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article stating that the law had not only failed to protect women but instead hurt them, and thus had to be repealed.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

What’s going on in a Gangnam Host Bar at 2am? (Part 2)

( Source )

Part 2 in the series from the Seoul Shinmun, kindly translated by Marilyn; for Part 1 and a wider discussion of what “Host Bars” are exactly, see here. Meanwhile, yes, I realize that those are actually Japanese hosts above, but then I’m afraid images of their less brazen Korean counterparts are rather harder to come by!^^

새벽 2 강남호빠 무슨 일이… “누나, ‘민짜원해? 있기야 있지”… 여성 탈선무법지대’ / What’s going on in a Kangnam ‘ho-bba’ at 2 a.m…“Noona, do you want ‘minjja’? Of course we have it!”…A lawless area of female deviance

지난달 말 서울 논현동 유흥가. 새벽 2시 무렵 우성아파트 사거리 일대를 지나 한쪽 골목으로 들어서자 현란하게 네온사인을 밝힌 유흥주점이 줄지어 나타났다. 이 중에서 룸살롱과 호스트바가 ‘1, 2부 형식’(저녁에는 룸살롱, 새벽에는 호스트바)으로 운영된다는 K업소를 찾았다.

At the end of last month in Seoul’s Nonhyeon-dong adult entertainment district, after passing the area around the Woo-seong Apartment Complex intersection at about 2 a.m. and entering an alley to one side, adult entertainment bars with flashy neon signs appeared in rows.  Among these, we went to ‘K’ business, which was being operated as a room salon and host bar in a ‘1, 2 part form’ (room salon in the evening, host bar late at night).

(Photo caption: Entrance to Seoul Samseong-dong host bar at 1 p.m. on the 18th.  Four young men who look like hosts are saying goodbye to two women)

내부로 들어서자 문 열린 객실 틈으로 40대 중년 남성들과 업소 아가씨들이 섞여 앉아 술잔을 기울이는 모습이 눈에 들어왔다. 바로 옆방에서는 20대 초반으로 보이는 앳된 남성들이 30~40대 여성들에게 입으로 안주를 먹여 주거나 윗옷을 벗고 춤을 추는 등 낯뜨거운 광경이 펼쳐졌다. 같은 공간에 남녀 접대부들이 섞여 있는 모습이 낯설었다. 이 가게의 1부 영업을 관리한다는 한 실장은 “1, 2부를 확실히 구분지어 영업한다. 업소 아가씨들이 남성 접대부들과 같이 일하는 것을 불편하게 여겨 그만두는 일이 잦기 때문”이라고 귀띔했다.

Upon entering, through the crack of an opened door middle-aged men in their 40s and the business’ young women sitting together and pouring drinks could be seen.  In the very next room, baby-faced men who looked like they were in their early 20s feeding snacks to women in their 30s or 40s or taking off their shirts and dancing, and other embarrassing scenes could be observed unfolding.  Male and female hosts mixing in the same space was unusual.  A director who runs this business’ first part said “We run the two parts very separately.  It is because the business’ young women consider it uncomfortable to work with male hosts and so often quit.”

(Map of host bars in Gangnam-3-Gu)

팁은 시간 3만원 / Tips around 30,000 per hour

이곳에서는 양주 한병에 기본 18만원을 내야 한다. 고급 호스트바에 비해 상대적으로 저렴해 일부 주부들과 회사원 사이에 ‘부담 없이 놀기 좋은 장소’란 입소문이 난 곳이다. 5분 남짓 기다리자 ‘모델’, ‘보이’ 등으로 불리는 ‘박스’(10명 안팎의 호스트들로 꾸려진 팀)가 일렬로 들어왔다. ‘선수’(호스트를 지칭하는 은어)들은 업소에 상주하지 않고 손님이 찾을 경우 다른 곳에서 대기하다가 전화를 받고 오는 일명 ‘보도’ 형태로 운영되고 있었다. 남성 호스트에게 지불되는 팁은 시간당 3만원. 비교적 ‘저렴한’ 가격 때문에 오후 9시 이후에는 주부와 회사원, 새벽에는 여대생부터 유흥업소 종사자들까지 다양한 부류의 여성들이 찾는다고 했다.

