Korean Sex Industry

by Michael Hurt
An excellent article on prostitution in Korea. The statistics and their implications about the Korean sex industry are depressing when you stop to think what it means.

It is an interesting contrast between the official ‘moral’ position that the law takes towards sex: prostitution (illegal), adulatory (illegal) and the reality of everyday life.

Photo of prostitutes legs in a red light district in Seoul, Korea

The Korean media’s been especially abuzz with the issue of sex work since the latter half of last year, and it is only now that the noise of postured indignance and moralizing has settled back down to the dull roar of a cultivated and self-conscious social ignorance. This is not to say that most Korean people are not aware of the fact of sex work in Korean society, but rather that people tend to not want to recognize the social pervasiveness and ubiquitiousness of what is undeniably a social institution, as well as a major part of the national economy. Both are undeniable facts, obvious to anyone who has been keeping up with the government’s own conservative statistics, or who keeps an observant eye opens when walking down just about any street in any town in Korea; from barber shop to room salon to business club to sauna to “sports massage” parlor to neighborhood hostess bar to out-and-out red light district, it is hard to find a street where sex or value-added sexual services are not offered in some form. But even if one is able to deal with the reality and enormity of the industry, most people are still in denial that a lot of men and women are involved in a thriving sexual economy. Here is when quoting the shocking number has become de rigeur at this point in the argument, which I shall spare the reader of until the end of this piece.

The point here is that most people, who understandably find it hard to personalize such stories as this, do not want to consider the fact that it is perhaps their daughter or sister, or perhaps their mother, aunt, or even grandmother who is or was involved in this industry. What makes this obvious is the way sex workers have been treated by the Korean media: as an almost unknowable Other, as “not anyone I know”, and certainly not anyone one would want to. They are simply “pitiful” or alternatively fallen women, either offered help and sympathy in the former case, or derision and contempt on the other. All these views avoid the fact that these people – as in any other industry, sector, or field in society – whether one views them as pitiable dupes working in an inhumane, patriarchal system, or as sexually liberated free agents with the rights to control their bodies as they will – they are all people, motivated by the same emotions and material concerns that any drive you, me, or anyone else. These are women making a living, and in the views of every single woman interviewed for this piece, not in a way that is fundamentally different from the way you or this reporter makes money to put food on the table or keep the lights on. That is one common view that all women spoken to in relation to this piece made, which they say is echoed by everyone whom they know. Another common reaction I received was one quite hostile to how Korean media has dealt with this issue, which made this piece quite hard to carry out, and nearly impossible to photograph.

There are so many different kinds of sex work, and accordingly, various kinds of sex workers, in Koreann society. My first and most useful informant was, surprisingly, a woman who owns a bar in Itaewon’s infamous “hooker hill,” which would be the easy and expected place for the foreign reporter to start a story such as this. Ms. X, as I shall call her, was helpful because she had the most perspective on the issue, both in terms of the fact that she was in her late 20’s, as well as because there were specific reasons why she did not want to enter the much larger and more lucrative Korean-oriented sex industry.

Ms. X described sex work in Korea as being of two main types: that having to do with “entertainment,” with sex as an option for the girl to make extra money (most bars or hostess positions), or as a straight sex-for-money relationship, such as is found in a typical red-light district. Ms. X had worked in the American-style “entertainment” end as a “juicy girl” for most of her 20’s, earning money from customers by making 50% on every 20,000 won drink a male customer bought her. “Juicy” bars are generally only found in places such as Itaewon, which caters to foreigners.

The Korean-style “entertainment” establishment that is not to Ms. X’s liking generally involves drinking prodigious amounts of alcohol with male customers who tend to come in large groups. In most room salons, “mi-in clubs,” business clubs, etc., the women don’t have a choice as to which customers to take, and according to Ms. X, tend to be far more demanding and disrespectful of their hostesses, as Korean men tend to drink far more than American men in their socializing, on top of the fact that Korean men tend to come in groups, whereas men come either singly or in pairs. In both cases, women make their only money from the actual premises based on the drinks they encourage their clients to have. but in the Korean-style case, drinking/hostessing establishments give the workers a flat fee for the group, usually in the range of 30-50,000 won, whereas in places catering to foreigners, the money is a 50/50 split for every drink purchased, with no upper limit. So the woman working for a Korean place is saddled with the burden of constantly drinking large amounts of real alcohol and having to make her money from “the second stop” – going somewhere to have sex with the customer for usually a couple to a few hundred thousand won.

