A young Korean friend asked for a little help with a short essay he had written for his university English class. We chatted over a beer in the pub, went over a couple of minor grammatical stumbles, tidied up the punctuation and a few spelling mistakes. I told him his one-page paper, whilst a bit repetitive, was fine. Then I asked if he wanted to talk about the actual topic of his essay. He seemed not to understand the question – what did the content have to do with anything? His topic was prostitution in South Korea and to summarise, it went like this…
I am glad that prostitution is illegal in Korea. On my trip to Europe last year I visited Amsterdam and I was shocked to learn that prostitution is legal there. I am glad I am Korean. Prostitution is degrading to woman and prostitution exploits women. If prostitution is legal then that means those people think it is ok to exploit women. I am happy that prostitution is illegal in Korea.
I had to ask my young friend what he thought of Korea’s massive sex industry (which 10 years ago was estimated to generate over four percent of the nation’s GDP – more than Korea’s agriculture and fisheries industries combined). Who, if anyone, was enforcing these laws my young friend was so in favour of, considering the staggering statistics frequently reported in the press on what (on numbers alone) appears to be a little-spoken national pastime.
“What about the coffee girls”, I asked.These miniskirt-clad, scooter-riding young women deliver hot flasks of coffee to businessmen all over the country. The girl sits and chats with the businessman while he enjoys his coffee. Everything else costs extra of course. This is illegal of course, but a convenience considered by many to be an important, if not necessary service, providing executive stress relief to very important men who are so busy working they don’t even have time to leave the office for sex. This is all perfectly acceptable behaviour of course, because after all it is ostensibly all about the coffee (I have a theory that all these business guys having all this relaxing, stress-reliving sex during the workday probably only became stressed and jittery in the first place because of all that coffee).
“What about the barbershops?” I went on.
Like the coffee girls, the barbershops are found nationwide and advertise their services by means of two spinning red and white ‘barbers’ poles’, which usually lead customers into the basements of buildings, where men are generally served by ajummas (some of the more seasoned industry workers, let’s say). Everybody knows somebody or has heard a story about some guy who inadvertently entered one of these establishments with a mind toward getting an actual haircut.
I quizzed him about the ‘Hooker Cards’ that litter the streets near numerous red-light districts and universities. There’s no way you can collect the whole set of these particular shiny business cards featuring a picture of a barely clothed young Korean woman and a mobile phone number. There are just too many of them. Prostitution is illegal, but it’s fine to advertise your illegal service (and phone number) all over the city.
“What’s with all the ‘juicy-bars’?”
Frequented largely by American military personnel, these bars are full of attractive young women who will approach you for a friendly chat, then ask you to buy them a drink. They’re known as ‘juicy bars’, because the ‘drink’ you buy the nice lady will cost you twenty dollars, and will have very little or no alcohol at all (so the bargirls don’t get too drunk while they’re working). In these bars you can strike a deal with the management and/or the lady, and move on from there. These are of course illegal. There are thousands of them.
“What about the ‘Love Hotels’ everywhere?”
These are basically like any other inexpensive motel, often with a computer and wide-screen TV in each room, though they can be rented by the night or by the hour. My wife and I have stayed in a few love motels around the country and it is at one of these we encountered our first dildo vending machine.
Then there are the room salons, noraebangs (private singing rooms), DVD bangs (private rooms where teenagers can also watch a DVD). Why some of these rooms also have private showers is a complete mystery… because prostitution is illegal.
Of course, you can also just stroll down various streets and choose a woman from a glass box with red neon lights exactly the same as the lights at my local butcher.
The Ministry for Gender Equality estimated that around half a million women were working in the South Korean sex industry, though some within the industry have estimated this number to be 1.2 million.
Most recent reports suggest the number of sex workers has fallen steadily since new anti-sex trafficking laws were introduced in 2007, though it remains a massive business, and other countries in the region have noted increasing numbers of Koreans women moving overseas to work in less restrictive countries, such as Australia. The great number of sex workers remaining in Korea are increasingly using internet chaatrooms and other non-traditional methods to procure clients and keep working.
I was just getting warmed, and temporarily forgot I had strayed somewhat from my friend’s original request for grammatical assistance with a 100-word English-language freshmen university homework assignment.
Getting toward full rant mode I challenged him on the safety of Korean sex workers, now that the increasing enforcement of the existing laws was forcing their industry further underground, where the women may arguably be more vulnerable to extortion, violence and disease.
Why was it exactly, that the industry workers themselves have on a number of occasions held high-profile mass protest rallies to protect their brothels and jobs, some going as far as to douse themselves in fuel and threaten self-immolation in order to ‘die with glory’ rather than lose their livelihoods.
Where, I demanded, would a working girl (having committed a crime) go for help if she was beaten or raped?
Why exactly are Korean men reported to be the biggest (per capita) sex tourists in South-east Asian countries, such as Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam… Meanwhile back at home, upper estimates from within the industry suggest that around 20% (one in 5?!) women between 15 and 29 have worked in the industry.
My friend stopped me. I had become so involved in my impromptu rant that I’d completely failed to notice the peaceful, slightly glazed expression he was now wearing. I’d seen this face before. Koreans, as far as I know, are the champions of the galaxy at a game called ‘This Isn’t Happening’. It can be quite disarming to the uninitiated, and a game of ‘This Isn’t Happening’ can break out at any time, in any context. The conversation was over. Actually, I’m not confident it ever began.
“You don’t understand,” he said calmly, resting his hand gently on my shoulder.
“Prostitution is illegal here”.
*Photography by Mathew Campagna at campagnapictures.com