Here, one must pay at least ₩180,000 for a bottle of Western alcohol.  Compared to top-level host bars, this is relatively cheap so it has gained a reputation among ordinary housewives and office workers as a “good place to have fun without a burden.”  After waiting over 5 minutes, a “box” (a team of 10 or so hosts) called “Model”, “Boy”, [Marilyn – I guess these are names of different box –?] and so on entered in a row.  “Seonsu” (the designated slang term for hosts [lit. “players”, as on a sports team]) who aren’t stationed at a business but are standing by so that when customers visit they receive a phone call and come, are managed as “bodo.”  Male hosts receive a tip of ₩30,000 per hour.  Because of the comparatively “cheap” price, housewives and office workers after 9pm, and at dawn, diverse types of women from university students to adult entertainment business professionals said they come here.

선수들 가운데는 고교생 티를 벗지 못한 앳된 얼굴도 보였다. “화끈한 준이에요.”, “끝나게 노는 현우예요.” 이런 투의 자기소개가 이어졌다. 두 명을 ‘초이스’한 뒤 이야기를 나눴다. (source, below)

Among the seonsu, there were babyfaces who haven’t yet shed their high school student look.  “I am Wild Joon”, “I am Hyeon-woo who plays hard.”  The self-introductions continued in this kind of tone.  Two people talked with us after “choice” [Marilyn – choosing ceremony?].

“더 어린 친구는 없나?”

“You don’t have any younger friends?”

누나 ‘민짜’(미성년) 좋아해? 있기야 있지. 아까 두 번째 애도 올해 수능 봤어.”

“Does noona like minjja (underage)?  Of course we have it!  The second kid just now also took the college entrance exam this year.”

4년째 호스트 생활을 하고 있다는 20대 남성 A씨는 “미성년자는 주로 업소보다 보도에 많다.”면서 “간혹 여자 손님 중에 미성년자도 있다.”고 털어놨다.

Mr. A, a man in his 20s who has been a host for four years, confessed, “There are usually more underage at bodo than at businesses.”

이른바 ‘2차’가 가능한지 물었다. “에이, 알면서…. 누나가 맘에 들어 해서 좋아. 근데 이게 시간당 계산되는 거라서….”

This reporter asked if the so-called “second stage” were possible.  “Come on, you already know … I like noona so that’s fine. But it’s an hourly-calculated thing, so…”


일부 룸안에서 즉석 성매매 / As far as prostitution on the spot in some rooms

한 20대 선수는 눈치를 살피며 말꼬리를 흐렸다. 2차 비용에 대한 이야기인 듯싶어 “50만원 정도면 어때?”라고 물었더니 고개를 끄덕였다. 간혹 룸 안에서 즉석 성매매가 이뤄지는 경우도 있다고 했다.

A seonsu in his twenties trailed off while watching for a reaction.  It seemed to be talk about the price of a second stage, so this reporter asked “How about ₩500,000 or so?” and he nodded.  He said there are sometimes cases in which on-the-spot prostitution occurs in a room.

그는 이어 “경찰 단속이 뜨면 내가 웨이터라고 말하거나 누나랑 아는 사이라고 하면 돼.”라며 손님으로 가장한 취재진을 안심시켰다.

He then gave comfort to the reporter disguised as a customer, saying, “If the police come in, all I have to do is say I’m a waiter or that noona and I know each other.”

한참을 ‘놀다’ 일어서려는 취재진에게 한 선수가 투정 부리듯 말했다. “누나, 단속은 걱정 안 해도 돼요. 다 방법이 있어요.”

To the reporter who had “played” for a good while and was standing up to leave, a seonsu complained, “Noona, you don’t have to worry about a crackdown.  Everything has a solution.”

(Links to be provided as posts go up: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4)


What’s going on in a Gangnam Host Bar at 2am? (Part 1)


Host Bars? I’d always assumed they were one-off novelties, largely created for the purpose of perpetuating Westerners’ sexual stereotypes of the Japanese. Any Korean versions would surely be even more rare and exotic.