The Koreans-oriented room salon girl, in order to make any decent money, needs try to stay sober while as a rule convincing the customer to go out for sex after drinks, whereas the foreigners-oriented “juicy girl” makes the most money drinking “special” (read “non-alcoholic”) cocktails while encouraging their clients to spend their cash on buying as many drinks as possible. Sexual services, if the “juicy girl” actually wants to offer any (some, she tells me, do not ever or often leave the bar), are occasional and usually involve a returning customer, or a customer who has spent an inordinate amount of money on drinks. Of course, there are places that offer straight sex and really only use the bar as a front, but most of the money in Itaewon is made on drinks, drinks, drinks, with sex as an option if the girl is willing and the price is worth it. In the Korean case, the game involves trying to imbibe as little alchohol as possible while trying to not appear to be doing so, even as you encourage the client to drink more. But there is no direct financial incentive to drink more, or even to get the client to do so, after having received a flat fee for the group, and the real money is made by leaving with the customer, in which case all of that money is the hostesses’ to keep. Ms. X is a “juicy girl” who saved her money and bought out the owner of the bar, so she keeps all of her drink tab, since she is the owner and operator. She has another female friend working for her during the days, of whose cut Ms. X keeps an unspecified amount.

But what of straight sex-for-money? What of the many and much more typical red-light districts that are exclusively for Korean men? I spoke with Ms. Y, who is in her early 20’s, lives in a small town in the southern part of the peninsula, and was frank about her reasons for entering into the more direct style of sex work, the red-light districts found in almost any medium-sized Korean city as well as all over Seoul; Cheongnyangni, Miari, Yongsan, Yeongdeungpo.

Red Light Room

My talk with her was brief, not to mention expensive. Her room, which she said is typical of many and any others these days, was surprisingly spacious and clean, albeit suggestively red. I had about 15 minutes to talk, since that’s about all the time I’d get as a customer. I decided to get right to the point and broach the big question of how people generally got into this kind of work – was she in debt, were there cases she knew of women trapped in debt bondage, or perhaps even women being kidnapped from the countryside? Her reply was a dismissive laugh, whereafter she chided at how ridiculous a notion that was. Perhaps such things were true in the 70’s or 80’s, and you heard about such cases sometimes in newspapers, but there are so many women wanting to work in red-light districts that there was no need for such ruthless recruiting. Contrary to what many people want to think, there is such a high supply of women wanting to do this work, with the competition to attract and keep the best girls so strong, that women scarcely needed to be coerced. In fact, her room and all the furniture in it was completely free and part of a package deal, such that women could walk in off the street, not pay a dime, and start earning money for herself and the house. The way she described it, supply was so abundant that it was in everyone’s best interests to aggressively recruit with clean, fully-furnished rooms.

Ms. Y laughed off the “Special Anti-Prostitution Law” for what this reporter aready thought it was; a show for the media and the public, after which it was back to business as usual. Brief talks with a few other women confirmed that the crackdown had scared a few girls away and briefly kept recruitment down, but it was apparent that it was business as usual in the major red-light districts around Seoul.

Ms. Y explained that most working girls lived and worked in their rooms, with a day off once a week. Girls came for all kinds of reasons, from supporting family members back home, to paying off personal debts, to wanting to gather capital for starting their own businesses, or for no particular reason other than make a lot more money than they could otherwise. “That doesn’t happen anymore” she said, snickering as if even suggesting such a thing was utterly ridiculous. “There are so many girls wanting to come to do this work – why would you have to force them?” She continued to emphasize the ludicrousness of the notion that anyone was forced into this sort of work anymore, before proceeding to explain her own circumstances. In her case, her mother had become hospitalized, so she had made the decision to come to Seoul and earn the money to cover the ongoing bills. She had been allowed by the house to adjust her schedule to three weeks on and one week off to travel back home, so she lamented the fact that she had no rest days for that long stretch of time. In the end, she seemed to be implying with her answers, as well as through her expressions and demeanor, that it had been a financial choice, albeit one inevitably influenced by circumstance and the social reality that she was able to easily make more money through sex than any other kind of labor, but she did not equate this with not having had a choice.

