsterdam are up against (via additional documents, links and footnotes). Last but not least, I would like to thank him for the time-consuming efforts to edit this text as well as the English translations of all Dutch documents. In addition, I would like to thank PROUD’s chairwoman Mariska Majoor for the permission to publish her letter to Mayor Eberhard van der Laan.” – Frans van Rossum


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

Currency - Photo by Alexis (free for commercial use)
Summary

In January and April of this year, police in Macau twice busted prostitution businesses involving South Korean brokers and sex workers offering sexual services. In its press briefings, the Macau police released information about the fees clients were charged, and the earnings of the sex workers involved. Discussing the details of these arrangements with sex workers in South Korea revealed that women migrating to sell sexual services in Macau can earn considerably more than the average sex worker in South Korea, where, as trans* sex worker activist Lucien Lee commented, they are threatened by “constant raids, ‘End Demand’ strategies, and social stigma”.

None of the below represents an endorsement or critique of whatever arrangement sex workers enter into with third parties. It is merely intended to explain some of the arrangements in existence and to illustrate that for as long as sex work will remain criminalised in South Korea, some sex workers will choose to sell sexual services abroad if it promises higher earnings, and take the risk of being arrested there, if they face the same or even a higher risk at home anyway.

Media reports about arrests in Macau

In April, police in Macau busted yet another “organised prostitution syndicate” involving South Korean nationals, following a similar bust in January. In both instances, sex workers had apparently agreed with brokers to travel to Macau on tourist visas. Although they were paid for their work, South Korean media outlets (see here, here and here) reported these events as cases of “sex trafficking”, as they regularly conflate consensual adult sex work and human trafficking for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation of adults. They also nonchalantly reported about the indictment of the sex workers involved, which should actually have allowed them to connect the dots.

In the previous case, the Macau Daily Times reported “that the women in their 20s to 30s, arrived in Macau as tourists and stayed at a luxurious apartment, which was arranged by the detained suspect, for between ten and 30 days. The suspect also hired other brokers to show the women’s photos to potential clients on mobile phones”. Both the Macau Daily Times and South Korean daily Donga Ilbo reported that “it cost 850,000 to 2.1 million won (approx. 790-1,945 U.S. dollars) for a one-time sex trade”, and the Donga Ilbo had learnt that “350,000-1.7 million won (approx. 324-1,574 dollars) was paid to those women”. In the recent case, the Macau Daily Times reported that “the amount of money requested for each sexual service, as the police representatives said, ranged between HKD 6,000 and HKD 20,000. This money, initially kept by either the pimp or the driver, would later be used to compensate the sex workers when they departed the city. The prostitutes would only receive HKD 2,000 as remuneration for each deal regardless of the amount received from clients.”

Hotel Central in Macau - Photo by Abasaa WikiCommons

When I discussed with trans* sex worker activist Lucien Lee whether or not the above outlined arrangement in the second case represented a fair deal, she commented:

“Abolitionists usually say something along the lines that if ‘pimps’ get a greater share of the profits then of course it must be exploitation, and that the sex industry is evil. But they seem to forget how the rest of the society works. Do other workers receive more than 50% of their employers’ revenue? I think that’s exactly why operators shouldn’t be punished. If there were more of them, they would have to compete amongst themselves and only those who took a smaller share from the sex workers’ earnings would survive. That said, I would also accept the deal those women got in Macau if I were a cis woman myself. However, the fact that sex workers consider working abroad in the first place not only has to do with how much they might be able to earn there, but also with the constant raids, ‘End Demand’ strategies, and the social stigma that may affect their families if they were caught at home.”

Before moving on to the earnings of sex workers in South Korea, it is interesting to note that the sex workers in the first case were reportedly “in their 20s to 30s”, while in the second case, the 21 women “involved in the two-month long prostitution operation“ were aged between 24 and 37 years. Thus, both cases run counter to the claims commonly put forward by prostitution prohibitionists that operators of prostitution businesses exclusively seek to employ very young women (under 21 years of age).