It turns out, actually they’re a booming industry, in both Japan and Korea. There’s hundreds of establishments just in the wealthier parts of Seoul alone.

Not to be confused with the unfortunately named “Ho Bar” chain in Hongdae, they’re known as ho-bba (호빠) in Korea (“host clubs” in Japan),  which translator Marilyn strongly suspects the name is a play on obba (오빠) or (lit. “older brother”, but often used romantically).  Just like a friend of hers said the jeong (정) in the more upmarket jeong-bba (정빠) version is short for jeong-teong (정통), or “authenticity/legitimacy”.

(Source: Urbantofu)

Intrigued, I was a little disappointed that the following article in the Seoul Shinmun, the first in a series of four, provides little more than basic statistics. Fortunately however, a quick search produced:

In light of that last, perhaps the current boom isn’t quite as recent or as unprecedented as the following article suggests. What do you think? Have any readers been to themselves?

Update: with thanks to commenters for passing them on, From Noona With Love has a mini-interview with a former Busan host-bar worker here, and the drama Jungle Fish (정글피쉬) also featured a character that worked at a host-bar.


새벽2, 강남 호스트바에선 무슨일이() / 여성 고객 하루 1만명주부, 10 급증탈선

What’s going on at a Kangnam host bar at 2am? / 10,000 female customers daily… housewives, teens rapid increase is “deviation”

서울 강남에 독버섯처럼 돋아난 호스트바(속칭 호빠)가 탈선의 온상이 되고 있다. 18일 경찰 및 업계에 따르면 강남 일대 최소 100곳의 합·불법 호빠에 하루 평균 1만여명의 여성 손님이 오고, 이들 가운데 상당수는 성(性)을 구매한다. 이는 지난해 11월 24일부터 지난 17일까지 호빠 밀집지역인 논현·서초·청담동 등에 대한 본지의 탐문 취재에서도 확인됐다. 복수의 업소 관계자의 증언을 종합하면 강남지역 호빠의 전체 매출액은 연간 3000억원 이상으로 추산된다. 하지만 대부분의 업소들이 무허가 영업이나 속칭 ‘2부 영업’을 하고 있기 때문에 세무당국에 매출이 포착되지 않고 있다.

Kangnam, in Seoul, is becoming a hotbed of deviation in which host bars (popularly known as ho-bba) sprout like poisonous mushrooms.  According to police and the industry on the 18th, in the Kangnam area at least 100 ho-bba, legal and illegal, are visited daily by an average of 10,000 female customers, a considerable number of whom purchase sex.  This has been confirmed by this paper’s investigative coverage of areas with many ho-bba like Nonhyeon-dong, Seocho-dong, Cheongdam-dong, and others, from Oct. 24 of last year through Jan. 17.  Putting together the testimony of several industry sources, the total yearly sales of Kangnam-area ho-bba are estimated at ₩300 billion.  However, because most businesses operate without a license or are “two-part businesses”, these sales are not being detected by tax authorities.

(Table caption: Progress of crackdown on female sex-purchasing   * Purchasing of sex and procuring of prostitution  {unit: people})


100여곳 성업年매출 3000

Around 100 places thriving … 300 billion in sex sales

업소 관계자들은 강남·서초·송파구 등 ‘강남 3구’에만 100여곳의 호빠가 성업 중이라고 입을 모았다. 탐문취재 결과 ‘정빠’(고급 호빠)는 D, P, B 등 5곳으로 조사됐고, ‘일본식 호빠’(일명 아빠방·정빠에서 밀려난 25~30대 후반 남성이 고용된 호스트바)는 R, V, B 등 10여곳 정도 파악됐다. ‘디빠’(덤핑 바·저렴한 가격의 호빠)와 ‘퍼블릭’(성매매까 지 이뤄지는 호빠)은 M, S, G 등 각각 3곳이었다. 특히 현장 확인 결과 무허가나 업종을 바꿔 불법 영업을 하고 있는 곳도 5곳이나 되는 것으로 드러났다. 이처럼 업소가 늘어나면서 지하철 2호선 강남역 일대에만 1300~2000명의 남성들이 정빠 등 호스트바에서 일하는 것으로 조사됐다. 호스트바의 인원, 매출, 위치 등 구체적 실태가 확인된 것은 처음이다.

