“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.
Film still from Grace Period (2015). Courtesy of Caroline Key and Kim KyungMook.
By YuJin, Popho E.S. Bark-Yi, and Matthias Lehmann
South Korea introduced a raft of new laws against sex work in 2004. These repressive policies are now up for constitutional review due to the intense reaction by sex workers there.
First-time visitors to South Korea may easily assume that selling sex is legal there, as major train stations are typically engulfed by an array of neon signs inviting patrons to enter massage parlors, noraebangs (lit. a ‘singing room’, essentially the same as a Japanese karaoke bar), and brothels. Media reports frequently quote statistics about the alleged net worth of the South Korean sex industry. However, laws repressing sex work are almost as ubiquitous as commercial sex venues themselves, particularly after 2004, when South Korea adopted the anti-sex trade Laws.
Between 2000 and 2002, a series of fires in Korea killed 24 sex workers, exposing the poor conditions in parts of its sex industry. In response, the government vowed to eradicate prostitution and embarked on an aggressive campaign against businesses facilitating it. Riding the wave of public outrage, women’s rights activists campaigned for a legal reform and their proposals eventually served as blueprints for the two-tiered anti-sex trade laws, which criminalise both buyers and sellers of sexual acts, except for anyone coerced into selling sex.
The new legislation reversed decades of de facto toleration of sex work by regulators and law enforcement. The anti-sex trade laws of 2004 replaced the Law Against Morally Depraved Behaviors (prostitution) of 1961, which wasn’t enforced homogeneously, and previously, even the government had actively engaged in organising commercial sex venues to cater to US military personnel stationed on the Korean peninsula.
The anti-sex trade laws have caused many negative, allegedly unintended consequences. According to a 2012 UN report, “police crackdowns from 2004-2009 resulted in [the] arrest of approximately 28,000 sex workers, 150,000 clients, and 27,000 sex business owners”, and 65,621 arrests were reported for 2009 alone. As researcher Sook Yi Oh Kim states, “the average prosecution rate of sex workers is 26.3%, higher than that of sex buyers, and none of the sex workers arrested are treated as victims”. Police crackdowns have led to an overall reduction of red-light districts. Of 69 red-light districts that existed in 2002, 44 remained by 2013. This represented a slight increase from 2007, when a government-commissioned report had located 35.
Police raids are often carried out very violently, and in November 2014, a 24-year old single mother died after jumping out of a motel room to escape arrest by an undercover police officer posing as client. In stark contrast to their usual reporting, most Korean media remained distinctively silent about the case. The continued repression has forced an increasing number of sex workers to work underground, resulting in lower incomes, poorer working conditions, and an increase in violence perpetrated against them. Sex workers worry more about police raids than about screening their clients, an essential measure, as violence or mistreatment from clients are very common. A substantial number migrates to sell sex abroad, at times under exploitative conditions, as they calculate that conditions in Korea threaten them at least to the same extent but yield considerably lower earnings.
Giant Girls and Hanteo against the law
Two organisations actively campaign for the rights of sex workers and against the laws. One is Hanteo, the National Union of Sex Workers, and the other is Giant Girls. Hanteo, which means ‘common ground’, was founded in 2004 and represents 15,000 sex workers as well as some brothel owners. Giant Girls, or GG, was founded in 2009 by a group of feminists along with a number of sex worker activists. GG aims at building a stronger sex worker movement to mobilise against the criminalisation of sex work, in part by working to remove the social stigma attached to sex work.
Yujin started selling sex online five years ago, in order to afford his tuition fees. YuJin self-identifies as a gay sex worker and is a member of GG. Prior to his entrance into the business he had never met anybody who was ‘out’ as a sex worker, and he knew nothing about how to work. Since all aspects of sex work are illegal in Korea, beginners often feel isolated and lack basic work and safety information. Yujin decided to tweet about his experience soon after he started working, which brought him into contact with other sex workers. Like him, these other sex workers did not ‘act immorally to earn easy money’, as the prejudice would have it, but worked hard, albeit without being respected as workers and citizens.
In 2005, sex workers established 29 June as the national day of solidarity with sex workers, coinciding with the date on which the laws were passed. Resistance from sex workers has taken many other forms. Protests organised by Hanteo in 2011 gained worldwide notoriety, as they culminated in dramatic scenes at the Yeondeungpo red-light district in Seoul, where some activists threatened to self-immolate as the confrontation with the police escalated. The events are well documented in the film Grace Period by Caroline Key and KyoungMook Kim.
In 2013, District Court Judge Won Chan Oh submitted a request for a constitutional review of the laws after accepting the argument made by sex worker Jeong Mi Kim that sex work fell under her right to self-determination. Therefore, in sentencing her for selling sex the state had violated article 10 of the Korean constitution, which holds that “all citizens shall be assured of their human worth and dignity and shall have the right to pursue happiness”.
This opened a window for a phase of much more intense sex worker activism. In April 2015, sex workers and activists staged a protest in front of the constitutional court where a public hearing was held as part of the review. They submitted a petition signed by nearly 900 sex workers arguing that the government had no right to “use criminal punishment to discourage voluntary sex among adults”. The following June, GG organised a forum to draw further attention to the fact that “these laws are not simply laws that aim to punish buyers and sellers of sexual services, but have far wider implications … encompass[ing] social issues including sexual morality, sexual self-determination, and the right to choose one’s vocation”.
Sex worker activist Yeoni Kim once said in an interview with Matthias (one of the present authors) that, “the Swedish model is terrible, violates sex workers’ rights, and adds to the stigmatisation of sex work. But, frankly speaking, one could almost say it would be better to have that terrible law than having to continue fearing arrests and police violence under the anti-sex trade laws.” Hearing one of the most seasoned Korean sex worker activists prefer a slightly less terrible law over another should put all talk about ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ into perspective.
In September 2015, Hanteo staged a larger protest in downtown Seoul. Around 1,500 sex workers demanded an end to the government’s repression, shouting slogans and holding up signs in Korean and English that read “Repeal the anti-sex trade laws!”, “we are workers!” or “adopt Amnesty’s declaration!”.
Last year, when the constitutional court struck down the 62-year-old adultery law, it cited “the country’s changing sexual mores and a growing emphasis on individual rights”. Similar logic should govern the decision on the anti-sex trade laws, which is still pending, however some women’s rights and social conservative groups are continuing to stage protests to prevent a decision against the laws, citing fears over human trafficking and minors engaging in sex work.
Migration from Asian countries to South Korea has increased in recent years, and nobody suggests that the country is immune to migrant smuggling or human trafficking. Marriages between comparatively affluent Korean men and poorer southeast Asian women remain common in rural areas, as do the problems arising from illegal practices by marriage brokers or from violence perpetrated by Korean men against their foreign wives, whom they sometimes appear to seek only for reproductive purposes and household or farm labour.
There have also been occurrences of migrants being trafficked into commercial sex venues, but it is crucial to separate human trafficking from consensual adult sex work. Cases of human trafficking or exploitation of migrants have been detected in numerous industries, including in the fishing, agricultural, or manufacturing industries. Migrants of all genders, as well as Korean citizens, are affected by conditions amounting to forced labour. It is therefore disingenuous to suggest that the problem is limited to women who are forced to sell sex, and to thereby disregard the experiences of trafficked persons and migrants in other industries, which include sexualised violence.
We are opposed to any form of violence. Sex and sexualised violence, however, are not the same. Consensual sadomasochistic sexual practices and actual violence are different, just as consensual sex work and being trafficked into the sex industry are different. People may choose to engage in sex work because they experience stigma as single mothers or due to their sexual orientation, or if other factors limit their options on the formal labour market.
Sex work itself is not violence and to suggest otherwise dilutes the meaning of violence. If we really want to curb human trafficking, we have to address the systemic circumstances that marginalise people and render them vulnerable. As sex workers’ rights activists, we have a stake in seeing human trafficking effectively addressed. The battle slogan ‘prostitution is violence against women’ harms both sex workers and trafficked persons as it drives the creation and perpetuation of precisely those failed laws and policies that enable traffickers to prey on vulnerable populations.
About the authors
YuJin self-identifies as a gay sex worker and is a member of Giant Girls, one of two organisations actively campaigning for the rights of sex workers in South Korea.
Popho E.S. Bark-Yi is a feminist researcher and activist in South Korea. Her work focuses on sexuality and on basic income.
Matthias Lehmann is a German researcher and activist, currently focusing on sex work regulations in Germany. His prior research dealt with human rights violations against sex workers in South Korea. He is an active member of ICRSE.
This article was first published by Open Democracy as part of the ‘Sex workers speak: who listens?’ series on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, generously sponsored by COST Action IS1209 ‘Comparing European Prostitution Policies: Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance’ (ProsPol). ProsPol is funded by COST. The University of Essex is its Grant Holder Institution. Please note: this article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. If you have any queries about republishing please contact Open Democracy. Please check individual images for licensing details.
Giant Girls invites you to the Asia-Pacific Sex Workers’ Rights Forum
Date: Saturday, 28th November 2015
Location: Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), 6th Fl. Kyunghyang Daily News Bldg., 22 Jeong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea 100-702
Entrance Fee: KRW 10,000
11.00 – 12.00 Film screening of ‘Grace Period’ by Caroline Key & KIM KyungMook (see trailer below)
16.30 – 19.30 Film screening of ‘Red Maria 2’ by Kyung-soon (see interview with Kyung-soon here)
국제앰네스티 ‘성노동전면비범죄화’ 결정을 환영하며 <아시아태평양 성노동자 인권 포럼>을 마련했습니다. 이번 주 28일 토요일 오전 11시 민주노총 금속노조 사무실에서 참가비 1만원으로 진행됩니다. <유예기간>과 <레드 마리아2> 영화 상영과 함께, 스칼렛 얼라이언스(호주), 스와시(일본), 코스와스(대만), 그리고 지지(한국)에서 ‘아시아태평양 지역 성노동자의 인권과 성매매 정책’을 주제로 포럼을 열고자 하니 많은 관심 바랍니다.
Screenshot from VICE report (see below)
In his article “Abandoned elderly turn to sex work” that’s currently being re-published by media outlets worldwide, journalist Kim Hyung-Jin quotes Lee Ho-sun, a professor at Korea Soongsil Cyber University, as saying:
“Is this really these elderly women’s dirty problem or is it a problem caused by the ordinary people who point their fingers at them? I think it’s our society’s problem.”