This brought me to think once again about the issue of supply, which is positively staggering. The Korean government’s own 2002 estimate places one million women engaged in sex work at any one time, which is almost unbeleiveable until one remembers that it would take a high number to support an industry that was 4.4% of the GDP, which is more than is constituted by forestry, fishing, and agriculture combined (4.1%). And this is a conservative estimate of semi-formal places of prostitution for which numbers of workers and estimated income can be tracked; other, less trackable forms of informal prostitution are still nearly impossible to track. When one realizes that this can translate to something like 1/10 or 1/6 adult Korean women having worked in the sex industry, the socio-cultural implications takes the breath away.

What seems apparent in this whole public discourse about sex work and its treatment as a “social problem” with a clear and concrete solution ; public crackdown and “zero tolerance” ; is just how unrealistic and ahistorical it is. Obviously, sex work has become as important a part of the economy as any other “legitimate” one; more important than even that, it is an integral part of the lived culture as well. Unfortunately, the Korean media treats the issue as they do any other ; superficially, and represented through atypical and extreme examples that work better to spice up the story than convey a more realistic slice of reality. Political groups use the issue ; and the women ; as alternatively whipping boys or sad sob stories that further their own agendas. What is really being ignored is the very culture that legitimates sex work as a part of everyday life, as something that has been normalized. Whether that is good or bad is not the crux of concern here, but it would seem that this is the only truly interesting aspect of the matter, and is the only worthy question of consideration for anyone truly concerned about this issue. What does the fact that there are more sex workers than schoolteachers mean for society? What should one make of the fact that it is easier to gain employment as a sex worker through a neighborhood jobs circular than it is to get a job in McDonald’s? What of the fact that, anecdotally at least, some significant amount of the capital that goes into starting “legitimate” businesses in Korea can actually be traced back to a women working on her back? This leads us to the big question: How does this affect men’s views towards women in general?

What these questions speak to ; as well as the several people interviewed for this article ; is the fact the “social problem” approach to this issue becomes an exercise in futility when we, as a society, simply morally condemn all sex workers, or the industry itself, or even the police forces and government agencies that protect and regulate this trade in sex for money. The problem is deeply structural ; it is not a matter of mere morality, or one of passing new laws, or having temporarily enforced, zero-tolerance crackdowns. In order to deal with this deeply-rooted structural problem; one that is also a major underpinning of both the economy and culture itself; it is most useful to contextualize this issue ; or the cases of the girls with whom I spoke for this piece ; within a much larger picture. One must see the problems as they are linked together, rather than simply scrutinize the smaller parts of the equation. For example, one might consider the fact that Korea ranks 63rd out of 70 countries measured in the United Nations’ commissioned Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), which is calculated based on the number of women in actual positions of economic or political power. Just to give this statistic some context, the US is ranked 10th, Japan is ranked 44th, Thailand 55th, Russia 57th, and Pakistan 58th. The only other countries that actually managed to score behind Korea were all places in which women’s inequality is overtly and sometimes even brutally enforced; in ascending order of GEM rank: Cambodia, where domestic violence is not even legally a criminal offense, comes in right behind Korea at 64th. The United Arab Emirates, where a man can still legally take up to four wives, is 65th, and Turkey, where “honor killings” of women who have had the audacity to be a victim of rape are still often committed by male relatives of actual victim, takes the 66th spot. Sri Lanka follows, with Egypt, Bangladesh, and Yemen bringing up the rear, last out of of the countries measured. Does this statistic really have absolutely nothing to do with the high rate of state-supported, socially sanctioned sex work in South Korea?

If the sex industry is as much a part of Korean life and the economy as any other, then what seems important to consider are the demands of the sex workers themselves, echoed in the comments of all those interviewed for this piece, to be treated as what they are, for better or for worse; integral parts of the economy and culture. If someone has a bone to pick with the ramifications of this on greater society, it seems wiser to call into question the overall position of women in society, the legal and structural factors that create gender inequality and sex discrimination, as well as the overall societal attitude that so disproportionately values consumption of the female body over any other kind of work that a woman does and can do. If one wants to address this so-called “social problem,” the best strategy would seem to involve ceasing to focus on individual cases, and instead squarely address what is a macro-level issue with macro-level solutions that speak directly to the problem of women’s overall status in Korean society, as opposed to alternatively demonizing or lionizing the cases of individuals for the sake of news ratings or use as a whipping boy for one’s moral agenda.

One Reply to “Korean Sex Industry”

  1. Hey there. I was wondering if you knew who holds the rights to the photo in this post of the Korean prostitute. We’d love to use it on the cover of one of our books. Any info would be greatly appreciated.


    Ailen Lujo