Industry sources unanimously said the hundred or so ho-bba that can be found just in “the three Kangnam boroughs” – Kangnam, Seocho, and Songpa – are thriving.  Investigative coverage found five jeong-bba (high-level ho-bba), including “D”, “P, and “B”, and it is estimated there are about ten “Japanese-style ho-bba” (also known as “dad rooms”; host bars that hire men ousted from jeong-bba, from the ages of twenty-five to late thirties), including “R”, “V”, and “B”.  There were three each of “D bba” (dum-ping bar – a low-price ho-bba) and “public” (ho-bba in which prostitution occurs), including “M”, “S”, and “G”.  The results of the special site check revealed that there are also five businesses without a license or that have changed their type of business into an illegal one.  It was found that, as this type of business increases, between 1,300 and 2,000 men work at jeong-bba or other host bars just in the Kangnam Station area on subway line 2.  This is the first time the specific, actual conditions of host bars, like the number of people involved, sales, location, and so on, have been confirmed.

지난 17일, 20대 일반여성들이 자주 찾는다는 논현동의 S호스트바에서 5시간 동안 여성 고객 숫자를 세어 본 결과 시간당 평균 5명 안팎이 업소를 찾았다. 보통 오후 10시부터 다음 날 오후 2시 무렵까지 문을 여는 점(16X5)을 감안하면 하루 80명 안팎의 여성들이 이곳을 찾는 것으로 추산된다. 경찰 관계자는 “개인적으로 알고 있는 업소만 100곳이 넘고, 고객도 1만명이 넘는다.”면서 “여성 손님의 30% 정도가 2차를 나가는 것으로 알고 있다.”고 전했다

On the 17th at Nonhyeon-dong’s “S” host bar, where average women in their twenties often go, counting the number of female customers for five hours showed that about five people per hour visit the business.  Considering that it is usually open from 10pm to 2pm the next day, it is estimated that around 80 women visit this place every day.  A police source said, “Just the number of places I personally know exceeds 100, and there are more than 1,000 customers,” and added, “I know that about 30% of female customers go out for a second stage.”


10% 이상 ‘2’… 적발 매년

More than 10% [go to] “second stage”… every year rapid increase in number caught

업계 관계자들 역시 “업소당 하루 평균 100명 안팎의 손님이 찾아오고, 10명 중 한두 명은 2차를 나간다.”며 “2차는 고급 호빠인 정빠보다 보도(전화로 부르는 접대부)와 디빠 등에서 주로 이뤄진다.”고 털어놓았다. 이를 반영하 듯 돈을 주고 성을 사다 적발되거나 성을 알선한 여성 성매매 사범의 숫자도 2006년 2636명, 2007년 7161명, 2008년 9411명, 2009년 1만 3414명으로 해가 갈수록 증가하고 있다. 특히 유흥업소 여성들이 주요 고객이었던 이전과 달리 최근에는 가격이 싼 ‘보도방’과 ‘아빠방’을 위주로 10대와 가정주부 고객이 급증한 것으로 드러나 심각성을 더하고 있다. 경찰 관계자는 “물증찾기가 힘들어 단속이 어렵다.”고 말했다.

Industry sources also said, “Every day an average of roughly 100 customers come to each business, and one or two out of every ten people go on to a second stage,” and confessed, “The second stage usually takes place with a bodo (a host contacted through the phone) or at a D-bba, rather than at a high quality jeong-bba.”  Reflecting this, the number of sexual commerce offenses in which women are caught paying for sex or procure sex for others is increasing every year – from 2,636 people in 2006 to 7,161 people in 2007, 9,411 people in 2007, and 13,414 people in 2009. The seriousness grows as it is revealed that, different from most female customers of adult entertainment businesses in the past, currently the number of teenage and housewife customers, mainly at low-priced “bodo rooms” and “dad rooms”, is quickly increasing.  A police source said, “It is hard to find evidence so crackdowns are difficult.”


(Links to be provided as posts go up: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)