At the start of this year, VICE UK published a video report by Matt Shea about the “South Korean Love Industry”, which wasn’t only nonsensical and factually incorrect on many occasions, but also a text book example of unethical journalism as well as of a sexualised orientalist gaze. In that report, Lee Ho-sun appeared as well, although at the time, she was affiliated with a different institution, called Seoul Venture University; the one she is apparently affiliated with now is a private Christian university. Not only did Lee Ho-sun state in the VICE report that “Bacchus Ladies are destroying the traditional sense of value in Korea” but she also didn’t object to – or allowed herself to get tricked into – Matt Shea filming secretly while she interviewed elderly sex workers.
Elderly poverty in Korea in general and the fact that poor elderly turn to sex work to survive are certainly issues that need to be addressed and deserve attention. However, due to the inclusion of statements by Lee Ho-sun, I recommend reading an overall better two-part report by Heo Seung instead, published in 2013 by Hankyoreh, a South Korean daily which has published several respectful pieces on sex work. Please note that this recommendation does not represent an endorsement of all terms used in both the English and the Korean version of the report.
[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.”
Sexarbeiter*innen und Unterstützer*innen protestieren vor dem südkoreanischen Verfassungsgericht. In der Mitte: Frau Kim Jeong Mi. © 2015 All Rights Reserved.
Due to time constraints, this article will not be translated into English. Please see a short summary at the bottom.
Kommentar zum Artikel „Debatte um Prostitution in Südkorea: Frau Kim kämpft um ihren Job“ von Fabian Kretschmer (taz, Politik/Asien, 1.8.2015).
Prostitution wird als „Job“ bezeichnet, damit also Sexarbeit als Arbeit anerkannt.
Gezeigt wird nicht etwa eins der üblichen Bilder von Bordellen, in denen in Südkorea nur noch vergleichsweise wenige Sexarbeiterinnen arbeiten, sondern ein Bild vom Protest südkoreanischer Sexarbeiterinnen im Jahr 2011. Noch besser wäre gewesen, es wäre ein Bild vom Protest im April diesen Jahres vor dem Verfassungsgericht verwendet worden. (siehe oben)
Ein direktes Zitat von Sexarbeiterin Kim Jeong Mi.
Es wird höchste Zeit, dass die taz endlich die Begriffe Sexarbeit und Sexarbeiter/Sexarbeiterin in ihr Stilbuch aufnimmt. Südkorea „exportiert“ auch keine Sexarbeiter*innen, sondern diese nehmen die vergleichsweise geringeren – aber nicht geringen – Risiken auf sich, im Ausland zu arbeiten, weil die Verdienstmöglichkeiten dort oft besser sind als in Südkorea, wo ihnen ohnehin Razzien, Verhaftungen und Strafen drohen. Der Ausdruck „exportiert“ ist also sowohl unzutreffend – weil Südkorea ja nicht direkt die Migration von Sexarbeiterinnen unterstützt, sondern die harsche Gesetzeslage und die damit einhergehenden Repressionen Sexarbeiterinnen zur Migration zwingen – als er auch unpassend ist, denn Sexarbeiterinnen sind Menschen, die migrieren, keine Ware, die exportiert wird. Auch von einem Marktwert einer Sexarbeiterin zu schreiben, zeugt nicht gerade von Fingerspitzengefühl.
1. Legalisierung vs. Entkriminalisierung
Was die Forderung von Sexarbeiterinnen angeht, ist der Artikel leider zu oberflächlich. Die Forderungen divergieren: wohingegen Frau Kim und die sie unterstützende Organisation Hanteo, Nationale Vereinigung für Sexarbeiterinen, für die Legalisierung regulierter Rotlichtbezirke eintritt, da Hanteo nämlich auch Betreiber*innen angehören, fordern unabhangige Sexarbeiter*innen und Giant Girls, Netzwerk für die Rechte von Sexarbeiterinnen, die generelle Entkriminalisierung der Sexarbeit. Die Unterscheidung zwischen diesen beiden Forderungen ist sehr wichtig und etwas, das man von Journalist*innen gerne erklärt sehen würde, damit Leser*innen die Thematik besser verstehen können.
2. „Kim … verklagte den südkoreanischen Staat“
Richtig ist: Frau Kim verteidigte sich gegen ihre Anklage mit den im Artikel erwähnten Argumenten und verlangte eine verfassungsrechtliche Überprüfung des Anti-Sexhandelsgesetzes, die Oh Won Chan, der Richter der Verhandlung beim Bezirksgerichts in Nord-Seoul, daraufhin einreichte. Dass ein Richter diese Überprüfung einreichte, macht sie so bedeutend, denn vorherige Anfragen zur verfassungsrechtlichen Überprüfung des Gesetzes wurden jeweils von Privatpersonen eingereicht.
3. Zahlen im Allgemeinen und im Speziellen
Die jüngsten Schätzungen – nichts anderes sind sie – sind nicht aus dem Jahr 2007, sondern von 2010. Sie wurden Anfang 2012 schließlich veröffentlicht. Der Bericht mit dem Titel “ Umfrage zum Sexhandel 2010” wurde vom Institut für Gender-Forschung an der Seoul National University angefertigt. Im Vergleich zum Bericht von 2007 hatte das Institut einen Anstieg der Rotlichtbezirke von 35 auf 45 und der Anzahl von dort beschäftigen Sexarbeiterinen von 3.644 auf 3.917 festgestellt. Dieser Anstieg passte natürlich dem auf die Utopie einer Abschaffung der Sexarbeit hinarbeitenden Ministerium nicht, weswegen er zunächst einmal in einer Schublade verschwand.
Nach eingehendem Vergleich mit dem Artikel Choe Sang-Huns in der New York Times – Suit Has South Korea Looking Anew at Its Hard Line on Prostitution – liegt der Verdacht nahe, dass hier schlicht eine gekürzte Version in deutscher Sprache veröffentlich wurde. So stammen die in Choes Artikel erwähnten 8.600 Fälle der Prostitution, in denen Südkoreas Polizei angeblich „derzeit“ ermittelt, vom Jahr 2013, und bei der Anzahl der Sexarbeiterinnen wurde offenbar auf glatte Summen aufgerundet. Das ist so ungenau wie es unnötig ist. Ebenso unnötig ist die Aussage, Prostitution sei in Südkorea „so allgegenwärtig wie in kaum einen anderen OECD-Staat“, denn es gibt keine verlässlichen Zahlen, auf die sich solche Behauptungen stützen ließen, auch in Südkorea nicht. Die sogenannten Regierungsschätzungen sind in Wahrheit zweifelhafte Schätzungen von Forschungsinstituten.
4. Todesfälle von Sexarbeiterinnen
Gut ist, dass das Feuer in Gunsan Erwähnung findet. Allerdings war dies kein isolierter Fall. Fünf Sexarbeiterinnen starben bereits bei einem ersten Feuer in Gunsan im Jahr 2000; 2001 kamen vier weitere Sexarbeiterinnen bei einem Feuer in Busan ums Leben; dann starben wie im Artikel erwähnt 14 weitere Sexarbeiterinnen bei einem zweiten Feuer in Gunsan. Durch diese Verkettung extremer Unglücksfälle gelang es Prostitutionsgegnerinnen danach, eine Verschärfung der Prostitutionsgesetzbegung durchzusetzen.
Alles in allem ist Fabian Kretschmers Artikel einer der besseren, aber insbesondere die teils sehr unpassende Wortwahl und der unnötige Fokus auf nicht belegte, nicht aktuelle und ungenau wiedergegebene Zahlen sind sehr zu bemängeln. Es gibt einige Anzeichen, die vermuten lassen, dass hier der Beitrag von Choe Sang Hun in der New York Times „recycled“ wurde, der im Vergleich sehr viel mehr Einblicke in die aktuelle Situation von Sexarbeiterinnen in Südkorea bot. So wäre besonders eine genauere Erklärung wünschenswert gewesen, für welche Rechte sich Sexarbeiterinnen in Südkorea engagieren, da dies auch in Hinsicht auf die aktuelle Debatte in Deutschland interessant ist. Zum anderen wäre es angebracht gewesen, das südkoreanische Prostitutionsgesetz genauer zu beleuchten, von dem Prostitutionsgegner*innen wiederholt behaupten, es ähnelte dem Schwedens, was eine glatte Lüge ist. In dem Zusammenhang hätten weitere Einzelheiten über Menschenrechtsverletzungen bei Polizeirazzien in Südkoreas Rotlichtbezirken erwähnt werden können. Positiv zu erwähnen ist die gute Wahl des Titels, des begleitenden Fotos und der Bildunterschrift, und dass überhaupt über dieses Thema berichtet wird. Angesichts der üblichen Berichterstattung über Sexarbeit bzw. über Südkorea ist dies nämlich durchaus keine Selbstverständlichkeit.
The above are a few quick comments about Fabian Kretschmer’s article “Debate about prostitution in South Korea: Miss Kim is fighting for her job”. While overall, the article is informative and provides some of the key points of the current debate in South Korea, the terminology used is inept and a quick fact check reveals several inaccuracies and crucial omissions. As is often the case, Mr Kretschmer (or his editor) seem to have felt the need to include statistics, although no reliable data about sex work in South Korea is available, not even in the reports commissioned by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. Positive are the choice of title, photo and caption, all of which are by no means a matter of course, and the fact that a German newspaper reported at all about the ongoing constitutional review of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Law.
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.
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.
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
Janice Raymond’s Ouija Board (Source: Wikipedia)
In an exclusive for OpEdNews, a US-based website for political and social analysis, radical feminist Janice Raymond responded to sociologist Julie Kaye’s opinion piece in the New York Times, titled “Canada’s Flawed Sex Trade Law”, in which Kaye criticised the Canadian government for having merely replaced one flawed policy with another by passing Bill C-36.  It would be hilarious, if it wasn’t so serious an issue, that of all people, Raymond felt she was in a position to criticise Kaye for ignoring evidence. Responding to claims made by Raymond surely is not what gets me up in the morning but I decided to do so due to the sheer amount of misinformation put forward by her, including continuing to misrepresent South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws. The statements from reports and articles listed below will illustrate that ignoring evidence is in fact Raymond’s very own modus operandi.
Alleged increase of human trafficking during sport events
Raymond is indignant that someone could have the audacity to challenge “the numbers of women and girls sexually exploited during sports events”. In the report “What’s the cost of a rumour? A guide to sorting out the myths and the facts about sporting events and trafficking”, Julie Ham wrote:
“There is a very wide discrepancy between claims that are made prior to large sporting events and the actual number of trafficking cases found. There is no evidence that large sporting events cause an increase in trafficking for prostitution.”
And in a study commissioned by the European Football Association (UEFA), Martina Schuster, Almut Sülzle, Agnieszka Zimowska wrote:
“As in our previous analysis of major football events, we suggest that the topic of human trafficking should not be brought up in connection with such events, since this is detrimental to efforts to help victims. Before the 2006 World Cup in Germany, for example, various campaigns predicted an increase in human trafficking, which did not materialise. As a result, the organisations concerned were no longer taken seriously by the public because their predictions had been so inaccurate.”
