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Thursday
Jun072012

Concubines, Comfort Women, or Trafficking? A Stroll through the Seoul Sex Industry

Editors note: Michelle Kaufman is a researcher that focuses on sexual behavior in the developing world. She globe trots regularly, conducting ethnographic work all along the way in order to inform both the quantitative and qualitative research that she conducts. Last month Michelle had a stopover in Seoul, South Korea and focused on talking with men about their use of sex workers. 

I recently spent a few days in Seoul, South Korea on my way to Indonesia. I have some friends in Seoul, so I decided to check it out for a few days. Being a social scientist who specializes in sexual behavior, I asked anyone who would speak with me questions about people’s romantic relationships, marriage, and social norms around the topic of sex. Based on these conversations I came to the uncomfortable realization that commercial sex work is very common, if not normalized, in Korea. This normalization is partly due to the Japanese colonialist roots when prostitution was legal, as well as the abundance of brothels that serve military bases and the large number of business travelers visiting the city.

Although prostitution is now illegal in the Republic of Korea, it still amounts to a business of about $13 billion USD (14 trillion won) per year. According to the Korean Feminist Association, 514 thousand to 1.2 million Korean women participate in commercial sex work, and 20% of Korean men in their 20s pay for sex at least 4 times per month, with 358,000 visiting female sex workers on a daily basis.1

Who are these women? Some of them are active players who take pride in their sexual skills, often entertaining high government officials or successful businessmen. In fact, last year when some brothels in red light districts were being shut down to make way for new high-rise apartment buildings and shopping areas, many sex workers held a large rally, some of them dousing themselves in flammable liquid and setting themselves on fire in protest.2

But a majority of the women working in the Korean sex industry are believed to be held in debt bondage by pimps or brothel madams. Furthermore, South Korea is both a destination, source, and transit country for sex trafficking, so it is very likely that any given sex worker is there as a result of force, fraud, or coercion.3 Often, women are moved from place to place to provide “fresh faces” for the customers.4

The guys I spoke with (both married and single men) spoke candidly about their own use of sex workers, both as young guys looking for sexual experience, and also in situations where they have been out with friends, getting drunk, and then deciding as a group to go to a brothel or massage parlor. One married man felt some remorse in ending up in such situations, but he counted at least 5 incidents of purchasing sex since getting married about 4 years ago. (Okay, so maybe just a tiny bit of fleeting remorse.)

But it’s not only the Korean locals who utilize sex workers. An American friend living and working in Seoul took me for a walk through a neighborhood of bars, restaurants, and massage parlors heavily utilized by American soldiers because of its proximity to the local military base. It was not uncommon to see petite Korean women sidle up next to tall Caucasian men and begin to flirt. The red light district is literally lit up with neon signs advertising massage, which can be accompanied by a “happy ending,” if you so wish. Guesthouses are available for rent by the hour and are always within close proximity. And in some establishments, scantily clad women holding sexual poses were on display in glass windows, much like human mannequins or how a butcher would display his meat.

Surprisingly, the HIV rate in South Korea is still considerably low compared to many other countries. But incidence of HIV has been consistently increasing annually, especially among men.5  But what this little stroll through Seoul’s sex industry for the sake of science showed was that infidelity and purchasing sex is not as taboo as it might be in the US. Clearly, what we consider (un)acceptable in the US when it comes to purchasing sexual encounters, whether married or unmarried, may be interpreted completely different in the Eastern world.

1Kyung-ran, M. (2003, February 6). “Korea’s sex industry is major money earner.” Korea JoongAng Daily. http://koreajoongangdaily.joinsmsn.com/news/article/article.aspx?aid=1930662

2“South Korean Prostitutes Protest Closing of Brothels.” (2011, May 17). http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,2072487,00.html

3United States Department of State. (2011). 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report - United States of America. Available at:http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4e12ee393c.html [accessed 8 May 2012]

4Hughes, D. M., Chon, K. Y., & Ellerman, D. P. (2007). Modern-day comfort women: The U.S. military, transnational crime, and the trafficking of women. Violence Against Women, 13, 901-922. doi: 10.1177/1077801207305218 

5Division of HIV and Tuberculosis Control, Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). HIV/AIDS Control in the Republic of Korea. http://www.unaids.org/fr/dataanalysis/monitoringcountryprogress/progressreports/2012countries/file,68657,fr..pdf

Dr. Michelle Kaufman - Science of Relationships articles
Michelle conducts research on sexual health and how power in heterosexual relationships influences sexual risk and family planning. She has conducted research in South Africa, Nepal, Tanzania, and Indonesia, and teaches a course on Qualitative Research Methods at Jimma University in Ethiopia.

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