“Good women need our help, bad women need to be punished” — Learning about Sex Workers’ Rights in South Korea

Caption: South Korean women working in the sex industry stand on a stage during a rally in central Seoul on September 22, 2011 in protest at frequent crackdowns by authorities. About 1,500 women wearing masks to conceal their identities chanted slogans such as ‘Sex work is not a crime, but labour!’ and called for the abolition of a special law enacted in 2004 to curb prostitution. [Photo: Jung Yeon-Je — AFP/Getty Images]

[James] — Since September 2011, German-born researcher Matthias Lehmann has been conducting an independent research project to investigate the impact of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws on sex workers’ human rights and livelihood. In this guest post for The Grand Narrative, he outlines key events that led to the adoption of the problematic law and the motivation for his research:

Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws

In September 2000, the notorious Gunsan Brothel Fire killed five women who had been held captive. Their tragic deaths exposed the conditions in Korea’s sex industry and triggered a campaign by women’s rights activists to reform the country’s prostitution laws. Their proposals became the blueprint for the Special Laws on Sex Trade (성매매특별법, Seongmaemae Tteukbyeolbeob), enacted in 2004, which include a Prevention Act and a Punishment Act. By passing these new laws, the government vowed to eliminate prostitution and protect victims of exploitation and violence in the sex industry.

The laws drew inspiration from the Swedish Violence Against Women Act (the Kvinnofrid law) from 1999, which criminalises the purchase of sexual services but aims to protect women working in the sex industry. The success of the Swedish model remains heavily contested. In 2010, the government issued an evaluation report that found that the law had achieved its objectives, to which government member Camilla Lindberg and opposition member Marianne Berg responded by publishing a bi-partisan article stating that the law had not only failed to protect women but instead hurt them, and thus had to be repealed.

In Korea, the Special Laws on Sex Trade remain a subject of debate. The Ministry of Gender Equality celebrated the legislation as a milestone achievement that would “vigorously strengthen the protection of the human rights of women in prostitution”. However, others criticise the legislation’s discriminatory attitude towards sex workers, who remain criminalised unless they claim to be victims. This “distinction between victims and those who [voluntarily] sell sex is actually one between protection and punishment” and categorises women into “good women who are worthy of help” and “bad ones who need to be punished”, thus continuing the stigmatisation of women who sell sex.

The Criminalisation of Prostitution Has Failed

Surveys have shown time and again, that despite being illegal, prostitution remains widespread in South Korea. Most recently, a state-funded survey found that 53 per cent of Korea’s sexually active senior citizens bought sex at brothels. A 2005 study found that “only 6 per cent of crimes occurred through the intermediary of a brothel, compared to 34 per cent via the internet, 26 per cent in massage parlours and barber shops.” The same study stated that the Anti-Sex Trade Laws had simply forced prostitutes further underground and overseas, as well as resulted in an increase in Korean sex tourists, a development very similar to that in Sweden.

According to the recent Report of the UNAIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Sex Work, “the approach of criminalising the client has been shown to backfire on sex workers. In Sweden, sex workers who were unable to work indoors were left on the street with the most dangerous clients and little choice but to accept them. … [Criminal laws] create an environment of fear and marginalisation for sex workers, who often have to work in remote and unsafe locations to avoid arrest of themselves or their clients. These laws can undermine sex workers’ ability to work together to identify potentially violent clients and their capacity to demand condom use of clients.”

Caption: Screenshot from a short film by Istvan Gabor Takacs, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network

Research Project Korea

Conducting research into the human rights situation of Korean sex workers is of particular importance because, while Korean sex workers have some links to the global sex workers’ rights movement, too little is known about their everyday experiences.

Since 2004, Korean sex workers have repeatedly staged organised protests against the Anti-Sex Trade Laws and police harassment, most famously in May 2011, when pictures of sex workers dousing themselves in flammable liquid made global headlines.