Finally, Ruth Krčmář, Coordinator of the International Organisation for Migration’s Counter Trafficking Programme in the Ukraine stated:
“NGO case data as well hotline responses show no evidence that human trafficking surged before or during the EURO 2012. The scare of increased human trafficking for sexual exploitation comes up every time there is a large sporting event on the horizon, although our experience only reinforces earlier findings in other countries. We hope that studies like ours will eventually put an end to the myth, which results in scarce counter-trafficking resources being spent on one-off campaigns rather than long-term solutions and victim assistance.”
You say ‘Nordic’, I say ‘Swedish’, let’s call the whole thing off
With regards to Raymond’s conflation of different countries’ prostitution laws as ‘Nordic Model’, May-Len Skilbrei and Charlotta Holmström wrote:
“We found that the differences not only between, but also within, the Nordic countries are too great for there to be anything like a shared ‘Nordic’ model – and that the case for their success is far more fraught than popular support would suggest. Only Sweden, Norway and Iceland have acts unilaterally criminalising the purchase of sex. Finland has a partial ban; Denmark has opted for decriminalisation. The ‘Nordic model’, then, is in fact confined to only three countries. … The Nordic countries also police prostitution using various other laws and by-laws. Some of these regulations do, in fact, assume that the women who sell sex are to be punished and blamed for prostitution. This goes to show that one should be careful in concluding that Nordic prostitution policies are guided by progressive feminist ideals, or that they necessarily seek to protect women involved in prostitution.”
Source: The Conversation
Raymond blames Kaye for ignoring the findings of the Swedish Institute’s evaluation of the Swedish Sex Purchase Act from 2010, claiming that “there is no evidence that the decrease in street prostitution has led to an increase in prostitution elsewhere” and that “Sweden is one of two countries in Europe where prostitution and sex trafficking is not increasing”. However, the one who is doing the ignoring here is Raymond.
A 2014 report by the Stockholm County Council, titled “Extent and development of prostitution in Sweden”, states that “the methods currently available are unable to estimate the exact extent in Sweden” and that “the size of the population” engaging in prostitution is unknown. What’s more, the report also states that there is a lack of “a single definition of prostitution and human trafficking, which makes it difficult to draw comparisons between and within countries over time”.
Whereas Raymond cites the 2010 report as stating there was no evidence that prostitution had moved elsewhere (from the streets), the 2014 report states that “the number of escort ads aimed for men who buy sexual services from women has increased markedly during the past eight years from 304 to 6,965 ads”. Apparently, prostitution did move elsewhere: online. One should also note that the claim of the Sex Purchase Act having halved street-based sex work is problematic, since it is based on guesstimates from as early as 1995 – 4 years before the adoption of the law. [Source: Stockholm County Council]
A recent research report from Malmö University, commissioned by the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU), also criticises the Sex Purchase Act, concluding that claims of the policy’s success have been greatly exaggerated. “There is no evidence that the demand has declined to the extent claimed by the state-led evaluation,” RFSU’s President Kristina Ljungros told the daily Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. “The law has instead led to increased vulnerability for sex workers.” [Source: Global Network of Sex Work Project (NSWP)/Dagens Nyheter]
Where Raymond’s statements about Germany are concerned, I shall give her credit for correctly stating that Germany decriminalized aspects of prostitution in 2002, as opposed to legalising sex work in 2002, as is commonly and incorrectly claimed. However, the number she mentions of persons engaged in prostitution is a mere figment of her imagination. The claim that they are 400,000 sex workers in Germany actually dates back to the 1980s – before Germany’s reunification – and was only an estimate by Hydra e.V., a meeting and counselling centre for sex workers.
At a symposium titled “10 Years Prostitution Law in Germany” in 2012, researcher Elfriede Steffan stated that Hydra’s estimate was continuously being cited for over two decades although it lacked any scientific basis. According to Steffan, another estimate from the 1990s put the number of sex workers in unified Germany between 60,000 and 200,000. She added, “Objectivity also means to admit what we don’t know. There is no new data.”
A 2005 evaluation report by the German government estimated that there were 200,000 sex workers in Germany, and on its website, the responsible ministry states that where the number of sex workers in Germany is concerned, there are no reliable statistics available. Thus, Raymond’s claim that “two years after the law was passed, the number of persons in prostitution rose from about 200,000 to over 400,000” is entirely fictional.
Raymond’s Reprise: Misrepresenting the ‘South Korean Model’
Finally, as I mentioned in my introduction, Raymond continues to misrepresent the nature and alleged success of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws, currently under review by the country’s constitutional court. Raymond states that the law prohibits “the purchase of sexual activities” but conveniently leaves out that sex workers are equally criminalised. In addition, as I have written previously, her claims about the existence of better victim protection and assistance and the alleged reduction of the sex industry in South Korea lack common sense as well as scientific evidence.
The above is by no means an exhaustive list of evidence to counter the wild claims made by Janice Raymond, and I shall leave the remaining ones to others, since there really isn’t enough time in a day to debunk articles such as Raymond’s. But at the very least, I hope that the above listed sources will suffice to illustrate that Raymond is in no position to blame others for “selecting certain examples at the expense of others” and that what Raymond laments, ignoring evidence, is in fact her very own modus operandi.
 Janice Raymond is an American radical feminist author and activist, and a professor emerita of Women’s Studies and Medical Ethics at the University of Massachusetts (UMass). Julie Kaye is the Director of Community Engaged Research and Assistant Professor of Sociology at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta.
 For the reason why I do not use the term ‘sex trafficking’ as Raymond does, please see Borislav Gerasimov’s article ‘Hey, mind your language’ and my own comment below.
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.
Cover photo of Groove Korea’s January Issue © Groove Korea Magazine 2014. All Rights Reserved.
The January issue of Groove Korea, an English language magazine published in Seoul, featured an editorial and a cover story about the fight of sex workers for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Korea. Although overall, it is one of the better articles on the subject, it left a bitter taste in the mouths of the sex workers interviewed for the piece, as well as mine. Coming in the immediate aftermath of the negative experience with the Wall Street Journal, it left me wondering if journalistic ethics is in fact a contradiction in itself. The description of what happened behind the scenes is not intended as a hatchet job or to publicly cry over spilled milk but to illustrate which problems occurred and why, and how journalists could avoid misrepresenting and offending the very people who provide them with information for their articles.
“Every human deserves safety”
Sex workers defend their labor, health and civil rights
“I sell sex and I have rights, too”
Sex workers fight for a work environment that’s safe, decriminalized and free of trafficking
While I usually refrain from using the personal pronoun “we” when writing about matters that concern sex workers, on this occasion, Yeoni Kim, Lucien Lee and myself were all interviewed for the article in question and thus jointly affected by the treatment we received from Groove Korea. Although we criticise the latter, we do appreciate that by inviting Yeoni Kim to write the editorial and by featuring Anita McKay’s article as cover story, Groove Korea has directed much-needed attention to the struggle of sex workers in South Korea to have their rights respected and voices heard. However, we feel that on several occasions, we were treated unfairly and disrespectfully, both of which could and should have been avoided, especially in light of the lengthy run-up to the publication and the great amount of time invested by us.
Firstly, none of us were informed that the photographer for the photo shoot was not from Groove Korea but hired externally, with implications that will be outlined below. Secondly, we were given an extremely short time span in which to check the draft of Anita McKay’s article, which contained numerous problematic passages. Thirdly, the layout added an unnecessary sensationalising overtone to the article. (Please download the PDF above to view the article as it appeared in the print issue.) We also found the problem management of Groove Korea’s staff inadequate, and finally, a message by the editor, posted publicly on Facebook, grossly disrespectful.
Due to the stigma attached to sex work, it goes without saying that sex workers are not always comfortable to appear in the media, which is why they often use masks to hide part of all of their faces. Since Anita McKay appeared (and was made) well aware of the sensitivity of the subject matter of her article, it remains a mystery to us how Groove Korea could not consider it important to inform us that they would not use an in-house photographer. The fact that they hired someone externally caused two problems.
Firstly, it had been agreed that apart from taking photos to be used for the article, the photographer would also take photos, which could then be used for a video project by Voice4Sexworkers, scheduled to be published on December 17th, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Although the photos were taken, Ms Kim and Ms Lee were later informed that they could only use them if they would purchase them from the photographer, who, as they then learnt, was hired externally.
Needless to say that they had gladly taken time out of their days to meet Ms McKay for the interviews, and meet a second time for the photo shoot, and we certainly all appreciate that Ms Kim was invited to write the editorial. However, asking them to pay for the photos, which we had actually considered a nice gesture in return for the time spent, was less than discourteous. Not enough with that, we were also given the runaround in trying to obtain this information, as nobody from Groove Korea tried to address this issue proactively.
The more serious problem stems from the fact that said photographer now has a number of photos of Ms Kim and Ms Lee in his possession, and since the communication went as dissatisfactory as it did, there is no way of knowing if the files are stored securely or if they were destroyed to avoid their accidental dissemination.
Recommendation: When interviewing sex workers, journalists should be forthcoming in informing them who will be present during interviews or photo shoots, and any sensitive files should not be held by external third parties. If so, however, it is the responsibility of the journalists in question to ensure that they are stored securely or destroyed afterwards.
Proofreading (Part I)
Journalists frequently blame inaccuracies and other problems in their articles on time constraints due to tight deadlines. While Ms McKay did her best to accommodate the schedules of Ms Kim and Ms Lee, it was agreed from the onset that we would be permitted to review the entire article prior to publication. When I checked my emails on the last Sunday before Christmas, I found that Ms McKay had sent the draft at 5am that morning, requesting our feedback by “5pm Sunday”. Although I started reviewing the article immediately, I only managed to find out by noon if she in fact meant “5pm today” – and she did.
Anita McKay had first contacted me at the end of May 2014, and between then and December, we had exchanged nearly 70 long and short emails, had a Skype interview for over two hours, and engaged in chats filling over ten pages. Ms Kim and Ms Lee, on their part, had also spent several hours responding to her questions in writing, and met her for an interview and for the photo shoot.
Regardless of Ms Kim and Ms Lee’s command of the English language, it is simply an audacity to send the draft during the small hours and expecting feedback a mere twelve hours later, when it was previously agreed that we would be given time to review it. In addition, the article was only sent to Ms Kim and myself, although by comparison, Ms Lee has the superior command of the English language necessary to review an article of that length, which Ms McKay would have been well aware of, having met both of them. The only explanation we received was that Ms Lee had never requested to receive the article prior to publication. As I stated previously, writing about sex work requires going the extra mile to avoid misrepresentations that may negatively affect public opinion and subsequently policy makers. In our view, Ms McKay gave up after a few hundred yards.
