10.01.2013

Extended Rebuttal: Inflated Assumption that Sex Workers in Korea Earn “higher than the average Korean”

Here at Korea Gender Café we attempt to present information, data and translations that add to discussion of gender issues in Korean society because we hope to spur discussion. 

Yesterday we submitted a rebuttal piece to koreaBANG’stranslation “Disbelief as Korea is Ranked 108th in Global Gender Equality” that broke down a few methodological flaws in Dr. Kang’s data analysis. Due to space constraints we were unable to respond point-by-point to many of his opinionated assertions. In this post we’d like to zero in on one of the problematic opinions and attitudes he brought into the debate about gender inequality: that the exclusion of the sex industry from workforce participation data inflates the inequality between men and women.

Kang writes,
“Does the misinterpreted data about socioeconomic discrimination in fact imply discrimination against men? 
There are also many problems with the data commonly used to claim sexualdiscrimination against women within Korea. The popular story is that women arebeing discriminated against, as shown by the big gender gap in employment rateand income. However, we need to take a closer look. In fact, the gender gap in employment rate and income is exaggerated in Korea.Among OECD countries, only Korea and Slovenia have made the sex trade completely illegal. MOGEF estimated that there might be 140~270k or a higher number of female sex workers in Korea. Sex workers who earn more than the average worker are exempted from the Korean income statistics while othercountries include them. This partly contributes to the income gap that appearswider on paper than it really is. 
Do they turn a blind eye to this for the sexual discrimination claims?” 
In our submission to koreaBANG we began to respond:
“Dr.Kang points out human rights violations against women in other countries, butwe can point to sexual violence and human rights violations in every country.That is not the purpose of these indices. We agree that it is problematic thatgender inequality indexes do not adequately reflect violence against women orsexual violence. We disagree with Dr. Kang’s outward looking criticism andencourage discussion of sexual violence in Korea.” 
To elaborate, if we want to discuss human rights violations in South Korea, we could pay close attention to the upcoming Constitution Court ruling on the 2004 Act to Prevent Sex Trafficking and Prohibit Prostitution.

First, sex work is omitted from income statistics, as is drug trade, gang/mafia membership and other illegal industries in which we may find both women and men employed. Rather than claiming that its exclusion is an conspiracy to "turn a blind eye" and that it implies "discrimination against men" we find this to be a more persuasive explanation. 

Second, this assumption that sex work earns high incomes likely ignores workplace conditions, rental fees, the lack of pension, income inconsistencies, associated costs, and may obscure all those that profit from the work by taking a portion of fees, etc. 

Third, Dr. Kang does not tell us how many men are employed as sex workers, but some could argue that purchasing the right to sexual use of another’s body in a sex industry with “140~270k or a higher number of female sex workers” in and of itself could be indicative of gender inequality. If the working population is that high while the working population is low in other industries, it suggests there is a segregation of women into a few industries.  

Fourth, others could argue that Dr. Kang ignores men employed in the sex industry or who act as employers of female sex workers. Meanwhile MBN News contributes a stigmatizing tone toward LGBTQ sex workers. 

But what we would really like to argue about -- and the reason we highly anticipate the above mentioned Constitutional Court ruling -- is the persistent social stigmatization of sex workers and violation of sex worker's human rights in police crackdown and incarceration.

First, Dr. Kang never mentions that male clients are only sometimes sent to “John school” while female sex workers pay steep fines and face up to 2 years of mandatory re-education or prison. This is one more example of gender inequality in sentencing. Dr. Kang doesn’t highlight those aspects of policy that actually exist, and he presents no evidence to support his assertions.

Second, sex workers in Korea report serious human rights violations as a consequence of the current legal regime. Sex workers report swallowing condoms because simply walking with a condom is used by the police as evidence against a sex worker. The safety and health implications are rather obvious, but we urge you to read the UNDP report "Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific: Laws, HIV and human rights in the context of sex work."[1]

Third, heavy stigmatization of females in the sex industry means that even if there were not criminal penalties, gender inequality in sentencing and health perils associated with an aggressive police crackdown, workers are marginalized socially. We highly recommend Katherine Moon’s research for further reading on the history of segregated sex workers near military bases.[2] 

My ongoing research examines the relationship between the 2004 law, court sentencing and gender in Korean society. In the coming months and after publication, I look forward to sharing additional information with our readers. In the meantime, we highly recommend reading posts by sex worker’s rights NGO Giant Girls, 성노동 이론  and Research Project Korea for news. 


For further reading:

Giant Girls, Grant Application, Global Fund for Women, 2010. https://grants.globalfundforwomen.org/GFWSearch/index.php?id=30551

한상희, 건국대 교수, 헌법. “성매매방지법과 여성인권민주법학 30호, 2006.

최우리 기자, "당신이 굳게 믿는 그것이 진리일까," 한겨레,  2012.12.01. http://media.daum.net/society/newsview?newsid=20121201111004557

Cheng, Sealing. “Rethinking “Human Trafficking”: Reflections from South Korea” in Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, MIDDLE EAST PROGRAM & UNITED STATES STUDIES, OCCASIONAL PAPER SERIES, Rethinking Human “Trafficking,” SUMMER 2010.

Godwin, John. "Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific: Laws, HIV and human rights in the context of sex work." United Nations Development Programme, Oct 2012, p. 112. http://asia-pacific.undp.org/

Kim, Ji Hye. Korea’s New Prostitution Policy: Overcoming Challenges to Effectuate the Legislature’s Intent to Protect Prostitutes from Abuse. Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal Association, 2007

Moon, Katherine. Military Prostitution and the U.S. Military in Asia, The Asia-Pacific Journal; Japan Focus, Jan 17, 2009.

Weiss, Ayla. Ten Years of Fighting Trafficking: Critiquing the Trafficking in Persons Report through the Case of South Korea, Asian-Pacific Law & Policy Journal [Vol. 13:2, 2012].


[1] Godwin, John. "Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific: Laws, HIV and human rights in the context of sex work." United Nations Development Programme, Oct 2012, p. 112. http://asia-pacific.undp.org/
[2] Moon, Katherine. Military Prostitution and the U.S. Military in Asia, The Asia-Pacific Journal; Japan Focus, Jan 17, 2009.