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.
[Starts at 36:15] Statement by Lucien Lee, a trans* female sex worker activists from South Korea, in response to Amnesty International’s sex work policy decision,* read out by N’jaila Rhee on episode 61 of This Week in Blackness TWiB! AfterDARK.
“This is Lucien Lee from South Korea. I’m a trans woman and at work, I either put on a strap-on and get behind my male clients or receive their penises in me. I’ve been doing this since November 2012. Sex work has given me hope that one day, I will be able to pay for my sex reassignment surgery and lead a life like any other ordinary lesbian. But as it is in the US, sex work is still criminalised in South Korea. If I ever get caught by the police, the fine or bribe I would have to pay would be too much for me. Recently, somebody reported my website, where I advertise my services to potential sex buyers, to the authorities. I was terrified when I got a message from a police officer. The police have never been there for me, like when I was sexually assaulted by a teenager who couldn’t afford to pay for my services. After the incident, I couldn’t go to the police because he threatened to report me for being a prostitute.
I hate everyone who criminalises my work, lets me get raped, and cockblocks my efforts to be a part of the lesbian sisterhood. I’ve been donating monthly to Amnesty for years, and I was thrilled this organisation that has been advocating for all the people in jail who stood up against mandatory military conscription in both Koreas now speaks in favour of all sex workers. I must say, thank you, Amnesty, for having been so brave all these years. Thank you for helping me to help myself. Thank you for protecting me from being raped again. This is Lucien Lee, a godless Seoulite.”
Sex work stigma
If you read any of the articles published in the days before and after Amnesty International’s decision to support decriminalising sex work, e.g. this one by Luca Stevenson and Agata Dziuban, you are now hopefully aware of the immense stigma sex workers are faced with in their everyday lives, affecting not only them but also their families and friends. To a much lesser degree, the stigma can also affect sex workers’ clients, although at worst, they might be faced with ridicule or ostracism, not violent attacks. However, the stigma might well play a role in why clients are rarely seen sacrificing their anonymity to stand up for the rights of sex workers whose services they enjoy. As a researcher, I don’t feel any tangible impact by the stigma attached to sex work research, but I certainly experience my fair share of verbal abuse. Following the Twitter battle before and after Amnesty’s decision, I’ve updated the above peak meter, which I created a couple of years ago, to include the latest labels others have attached to or hurled at me.
This blog post may appear somewhat self-referential but I would actually like to use the labels, good and bad, as vehicles to point readers to several interesting articles, some of which were written by sex workers, others by researchers, not that the two are mutually exclusive, and yet again others by sex worker-exclusionary radical feminists (SWERFs). Please note that the below is by no means intended to compare my experience to the stigma and its consequences faced by sex workers.
[-10] John / Pimp Apologist
Trying to shame sex workers or sex workers’ rights advocates by labelling them “johns” is very common, although it doesn’t really make much sense. After all, if someone believes that consenting adults should be allowed to buy and sell sexual services, being called a “john”, although buying sex carries its own stigma, is pretty much the same as being called a customer, which is hardly an insult.
A prostitution prohibitionist using the pseudonym Stella Marr once called me a “pimp apologist” before later deleting her comment. Although she set her own blog to “private” after she was outed, you can still read her libellous article “Pimps Posing as Sex Worker Activists” at the “Anti-Porn Feminists”-blog, in which she slanders veteran sex worker activists Maxine Doogan, Norma Jean Almodovar and the late Robyn Few, founders of the Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project (ESPLER), the International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture and Education (ISWFACE), and the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA (SWOP-USA) respectively.
[-30] Pornstitutionist / Useless A**hole / Sexist Propagandist
Francois Tremblay, in his own words a “pessimistic feminazi, radical whackjob and antinatalist”, responded to a blog post of mine with one of his own, in which he labelled me a “pornstitutionist”, a term, as he explained, “for people who oppose abolitionism in prostitution and pornography”. His post “The strange connection between pornstitutionists and lying” is still online. He later added a postscript with the above mentioned expletive.
After I had posted a series of memes to mock the Hollywood celebrities who had gullibly believed the false claims by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) and co-signed a letter to oppose Amnesty‘s draft policy, a self-declared radical feminist tweeted that my memes were “sexist propaganda” and that I should quit insulting women’s intelligence – although my post includes memes mocking male celebrities, too. I wouldn’t usually mock spelling mistakes, but, well…
[-50] Sleazeball etc.
All of these are comments left about me underneath a post at the “Anti-Porn Feminists”-blog. To get an idea about the barrage of abuse that sex workers are regularly faced with, please read the Storify entry #whenantisattack, gathered by a group of current and former sex workers to highlight the silencing, shaming, abuse and insults by those who oppose sex work.