Proofreading (Part II)
The following examples from the draft are not intended to discredit Ms McKay but to illustrate how necessary thorough reviews are and how easily errors can occur, even if journalists might have the best intentions, which Ms McKay definitely had.
1. Kim admits that her story isn’t representative of a typical sex worker.
Lucien Lee responded that, “even though it is correct that Yeoni is not representative, since nobody is, saying that she is not a representative sex worker takes away credibility from her story.” The idea that there is some ‘representative’ sex worker experience is widely criticised by sex workers and others as the experiences of sex workers are extremely diverse. To Ms McKay’s credit, the sentence was changed and then properly reflected what Ms Kim had expressed: “Kim admits that not all sex workers had the choices that she did to enter the industry. While she took the job for the economic stability and flexibility it can offer, others had few alternatives.”
2. When sex workers are victimized by violence, they are treated as suspects. Society doesn’t think of us as victims of a crime.
Ms Lee explained that “Yeoni did say that but the translator stopped her from talking and then she translated parts of sentences to [Ms McKay]. The context should have been that “criminalization and social stigma often lead to violence towards sex workers but it’s difficult to report it. Even if a report is made, we become the suspects.” While the published version of the article no longer highlighted the above quote in a larger font, the actual quote remained unchanged, i.e. without the addition of the necessary context. Since the article mentions that some believe sex work per se to represent violence against women, it is disappointing that Ms McKay did not acknowledge the need to change this passage to better reflect Ms Kim’s statement.
3. But to those who join the sex industry by choice, the real danger stems largely from laws that put all forms of sex work, including trafficking, under one umbrella.
When I first saw this sentence, I stared at it in disbelief. At no point had anyone suggested that ‘trafficking’ was a form of sex work. To the contrary. When Ms McKay sent additional questions to me in December, my responses included detailed information about the harms caused by the conflation of sex work and human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. To see this in a final draft simply made me speechless.
As I learnt later, however, the sentence had not appeared in Ms McKay’s original draft but was inserted during the editing process, for which Elaine Ramirez was responsible, Groove Korea’s editorial director. Again to Ms McKay’s credit, the sentence was later removed, but it serves as a striking example of how editors, who in most cases will be less familiar with a given subject than the author who did the actual research, can obscure or misrepresent crucial information.
4. By fusing sex work with sex trafficking, [Matthias Lehmann] says, they are refusing to recognize sex work as work.
The term ‘sex trafficking’ originally appeared nine times in Ms McKay’s article, although I had explained in great detail, both in writing and during our interview, why I reject the term and instead always use the admittedly long-winded moniker ‘human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation’. Using it anyway was certainly Ms McKay’s prerogative, but I frankly do not understand why she chose to ignore my concerns. Putting the very term in my mouth, however, goes beyond mere negligence, and in addition, she also used the term when she cited the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW). When I contacted a colleague there to verify my belief that the term never appeared in any of the organisation’s publications, she sent me the following passage, which I subsequently forwarded to Ms McKay. It summarises my own objections perfectly.
“Some GAATW members and allies have also made a deliberate choice not to use the term ‘sex trafficking’ based on concerns that all human rights violations against trafficked persons across all occupational sectors should be addressed, not just the sexual aspects of trafficked persons’ experiences. There is also a worry that the term “sex trafficking’ encourages voyeurism by directing public attention to the sensationalistic aspects of what women were forced to do rather than the full range of human rights violations women experienced and the human rights protections they are entitled to. A sole focus on trafficking for the purposes of prostitution can also divert attention and urgently needed resources from human rights violations in other sectors, e.g. labour exploitation or the ‘trafficking-like’ effects of particular government overseas labour programs.” – Excerpt from the GAATW Working Paper “Exploring Links between Trafficking and Gender” by Julie Ham. See also “Hey, mind your language” by Borislav Gerasimov.
While Ms McKay eventually modified her article, she included the term once because, as she explained, it was a direct quote from a government website. What’s curious about that is that direct quotes are usually put in quotation marks, while paraphrased passages are not. But while she didn’t add quotation marks here, she added them in a passage where she paraphrased a statement by Yeoni Kim about “physical and emotional” services in exchange for money. I had pointed out to Ms McKay that adding quotation marks only to those three words actually added an air of scepticism, rather than indicating it as a quote, but it remained unchanged.
There were other problems in the draft, such as the definition of sex work as “any exchange of sex services for material compensation, whether voluntary or involuntary” – involuntary sex is rape, and thankfully, the passage was later changed – or the inclusion of the contentious US Trafficking in Persons Report, but there simple wasn’t enough time to address all of them. To her credit, Ms McKay corrected quite a few passages, but others she ignored. It is frustrating that after all the time invested by everyone involved, the final article still contains problematic passages, which could have easily been avoided.
Recommendation: Writing about sex work does require going the extra mile to avoid misrepresentations that may negatively affect public opinion and subsequently policy makers. Therefore, if sex workers or others grant interviews, journalists should allow sufficient time to discuss their drafts with them to ensure they appropriately relayed the information provided to them.
In addition to the problems detailed above, I was taken aback by the dark, and in my view, sensationalising layout of the article, which is why I discussed it with a colleague who is both a sex worker activist and a web designer. She commented,
“The layout makes the article look like an obituary, especially the first black-rimmed page and those pages that only feature text. It seems to paint a picture of sex work as a pit of eternal darkness from which there is no escape. Any graphic designer worth her or his salt knows which colour creates what kind of mood. There’s a reason why dramatic movies, for example, use big white letters on dark backgrounds – just as this articles does.”
I asked Ms McKay why such a dark colour scheme had been chosen, also pointing out that in the past, articles about South Korea’s LGBT community, for example, had not been featured in such a manner. Ms McKay didn’t answer my question but replied that she had requested for the layout to be altered. She was told, however, that it was too late for any changes, to which my colleague responded,
“That’s nothing. A graphic designer does that in a few minutes.”
The black layout remained, but changes were in fact made. My request to add a description to Yeoni Kim’s photo series ‘Working? Working!’ was accommodated, but interestingly, the highlighted quotes in the article were changed, too. As mentioned above, the quote by Yeoni Kim that lacked the proper context remained unchanged, but at least it was no longer emphasised. In addition, Lucien Lee’s quote was exchanged for another.
In both quotes Ms Lee calls for the decriminalisation of sex work but in the previously used one, she emphasised that the decriminalisation should extend to sex workers’ business partners and clients. This difference is important, as politicians and anti-prostitution activists continue to claim that the Swedish Model somehow ‘decriminalises’ sex workers. Exchanging the quote seems suspicious, but even if it were purely coincidental, questions remain why it was changed and why we were told that changes to the layout could no longer be made.
My own quote, previously featured prominently in the draft, was no longer highlighted in the published version. Frankly, I do not need to see my name in the papers, but I couldn’t help but wonder why the message was suddenly no longer considered noteworthy. Honi soit qui mal y pense – shamed be he who thinks ill of it.
It’s interesting, however, that on the same page, featuring a photo of Yeoni Kim, later a statement by Kang Ja Kim was highlighted. Kang Ja Kim is a former senior police officer who played a key role in the creation of the Anti-Sex Trade Laws and in abolishing red-light districts. While it is important to note that she has in the meantime spoken out in favour of allowing brothels to operate in designated areas, she remains a proponent of doing so only in limited areas and under strict regulations, which research has shown does not benefit the rights of sex workers.
“Licensing or registration of the sex industry has been of limited benefit in terms of public health and human rights outcomes for sex workers. … Licensing or registration systems are usually accompanied by criminal penalties for sex industry businesses and individual sex workers who operate outside of the legal framework. Licensing or registration models may provide some health benefits to the small part of the sex industry that is regulated, but do not improve health outcomes for the broader population of sex workers.” – Excerpt from “Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific” by UNDP
And while it’s commendable that Kang Ja Kim at least acknowledges now that a different legal approach is necessary, the reasons for her shift in opinion misrepresent the diversity of sex workers’ clients, who, in her view, are “the disabled, illegal immigrants and widowers” as well as “men who are incapable of controlling their [sex] drives”. It certainly would have been more appropriate to feature a quote from Yeoni Kim together with the photo of her than one of a former “anti-prostitution crusader”.
Recommendation: Regardless of how good the content of any given article may be, a poorly chosen title, layout, or image can easily diminish its value. More often than not, journalists have no say in these matters. Editors should ensure that their choices do not undermine the voices of sex workers, who should be given the opportunity to review not only the content but also the layout of articles they were interviewed for.
Conclusion: Journalistic ethics – A contradiction in itself?
“I have no obligation to send a copy of the article to the sources before it gets published. In fact, it’s against the policy of many news organisations.” – Statement by a journalist
Writing about sex work certainly is a minefield and making everybody happy is a difficult task to accomplish for both journalists and academic researchers. However, if the above statement a journalist once made in an email to me is anything to go by, then one must wonder why journalists think their sources should oblige their interview requests. Time constraints and a lack of influence over the layout are one thing, but misrepresentations that can negatively affect and offend the very people they interview is another.
As I wrote to Anita McKay, one should certainly not mistake journalists for minute takers who will merely document verbatim what was said in their presence or expect journalistic articles to be advocacy pieces. But the fact that Anita McKay’s article is overall one of the better ones still doesn’t mean that the end justified the means. And it certainly didn’t justify this status update by Groove Korea’s editorial director Elaine Ramirez.
Note that Ms Ramirez didn’t celebrate that she had managed to prominently feature a story about sex worker’s rights but that she “put a prostitute on the cover of a magazine”. As illustrated above, Ms Ramirez doesn’t appear to pay much attention to using appropriate terms, or else she would have been aware that – both in English and Korean – Yeoni Kim always refers to herself as ‘sex worker’, rather than using the stigma-laden term ‘prostitute’.
“The term ‘prostitute’ does not simply mean a person who sells her or his sexual labour (although rarely used to describe men in sex work), but brings with it layers of ‘knowledge’ about her worth, drug status, childhood, integrity, personal hygiene and sexual health. When the media refers to a woman as a prostitute, or when such a story remains on the news cycle for only a day, it is not done in isolation, but in the context of this complex history.” – Excerpt from “Dehumanising sex workers: what’s ‘prostitute’ got to do with it?” by Lizzie Smith, Research Officer at La Trobe University. See also “The P-Word: A 101” by Caty Simon
Upon seeing Ms Ramirez status update, Yeoni Kim wrote to me:
“That sentence makes me feel used by her and as if I am some second class citizen, not worthy of the same respect as other human beings.”