Caption: South Korean prostitutes in underwear and covered in body and face paint, douse themselves in flammable liquid in an apparent attempt to burn themselves after a rally in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, May 17, 2011. Hundreds of prostitutes and pimps rallied Tuesday near a red-light district in Seoul to protest a police crackdown on brothels, with some unsuccessfully attempting to set themselves on fire. [AP Photo/Lee Jin-man]

But despite an even bigger protest last September, the human rights situation of sex workers remains grim. While I cannot yet estimate the frequency of such occurrences, it is evident that verbal and physical abuses against sex workers are common features of police raids in the Korean sex industry, as is corruption.

Human Rights become Collateral Damage

Through my previous research and work in the field of human trafficking prevention, I have gained a deeper insight into the negative side effects of anti-trafficking policies. Research by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women found that some of them are undesired or unexpected, while others result from problems related to the implementation of new legislation, such as the lack of knowledge, training or aptitude of law enforcement officials.

But there are also desired side effects, resulting from policies that are intentionally worded vaguely and do little more than to satisfy what international human rights standards require. As a result, human rights quickly become the collateral damage of urban redevelopment projects, such as in Seoul’s Yeongdeungpo district, or efforts to curb unofficial migration and undocumented labour.

The conflation of anti-trafficking measures with campaigns to eradicate the sex industry has resulted in uneven policies that do not help the majority of trafficking victims, but instead drive the sex industry further underground, cutting off sex workers from their usual support networks.

Improving sex work-related legislation is a hotly contested issue that deserves to be discussed on the basis of sound knowledge, which I like to contribute to through my research. However, my project is not just meant to add to academic or legal discourses.

Graphic Novel about Sex Work

Sex workers often rightly criticise researchers, politicians or the media for distorting the reality of the sex industry. We are therefore developing a graphic novel entirely based on experiences shared with us by sex workers in Korea. It will be made available in both English and Korean, with the publication planned for the second half of this year.

Many Koreans have a keen interest in supporting humanitarian causes abroad. Yet, I have found that they are often quite surprised to learn that the hardships that sex workers endure in Korea can be quite different from their expectations.

Through the graphic novel, we would like to help making the situation of Korean sex workers known to a wider audience, both in Korea and abroad, in order for people to better understand that sex workers are part of their communities and deserve the same rights just as everyone else.

Research Project Korea + You!

Research Project Korea is an independent research project, unaffiliated to any university or organisation and exclusively funded by private donations. We publish regular updates on the project’s website, where you can also learn more about my team, and you can follow us via Facebook and Twitter. A Korean language section will be added to the website shortly.

Please visit our website to learn how you can support us and how our funds are spent.

WordPress: http://researchprojectkorea.wordpress.com/
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/Research.Project.Korea
Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/photogroffee

Further information and highly recommended viewing/reading

[VIDEO] “We want to save you. And if you don’t appreciate it, we will punish you!”
Swedish sexworker Pye Jacobsson on the criminalization of clients

[ARTICLE] Wendy Lyon “UNAIDS Advisory Group condemns Swedish sex purchase ban”

[VIDEO] South Korean sex workers rally | Reuters News Agency

[IMAGES] South Korean Prostitutes Protest Closing of Brothels

[ORGANISATION] Giant Girls – Korean Sex Workers Union

[ORGANISATION] Hanteo – National Sex Workers Union

12 thoughts on ““Good women need our help, bad women need to be punished” — Learning about Sex Workers’ Rights in South Korea

  1. People should watch the 1990s film Ch’ang (translated as Downfall) for (what I understand to be) a somewhat realistic portrayal of the types of conditions in the brothels, even among those who are less restricted.

    It’s obvious that whether Korea goes in the direction of legalization or prohibition, regulation and protection of the women in the industry is absolutely necessary. There has long been some regulation (aimed largely at STD control), but not as much protection (though some visa regulation changes have actually addressed this).

    I think legalization is probably the most practical solution if one accepts that prostitution cannot be eradicated and one wishes to mitigate as much as possible the ill effects on the women in the business, but as long as an evangelical Christian is in the Blue House, I don’t see that happening (and I don’t mean that to bash Christians, as I am one myself, just a lot more liberal on social issues than typical evangelicals or fundamentalists).