[-70] Pimp / Trafficker
In 2013, an Irish-based tabloid re-posted a video that YouTube had previously removed since it violated its terms and conditions. In the video, an undercover reporter of the tabloid filmed and outed a sex worker without her consent. In the comment thread underneath the video, a troll called me both a pimp and a trafficker. While that video was a particularly extreme example, media reports regularly add to the stigma attached to sex work, which is why in December 2014, four South African organisations jointly published “A guide to respectful reporting and writing on sex work”. An article about the guide was published in Open Democracy‘s excellent series Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. To download the complete guide as PDF please click here.
The term “pimp lobby” is frequently used by sex worker-exclusionary radical feminists (SWERFs) to slander “anyone who advocates anything but the full criminalization of sex work”. Apart from watching the video below, I recommend reading “Hanging out in the Pimp Lobby” by Jemima, “Everything You Need To Know About The Pimp Lobby” by Charlotte Shane, and “I Am the Pimp Lobby” by Jes Richardson.
Perhaps the worst insult I’ve experienced was one during the Amnesty #ICM2015 twitter battle, when a Canadian anti-prostitution activist accused me of using the murder of Swedish sex worker activist Petite Jasmine to further my alleged agenda to legalise “sexual slavery”.
Black + Green Labels
A French sex worker activist once told me I wrote even “more politely than English people”. I believe that any movement needs different types of activism and writing. Some of it needs to be fierce; at other times, it’s better to be diplomatic. I’m always up for creating satirical memes, but in my writing, I prefer to be very diplomatic, although when faced with ideologues like Rhoda Grant or Mary Honeyball, that’s not always possible.
[+30] Idealist / Activist
What an American and a Turkish friend in South Korea called me. Justice Himel from the Ontario Court of Justice found that anti-prostitution activist Melissa Farley had allowed her advocacy to permeate her opinions. Although Farley’s work has been frequently discredited, anti-prostitution activists continue to cite her in support of sweeping claims about sex work, just as the notorious Cho/Dreher/Neumayer study is constantly rolled out to back up the argument that legalising sex work leads to greater human trafficking inflows, despite the seriously flawed data used to make that argument. I believe on both sides of the divide, it’s sometimes difficult to remain detached when people close to oneself experience violent abuse. When it comes to activism for the rights of sex workers, I believe it’s important to acknowledge what you don’t know and stay clear of problematic arguments. And that’s true regardless of whether you are a sex worker, a researcher, a journalist, an artist, a writer, or any combination of these.
[+50] Sex Worker Ally / Great Partner
[+70] Fabulous / Friend
What the above mentioned French and a South Korean sex worker activist have called me.
My preferred way of dealing with SWERF attacks is to create memes and share them with the #sexwork community or respond with counter evidence to the most ludicrous claims, like the one about sex workers’ rights advocates allegedly living in a land of milk and honey, when actually, it’s faux anti-trafficking organisations who rake in the dough.
Should you experience verbal abuse because you publicly stated your support for policies to safeguard sex workers’ human rights, try not to let it get to you. As American comedian W.C. Fields once put it, “it ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to”.
2015 Panel Discussion commemorating Sex Workers’ Day
“On April 9th, 2015, a public hearing was held at South Korea’s constitutional court regarding the constitutionality of the Anti-Sex Trade Laws. These laws are not simply laws that aim to punish buyers and sellers of sexual services, but have far wider implications. The laws encompass social issues including sexual morality, sexual self-determination, and the right to choose one’s vocation. In this light, Giant Girls Network for Sex Workers’ Rights will hold a panel discussion to review the aforementioned public hearing. The event will be held on Sunday, June 28th, 2015. Thank you for your interest and participation.”
“2015년 4월 9일 성매매특별법 위헌제청 공개변론이 열렸습니다. 성특법은 단순히 성구매자와 판매자의 처벌에 관한 법률이 아닙니다. 이 법에는 우리 사회의 성도덕, 성적 자기결정권의 국가 개입, 직업선택권 등의 복잡한 문제가 얽혀 있습니다. 성노동자권리모임 지지는 이 공개변론이 성특법에 대한 논의에서 중요한 역할을 했음에도 불구하고 공론화 되지 못함을 안타깝게 생각하여 6월 28일 일요일 공개간담회를 열고자 합니다. 많은 분들의 관심과 참여를 부탁드립니다.”
