“We are the sex workers of Korea! Repeal the Anti-Sex Trade Laws!”
On October 24, 2017, sex workers rallied once again to call for the abolition of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws, which came into force in 2004 and were upheld by the country’s Constitutional Court with a 6-3 majority ruling in 2016. On Tuesday, about 1,500 sex workers made their way from Daegu, Jeonju, Masan, Paju, Pohang, Pyeongtaek, Suwon and Wonju to join their colleagues at Sejongno Park in downtown Seoul to demand respect for sex workers’ human rights and the decriminalization of sex work. The event was organized by 한터 Hanteo, the National Union of Sex Workers. Ironically, Korean president Moon Jae-in had a meeting with union leaders on the same day, promising to closely cooperate with workers in developing his administration’s labour policies.
All photos © 2017 Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved. Image description below.
1. Banner behind the stage of the massive sex worker protest in Seoul, organised by 한터 Hanteo, the National Union of Sex Workers. As the director of an English language institute pointed out on Twitter: “Better English here than on most ads coming from major Korean conglomerates.”
2. Massive turnout! Around 1,500 sex workers came from Daegu, Jeonju, Masan, Paju, Pohang, Pyeongtaek, Seoul, Suwon and Wonju to join the protest and demand respect for sex workers’ rights and the decriminalization of sex work.
3. A photo from the first-ever sex worker protest in Belfast in 2014 in front of the Stormont Parliament Buildings was on display at the sex worker protest at Sejongno Park in Seoul on October 24, 2017.
4. Sex worker activist 장세희 Jang Sehee greets fellow sex workers who came from all over Korea to join the protest in Seoul on October 24, 2017.
5. Drumming up support for sex workers’ rights! Amazing performance by 여성타악그룹 도도 (Women Percussion Group Exciting DoDo) at the sex worker protest in Seoul on October 24, 2017.
6. This lady’s placard calls on Korean president 문재인 Moon Jae-in to finally scrap laws criminalising sex work; while on her top it says, “Don’t judge a girl by her clothes”.
7. A Korean journalist busily typing away at yesterday’s sex worker protest in downtown Seoul. Over half of the media reports published so far include the term 성노동자 (seongnodongja, sex worker) – as opposed to 성매매 여성 (seongmaemae yeosong, lit. sex trade female; ‘seongmaemae’ being used interchangeably in Korean for both ‘prostitution’ and ‘sex trafficking’ [sic]).
8. “The Anti-Sex Trade Laws aren’t right” – Sex workers brought placards and provisions for yesterday’s protest in Seoul against the criminalization of sex work.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
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.
Statement by Korean Sex Worker Organisation Giant Girls
We condemn the South Korean government for denying sex workers their human rights and criticise the government’s plan to pay rewards of up to one hundred million won to prostitution informants.
On May 20th 2014, the South Korean Government announced that they will pay rewards of up to one hundred million won (US$98,000 | £58,000 | €70,000) to informants who provide important leads to crime investigations, notably organised crime and prostitution. This announcement exhibits the government’s indifference, ignorance, and incompetency.
Since 2005, the government has successfully ignored the voices of sex workers, their cry against stigmatisation and discrimination, their fight for their right to survive, and the apparent link between sex work and women’s poverty. Instead of putting prostitution on the same level of criminal offences like organized crime, one should consider why people choose to enter and stay in prostitution.
What sex workers face is not limited to prostitution. Prostitution and sex work reflect the Korean society’s policies and attitudes towards minorities and workers, and also how strong the social safety net is. What people think of prostitution, how the sex industry is created and maintained, what the public opinion says about it, and how the government copes with it, all reflect the general problem of our society.
The government doesn’t think that prostitution is a result of inequalities in Korean society. Instead, it tries to blame prostitution for all sorts of social problems. Poverty and the failure to acknowledge the human rights of sex workers are key problems that sex workers face. It those problems remain unresolved, the controversy about prostitution will continue.
Prostitution is already illegal in Korea. That is why sex workers cannot ask for protection during their work. Rather than protecting sex workers, the police violate their human rights during crackdowns. Amidst all this, this new policy will pose a new threat to the survival of sex workers. With bounty hunters at large, sex workers will have to hide in the shadows where there is neither safety nor a regular income. This policy is also dangerous as it may direct public frustration at the Park administration’s incompetency, incapacity and dishonesty towards sex workers by defining sex workers as the delinquent “others”. Stigmatising minorities as criminals and putting them into dangerous circumstances represents nothing short of a witch hunt.
To most of male, female and transgender sex workers, sex work is a matter of survival. Before asking sex workers why would they go into this business, the government should reflect on the circumstances that renders sex work inevitable. A weak social safety net, prejudices within Korean society, and the attitude of Korean society towards poverty should be held accountable. Sex workers constantly have to be afraid and will have no access to workers’ rights and human rights as long as prostitution is deemed a crime and “prostitutes” as filthy.
