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Korean sex trade 'victims' strike for rights
By Sealing Cheng

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

South Korean sex workers have been on a hunger strike in front of the National Assembly building, protesting the new new anti-prostitution law for more than one and a half months. On October 7 and November 1, more than 2,000 sex workers took to the streets of Seoul in protest. Braving the stigma of prostitution with only sunglasses and masks, female sex workers have been making the strongest public statement ever in Korea against threats to their livelihood and well-being - and those of their families. But no one is listening. Their hunger strike began on November 2.

The South Korean government implemented a new law to "eradicate prostitution" in September. Both the Ministry of Gender Equality and key women's organizations claim the new law advances women's rights. So why are female sex workers going on a hunger strike and taking to the streets to protest the law? And why won't the ministry or women's organizations meet with the strikers? (Hunger strikes usually are carried out in relays, so that no single woman goes without food or water for what now would be 50 days.)

The Sex Trade Prevention Act, at first glance, looks like a welcome departure from the old law that penalized all women in prostitution as "fallen women". It offers protection for "victims" and penalizes all involvement in the sex trade. While clients, brothel owners, and pimps can get jail sentences and fines, "victims" are entitled to shelter, health services, vocational training, and even alternative-business start-up funds. This all sounds good.

What could be so wrong with the new law that those whom it intends to protect are protesting so vehemently against it? What could they possibly object to?

They object to the loss of their livelihoods. They object to police crackdowns that are forcing them to work clandestinely, exposing them to great danger, and threatening their well-being and that of their families (sex workers have families too). They object to being arrested along with clients, brothel owners and pimps. For the sex workers, the new law is in effect an instrument of harassment.

The law protects only women who want to leave the sex trade but penalizes those who want to stay. Only "victims" who have been coerced into the sex trade are eligible for services. Yet those who cannot prove their victimhood, such as independent sex workers, could be charged with violating the law, and penalized.

The underlying assumption of the law, therefore, is wrong. Not all women in the sex trade are "victims" who want to be rescued from the brothels. That they want to be free from exploitation and abuse does not mean that they want to be out of a job. Instead, this law is subjecting them to violence (through police harassment) by assuming that women could be forced out of prostitution.

The principles of human rights demand that governments do no harm to a person and take extra care to promote the rights of people who are already marginalized.

South Korean sex workers are now publicly demanding what other workers take for granted: their right to a livelihood. Their constitutional right as citizens to pursue happiness with dignity and worth as human beings. And with that, the recognition of sex work as a legitimate form of work.

To the sex workers, the current attempts of the government and women's organizations to eradicate prostitution are in effect destroying their lives. Their public petition eloquently declares:
We feel only forsaken by the good-for-show policy of the Ministry of Gender Equality that has no correspondence with our realities. Those who are wealthy and in lack of nothing seem not even interested in how difficult and urgent our immediate realities are. They are drowned in their own illusion, thinking that they are helping us but in effect they have pushed us to this cold and bleak place.
Why are the Korean government and women's organizations ignoring the voices of the sex workers? Why the rush to eradicate prostitution after years of tolerance of this illegal trade?

The South Korean government has been under relentless pressure from the United States to demonstrate its commitment to combat trafficking in women and girls. As part of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) passed in 2000, the US State Department publishes the yearly Trafficking in Persons Report to monitor world efforts to combat trafficking. In 2001, it identified South Korea along with other lowest-ranking countries such as Sudan and Myanmar. This represented a huge international embarrassment to the South Korean government, which has taken pride as a regional leader in democracy. (Persistent violations can carry sanctions by the US.)

The South Korean government thus set out to prove its anti-trafficking commitments. While "trafficking" refers to the use of force, fraud, and deception in exploiting labor in all sectors, the US administration of President George W Bush has implemented its anti-trafficking policy with a preoccupation with prostitution.

In this context, a momentous shift from tolerance to "zero-tolerance" in the Korean government's approach to prostitution followed, with a big push from women's organizations.

The fervor of women's organizations to eradicate prostitution is rooted in the conviction that prostitution is the key issue to women's subordination in South Korea. They believe that prostitution is a form of male violence against women, and that no woman engages in prostitution voluntarily. For well over a month, the hunger strike and mass protests clearly have disproved this last point - that no one does it voluntarily.

Women in sex work do experience violence and discrimination, but this is because they are marginalized and denied the rights that everyone should enjoy. Two fires in 2000 and 2002 killed 20 sex workers who had been locked inside their workplaces by their employers. These tragedies should never have been allowed to happen. But it would be a mistake to extrapolate from these bad experiences to imply that all sex work is violence.

The most visible sex workers are often the hardest hit by state persecution in times of a moral panic against prostitution. The thousands of protesting sex workers come from red-light districts all over South Korea, the chief targets of police raids and arrests.

Yet it is no news that some teenage girls, university students, and housewives have engaged in the exchange of sex for material rewards, a phenomenon exclusive neither to prostitution nor to Korea. The bold suggestion in their petition, therefore, is a protest not only against their persecution but also their stigmatization: "Do you not think that strategic marriages among the families of large corporations (chaebol) are prostitution?"

Exploitation is a problem faced by all women, not just prostitutes, and it needs to be tackled at its roots - in the family, the workplace and schools; class inequalities and restrictive ideas about sexuality also need to be addressed, among other issues. Women's subordination and their impeded access to valuable resources are entrenched in these social institutions. Prostitution is only an expression, not the cause, of such inequalities.

An effective intervention must be based on sincere interactions with the very women whom law enforcement and women's organizations are trying to assist. Those who have good intentions must realize that dealing with violence in the sex trade does not mean eradicating prostitution. Prostitution is not identical to violence or sex trafficking.

Korean sex workers have refused to be "victims" by speaking up. If the new law genuinely aims at promoting these women's rights, then neither the Korean government nor women's organizations can afford to ignore their voices.

Seling Chang is a Rockefeller post-doctoral fellow in the Program for the Study of Sexuality, Gender, Health, and Human Rights at Columbia University, New York. She is an anthropologist who has been researching on prostitution-related issues in Korea since 1998.

(Copyright 2004 Seling Chang.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Dec 22, 2004
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