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bi-partisan article stating that the law had not only failed to protect women but instead hurt them, and thus had to be repealed.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.
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