Why I Choose the Term “Sex Work” Over “Prostitution”—and You Should Too

Because most sex workers themselves do (duh). But if you’re looking for a deeper explanation, Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, just out in a Korean translation, would be a great place to start.

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes. Sources: Aladin, mikoto.raw Photographer from Pexels.

Once upon a time, I lived with male sex workers in a red-light district in New Zealand, shortly before sex work’s decriminalization there. Truthfully, the experience was no great eye-opening introduction to LGBTQ politics and sex workers’ rights. They were under no obligation to provide one, and were much too busy working, taking drugs, and partying to care anyway, even when they saved time by doing all three simultaneously. Mostly then, what I did learn was how to dance half-naked to Cher’s latest hit on the DJ equipment in our living room, which also happened to have hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of Eastern Orthodox iconography of saints hanging on its walls. (It’s a long story.) Under their judgmental eyes, I’d hear a great many confessions from my newfound friends and flatmates over the next 18 months, including letting go of their tough, affected exteriors for a moment and letting me know how much it bothered them that I—who should know better—called them “prostitutes.” Of course I stopped immediately, just like it’s basic respect to automatically defer to people’s preferred pronouns today.

Sadly, since moving to Korea and settling down, I only occasionally dance half-naked in the living room now. (My teenage daughters are somewhat less sad about that.) Also, recent events notwithstanding, I’m a lot less likely to find amphetamines lying around on the floor than I did back then too. Which is a pity, because I needed the energy. For a long time, I was just too sleep-deprived and focused on nappies and piggy-backs to give much thought to sex work. Just between you and me, I may even have been too tired to remember to use the s-word for a while.

Then I started this blog. Although I can’t claim to have personally met sex workers and activists as a result of my eye-catching, shamelessly stolen byline, I have met people who know many well. Again, I learned that worldwide, terms that focus on the job, rather than historical terms that stigmatize with their connotations of criminality and immorality, are generally preferred by sex workers themselves. So I’ve been at pains to use “sex work(er)” ever since. (In Korean, “성노동[자],” rather than the generic “성매매.”)

You may be surprised then, to learn at the visceral reaction you can receive at calling members of a profession what they actually want to be called, as recently explained by Hankyoreh columnist Han Seung-eun:

성노동이라는 단어를 쓸 때면 손끝에서 미세한 진동이 느껴진다. 오랜 시간 성매매를 둘러싼 긴장과 대립을 간접 경험하며 생긴 반응이다. 성매매가 아닌 성노동이라고 표현하는 순간, 이어질 문장들은 사라지고 납작한 메시지만 수신된다. ‘당신은 성매매가 얼마나 성차별적이고 폭력적인지 인정하지 않는군요. 어떻게 성을 사고파는 일을 노동이라 표현하죠? 그 현장이 얼마나 참혹한지 몰라서 하는 말인가요? ’나는 금기가 된 단어를 사용하는 일보다, 그 금기로 인해 더 많은 논의가 이어지지 못하는 현실을 두려워하기로 했다.

When I use the term “sex work,” I feel a slight tingling in my fingertips. I get this physical sensation as an indirect reaction to the tension and confrontation I’ve been feeling for a long time whenever I choose how to discuss the selling of sexual services. You see, as soon as I choose the term “sex work” instead of “prostitution,” all nuance gets lost and I get these dogmatic, stock responses of “Don’t you know how sexually discriminatory and violent it is? How can you describe the buying and selling or sex as just ‘work’? Don’t you realize how horrendous and gruesome it is?” The word was so taboo, that I was scared of using it at all lest it just close the conversation down completely.

Of course, things are more complicated than that. It’s no secret that that those who support the abolition of the sex trade generally prefer the p-word instead. To use the s-word is to declare your politics.

Are things really all that more complicated though? Just on its own objective merits, the p-word has very little to recommend it, as that last link makes clear.

More to the point, I feel compelled to reiterate that if sex workers think of themselves as workers, then I’m inclined to believe they have good reasons for that. Not so much, to listen to sex work abolitionists—or anyone else—who claim to know the wants and needs of a group better than members of a group themselves.

I stress I’m no expert. But I’ve just found an opportunity to learn more. Through Han Seung-eun’s column (actually a review) appearing in my feed today, I learned of the book Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights (2018) by Juno Mac and Molly Smith, which by all accounts provides a very balanced, nuanced argument for decriminalization (alas, Nordic Model Now! disagrees). Now updated in a 2020 edition, I’m glad to have been made aware of it and to have learned that a Korean translation has recently been released, and the least I could do is to also let you know about it too.

Please check out publisher Verso for ordering information. Unfortunately for Korea-based readers, even with a sale on at the moment the time and cost of sending a paperback from the UK are prohibitive. However, it is very cheap to buy on Aladin.

What are you waiting for?