  2. I think instead of criminalizing prostitution, they should enforce laws that offer better protection and set up unions to make sure that they are safe!

    Seriously, not only they have to face potential dangers from violent customers but now, from the government!


  3. “but as long as an evangelical Christian is in the Blue House, I don’t see that happening (and I don’t mean that to bash Christians, as I am one myself, just a lot more liberal on social issues than typical evangelicals or fundamentalists).”

    I think you’ll find that women’s groups and feminists campaigners actually are some of the biggest pushers of criminalization on the buyers’ side, in Korea and beyond. The left is just as much in favor of prohibition as the Christian right, albeit sometimes for different reasons.


  4. @Kushibo

    Thanks for the film tip. Added to my watch list.

    Obviously, I don’t believe that effective protection for sex workers is attainable for as long as prostitution remains illegal. Whether or not legalisation is the answer, remains to be seen as research by the German government (that legalised prostitution in 2002) found that only 1% of the sex workers that had been interviewed had a contract of employment. (p.17, English version)

    As the main obstacle, sex workers named the uncertainty whether or not labour contracts would actually provide any social and material benefits for them, and to what extent they might be faced with unexpected disadvantages. The most common answer was that they simply could not imagine how such contracts should work.

    “I think that labour contracts wouldn’t really be helpful for any prostitute. You have to be very careful with labour contracts, because through contracts, there could also arise possibilities of a very different type of exploitation. Okay, you get a labour contract, but then you have to do [oral sex] or have to offer any service, that the customer wants. If that’s price that women are offered to pay for social insurance, then I would advise each and every woman not to do that.” (p.55, Translated from the German version)

    [Further reading: http://www.bmfsfj.de/RedaktionBMFSFJ/Broschuerenstelle/Pdf-Anlagen/bericht-der-br-zum-prostg-englisch,property=pdf,bereich=bmfsfj,sprache=en,rwb=true.pdf%5D

    As for 2MB: Evangelical Christian or not, I expect no positive policy from his administration at all where women are concerned.


    Korean sex workers already have two unions (GG Sexworker and Han-teo) but unfortunately, they aren’t recognised by the Korean authorities.


    I agree with you that some of the biggest pushers of criminalisation in Korea are from within the women’s rights and feminist groups, and you can read about my experience with them in my special report “In the Lion’s Den: An Evening among Abolitionists” [http://researchprojectkorea.wordpress.com/about/special-report]

    However, there are also dissenting voices in the women’s rights and feminist movements. My source of choice is the one given at the bottom of the above post: Feminist Ire – Not your fluffy Feminist [http://feministire.wordpress.com] Enjoy reading.


  5. As my brilliant friend, Matt, has dedicated himself to the issue above, I have been more interested in
    sex-worker case. Due to his efforts to promote ppl’s awareness on the matter, the country will be of more attention on the vulnerable, I believe.
    Following are my view touching upon economic sustainblity as members of society after I looked back my personal experience and knowledge with the industry.
    (, even if I think, one on one or group mentoring program would be good to promote mental strength and confidence of sex worker as a member of society )

    The key task relating to sex worker’s issues is how to deal with the underlying fact that most of the labors – as they describe themselves – are significantly vulnerable due to the creditor- debtor relationship, most of which involve Korean Mafs or gangsters. As seen in many cases, they are trapped by the debts which are likely to grab their ankles and block them from fighting against their desperate situation regardless of their will. How to handle the debts of sex workers is the most critical constraint to address problems at personal and societal level.

    Legalization of sex workers would not be the panacea, yet, it will function to protect sex workers and ameliorate many aspects of their lives. However, to address the problems sex workers face and protect them from the invisible hands(Maf, gangsters) in the sex industry, all stakeholders should gather and discuss how to handle the debts of sex workers, which have been illegally swollen exclusively by usury. Therefore, the gov’t should carefully inspect constraints at individual, industrial and societal level in ensuring rights, economic sustainability of sex workers and, devise ways to promote self-reliance of current sex workers, thus to pursue their happiness.