Chair: Sa Misook 사미숙 (Giant Girls)
Jeong Gwan Yeong 정관영 (Attorney)
Prof. Park Gyeong Shin 박경신 (Korea University, argues that the laws are unconstitutional)
Prof. Oh Gyeong Sik 오경식 (Kangrengwonju University, argues the laws are constitutional)
Jang Sehee 장세희 (Vice President, Hanteo National Union of Sex Workers)
Prof. Go Jeong Gaphee 고정갑희 (Hansin University)
Kim Yeoni 김연희 (Sexworker/Activist)
Date/Time: June 28, 2015 Sunday 13:30~15:30
Address: Bunker 1, Seoul Jongno-gu Dongsung-dong No 199-17 Floor -1 Danzzi Ilbo
서울특별시 종로구 동숭동 199-17번지 지하1층 딴지일보
Organiser: Giant Girls Network for Sex Workers’ Rights 성노동자권리모임 지지
Contact: Oh Gyeong Mi 오경미 010-4812-3350
Entrance is free. This event will be held in Korean.
Anyone unfamiliar with the ongoing constitutional review of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws might find it helpful to read Choe Sang-Hun’s recent summary in the New York Times. Please note that this recommendation does not represent an endorsement of the terminology used therein.
June 29th ☂ Korean Sex Workers’ Day
On this day, the National Solidarity of Sex Workers Day was organised, after the Special Anti-Sex Trade Law [which includes a Prevention Act and a Punishment Act] was passed in 2004. Since then, the date is commemorated as Korean Sex Workers Day to honour all sex workers who have contributed to the struggle against discrimination over the years.
Sex workers and allies protest in front of the South Korean Constitutional Court.
© 2015 Research Project Korea. All Rights Reserved.
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.
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?
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.
Lucien Lee at the 2014 Korea Queer Festival in Seoul.
Photo © KQCF (left) and © Lucian Lee (right). All Rights Reserved.
By transgender sex worker Lucien Lee in Seoul
한국어 원본을 보시려면 여기를 누르세요.
Please note that the different copyrights for the respective photos.
Homosexuals once used to be outlaws, persecuted by the police and at the mercy of powerful justice systems in countries we now refer to as advanced. However, many places remain where homosexuals continue to be persecuted and even killed. In South Korea, however, homosexuals have never been outlaws. Unless a homosexual male engages in sexual activities with another person of the same gender while on leave from his mandatory military service, in which case the infamous Article 92 (6) of the Military Criminal Code, also known as “Sodomy Law”, applies, South Korea does not outlaw homosexuality. 
That may have been the reason why South Korea’s queer community had great difficulties to accept it when sex workers, who are criminals according to the 2004 Anti-Sex Trade Laws, joined the 2013 Korean Queer Festival and identified themselves as sexual minorities oppressed by sexual morality. Comments like “What are you whores doing here?” came as no surprise because nobody would want to mingle with outlaws.
When I joined the Korea Queer Festival a year later as a transgender sex worker together with other sex workers, the reactions from people were quite different. Maybe that was because they couldn’t easily other me as a non-queer “whore” because I am a male to female transgender person. That day, we handed out a thousand copies of “A letter from independent sex worker ‘T’ to the LGBAIQ community”.  But other than that, sex workers’ rights are still not considered a part of queer issues.
Various research reports provide data about the ratio of sex workers among transgender people but those figures vary widely due to their limited sample sizes. It is undeniable, however, that those working at Itaewon’s transgender bars are the most visible group of South Korea’s transgender community.
On May 23rd, 2015, South Korean daily Dong-a Ilbo featured an article about transgender sex workers, which revealed the particular locations, times, and how much money is required to buy sexual services. But even before that article, it was impossible to hide transgender sex workers from the public view, and this visibility, together with a greater awareness among the cis-straight society in general, will likely result in police raids specifically targeting transgender sex workers, just as they targeted and demolished red light districts before.
A taxi driver interviewed for the abovementioned article said, “I’ve been a taxi driver for almost twenty years, and they [transgender sex workers] were already here when I started.” Traditionally, sex work is often the only viable source of income for male-to-female transgender people. We cannot survive economically if such a transgender-specific persecution occurs. We cannot easily change our jobs.
Sex workers and activists protest in front of South Korea’s Constitutional Court.
© 2015 Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
On April 9th, 2015, a first public hearing was held at South Korea’s constitutional court in the ongoing review to determine whether the 2004 Anti-Sex Trade Laws are unconstitutional. Article 21 (1) of the Anti-Sex Trade Laws Punishment Act penalises sellers of sexual acts with up to one year in prison or fines of up to 3 million won (approx. £1,765/€2,485/$2,735), except for those who were coerced. The article is not gender-specific and therefore applies to male and transgender sex workers, too.
The female sex worker, whose arrest and subsequent trial led to the constitutional review, standing in the middle of the above photo, argues in favour of the decriminalisation of sex work limited to female sex workers only. However, members of South Korean feminist organisations, who used to advocate for what they referred to as “decriminalising female prostitutes”, have spoken out against this woman as they fear that if the article were to be ruled unconstitutional, buying sexual acts would also no longer be criminalised. Even if one were to accept their opinion that female sex workers are victims of a capitalist system, and hence innocent, whereas male buyers are guilty, their insistence on keeping the 2004 Anti-Sex Trade Laws makes no sense, as it punishes innocent people.