Yeoni Kim thus summed up the root problem of most media reports about sex work. As long as journalists refuse to treat sex workers with the respect they deserve, they frankly do not deserve to be given the time of day.
In light of the avalanche of sensationalising media reports that spread myths about sex work as well as human trafficking, I consider it very necessary for sex workers and researchers to engage with journalists in order to refute these frequent misrepresentations. It is impossible to do so all the time, since it is both unpaid and tiring, but over the last year, I invested a great deal of time in assisting journalists with their research. Looking back, I cannot help but to feel that it wasn’t worth it.
In my view, the fundamental difference between journalists and researchers who write about sex work is that researchers have a vested interest in establishing a trusting relationship with sex workers for the long term, while journalists can (and do) simply move on to the next story and worry less about that.
Whenever I write media critiques or leave comments on journalistic articles, some people respond by accusing me of being vindictive or trying to promote myself. These people never know, however, what happened behind the scenes, which is why I choose to illustrate that from time to time. Addressed to anyone feeling the need to question my motives for writing the above, I’ll just say: let’s see how you will like it when, after investing countless hours of unpaid work, you see facts misrepresented, words twisted, and people you care about as well as yourself treated with disrespect.
A guide to respectful reporting and writing on sex work
By Marlise Richter, Ntokozo Yingwana, Lesego Tlhwale and Ruvimbo Tenga
Lucien Lee (left), Yeoni Kim (right). Photos by Lucien Lee. All Rights Reserved.
Messages on the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers
“When the US go for a war, they say they want to liberate those who they are shooting at. Abolitionists say they want to liberate sex workers by ending demand, that is, their income source. Both of those freedom fighters should stop and look at the death count achieved by their violent operations.” – Lucien Lee (이류시연), South Korean MTF transgender sex worker activist
“Sex workers are placed in harsh environments due to social stigma and difficult legal situations. South Korea’s Constitutional Court must finally rule on the constitutionality of the Anti-Sex Trade Laws, which on November 25th, claimed yet another life when a 24-year-old sex worker and single mother in Tongyeong jumped from a motel and died while trying to escape a police crackdown. Sex workers are also human beings. Sex workers also have rights. Sex workers will no longer stay in the shadows. We will rise, we will move forward, we will fight to end violence against sex workers.” – Yeoni Kim, South Korean sex worker activist – Yeoni Kim, South Korean sex worker activist
“To help raising awareness of the regularity with which violence is committed against sex workers, I share nearly every report I come across dealing with attacks on and murders of sex workers, together with the #StigmaKills hashtag first used in the aftermath of the violent murders of Petite Jasmine and Dora Özer in July 2013. More often than not, these reports are written in manners that actually contribute to the stigmatisation of sex workers, which in turn contributes to the very violence they report about. Prostitution abolitionists talk endlessly about the violence they believe clients commit by the mere fact that they pay sex workers for their services, but you never hear a peep out of them about actual violence committed by law enforcement officers, whose operations they actually support, or about the negative impact of sensationalist and inaccurate media reports on sex workers’ safety. Instead, they call for taking away sex workers’ incomes by criminalising their clients, and they support forcing sex workers to register with the police, undergo mandatory health checks, or enter diversion programmes. To end violence against sex workers, it is vital to train police officers and journalists to treat sex workers with the respect they deserve.” – Matthias Lehmann, German researcher, currently in South Korea
December 17th – International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers
The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was created to call attention to crimes committed against sex workers all over the world.
“Originally conceptualized by Annie Sprinkle and initiated by the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA as a memorial and vigil for the victims of the Green River Killer in Seattle, Washington, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers has empowered workers from cities around the world to come together and organize against discrimination and remember victims of violence. During the week of December 17th, sex worker rights organizations and their allies stage actions and vigils to raise awareness about violence that is commonly committed against sex workers.” – SWOP-USA – Click to continue reading.
June 29th – Korean Sex Workers’ Day
In South Korea, the key date for sex workers is June 29th. On this day, the National Solidarity of Sex Workers Day was organised, after the Special Anti-Sex Trade Laws were 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.
Click here to find out more about other important dates of the sex workers‘ rights movement
#IDEVASW – Images from around the world
Click here to view many more images (and more details about them) tweeted and shared on December 17th.
Update to the previous post “Journalism that harms, not helps: A response to Yewon Kang”
After contacting the Wall Street Journal’s Asia Editor Paul Beckett to request a review of Yewon Kang’s article, I received an email from South Korea Bureau Chief Alastair Gale, from which he permitted me to quote here. With regards to the statements by Yeoni Kim, Mr Gale wrote:
“I have discussed this with Ms. Kang, who has notes of the comments made to her by Mr. [sic] Kim in the interview. It is not clear to me why Ms. Kim would’ve changed her story but it appears to me she has.”
As I responded to him, I have been in close contact with Ms Kim for several years, and in my view, it simply made no sense that she would suddenly turn around and tell a journalist she didn’t even know the complete opposite of what she’s told me on numerous occasions, i.e. that she exclusively works in establishments with managers, which is exactly what she said in her comments included in the critique.
With regards to the claim by Ms Kang that the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family had refused to release the results from a 2010 report, Mr Gale explained that Ms Kang was apparently referring to particular results that weren’t included in the report when it was eventually published. I maintain that at the very least, her remarks are ambiguous, since they suggest that the ministry suppressed an entire report, which is untrue.
Finally, Mr Gale stated that he discussed with Ms Kang my criticism that the story lacked “additional information and background”, when I had actually explicitly referred to Ms Kang’s failure to draw any conclusions about what changes of the law might be necessary to improve the current situation and to mention anything about the frequent violations of sex workers’ rights and the dangers caused by police crackdowns. Both were among the motivations Ms Kang had stated when she first contacted me in June of this year. Mr Gale responded,
“I’ve talked with Ms. Kang about her reporting and research and I feel the story is a fair reflection of the reality of the sex industry in South Korea, including the risks for sex workers from crackdowns by the authorities.”
Where Mr Gale found these risks reflected in Ms Kang’s article continues to elude me, as the article only contains a reference to their economic impact but none about human rights violations.
Needless to say, Ms Kim and a colleague of hers whom I discussed Mr Gale’s response with were not amused with his complete refusal to acknowledge any of the problems in Ms Kang’s article. As for Ms Kang, she never bothered to respond to the critique, but judging from her article, it hardly came as a surprise.
A guide to respectful reporting and writing on sex work
By Marlise Richter, Ntokozo Yingwana, Lesego Tlhwale and Ruvimbo Tenga
Response to Yewon Kang’s article “South Korea’s Sex Industry Thrives Underground a Decade After Crackdown” at the Wall Street Journal’s Korea Real Time blog
In her article, Yewon Kang failed to mention anything about the repeated protests by sex workers against the Anti-Sex Trade Laws, about the frequent violations of sex workers’ rights, and about the dangers caused by police crackdowns and undercover sting operations. Instead of correctly conveying what a sex worker had told her about her work, she fabricated, misrepresented and misquoted her statements. Kang’s article adds to a public discourse already influenced by prejudices, misinformation and sensationalism, and in doing so, she harms sex workers who demand to have their rights protected, instead of having them further eroded by an increase in police crackdowns.
When I recently wrote an email to a journalist in the Middle East, who had written about sex work and prostitution laws in his country, I was impressed by the positive and constructive exchange that developed. In his response, he thanked me for recognising that one certainly couldn’t expect journalists to be experts on every subject they write about, and added that he welcomed it when researchers and experts took the time to open up the dialogue. As a result of our exchange, he tried to convince his editor to change the photo that had accompanied his article, responded well to the points I had raised, and finally, he offered to introduce me to his contacts at local NGOs offering services to sex workers, should I wish to get in touch with them. By doing so, he singlehandedly restored some of the faith I had long lost in journalists writing about sex work.
With this article, however, Yewon Kang and her editors at the Wall Street Journal have tipped the scale back to where it was, and it adds insult to injury that it was published in the immediate aftermath of a 24-year old Korean single mother and sex worker jumping to her death to escape a police sting operation, leaving behind her baby and sick father. My response to Yewon Kang is motivated by my indignation that she deliberately chose to misrepresent and omit important facts. To make matters worse, she not only misrepresented a sex worker’s comment by taking it out of context, she even attributed a statement to her that she never made. Ms Kang had initially informed me that she wanted to convey the voices of different stakeholders to show the impact of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws on their lives and work and to explore what each of them thought would be the best model with regards to prostitution legislation. In her final email less than two weeks ago, she assured me that neither her nor her editors were trying to misrepresent anything, and that all her efforts in writing this article were to raise awareness for the ineffectiveness of the law and how it drives sex workers underground, exposing them to greater risks. Yet, she never replied after I pointed out numerous problems in her draft and explained to her why I wouldn’t want to be quoted in it.
Well-informed readers will find none of the following surprising, but since there is too little credible information available about the situation of sex workers in South Korea and since Ms Kang claimed she cares about the dangers the current laws cause for them, I take this opportunity to illustrate that regardless of whatever good intentions she claims to have had, the result is a rather hellish article.
The photos by Man Chul Kim that are used in Yewon Kang’s article show Cheongnyangni 588, a well-known red light district in Seoul. They depict clean and orderly facilities and the photographer avoided showing anyone’s face. Together with the image descriptions, which explain how the Anti-Sex Trade Laws have forced most brothels to close, and the statement by ‘Choi Min Seo’, a sex worker who is said to prefer the safety of a brothel to offering sexual services online, the overall impression is that the author indeed wanted to highlight that legalising or decriminalising sex work would lead to safer working conditions. If that is in fact her opinion, it is all the more puzzling why she chose to misrepresent so many aspects in her article.
Police crackdowns and human rights abuses
Kang mentions “crackdowns” both in the title and four more times in her article. Titles need to be catchy and “crackdown” probably seemed catchier than “adoption of Anti-Sex Trade Laws”; but titles should also be accurate and so “a decade after crackdowns intensified” would have been more appropriate, since they are ongoing and at times intensifying.
Kang writes that the “free-wheeling red-light districts that once dotted many of South Korea’s major cities have been mostly tamed” and that the few which remained “face the threat of police raids”, which she describes as “the law’s successes”. But citing “people who follow the industry”, she states that “the country’s sex trade continues to flourish underground”, and an officer from the National Police Agency knows why: “we just don’t have the manpower” to broaden the crackdowns.
Kang then cites Kim Kang Ja, a former senior police officer in Seoul, who confirms that “money and manpower allocated for tackling the sex trade has never been sufficient for a systematic approach to the issue”. Kim is also quoted as saying that “the current approach only pushes the industry further underground and makes business owners more guileful”.
