The Korea Herald


Should Korea legalize prostitution?

By John.Power

Published : June 29, 2011 - 19:18

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With the industry strong despite police crackdowns ...
Should Korea legalize prostitution?

The sex trade in Korea

Despite its illegality, the prostitution industry in South Korea is widespread and lucrative. Estimates vary wildly, but approximately 1.6 percent of the country’s GDP was generated by the sex industry in 2007, according to Korea Women’s Development Institute. Before two laws were passed in 2004 criminalizing the buying and selling of sex, some estimates put the GDP figure at greater than 4 percent. Estimates on the number of patrons of the sex trade are equally striking: A 2003 report by Korean Institute of Criminology found that the value of the sex trade in 2002, 24 trillion won ($22 billion), was equivalent to 20 percent of men aged 20-64 buying sex more than four times a month.

Police crackdowns have targeted brothels in some of the most conspicuous red-light districts, but the buying and selling of sex continues in room salons, massage parlors, coffee shops and karaoke rooms across the country. Crackdowns on the industry have not been greeted with enthusiasm by all, either. Hundreds of prostitutes and brother owners in Seoul and Chuncheon recently took to the streets to protest against crackdowns, calling them attacks on their livelihood. Under the current law, prostitutes and patrons are liable to up to one year in prison or a 3 million won fine, with much longer jail terms and bigger fines on the books for brothel owners and brokers.

Sex workers demonstrate against police crackdowns in Seoul last month. (Yonhap News) Sex workers demonstrate against police crackdowns in Seoul last month. (Yonhap News)

Yes: Prohibition is worse than the ‘crime’

The South Korean government can keep prostitution illegal, but it can’t make it unpopular, to borrow a phrase from a former mayor of New Orleans.

I argue that prostitution should be legalized (state regulation) or decriminalized (neither legal nor illegal) for two main reasons. One, the consequences of prohibition are worse than the original “crime.” Two, prohibition is an attack on the individual freedom and economic liberty of consenting adults.

Prostitution is denounced around the world ― even by its customers ― in opinion polls, churches, the politics and news media. It is unpopular in rhetoric but quite popular in reality. Visiting a prostitute is said to be a rite of passage for young Korean men and part of a night out for many Korean businessmen. An estimated 4 to 8 percent of Korean women are engaged in the sex industry and the industry’s value is equivalent to 20 percent of men buying sex more than four times a month.

In 2003, before a serious crackdown, about $22 billion (probably an underestimate) was spent on prostitution here. That is similar to the amount the Korean government spent on education that year and half of what it spent on defense. Despite denunciations, crackdowns, public humiliation, arrests and punishment, prostitution remains quite popular here.

Prostitution will remain popular because of supply and demand ― one side willing to pay for sex, another side willing to supply it. Crackdowns drive it underground, as Korea’s 2004 Act on the Prevention of the Sex Trade and Protection of Its Victims did, reportedly pushing prostitutes to creatively expand beyond red-light districts targeted by police.

Perhaps, as some advocates of prohibition argue, law enforcement just hasn’t tried hard enough, and that leads to one of the main reasons I support legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution: There are unintended consequences that make enforcement worse than the “crime.” Prostitutes are less likely to call law enforcement when they are abused, beaten or cheated, and can’t go to court to have contracts enforced. Criminalization means that people who have decided it is their best alternative among currently available options are condemned to dealing with criminal organizations, violent patrons, crooked cops (and, perhaps, rough IMF presidents).

As bad as prostitution may be, it can’t be as bad as the 18,351 reported rapes and sex crimes, 1,374 murders, 6,351 robberies, and 256,423 burglaries among 590,087 violent crimes committed here in 2009, according to Korea’s National Police Agency. Why waste taxpayer money and resources chasing prostitutes when there are violent crimes with clear victims and victimizers?

The supporters of criminalizing prostitution have their own arguments, not all of which can be easily waved off. One that is a real concern is that poor people aren’t free to “choose” prostitution because of economic and cultural reasons. While that is a real concern, it isn’t clear how many prostitutes are in that position and why eliminating choices, including bad ones, would help. Even those prostitutes allegedly forced into it evade law enforcement ― apparently they prefer prostitution to prosecution.

That leads me to a second main reason I support legalization or decriminalization: Prohibition is an attack on the individual freedom and economic liberty of consenting adults. After trading debating points, we are left with the key question: Should adults who aren’t directly harming others be allowed to engage in activity (even when others disagree)? If adults can give away sex for free, why can’t they sell it? It should be up to a spouse or partner, not politicians or the police, to object.