Anti-prostitution activist holding up signs saying
“There are things in the world that cannot be traded.”
© 2015 Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
Despite the importance of this review, none of the LGBT organisations has so far made their stance on this issue publicly known. That is one of the reasons why, although the sexual minority movement is often referred to as “LGBT” or “queer” movement, in reality, it is more considered as a “homosexual” movement by the public.
Police raids targeting transgender sex workers would force transgender people to organise demonstrations in the same way as sex workers working at the Yeongdeungpo red light district did to protect their right to survive. If such protests were to happen, I wonder what stance LGBT organisations would take. Would they abandon transgender sex workers or stand together with them? Let us all take this very seriously and think about it together. See you all at the 2015 Korea Queer Festival.
 While engaging in sexual activities on military premises is generally forbidden, Article 92 (6) of the Military Penal Code states that “anal intercourse or other harassment against any person … shall be punished by imprisonment of up to two years” even if it occurs while on leave. LGBT rights’ activists argue that this paragraph is used to single out sexual relations between members of the same sex.
 A small clarification for readers less familiar with the acronyms: LGBTAIQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual, intersex, and queer, and the T was here purposefully left out as ‘T’ addressed the LGBAIQ community.
Translation by Lucien Lee. Edited by Matthias Lehmann. I would like to thank Lucien Lee for her permission to reblog this article. The English version differs slightly from the Korean original and features two different photos. Footnotes were added for further clarification.
Sex worker protest in Amsterdam on April 9, 2015 © PROUD
Guest post by Frans van Rossum 
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.  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] 
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.  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.  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.
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.  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.  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 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.
 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.
 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)
 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.
 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.
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.
 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)
 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)
 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
Photos taken on April 9th, 2015, as sex workers and activists gathered in front of South Korea’s Constitutional Court in Seoul ahead of a public hearing, part of the ongoing review of the country’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws. The sex workers depicted in these photos consented to them being published online. All photos © 2015 Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
+++ Update Sept. 23rd, 2015 | Please read E. Tammy Kim’s article for Al Jazeera America, titled Korean sex workers demand decriminalization of their labor +++
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.
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
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.
There has been another unbelievable development regarding Rhoda Grant’s consultation process. Not enough that previously, submissions that opposed her bill to criminalise the purchase of sex in Scotland were omitted and that her comments on having failed to get cross-party support for the bill were removed from her website. Now all responses to the consultation process were removed, too!
Please tweet to @RhodaGrant to remind her that she is a PUBLIC SERVANT and demand that access to ALL responses be restored!
This morning, I submitted a request to the Scottish Parliament under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain all submitted responses, which was acknowledged by the Head of Information Governance. Should my request be successful, I will provide them to SCOT-PEP and the Sex Workers Open University.
*I am not suggesting any ad hominem attacks on Ms Grant. However, in my view, her ignorance of the subject matter and the contempt she has shown throughout for sex workers and others who opposed her, justify to make light of a bad situation and mock Ms Grant with the above image. Unfortunately, she well deserves it.
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.
“A collaborative art project by sex workers, highlighting some of the positive things sex work has brought to our lives.”
The Sex Worker Quilt Project was a project by VIXEN, a group set up by current and former sex workers from all areas of the sex industry in Victoria, Australia. Their mission is to empower all sex workers through the provision of community and peer support, and promoting the cultural, legal, human, occupational and civil rights of all sex workers. VIXEN aims to overcome divisions between workers and is committed to promoting the wellbeing and rights of sex workers from all unique backgrounds. If you wish to show your support, you can join VIXEN’s Facebook group or alternatively, you can visit their MySpace page.
The quilts were hung up in the Rangmanch hall of Swabhumi, venue of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival. I apologise that due to lighting inside the venue, the quilts’ colours aren’t brought out as beautiful as they actually are. The collection is not complete but represents my personal favourites. The quilts were first displayed at the Festival of Sex Work in Melbourne, Australia. Please visit the Sex Worker Quilt Project on Facebook for further images and information.
“I wanted it to be happy, with lots of love, as that’s how i view my life as a sex worker Layers of hearts on hearts! The words pride, hope, inner strength and love, these are all things that sex work has brought me. I am not ashamed of who I am, in fact, I am grateful and thankful for it. I had a few little pics of cats and dog bones and a glass of wine to make it a bit fun and to also represent my family (I’m an animal kind of person). Oh, and the stars – because all of us are one! STARS!”
Comment by Holly, who created the quilt above.