What Kang omits here, however, is that in 2012, Kim Kang Ja caused quite a stir when she proposed to amend the law to allow brothels to operate in designated areas.
“No matter how hard we try to regulate prostitution and get rid of it, it will always exist. There will always be women who work in the industry and it is virtually impossible not only to crack down on all of them, but also to have a sufficient budget that will help them get out of the business. … That is why we need to allow them to continue to make a living. … Having prostitution out in the open will benefit the women who work in the industry as the government will make efforts to prevent the exploitation of them and violations of their rights, which are now rampant.” – Kim Kang Ja in September 2012
“It is a serious issue that the human rights of prostitutes are infringed upon while their most basic right to make a living is not guaranteed.” – Kim Kang Ja in October 2012
Although some of the other views Kim expressed were questionable, the fact that Kang omits her widely discussed proposal seems odd, at the very least, since she had wanted to shed a light on that very aspect.
Other than Kim’s ambiguous statement that brothel owners have become more “guileful”, Kang only refers to the economic impact of police raids, when she quotes sex worker ‘Choi Min Seo’ who states that she has to work twice as much as before to earn the same amount of money. Kang makes no mention whatsoever of human rights abuses against sex workers during police crackdowns, although she later refers to physical and verbal abuse by clients. And so I sent her the following comment.
“At no point do you mention any abuse by the police, although all sex workers I’ve ever talked to have mentioned it to me, and it was also included in my response to you. I understand that no article can include everything, but by mentioning abuse by clients and omitting abuse by the police, you perpetuate the idea that sex workers experience abuse only by clients, which is untrue.” Excerpt from an email to Yewon Kang, 22/11/2014
Kang deliberately ignored my objections and instead quoted two police sources calling for more resources for crackdowns, which she labelled a success of the Anti-Sex Trade Laws. Given the information she was given (see also next paragraph), this isn’t a mere oversight, it’s a deliberate misrepresentation, supporting the call for more resources for the police to conduct more crackdowns. And given the tragic death of a sex worker this week, who tried desperately to escape a police crackdown, it is cynical beyond belief.
Fabricating, misrepresenting, and misquoting statements
Kang writes that ‘Kim Yeo-ni’ sells sex over “over the Internet, connecting with clients through websites that are disguised as social meetup sites” and that she “prefers to work on her own, instead of in a brothel”.
When I discussed Kang’s article with Yeoni Kim, she stated the following:
“I am very angry. Yewon Kang lies in her article. I never met customers over the Internet. I don’t like it and I told her that. It is very dangerous so I never do that. I only work in shops with managers, and I told her that, too. The person she describes is not me.” – Yeoni Kim, quoted with her kind permission
In the passage already mentioned above, Kang also writes that Kim “experienced physical violence and verbal abuse by some of her clients”.
“This was taken out of context. I got beaten in an environment where there was no manager around at the time to watch out. I explicitly told her that I am worrying about the entire industry going underground and that it has become so dangerous due to all the police raids. But she didn’t mention that at all!” – Yeoni Kim, quoted with her kind permission
The fact alone that Kang deliberately fabricated, misrepresented and misquoted Yeoni Kim should suffice to raise serious doubts over her journalistic integrity. But there is more.
More factual errors
Kang quotes statistics from a “2007 report into the industry by the government’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family” (which I already discussed here) and writes that “the ministry conducted another report in 2010 but refused to release the results, saying it had grown difficult to collect reliable data because of the evolving nature of the sex trade.”
While it is certainly true that the reports are unreliable, neither report was conducted by the ministry but got commissioned to the Korea Women’s Development Institute and Seoul National University’s Institute for Gender Research respectively. The 2010 report has indeed been published, even if with a delay, and I sent her the link where she could download it from the ministry’s website. Finally, I had cautioned her that the data in both reports and in the “high-profile media report in 2012”, an article in the Joong Ang Daily, were limited to red light districts only and represented mere guesstimates.
Arguing over “conducted by” and “commissioned by” might seem nit-picky, although why she didn’t correct it eludes me. But deliberately stating that a government ministry suppressed a report despite better knowledge is a clear fabrication on Kang’s part.
As is common for articles about sex work, Kang focuses exclusively on women and leaves out men as well as transgender people, whether they be men, women or non-binary people, all of which are often ignored and erased in articles and debates about sex work, a fact I had raised in our email exchange. With her insistence to focus on women and her abovementioned narrow focus on abusive clients, Kang clearly throws her support behind the common female victim/male perpetrator narrative.
Kang had wanted to quote my statement that “the exit programmes offered by the government, if you can call them that, are a joke”, and I had also pointed out that the Park administration’s plan “to pay rewards of up to one hundred million won for tip-offs about prostitution activities” but only 400,000 Won as an incentive to exit prostitution “would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.”
As I wrote here, the bare minimum sufficient to survive in South Korea is approx. 600,000 Korean Won for a 1-person household. For a 3-person household, e.g. a single parent with two children, it is approx. 1,300,000 Korean Won. As a comparison, a person working at minimum wage would earn 1,080,000 Won in South Korea (before taxes).
To be fair, perhaps Kang didn’t have any other source who made a critical comment about the government’s exit programmes, after I withdrew my permission to be quoted, and the fact that she provides the equivalent of the monthly stipend in US dollars should allow readers to grasp that it’s nowhere nearly enough to survive. Kang also mentions that the director of the Women’s Rights Support Division at the ministry “declined to elaborate on how effective the exit programs have been” and that the number of people making use of support centres has more than halved between 2005 and 2013. Yet, she states that “the government provides an array of assistance”.
Earlier, Kang falsely states that the ministry suppressed a report, but here, where the facts she gathered suggest that the assistance offered by the government doesn’t fit the needs of those who might otherwise make use of it, she remains silent. A glaring omission, considering we had discussed the very issue.
Kang claims she wanted to show the impact of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws and explore which measures would be useful to improve the current situation. However, she failed to mention anything about the repeated protests by sex workers against the laws, about the frequent violations of sex workers’ rights, and about the dangers caused by police crackdowns and undercover sting operations. Instead of correctly conveying what sex workers had told her about their work, she described them and fabricated, misrepresented and misquoted them. As Laura Agustín, an expert on sex work and migration, accurately summed it up: “Although journalists may ask to speak to ‘real sex workers’, they often just create a general identity to attribute quotations to. Ms Kim could be ‘Korea Sex Worker Everywoman’.”
Kang drew no conclusions whatsoever about what changes might be necessary to improve an untenable situation, although she had ample access to interview partners who could have, and in fact did tell her about it. The only suggestion that appears in her article is to bolster the resources of the police to increase crackdowns.
“Writing about sex work certainly is a minefield. Different people will find different issues important and making everybody happy is quite a difficult task. … Sensitive subject matters, such as the situation of sex workers or other marginalised populations, do require anyone writing about them to go the extra mile to avoid misrepresentations that can negatively affect public opinion and subsequently policy makers.” – Excerpt from emails to Yewon Kang, 17+22/11/2014
In my view, Kang has failed on almost every account. The last thing sex workers in South Korea or anywhere need are articles like hers, as it adds to a public discourse already influenced by prejudices, misinformation and sensationalism. In doing so, she harms sex workers who demand to have their rights protected, instead of having them further eroded by an increase in police crackdowns.
One positive is that Kang consistently uses the term ‘sex worker’, by no means a given in articles in Korean newspapers. (The only time she uses the term ‘prostitute’ is when she quotes a brothel owner.)
Besides that, however, she reverts to a narrative style that is sadly common in articles about sex workers. And while one could think that she perhaps did so unconsciously, it was in fact one of the key points when I explained my reasons for declining to be quoted in her article. In the following, I will highlight just a few examples.
“wearing only lingerie”; “Neon red and blue lights flicker in the narrow alley”; “scantily-clad women”
Police officers wear uniforms; politicians wear formal attire; sex workers wear sexy outfits, and red light districts have neon lights. Yet, you won’t find interviews with police officers or politicians where journalists first describe what they are wearing or describe the lighting at their offices. You might be unaware of it, but this paragraph is sensationalising, and “scantily-clad” is actually a term that tries to evoke pity. – Excerpt from an email to Yewon Kang, 22/11/2014
“women seeking a way out of a life of prostitution”
“a life of prostitution” suggests that if you are a sex worker, your entire life revolves around your work, and the underlying suggestion here is that anyone needs to get out of that life. Just compare it to other professions. Would one also write “life of selling insurances” or “life of politics”? No, one would write, “he wanted to get out of politics” or “she wanted to leave the insurance sector”. ‘Sex worker’ is not an identity but an occupation. – Excerpt from an email to Yewon Kang, 22/11/2014
In 2013, a journalist from German news magazine DER SPIEGEL interviewed sex worker activist Carmen Amicitiae. Although she had made it clear prior to the interview that she was not going to answer any personal questions but only those pertaining to her work and political activism, he went on to describe her as “petite woman, wearing a turtle-neck sweater and baggy trousers” in an article titled “Dark Fantasies”, of which only one fifth dealt with her political work. Amicitiae responded with a counterstatement on her blog and tweeted: “Dear Journalists, please leave my self-portrayal to me! If you want to report about me, then please write about my work or its legal status.”
Liebe Journalisten, überlaßt meine Selbstdarstellung doch mir selbst! Wenn, dann berichtet bitte über meine Arbeit oder deren Rechtslage!—
Carmen Amicitiae (@courtisane_de) May 21, 2013
Just as that SPIEGEL journalist, Kang was made aware of this, but as with everything else, she deliberately chose to ignore it.
Update | December 8th, 2014
“I feel the story is a fair reflection of the reality of the sex industry in South Korea, including the risks for sex workers from crackdowns by the authorities.” – Alastair Gale, the Wall Street Journal’s Korea Bureau Chief.
Find out more in Response from the Wall Street Journal.
A guide to respectful reporting and writing on sex work
By Marlise Richter, Ntokozo Yingwana, Lesego Tlhwale and Ruvimbo Tenga
Coming soon: Questionable documentary about “sex trafficking”
Please note: This article is from September 2014. The film was released online in July 2017. The “facts” presented below still remain on the updated website of the filmmakers. Several links have been added to the below which readers are encouraged to follow.
Not a day goes by without another lurid news report, blog article, petition, or film project about “sex trafficking” surfacing. Last week, Jason and Eddie Lee, two Korean-American brothers who founded the Jubilee Project, and Jean Rheem, a native Korean living in the US, published a trailer for their upcoming documentary “Save My Seoul”, which aims to uncover “prostitution and sex trafficking in Seoul”.