South Korean sex workers’ earnings

For argument’s sake, the lower fees paid to the sex workers in the second case will be used to compare the earnings of South Korean migrant sex workers in Macau to those of local sex workers in South Korea. The HK$ 2,000 that the sex workers in that case earned per client equal approx. £170 | US$ 260 | €240 | ₩280,000, which is considerably more than the average earnings of sex workers in South Korea. An independently working female sex worker recently told me that she charged clients between ₩100-150,000 (approx. £60-90 | US$90-140 | €80-120) for sessions lasting between 60 and 90 minutes. Previously, while working at a room salon, she earned ₩30-60,000 (approx. £18-36 | US$ 27-55 | €24-48) per every hour spent with a client. An independently working trans* sex worker told me she charged her clients ₩100,000 for a 3-hour session (approx. £62 | US$ 92 | €86). She added that other trans* sex workers charged the same amount for 2-hour sessions. A third sex worker reported that room salons pay sex workers around ₩70-90,000 (approx. £60-90 | US$90-140 | €80-120) to entertain and drink with clients, and ₩140,000-200,000 for sexual intercourse at nearby hotels (approx. £87-124 | US$130-185 | €120-173). She added that she preferred working at hyugetels (massage parlours), where she would earn ₩50-75,000 (approx. £31-46 | US$46-69 | €43-65) for sessions lasting 30, 40 or 50 minutes. Here, customers paid ₩80-140,000 (approx. £50-87 | US$74-130 | €69-120), meaning that sex workers received between 50 and 62% of what their clients paid to the operator.* Although the article by the Macau Daily Times doesn‘t specify the duration the South Korean sex workers spent with each client, they still earned considerably more than these three sex workers in South Korea, which illustrates that at least some sex workers seem to prefer arrangements to work in a foreign country. As a comparison: the hourly minimum wage in South Korea is currently ₩5,580 (approx. £3.41 | US$5.18 | €4.77).

Conclusion

As stated above, this article does not represent an endorsement or critique of whatever arrangement sex workers enter into with third parties or, put another way, what arrangements third parties offer to sex workers. There would certainly be a case to make that the outlays of the operators in these two cases couldn’t have been insignificant, considering the airfare for everyone involved and the costs for the luxury accommodations, in the more recent case “11 different apartments in Taipa”, the smaller of the two islands in Macau, which features expensive resorts and predominantly upscale apartment complexes. Naturally, they would have also wanted to generate a profit for themselves, which, should they have adhered to all previously made agreements with the sex workers involved, may be illegal but not immoral. All that, however, is speculative, and this article merely intends to explain some of the arrangements between sex workers and third parties currently in existence, and to illustrate that for as long as sex work will remain criminalised, some sex workers will choose to migrate and sell sexual services abroad if the potential benefits outweigh the risks involved. And the comparatively lower risk of getting caught is exactly what at least the brokers in the second case used as an argument to convince sex workers to travel to Macau.

Granted, all of the above is based on press briefings by the police in Macau and South Korea and on statements from a small number of South Korean sex workers. However, the sex workers who have spoken with me all appeared to have sound knowledge of the existing deals under which sex workers in South Korea currently operate, and Lucien Lee’s statement should suffice to challenge the existing notion that receiving a smaller share of what clients pay operators for sexual services renders a transaction exploitative per se. In addition, it is important to note that sex workers do not agree with the criminalisation of third parties involved in their work. As a briefing paper by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) states, “where third parties are criminalised, sex workers suffer the consequences of that criminalisation” as it forces them to work more unsafely. As always, the message is clear: if you want to understand the conditions under which sex workers work, you only need to listen to them.


*Sex workers’ earnings: ₩50,000/30 min; ₩60,000/40 min; 70-75,000/50 min; customers’ payment: ₩80-100,000/30 min; ₩100-120,000/40 min; 120-140,000/50 min.


Important Fundraiser for GRACE PERIOD 유예연대

Grace Period - Film Still (Title) - © 2015 Caroline Key All Rights Reserved

Grace Period – Film Still © 2015 Caroline Key All Rights Reserved

Please support GRACE PERIOD, a documentary about sex worker life and collective resistance in a South Korean brothel district.

Summary

Korean-American filmmaker Caroline Key, together with Korean co-director KIM Kyung Mook, is about to complete GRACE PERIOD, a film about a community of Korean female sex workers. In her own words, GRACE PERIOD is “a documentary, essay filmmaking, video art hybrid that explores issues of gender, work, intimacy and precarity”. Key and Kim filmed at the Yeongdeungpo brothels for nearly a year, and then spent the next three years “editing, sorting, translating, transcribing, crafting, discussing, animating, arguing, debating, making up and then editing some more”. Now they are almost done but they need your support to make it to the end.

Please read the Caroline Key’s note on the fundraiser page.

 

Why is it important?

I was introduced to Caroline Key by my professor back in 2012, while we were both working on our respective projects with sex workers in Seoul. I fully support this excellent film, which I had already the chance to see a rough cut of. Its importance couldn’t be overstated, especially in light of the many distorting, insincere, and even racist media reports and films, which have surfaced over the last year and misrepresented the lived experiences of sex workers in South Korea, largely with impunity.* With the outcome of the ongoing constitutional review of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws still unknown, GRACE PERIOD directs some much-needed attention to the real life experiences of South Korean sex workers and the struggle for their rights.

