The South Korean love industry – part 1
“Probably… eight-five percent of my friends have slept with prostitutes.”
Established in the last fifty years, South Korea is an odd sort of place. Once poorer than Mozambique, it’s now considered one of the biggest emerging markets in the world. It’s a country where kissing in public is frowned upon and marriage is expected of everyone over twenty-five; it’s also a country with entire districts of pay-by-the-hour love motels and an amusement park dedicated to genital sculptures. It’s a country that thrives on the Confucian paradigm of the nuclear family and a country where purportedly one in every twenty-five women sells their body for sex.
South Korea’s complex relationship with prostitution began in the early 1960s, when President Park Chung-hee actively encouraged the sex trade soon after the Korean War. The thousands of American soldiers left stationed in South Korea generated much-needed income for the starved country, and it’s since grown into an industry that accounts for nearly 4% of the country’s gross domestic revenue. Coffee shops, massage parlours, noraebangs (karaoke rooms) and DVD rooms have all been known to offer paid sex. At the more obvious ‘kiss rooms’; customers pay for forty-minute make out sessions with women. Research conducted by the Korean Institute of Criminology found that an astounding one fifth of young Korean men are paying for sex at least four times a month.
So what is pushing so many women into selling sex and so many men into buying it?
It seems the country’s economy; resolute gender roles and complete lack of sex education are all partially responsible.
South Korea’s storm of commercial growth and male-dominated culture after the Korean War left thousands of women without sufficient education or employment opportunities. As a result, many found it difficult to secure a financially stable job and instead turned to prostitution. Those with children poured their savings into the lives of their offspring; in Korea it’s a common belief that a successful child is the best substitute for the country’s non-existent pension scheme. However, whether buckling under the weight of living costs in a competitive society or simply preoccupied with the wealth of enjoyable pastimes available in modern Korea, generations of children aren’t providing the necessary funds for their parents. Descending into poverty in old age, elderly women known as ‘Bacchus ladies’ (named after the energy drink they sell on the street) are known to offer paid sex for as little as $20.
For the younger female generation, it seems the lack of sex education in Korea’s incredibly academic schooling system is a huge part of the problem. Al-Jazeera reported that around 200,000 youths run away each year and half of the female runaways end up in the sex industry. One girl interviewed said:
‘No one ever told me it was wrong to prostitute myself, including my schoolteachers…I wish someone had told me. Girls should be taught that from an early age in class here in South Korea, but they aren’t.’
The topic of prostitution only came up once with my adult students, when two of the men were accosted in the street as we went out for dinner. An elderly woman had darted out from nowhere, waving a picture of a woman in lingerie and gesturing in fast Korean to a doorway. They laughed it off without a trace of embarrassment and easily slipped back into conversation. One of them told me that – while of course never admitting it was something he’d done – sleeping with prostitutes was common for Korean businessmen. He explained that in Korean workplaces, promotions were dependent on how well you were liked by the ‘big boss’. If the boss slept with prostitutes after a night out drinking, then other colleagues would follow suit. It was simply something done to secure a promotion, to earn more money and to better support wives and daughters and mothers.
Photo courtesy of Kat Haylock.