Although the documentary has not yet been released, the details that have already emerged raise serious concerns over the three film makers’ grasp of the subject in general, and the harms caused by the conflation of sex work and human trafficking in particular. The following will examine the “facts” they present on their website and in the trailer, in order to highlight the problems that arise when presumably well-intended do-gooders choose to create ostensibly objective accounts about “sex trafficking”.
Apart from the fact that, ranging from 500,000 to more than double that number, it doesn’t even qualify as a guesstimate, this figure, which the film makers attribute to the Korean Feminist Association, was first spread more than ten years ago and before the adoption of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws in 2004. It has since been quoted in news reports time and time again, which is par for the course for such figures, but considering that even the South Korean government isn’t able to produce any reliable research on the subject (see next paragraph), the figure is highly questionable. It doesn’t bode well that the film makers label an outdated and inaccurate figure as a “fact”, and without providing a link to the actual report, but their other claims are no less problematic.
Eddie Byun is a Chicago-born pastor at Onnuri Community Church in Seoul. He “fights against modern-day slavery” through HOPE Be Restored, an extension of Onnuri’s English Ministry “that seeks to bring freedom for the oppressed and restoration to lives that have been effected by human trafficking in Korea and around the world”. His book, “Justice Awakening: How You and Your Church Can Help End Human Trafficking”, includes tips how to “teach and preach sermons on human trafficking” and “rally men’s and women’s ministries to educate and actively engage in the fight against trafficking by helping anti-trafficking and after-care programs”. It doesn’t come as a surprise that among those praising his book is Gary Haugen, president and CEO of the International Justice Mission, an organisation “whose reliance on headline-grabbing brothel raids conducted with police to “rescue” sex workers have drawn criticism from human rights advocates around the world.” (Continue reading: Melissa Gira Grant – U.S. Policy and the Unjust Approach to Human Trafficking of the International Justice Mission)
While it is perhaps understandable that the Christian film makers felt they could trust the words of a pastor, Eddie Byun supports his claim by citing a report from November 2007 that was published by the South Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF) but produced by the Korean Women’s Development Institute (KWDI).
The report, which is only available in Korean, is titled: “National Survey on the current conditions of the Sex Trade in Korea” (전국성매매실태조사). KWDI chose altogether 8 business types from government registries of businesses they suspected as most likely to facilitate transactional sex. Those were: serviced pubs, clubs, smaller pubs, tea and coffee houses, noraebangs (karaoke places), barber shops, massage parlours, and beauty shops/wellness places. People living or working in red light districts were interviewed and the findings were based on their impressions (emphasis added).
The numbers in the KWDI report don’t always add up either. The 2007 figures in the report list 39 red light districts, 1,443 brothels, 3,644 sex workers, 2,510,000 clients per year, and an average of 5.8 clients per brothel and day. However, if one multiplies 5.8 x 1443 x 365 (clients per brothel and day x brothels x 1 year), one arrives at 3,054,831 client visits, a discrepancy of 544,831. It probably explains why MOGEF stated they wouldn’t take any responsibility for the figures in the report. (Continue reading: Janice Raymond and the South Korean Model)
The report’s research methodology is questionable at best, and while Byun and the film makers take the figures therein at face value, the authors actually admit that their estimates are based on conjecture.
For this claim, the film makers provide as source a “Korean Municipal Government” and the accompanying link leads to an article by Jennifer Chang on Al Jazeera, where the news channel deemed it necessary to inform its readers that some of the NGO figures Chang quoted “are not supported by any official data and are impossible to verify”, which casts doubts on the article’s overall credibility.
An extraordinary disclaimer by Al Jazeera, added on top of Chang‘s article
According to Chang, the report (by the Seoul Metropolitan Government) cited figures from the police estimating that 200,000 youths run away from home each year, and “a survey of 175 female teen runaways by the municipal government found half had been led into the sex industry.”
Chang’s article, which focuses entirely on female runaways selling sex, appears to be based on this survey, which engaged with less than 0.1% of the total estimate of teenage runaways, and on interviews she conducted with female youths she met with the help of Hansorihoe (United Voice). Hansorihoe is an umbrella organisation of NGOs working towards the “eradication of sex trafficking in a society where all human rights are met”, promoting “anti-sex trafficking campaigns”, and “advocating for polices”. These campaigns – click here for a selection of them – not only frequently objectify women but regularly conflate sex work and human trafficking, which leads not only to “harm to sex workers on the ground, but also to conflicts that undermine HIV prevention”. (Continue reading: Richard Steen et al – Trafficking, sex work, and HIV: efforts to resolve conflicts)
If Chang’s report were an academic paper, it wouldn’t get past any peer-review. But in a news story, one can easily make claims that remain largely unchallenged and are subsequently cited as evidence by others.
The same applies to this claim in the trailer. No source is given and the statement does not appear on the “Save My Seoul” website.
Eddie Byun, the pastor the film makers cited above, writes in his book that “up to thirty million people are in slavery around the world” (page 12). Later, he writes that there are “more than thirty million slaves” (page 58), before he states “there are between 20 and 30 million people who are enslaved throughout the world” (page 155), and finally, that there are “approximately 20 million people are victims of human trafficking” (page 166; emphases added). The final figure is based on the Global Estimate of Forced Labour 2012 by the International Labour Organisation, which stated that “20.9 million people are victims of forced labour at any point in time”, 4.5 million (22 per cent) of which are said to be victims of forced sexual exploitation. The film makers, however, chose to stick with the oft-quoted figure of 27 million human trafficking victims, which dates back to 1999.
“That number was developed was developed by a “trafficking” fanatic named Kevin Bales using media reports multiplied by arbitrary numbers of his own devising; the more the hysteria, the higher the number of articles and thus the higher Bales’ number grows. … Bales starts with an “estimate” of unknown derivation, “adjusts” it by a factor based on media reports (which often repeat each other and obviously increase dramatically during a moral panic), presumes without evidence that the proportion of reports to actual incidents is low, multiplies the result by guesses from prohibitionists with an anti-whore agenda, then rounds up.” (Continue reading: Maggie McNeill – Held Together With Lies. See also: Dr Ron Weitzer – Miscounting human trafficking and slavery)
Rights not rescue – and no voyeurism either!
The above explanations are by no means exhaustive but they illustrate the use of flawed data and misrepresentations to promote the upcoming documentary “Save My Seoul”. There are two possibilities: either the film makers lack the necessary understanding of the very subject matter they hope to shed light on, or they deliberately cherry-picked statistics that fit into their sensationalist agenda. A quick glance at the comments underneath their trailer shows that they certainly know their audience. The most common response smacks of voyeurism: “Can’t wait (to see it)”.
Screenshot from Save My Seoul’s Facebook page
In 2012, three UN agencies compiled a comprehensive report in collaboration with numerous sex worker organisations in the Asia-Pacific region about laws, HIV and human rights in the context of sex work. The report examined laws, policies and law enforcement practices in 48 countries of the region with regards to their impact on the human rights of sex workers and the effectiveness of HIV responses.
If the film makers would have read this report, they would have been aware that “police crackdowns from 2004-2009 resulted in arrest of approximately 28,000 sex workers” in South Korea alone, and that the conflation of sex work and human trafficking often results in migrant sex workers living “with the constant threat of being reported, arrested and deported”, creating “a real barrier to accessing health and welfare services”. (Continue reading: UNDP – Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific)
Sex worker organisations and human rights groups, such as the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) or the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), have long since denounced the harms caused by anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking laws, and sex workers around the world demand rights, not rescue. But even in the absence of rights: the last thing sex workers or any people in exploitative labour situations need are voyeurs or do-gooders grandstanding as saviours. Not without reason do sex workers frequently declare: save us from saviours!
Photo: Sex worker collective Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP)
The following text is a summary of an article on the official website of the Seoul Metropolitan Government. This post does in no way represent an endorsement of the campaign outlined therein, but is solely provided to illustrate the South Korean government’s continued refusal to acknowledge the rights of sex workers and the self-referential pat on its back for continuing to criminalise sex work, despite growing calls to decriminalise it, including from UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon.
On September 16th, South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF) launched a campaign in Seoul to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Anti-Sex Trade Laws. The campaign will be implemented nationwide “to build a healthy society by eradicating prostitution”
The ministry launched the campaign at Seoul’s City Hall in attendance of Kim Hee Jung, minister of MOGEF, and Kang Weol Gu, head of the Women’s Human Rights Commission of Korea (WHRCK). The event was hosted by the Women’s Human Rights Commission of Korea and the Dasi Hamkke Center*, and lasted for two and half hours. The participants distributed brochures and delivered messages to eradicate prostitution. Posters displayed the achievements of the activities to eradicate prostitution and protect victims over the last 10 years.
MOGEF will continue its campaign under the theme “sex cannot be bought and sold” in 16 cities all over South Korea. The campaign will also be joined by the US Embassy in Korea, the US Forces in Korea, and the Cambodian Government.
Minister Kim Hee Jung stated that “prostitution must be eradicated as it violates human dignity. Hence, measures to punish those involved in prostitution should be strongly enforced. People must understand that human beings cannot be traded like commodities.” MOGEF, in cooperation with other institutions, will continue the campaign using TV and other media to raise public awareness of the sexual exploitation of women and children, the minister added.
The slogan on the above poster above reads “There’s something that’s not tradable in this world.”
*The Dasi Hamkke Center is a non-governmental and governmental collaboration agency offering exit programmes and counselling for “victims of sex trafficking and women in prostitution”. The centre is administered by Hansorihoe (United Voice), an umbrella organisation of anti-prostitution NGOs that frequently collaborate with MOGEF.
“U.S. Military Camp towns were providing comfort women for U.S. troops” – 112 Women file for compensation against the South Korean government
The Korean government’s tolerance and supervision of camp towns was illegal.
Women who were involved in prostitution near US army bases filed for compensation against the Korean government. They submitted a petition to the Seoul Central District Court asking for a compensation of ten million won (approx. US$ 9,900) per person. The plaintiffs, comprised of 112 women, held a press conference on the 25th of June at Seoul Women’s Plaza, and stated, “The Korean government’s policy to keep military camp towns was nothing short of providing comfort women to US troops.” They went on to demand “an apology and compensation for every victim of the comfort women system within military camp towns”.
Plaintiffs also stated, “South Korean comfort women were not only in Japan. The Korean government created a ‘U.S. army comfort women’ system and supervised it.” “No one from the government protected us; instead they used us to earn foreign currency.” They continued, “Poverty resulting from the Korean War or human trafficking brought us to the military camp, and we experienced various forms of violence committed by U.S. soldiers. We tried asking the police for help in order to escape the camp, but it was the police themselves who brought us back there.”