Please click here to support the completion of GRACE PERIOD

* See e.g. Poverty Porn (BBC), Journalism that harms not helps (Wall Street Journal), “I feel used” (Groove), Save My Seoul? Save Us From Saviours! (Jubilee Project)


Janice Raymond’s modus operandi

Raymond's Ouija BoardJanice Raymond’s Ouija Board (Source: Wikipedia)

Introduction

In an exclusive for OpEdNews, a US-based website for political and social analysis, radical feminist Janice Raymond responded to sociologist Julie Kaye’s opinion piece in the New York Times, titled “Canada’s Flawed Sex Trade Law”, in which Kaye criticised the Canadian government for having merely replaced one flawed policy with another by passing Bill C-36. [1] It would be hilarious, if it wasn’t so serious an issue, that of all people, Raymond felt she was in a position to criticise Kaye for ignoring evidence. Responding to claims made by Raymond surely is not what gets me up in the morning but I decided to do so due to the sheer amount of misinformation put forward by her, including continuing to misrepresent South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws. The statements from reports and articles listed below will illustrate that ignoring evidence is in fact Raymond’s very own modus operandi.

Alleged increase of human trafficking during sport events

Raymond is indignant that someone could have the audacity to challenge “the numbers of women and girls sexually exploited during sports events”. In the report “What’s the cost of a rumour? A guide to sorting out the myths and the facts about sporting events and trafficking”, Julie Ham wrote:

“There is a very wide discrepancy between claims that are made prior to large sporting events and the actual number of trafficking cases found. There is no evidence that large sporting events cause an increase in trafficking for prostitution.”

Source: Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW)

And in a study commissioned by the European Football Association (UEFA), Martina Schuster, Almut Sülzle, Agnieszka Zimowska wrote:

“As in our previous analysis of major football events, we suggest that the topic of human trafficking should not be brought up in connection with such events, since this is detrimental to efforts to help victims. Before the 2006 World Cup in Germany, for example, various campaigns predicted an increase in human trafficking, which did not materialise. As a result, the organisations concerned were no longer taken seriously by the public because their predictions had been so inaccurate.”

Source: La Strada International (LSI) – Network against Trafficking in Human Beings

Finally, Ruth Krčmář, Coordinator of the International Organisation for Migration’s Counter Trafficking Programme in the Ukraine stated:

“NGO case data as well hotline responses show no evidence that human trafficking surged before or during the EURO 2012. The scare of increased human trafficking for sexual exploitation comes up every time there is a large sporting event on the horizon, although our experience only reinforces earlier findings in other countries. We hope that studies like ours will eventually put an end to the myth, which results in scarce counter-trafficking resources being spent on one-off campaigns rather than long-term solutions and victim assistance.”

Source: International Organization for Migration (IOM)

You say ‘Nordic’, I say ‘Swedish’, let’s call the whole thing off

With regards to Raymond’s conflation of different countries’ prostitution laws as ‘Nordic Model’, May-Len Skilbrei and Charlotta Holmström wrote:

“We found that the differences not only between, but also within, the Nordic countries are too great for there to be anything like a shared ‘Nordic’ model – and that the case for their success is far more fraught than popular support would suggest. Only Sweden, Norway and Iceland have acts unilaterally criminalising the purchase of sex. Finland has a partial ban; Denmark has opted for decriminalisation. The ‘Nordic model’, then, is in fact confined to only three countries. … The Nordic countries also police prostitution using various other laws and by-laws. Some of these regulations do, in fact, assume that the women who sell sex are to be punished and blamed for prostitution. This goes to show that one should be careful in concluding that Nordic prostitution policies are guided by progressive feminist ideals, or that they necessarily seek to protect women involved in prostitution.”

Source: The Conversation

Raymond blames Kaye for ignoring the findings of the Swedish Institute’s evaluation of the Swedish Sex Purchase Act from 2010, claiming that “there is no evidence that the decrease in street prostitution has led to an increase in prostitution elsewhere” and that “Sweden is one of two countries in Europe where prostitution and sex trafficking is not increasing”. However, the one who is doing the ignoring here is Raymond.

A 2014 report by the Stockholm County Council, titled “Extent and development of prostitution in Sweden”, states that “the methods currently available are unable to estimate the exact extent in Sweden” and that “the size of the population” engaging in prostitution is unknown. What’s more, the report also states that there is a lack of “a single definition of prostitution and human trafficking, which makes it difficult to draw comparisons between and within countries over time”.