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Sex, Marriage, and Sex Work in South Korea

Korean Wedding Sidelong Glance(Source: Matt Scott; CC BY 2.0)

With my considerable gratitude to its author for passing it on, I’ll let the following email speak for itself:

…As a foreign woman married to a Korean man, myself and my husband face a unique set of cultural obstacles in our marriage. It can be trying at times, but we are usually able to work out our differences through a serious commitment to communication. However, there is one aspect of being married to a Korean man that I continually struggle with. From what I have observed throughout my time in Korea (and please correct me if I’m wrong), it seems that frequenting prostitutes is an accepted part of life for Korean married men. In fact, it is often required of businessmen if they want to be successful and accepted among their coworkers. For example, I have a friend who was offered a highly coveted position with a certain large corporation. While working there, he was required to regularly go out drinking and visiting prostitutes with his team. Given the strong hierarchical nature of Korean society, he felt unable to say no to his superiors, yet his religious beliefs compelled him to reject this lifestyle. As a result, he had no other choice but to quit and try to find another line of work.

I am told by Korean friends that going out drinking and womanizing with coworkers is an integral part of business in Korea (and, I imagine, another way that female employees are excluded and held back in business). Although this was shocking to me at first, it wasn’t hard to believe once I became more familiar with the language and more observant of my surroundings. It’s impossible to go anywhere in this country without being faced with a constant barrage of prostitution venues. Of course, they often masquerade as something else- massage parlors, karaoke rooms, barber shops, tea shops, PC rooms, bars, rest houses, etc., but they all offer at least the possibility of sex. It’s not exactly comforting to walk around in the middle of the day and see middle-aged men in business suits going into cheap motels on their lunch breaks or after work before returning home to their families. Although I know my husband is a good man and he has assured me that he’ll never engage in that type of behavior, I find it hard to trust him completely when every man in his life, including his father, his friends, and his mentors, sets this kind of example.

When I ask my female friends how Korean women put up with this from their husbands, they tell me that it’s what the men must do if they are to be successful. One said that even though the husbands stay out all night with prostitutes, drink with them, touch their bodies, etc., it is their choice whether or not they go all Korean Tomato Couplethe way. I simply can’t wrap my head around this rationalization. Where I come from, if a spouse cheats, it is expected that the couple will either get divorced or go into some serious marriage counseling. It is not simply tolerated, or at least not by those who have any self-respect. As I love my husband deeply, my greatest fear is that he will give in to his peers and join them some time, resulting in the end of our marriage. I can’t conceive of how Korean men can not only hurt and disrespect their wives like this, but also spend all their time fraternizing with coworkers and women rather than spending it with their children. This aspect of Korean culture is toxic to families, and is one of the reasons I don’t believe I could raise a family in Korea. I am truly interested to hear how other married women – both Korean and foreigners – deal with this problem. Have they experienced the same fears that I have, or have their experiences been different? Do they tolerate their husbands going out with coworkers and meeting women, and if so, why? Finally, for those like me who are greatly disturbed by this aspect of the culture, how do they overcome these anxieties and learn to trust their husbands? (end)

Korean Businessman Playing Guitar(Source: Simon Helle Nielsen; source above: Shawn Perez. Both CC BY 2.0)

As I too would soon quit any job that required regularly drinking with colleagues, let alone visiting prostitutes, then I don’t have anything to add to the email I’m afraid. But I can point you towards my discussion of the effects on married couples’ sex lives, based around my review of Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage and the Modern Japanese Woman by Sumie Kawakami (2007); as I explain there, the experiences and attitudes described there are very relevant to Korean couples, largely because both countries share the same salaryman working culture, with husbands (and indeed wives) working late most evenings.

Also, by coincidence Michael Hurt at the Scribblings of the Metropolitician has just written a post on Korean society’s denial of the pervasiveness, ubiquity, and above all systematic nature of prostitution that is highly relevant to the discussion here. A snippet:

…I posit that the resistance to what every outsider observes as KOREAN SOCIAL REALITY in terms of the commodification and subjugation of women in this society, especially as embodied in the rampant institutionalized prostitution that is as observable in terms of the sheer numbers and types of such places of business (room salons, business clubs, barber shops, massage parlors, handjob rooms, juicy bars, miin-chon, 단란주점, 도우미 노래방, which goes without even mentioning the vast numbers of red-light districts in every part of Seoul and every city in Korea) NARY REQUIRES statistics, either.

What I see as the frequent resistance of people to believe something that is OBVIOUS in observed reality if one simply COUNTS the number of houses of prostitution on a single city block in any part of this city — Kangnam Station to Shinchon to City Hall to Apkujeong to Chungdam to nearly any neighborhood after midnight, when the plastic balloons, mini-trucks, and neon signs come on that aren’t on during the day — is partially a denial of obvious reality, coupled with the urge to throw out the many statistics that bolster easy observation because they make one very uncomfortable.

But I’m a human being. I understand emotions. But what makes it so easy for me to recognize that the US brutally kidnapped, displaced, and murdered MILLIONS of human beings for the sake of material gain, which has resulted in creating some negative aspects to my culture, i.e. discrimination and institutionalized racism? But when I mention institutionalized prostitution as a legacy of compressed and authoritarian development in the Korean context, people instantly start equivocating and dismissing my argument, while holding it to such an abnormally high bar of scrutiny, one would be hard-pressed to assert ANYTHING particular about Korean society….(end)

Read the rest there.

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