We, the members of Giant Girls, the Network for Sex Workers’ Rights, express our outrage over this incompetent and irresponsible government announcement and declare that we will take every measure against the situation.
May 20th, 2014
Giant Girls, the Network for Sex Workers’ Rights
Author: Giant Girls, Network for Sex Workers’ Rights (성노동자권리모임 지지)
Translation: Research Project Korea, with kind permission by Giant Girls
Please click here for the Korean version.
In late May, leading German news magazine DER SPIEGEL published a cover story – now published in English – on the alleged failure of the German prostitution law, which rendered the State complicit in human trafficking. The deeply flawed report failed, however, to address numerous relevant aspects of human trafficking prevention and prosecution, including victim protection. It also failed to insert much needed factual evidence into the broader global debate on human trafficking, which is also about labor rights, migration, sustainable supply chains and human rights. DER SPIEGEL thus contributed to a very narrow debate on human trafficking and to the wrong debate around sex work.
Feminist Ire, “Not your fluffy feminism”, kindly published an article by Sonja Dolinsek and myself, which critically engages with the international community on the difficult relationship between trafficking and sex work. Please click here to read the article.
The above image (click to enlarge) is not an actual SPIEGEL cover. The red umbrella is the symbol of the sex workers’ rights movement. Click here for more information. Image: Matthias Lehmann
June 13th | Ye Haiyan was released on June 12th. Click here.
June 30th | Click here to read about Ye Haiyan’s continued battle sex workers’ rights.
July 6th | Ye Haiyan was evicted from her home by Guangdong police. Click here.
Postcard campaign in support of Ye Haiyan
Chinese activists have started a postcard campaign in support of sex worker activist Ye Haiyan, who was detained days after protesting against officials’ failure to tackle child abuse. To learn more about this story, please refer to the articles listed below.
Please support sex worker activist Ye Haiyan
To express your support or just send Haiyan a nice message, please participate in the campaign.
Here is how:
1. Find a postcard you like, e.g. one where you’re from.
2. Write your own text on the postcard: you can ask for the release of Ye Haiyan, write a message of support to Ye Haiyan, or anything else you want to say.
3. Please send the postcard to Bobai Detention Center at the below address.
4. When you mail the postcard, please take a picture of yourself at the post box or post office, holding the postcard. You can of course cover your face or choose to only display the postcard and post office.
You can also ask a passerby to take your photo. It’s a good occasion to let people know about Ye Haiyan’s case and about the international sex workers’ rights movement.
5. Please send the picture to jiazimaili[at]gmail.com. Activists will post the pictures to their Weibo accounts, a Chinese microblogging service akin to Twitter, to document the cards being sent to Bobai Detention Center.
Mailing address for postcards:
博白县拘留所 Bobai County Detention Center
广西壮族自治区玉林市博白县兴隆西路 Xinglong West Road, Bobai County,
Yulin City, Guangxi Province, China.
邮政编码：53769 Post code: 53769
The above text was mostly taken from the Facebook page of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers.
Articles about Ye Haiyan’s detention
According to Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “The whole thing looks like a set-up so they could detain her for 15 days.” He added: “There is a history of using proxies to unlawfully assault human rights defenders. There is a long history of lawyers or activists being attacked by ‘thugs’ or ‘gangsters’ in fact acting at the behest of the government. “She is the victim here: she was attacked and she documented what was happening. If police have convincing evidence showing otherwise they should come forward with it. The fact she is now detained seems to be a transparent ploy to silence her on the issue of sexual assault of school children.”
Gender rights activist Ye Haiyan was assaulted and detained by Guangxi public security officials yesterday after returning from Hainan province, where she had protested against the sexual abuse of schoolgirls. Ye appealed for help three times on her microblog around noon yesterday, saying her apartment had been raided by about 10 women and one man while she was alone with her daughter.
Two Beijing-based lawyers who joined Ye in the Hainan protest earlier this week said Ye was summoned for questioning by police in Guangxi’s Bobai county yesterday after she was accused of physical assault while fending off her attackers. Her supporters said they believed the attack was an attempt to silence Ye after she launched an online anti-child-abuse campaign that has received massive public support.
Tang Jitian, a Beijing-based rights lawyer, said “[Ye] has also been seen as a thorn in the side of local authorities obsessed with maintaining social stability. This is not the first time she has been harassed.”
Photos accompanying the original article in Chinese can be found here.
Local police in Bobai county, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, have rejected an application from women’s and sexual rights activist Ye Haiyan’s lawyers to suspend her 13-day administrative detention for intentional injury, her lawyer told the Global Times Sunday. “The local police called me around noon to say the application was rejected, saying Ye should apply for the suspension herself, and there should be a guarantor. However, Ye’s daughter is only 13 years old, which means she can’t be a guarantor,” lawyer Wang Quanping said. He submitted the application at midday Saturday.