Whereas Raymond cites the 2010 report as stating there was no evidence that prostitution had moved elsewhere (from the streets), the 2014 report states that “the number of escort ads aimed for men who buy sexual services from women has increased markedly during the past eight years from 304 to 6,965 ads”. Apparently, prostitution did move elsewhere: online. One should also note that the claim of the Sex Purchase Act having halved street-based sex work is problematic, since it is based on guesstimates from as early as 1995 – 4 years before the adoption of the law. [Source: Stockholm County Council]

A recent research report from Malmö University, commissioned by the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU), also criticises the Sex Purchase Act, concluding that claims of the policy’s success have been greatly exaggerated. “There is no evidence that the demand has declined to the extent claimed by the state-led evaluation,” RFSU’s President Kristina Ljungros told the daily Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. “The law has instead led to increased vulnerability for sex workers.” [Source: Global Network of Sex Work Project (NSWP)/Dagens Nyheter]

Fictitious numbers

Where Raymond’s statements about Germany are concerned, I shall give her credit for correctly stating that Germany decriminalized aspects of prostitution in 2002, as opposed to legalising sex work in 2002, as is commonly and incorrectly claimed. However, the number she mentions of persons engaged in prostitution is a mere figment of her imagination. The claim that they are 400,000 sex workers in Germany actually dates back to the 1980s – before Germany’s reunification – and was only an estimate by Hydra e.V., a meeting and counselling centre for sex workers.

At a symposium titled “10 Years Prostitution Law in Germany” in 2012, researcher Elfriede Steffan stated that Hydra’s estimate was continuously being cited for over two decades although it lacked any scientific basis. According to Steffan, another estimate from the 1990s put the number of sex workers in unified Germany between 60,000 and 200,000. She added, “Objectivity also means to admit what we don’t know. There is no new data.”

A 2005 evaluation report by the German government estimated that there were 200,000 sex workers in Germany, and on its website, the responsible ministry states that where the number of sex workers in Germany is concerned, there are no reliable statistics available. Thus, Raymond’s claim that “two years after the law was passed, the number of persons in prostitution rose from about 200,000 to over 400,000” is entirely fictional.

Raymond’s Reprise: Misrepresenting the ‘South Korean Model’

Finally, as I mentioned in my introduction, Raymond continues to misrepresent the nature and alleged success of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws, currently under review by the country’s constitutional court. Raymond states that the law prohibits “the purchase of sexual activities” but conveniently leaves out that sex workers are equally criminalised. In addition, as I have written previously, her claims about the existence of better victim protection and assistance and the alleged reduction of the sex industry in South Korea lack common sense as well as scientific evidence.

Conclusion

The above is by no means an exhaustive list of evidence to counter the wild claims made by Janice Raymond, and I shall leave the remaining ones to others, since there really isn’t enough time in a day to debunk articles such as Raymond’s. But at the very least, I hope that the above listed sources will suffice to illustrate that Raymond is in no position to blame others for “selecting certain examples at the expense of others” and that what Raymond laments, ignoring evidence, is in fact her very own modus operandi.


Footnotes

[1] Janice 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). Julie Kaye is the Director of Community Engaged Research and Assistant Professor of Sociology at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta.

[2] For the reason why I do not use the term ‘sex trafficking’ as Raymond does, please see Borislav Gerasimov’s article ‘Hey, mind your language’ and my own comment below.


“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

 


Prostitution abolitionists violate our rights!

Real Woman Support Sex Worker Rights. Photo by Zoccole Dure, All Rights Reserved.Photo by Zoccole Dure. All Rights Reserved.

Italian feminist blogger Eretica Whitebread recounts her conversation with an Italian sex worker living and working in Germany.

Originally posted on Research Project Germany

Clicca qui per la versione italiana di “Le abolizioniste della prostituzione violano i nostri diritti!”. Please note that the copyright for this article lies with Abbatto i Muri and is not licensed under a Creative Commons License.

By Eretica Whitebread

I wrote this article after a conversation I had with F., an Italian sex worker living in Germany. She works at a place that is perfectly legal and pays taxes. She has a son from a previous relationship and her current partner is a woman. A few years ago, she moved away from Italy, where she had been charged with abetting ‘exploitative prostitution’. At the time, she was sharing an apartment with another sex worker. They had intended to help each other in order to work more safely. But under Italian laws, merely living with a sex worker can put you in trouble and see you charged with ‘exploiting the prostitution of others’.

After she served her sentence, F. chose to relocate to Germany, but currently, she feels quite unsettled there. Having already suffered due to the unfair legal charge in Italy, which made her the victim of a law that criminalised her without reason, a law not intended to support her in any way, she now learnt from the news that fanatic feminists want to make sex work illegal, thus driving sex workers underground. F. is afraid that she might again face a law that will criminalise her job.

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