American journalist H.L. Mencken once said, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be having a good time.” It isn’t the government’s business what you do with your time and money, as long as you are not directly harming others. Legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution wouldn’t be perfect, there would still be problems. But allowing adults to engage in prostitution without the threat of arrest would make things better for those participants, could reduce the incentive for the activity to be spread beyond designated areas, and government could stop wasting resources trying to punish an extremely popular voluntary activity.
Casey Lartigue, Jr. Casey Lartigue, Jr.

By Casey Lartigue, Jr.

The writer is director of international relations at the Center for Free Enterprise in Seoul. ( He can be contacted at or cfekorea on Twitter. ― Ed.

No: Buying sex attacks women’s rights

The Anti Sex-Trafficking Law was enacted in 2004 after countless cases of abuse and deaths of prostitutes. This legislation in 2004 marked a paradigm shift in Korea’s official stance on prostitution. For the first time, it affirmed that the buying and selling of sex was a crime against women’s rights. The law also considers pimps, intermediaries and johns (buyers) criminals, while protecting women who were made to sell sex by force, coercion or threat.

People who demand the legalization of prostitution and normalization of sex work have begun to argue that the Anti Sex-Trafficking Law violates the women’s rights since it made their labor illegal. Although their accounts seem to have gained more interest in debates on legalizing prostitution, we should not forget the fundamental factor that represses women. It is not the Anti Sex-Trafficking Law that is the biggest obstacle to sex workers exercising their rights as they argue. The underlying source of the problem is Korea’s deeply ingrained system of patriarchal capitalism.

Looking at the sex trade, it is obvious that women and children make up the overwhelming majority of people selling sex, while men make up the vast majority of buyers. This gross imbalance indicates a deeper inequality. Prostitution is both a symptom of, and a tool for, the oppression of women. Good women must not have sex outside their intimate relationships; men are to satisfy their sexual desire with multiple partners. Any woman deviating from this norm is degraded and ostracized but, ironically and conveniently, she functions as the sexual satisfier for men. Prostitution is intimately connected to the gendered power and politics of patriarchy. The inequality between men and women is reproduced through the process of buying and selling sex. This inequality is one of the biggest reasons why selling sex cannot be considered simple labor.

It is unrealistic to expect that gendered power relations and oppression against women will be solved once people begin to call selling sex “sex work.” As long as society places a taboo on women’s sexual freedom, the stigma attached to those women will not disappear. For this reason, no matter how well the government guarantees the legal right to be sex workers, women who sell sex cannot enjoy their rights. A prime example can be found in Germany, whose government legalized prostitution and guaranteed a variety of social services for the women. The number of women who registered themselves was close to none.

As for the law itself, continued discussion and actions are needed to modify and improve the law and its enforcement. However, one cannot say that the law should be abolished simply because it is not perfect. The fact that the current law is imperfect is not proof that selling sex should be legalized but rather evidence that this is a problem that needs to be continuously addressed with adaptive, functioning legislation. The Anti Sex-Trafficking Law was a turning point that shed light on the plight of victims and the mechanisms of society that led to prostitution as a form of industry. Even if the conditions are better for the women than before the legislation, it should be viewed as an effect of the law that criminalized their sexual exploitation.

Of course it is important to consider the individual’s choices when analyzing a person’s actions. Nevertheless, when the structure of society strongly influences an individual’s available choices, social background is a major factor to be examined. If a certain gender or class is more vulnerable to selling sex than others, this phenomenon should be analyzed based on the social structures that influence individuals within it.

Women are an often vulnerable part of Korea’s social structure, and even if they freely “choose” to sell sex, these choices should not be understood on the individual level. We must first question why the bodies and sex of women are considered products in a capitalist market, and why women in poverty are compelled to sell sex rather than exploring other options. In this sense, it is important that the Anti Sex-Trafficking Law decriminalize all women who sell sex whether by choice or not.

Prostitution must not be judged based on the income that a woman might obtain by selling sex. A more productive discussion to achieve women’s human rights requires understanding the foundation of prostitution. These complex yet fundamental issues go far beyond the debate on the legalization of selling and buying of sex. It requires a critical look at the underpinnings of a society that degrades women into products and guarantees pimps and intermediaries large amounts of profit from them. 
Ahn Chang-hye Ahn Chang-hye

By Ahn Chang-hye

The writer has worked at a support center for victims of sex-trafficking and is currently working on her master’s thesis in sociology at Chung-Ang University. ― Ed.