South Korean sex workers fight to decriminalize prostitution

Although South Korea is home to a massive sex industry that is estimated to generate billions of US dollars annually the sale of sex remains technically illegal. A sort of strange and uneasy balance exists where shops are occasionally raided for violating the law while full service massage parlors and well-known red light districts filled with sex workers behind windows continue to operate openly on a daily basis.

In an effort to resolve this contradiction in their favor and bring themselves out of the shadows, around 1,000 South Korean sex workers recently marched to demand that their trade be decriminalized. According to an article in the Korea Herald the women gathered in Central Seoul to ask that the the controversial anti-prostitution law introduced in 2004 be abolished.

One sex worker who spoke to the paper said the women were asking that the industry be legal and regulated. According to her, “Right now we can’t pay taxes (because sex trade is illegal) and are not eligible to receive a lot of welfare benefits and protection because of this.”

These sorts of demonstrations have happened before including when plans to shut down a redlight district were launched years ago. Because of social stigma against sex work in South Korea most demonstrators wear surgical masks over their faces. Only a few march without them.

A 43-year-old sex worker is one who has come out of the darkness an onto the national stage when she launched a lawsuit against the police after they raided her place of work and took photographs of her getting dressed. According to the New York Times she said “I want what I do to be recognized as a job, a legitimate way of making a living.”

The South Korean Gender Ministry claims there are around 5,000 sex workers in South Korea. This seems to be a gross miscalculation. If it is true it would mean that twenty percent of the sex workers in the country showed up at the march. It would also mean that each women in the industry was generating a minimum of 200,000 US dollars a year. Certainly some women earn even more than that but many others like the older Bacchus Ladies who charge as little as $18 for sex do not.

Back in 2007, the Korea Women’s Development Institute said that there were 269,000 sex workers in the country generating some 13 billion US dollars. That would mean each made an average wage of about $48,327 a year which is well above the average wage in the country. For anyone with experience in or around the industry this seems to be a more accurate accounting.

The Korean Feminist Association goes even further claiming that up to 1,200,000 women work in the industry. Looking that all that goes on that may even be true. It may be possible that the South Korean government refers only to the women working in red light districts when it says there are 5,000 sex workers. That may be closer to reality but it would still ignore all the women working in massage parlors, barbershops, escort agencies, kiss rooms, karaoke parlors and even parks.

Whatever the true number it seems clear than decriminalization of the industry is the way forward. Even Amnesty International agrees. To their credit they have held to their position in the face of waves of conservative criticism. It remains to be seen whether or not the laws against sex work will be overturned in South Korea but things don’t look very hopeful. Especially when Gender Equality Minister Kim Hee-jung proclaims “sex is not something that cannot be sold and bought,” ignoring the fact that it is on a daily basis.


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