Plaintiffs pointed out that the government not only tolerated prostitution, which was illegal, but also overlooked the abuse committed by the soldiers. They went on to say, “The government should reveal the history of comfort women in U.S. military camps, investigate the harm done to them, and take legal responsibility.” The press conference and the submission of the petition was hosted by the “United Korean Women’s Association” and “Solidarity for Human Rights of Gijichon Women”.*
Source: Park Eun Ha, Kyunghyang Shinmun. Click here to read the original article in Korean.
* Gijichon (기지촌) is the Korean term for U.S. military camp towns.
Sealing Cheng – On the Move for Love: Migrant Entertainers and the U.S. Military in South Korea (UPenn Press)
* With regards to the title, it was pointed out to us that the term “camptown prostitutes” was, in that person’s view, “arbitrary” and “not fair”. The exchange of sex for money in the vicinity of U.S. military bases in South Korea is generally referred to as “camptown prostitution” and the women involved therein as “camptown prostitutes”. The corresponding Korean term for the latter is gijichon yeoseong (기지촌 여성), which literally means “military base village women” but is generally translated as “camptown prostitutes”. To our knowledge, the suit brought forward by the 112 plaintiffs is the first occasion where these women compare their situation to those women who are often referred to as “comfort women” (위안부, wianbu), a euphemism to describe women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. We decided to publish the translation of the above article because of the significance of this change, and we always used scare quotes when using the terms “camptown prostitutes” and “comfort women” to indicate that they represent special terminology used in this discourse. Where “camptown prostitution” is concerned, it remains unclear to what extent some, most or all women involved were forced to provide sex. The title above is not intended to dismiss the veracity of the claims brought forward by the plaintiffs, nor is it intended to express any opinion on the matter. It simply used, in scare quotes, the term these women are generally referred to.
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.
Presentations at Humboldt University of Berlin
In March 2013, I had the pleasure of giving a presentation at a symposium at Humboldt University of Berlin. The presentation was titled “Sex Crime” or “Sexual Self-Determination”? and dealt with prostitution discourses in South Korea and their negative impacts on sex workers. This presentation was part of a session titled “Autonomy and Heteronomy in Sex Work”. The second presenter in this session was Ms. Noémi Katona who gave a presentation titled “Coercion, Money, and Intimacy: Hungarian Sex Workers and their Pimps/Boyfriends at Kurfürstenstraße”. In February 2014, podcasts of these and other presentations were made available by the organisers and the above video contains an updated version of my slides and combined it with the podcast. Click here to listen to Noémi Katona’s presentation and here to listen to our joint Q & A session. For all other podcasts, please click here. Please note that this video and all podcasts are available in German only and that their audio quality, on which we had no influence, is sadly below par.
“Human Trafficking in the 21st Century”
Despite heightened public attention to “human trafficking”, the definition of this phenomenon remains difficult and contested. On March 22nd and 23rd, 2013, the symposium “Hurt Lives – Denied Rights. Human Trafficking in the 21st Century” took place at Humboldt University Berlin. Next to academic and field experts, young researchers showcased their work in presentations and workshops. The symposium was sponsored by the Humboldt-Universitäts-Gesellschaft e.V. (Humboldt University‘s Association of Friends, Alumni and Sponsors).
On November 30th, 2013, an event was held at the Vancouver Public Library to remember the victims of the 1989 massacre at L’École Polytechnique. According to Hilla Kerner, spokeswoman for Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, which sponsored the event, its purpose was not only to “remember those 14 women in the political and historical context that this man killed them”, but also “to use the day to talk about violence against women now, to reveal the different forms of male violence against women, and to celebrate women’s resistance. … We do see prostitution as one form of male violence against women.”
In the run-up to the event, the invitation of Janice Raymond had sparked a controversy. Raymond is an American radical feminist author and activist, and a professor emerita of Women’s Studies and Medical Ethics at the University of Massachusetts (UMass). Between 1994 and 2007, Raymond served as a co-executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), where she is currently on the Board of Directors. She campaigns against the legalisation of prostitution and for the penalisation of the clients of sex workers. Her academic credibility has been called into question, among others by Ronald Weitzer, professor of Sociology at George Washington University, known for his publications on the sex industry. 
At the event, Raymond gave a talk under the heading “Prostitution: Not a Job, not a Choice”, in which she referred to the “South Korean Model”, i.e. the Anti-Sex Trade Law, as a “miracle” that “truly empowers the women”. Below, I will respond to Raymond’s claims and describe an interesting response I received in an online forum.
Responding to Janice Raymond’s claims
[Raymond] “Basically, the Republic of South Korea in the year 2004 passed a zero tolerance law, that’s what it was called, targeting, among other things, the demand for prostitution.”
What Raymond refers to here are the Special Laws on Sex Trade (성매매 특별법, Seongmaemae tteukbyeol beob) – that is what they are called – and what she omits is that one of the “other things” the laws are targeting is the selling of sexual acts. The Punishment Act penalises both buyers and sellers of sexual acts with up to one year in prison or fines of up to 3 million won (approx. £1,715/€2,075/$2,825), except for those who were coerced into selling sex.
[Raymond] “When I met with service organizations in Korea that provided this assistance to women, they told me that the most gratifying part of the law was the 56% decrease of women in prostitution that was reported several years after the law was passed. That was from a government study, that was the Ministry of Gender Equality that conducted that study in Korea. So a 56% decrease in women in prostitution, and that the number of sex districts had decreased also, by about 40%.”
The cited “government study” is a report from November 2007 that was published by the South Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (여성가족부, MOGEF) but produced by the Korean Women’s Development Institute (한국여성정책연구원, KWDI), and its research methodology seems questionable at best.
The report, which is only available in Korean, is titled: “National Survey on the current conditions of the Sex Trade in Korea” (전국성매매실태조사). KWDI chose altogether 8 business types from government registries of businesses they suspected as most likely to facilitate transactional sex. Those were: serviced pubs, clubs, smaller pubs, tea and coffee houses, noraebangs (karaoke places), barber shops, massage parlours, and beauty shops/wellness places. People living or working in red light districts were interviewed and the findings were based on their impressions.
The cited 56% decrease only refers to the number of remaining red light districts (39 in 2007, down from 69 in 2002), not the number of “women in prostitution” and not the number of businesses – just the number of red light districts, some of which disappear(ed) due to gentrification and redevelopment. According to the report, the number of sex workers working in those 39 red light districts decreased by 40% (3,644 in 2007, down from 9,092 in 2002), and the number of “full-time brothels” (전업형) in those 39 red light districts decreased by 49% (1,443 in 2007, down from 2,938 in 2002). However, these numbers do not account for sex workers and businesses outside of these 39 red light districts or for the influence the internet has had on the sex industry.
Thus, any conclusions drawn from the KWDI report only apply to these specific red light districts, and it is important to note that the report’s time frame began in fact two years prior to the introduction of the Anti-Sex Trade Law, which means that the decrease cannot be attributed to the law alone, even where the conditions in red light districts are concerned.
The numbers in the KWDI report don’t always add up either. The 2007 figures in the report list 39 red light districts, 1,443 brothels, 3,644 sex workers, 2,510,000 clients per year, and an average of 5.8 clients per brothel and day. However, if one multiplies 5.8 x 1443 x 365 (clients per brothel and day x brothels x 1 year), one arrives at 3,054,831 client visits, a discrepancy of 544,831. It probably explains why MOGEF stated they wouldn’t take any responsibility for the figures in the report.
“This report was commissioned by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and the research was conducted by the Korea Women’s Development Institute. The result of this research and the content of the report are solely the opinions of the researchers, of which no official position of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family is to be inferred.”
[Raymond] “Included in that legislation were added resources to assist the women in prostitution. … The assistance package, that was really, very much funded by the government, which provided counselling, job retraining, medical treatment, a monthly stipend, and legal support. And to qualify for that, women had to demonstrate in some way, through the assistance organizations, who certified this, that they had been harmed or that they suffered from addictions or other disabilities or were underage. Thousands of women took advantage of that provision and subsequently exited prostitution.”
According to government sources, the bare minimum sufficient to survive in South Korea is approx. 600,000 won for a 1-person household. For a 3-person household (e.g. single parent + 2 kids), it is approx. 1,300,000 won. People who receive government benefit also receive medical and educational support and have their TV license fees waived. As a comparison, a person working at minimum wage would earn 1,080,000 Won (before taxes).
Therefore, one can safely assume that a monthly stipend of 400,000 won, which is part of the assistance package Raymond referred to, does not represent a sufficient incentive to exit prostitution, since one wouldn’t be able to survive on it, and since in order to receive it, third parties are required to certify that one actually deserves it. In addition, the sustainability of said assistance seems questionable (see ‘Empowerment’).
Earlier, however, the same person wrote:
One can agree that asking the “wo(man) in the street” about her or his opinion is likely to produce “vague impressions, rumors and popular myths”. What the report I cited showed – and nothing else I had suggested – was how the majority of respondents viewed the implementation of the Anti-Sex Trade Law, with the key word being “viewed”. Nobody claimed they represented “reliable figures on prostitution”.
Janice Raymond, however, cited a government study of which she didn’t know who actually conducted it, a law of which she didn’t know the correct name, and figures that were not only derived via a dubious research methodology but which she also managed to confuse. (Raymond confused the respective percentages of the decreases in red light districts and the number of sex workers working in them.)
It speaks volumes then, that if a sex worker organisation commissions a research institute to do a survey, their results are denounced as “idiotic”, but when a government body commissions a research institute to do a survey, their results are viewed as “solid facts”, just so long as they support the desired narrative.
The “South Korean Model” is no more a “miracle” than the Swedish Model. The difference between the two is that the former states outright that it criminalises sex workers, while the latter claims it doesn’t.
Sex Workers demand: “Repeal the ‘Special Laws on Sex Trade’”
A constitutionality review of the Anti-Sex Trade Law, submitted in January 2013 by Criminal Law Judge OH Won Chan from the District Court in Northern Seoul, was scheduled to conclude six months later. A year on, however, no decision has been announced and the persecution of sex workers continues.
Since the adoption of the Anti-Sex Trade Law in 2004, sex workers have demanded to reform or repeal the law time and again, most famously in September 2011, when an estimated 1,500 sex workers gathered in Seoul to protest against the law.
If you want reliable information about the current conditions in South Korea’s sex industry, they are the people to go to.
(All images by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)
When discussing two of her previous studies of sex trafficking, “Raymond provides no information on where she located the women, how she gained access to them, how diverse or representative they are, and whether they saw themselves as victims. Moreover, none of the interview questions [are] revealed to the reader. … It is a canon of academic research that authors situate their findings in the related scholarly literature to highlight similarities and differences in findings and build on prior work— something that Raymond opted not to do.”