    In addition, although legalization would improve human rights’ related issues and many others for sex workers, there would probably be a number of tasks to be sustainably effective in the mid and long term. An essential task should be to transform sex industry into normal service sector (if I may put it accordingly) in this country as many cases show including Nevada’s case. Before the integration of sex industry into normal service sector in S. Korea, which is not easy work to do, the industry would be likely to become a secluded one. Then, sex workers would struggle to survive in the isolated stage with their debts, which will not sustain many of sex workers or even swamp them in the long-term. To close, the most important task is to financially and mentally empower the women to fight against their accumulated debts and social perception and with gov’t supports, thus, give them opportunities to become sustainable societal members of this country in the long-term.


  6. Legalization and control is of course the only way this could ever get any better. Some naive people (both feminists and conservatives) are idealists (or “purists”) and think that prostitution can be eradicated. Of course it can’t. As long as there is capitalism, there will be prostitution. Just as with drugs… or alcohol… criminalizing it only pushes it underground where more people will get hurt.

    Of course, the more and better welfare you have the less will be forced into prostitution. In Sweden (and the other nordic countries) the prostitutes are rarely Swedish women, but poor women from Asia or eastern Europe that don’t have access to the welfare system.


  7. I hold two views on this matter: one personal and spiritual and the other more public-oriented.

    From a personal viewpoint I find any kind of sexual action in exchange for money to be harmful to both participants. As a Christian there are numerous reasons why I believe so, but I won’t get into them here. So, from a faith perspective of course I’d like to see prostitution be eradicated and made illegal.However, turning to the law to accomplish spiritual/moral objectives is really putting the cart before the horse unless you have a theocracy in which all of society is in agreement (which of course doesn’t exist!). This is a common problem with using religious arguments to back policy.

    I think it’s safe to say that most contemporary industrialized societies are secular and seek to separate matters of faith from government to a large degree. If this then is the case, then policy should be determined by a) the will of the people and b) anything that is to the obvious advantage or detriment to the society being governed. This track of thought of course leads me to my public-oriented view.

    As far as I can see it, the best protection of women in the sex industry would be a legalization of prostitution (without pimps) combined with specifically pointed and well-funded government initiatives against human trafficking, a targeted and well-funded campaign by law enforcement against organized crime organizations.

    I think it is really important to remove any kind of pimps from the picture. If one is going to argue that it is a woman’s right to sell her body for sex, then why should there be a man in control of that business? Or another woman for that matter? If women want to sell their bodies and claim true “independence” in that act then no one but they and the client should deal in the matter. I can see perhaps business partnerships of women forming, but once there’s another person in control of the situation the woman committing the sexual acts loses her self-advocacy and it becomes an entirely different ball game. Prostitutes need to be their own agents.

    It is also very important that we do not minimize the reality of human trafficking in the sex industry. If I am faced with the moral predicament of prioritizing a woman’s right to sell her body vs. a woman’s right to physical freedom and NOT selling her body, then I have no choice but to put freedom first. Until sex trafficking has come to an end, the rights of prostitutes to work legally holds second place in this debate. At least to me. Legalization of prostitution would do little to nothing to relieve the women being held as slaves by organized crime units and exploitative pimps. Any legalization must go hand in hand with a crackdown on trafficking. While I agree that the current poorly constructed blanket legislation is also quite ineffective at helping those being held as slaves, it at least gives law enforcement a right to shut a suspected brothel down.

    Anyway, sorry to have gone on for so long! I’d just like to end with this link. It’s a very interesting article looking at the role of statistics in anti-trafficking policy and the challenges researchers face to gather those statistics. I think anyone reading this post may find it relevant.

    It’s the first paper here: http://www.nfsacademy.org/whitepapers/
    “Identifying Human Trafficking Victims | Building The Infrastructure of Anti-Trafficking: Information, Funding, Responses” by Fiona David.


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