Back To Top

Debate brews over decriminalization of sex trade

Jang Se-hee was just 23-years-old when she started working as a sex worker. Her father had just passed away after being hospitalized for seven years. “The medical bills were just enormous,” the 40-year-old said. “My siblings were too young, and my father had divorced my mother. I was the de-facto breadwinner of the family.”

Jang was one of some 1,000 South Korean sex workers who gathered in central Seoul on Wednesday asking for the abolishment of the controversial anti-prostitution law, which has criminalized the buying and selling of sex since 2004.

“We are telling the government that we are willing to and want to pay our income tax,” she told The Korea Herald. “And we are asking the government to regulate the industry and protect us with that tax money we are willing to pay. Right now we can’t pay taxes (because sex trade is illegal) and are not eligible to receive a lot of welfare benefits and protection because of this.”

Amnesty International’s recent endorsement of a global effort to decriminalize all forms of consensual sex work that “does not involve coercion, exploitation or abuse” has been stirring controversy in Korea, where both purchasers and sellers of sex can face criminal charges. 
South Korean sex workers participate Wednesday in a rally in central Seoul in protest of the antiprostitution law that has criminalized the sex trade since 2004. Yonhap
South Korean sex workers participate Wednesday in a rally in central Seoul in protest of the antiprostitution law that has criminalized the sex trade since 2004. Yonhap
The human rights group argued decriminalization was the best way to defend sex workers’ rights, as it will encourage governments to introduce specific laws and policies that regulate sex work more effectively.

The effectiveness of the Korean anti-prostitution law has been seriously questioned in recent years. In spite of the law, the number of female sex workers in Korea in fact increased by 3.8 percent from 2010-2013, from 4,917 to 5,103, according to data from the Gender Ministry.

According to Rep. Nam In-soon of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, the number of illegal sex trade businesses that operate in unconventional places, such as residential buildings and Internet cafes, increased dramatically from 2010 to 2014, from 2,068 to 6,669.

Jang said the government’s current program to support sex workers failed to meet their practical needs. The former sex worker, who worked in brothels for about a decade, said many prostitutes continue to stay in the illegal business because they can’t make a living otherwise. A number of her colleagues have been seriously abused by their customers since 2004, the year the anti-prostitution law was enacted, but could not report the abuse to the police as they are afraid of being criminally charged.

She said she and her colleagues do not want the government to decriminalize sex trade completely, without any regulations. She wants brothels to be licensed by the government and for the authorities to monitor the industry.

“Many of us are in our 30s and 40s without formal education, and we have families to support. A lot of us are the breadwinners of our families,” she said.

“The government currently gives 400,000 won ($335) a month to those who quit sex work and are looking for another job. How do you make a living and support your family with 400,000 won a month? Many say we are lazy for not trying to find another job. But most people have no idea what it is like for women without an education to find a job that pays enough to support herself and her family.”

According to Hanteo National Union, a representative body of Korean sex workers, 80 percent of them did not attend or finish high school. A government study last year that surveyed 15 sex workers also showed that 86.6 percent of them grew up in broken homes, while 60 percent of them became involved in prostitution as teenagers after running away from home.

In Korea, prostitution is closely associated with domestic abuse against children and teens. According to a joint study by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and Ewha Womans University which surveyed 219 runaway teens this year, 18.3 percent of them -- and 31.6 percent of those aged 14-16 -- said they had been involved in the sex trade at least once in their lives.

The highest number of them, 66.7 percent, said they did it because they needed money, while 46.2 percent said they didn’t have any place to stay, and 28.2 percent said it was because they needed food. It is estimated that the biggest reason why Korean teens run away from home is because of family conflicts and domestic violence.

“It’s a vicious circle,” said Byun Hyun-ju from Women’s Human Rights Commission of Korea. “Domestic abuse leads to prostitution, and prostitution leads to other forms of abuse against women.”

In spite of the continued demand from sex workers, the Korean government stands firm on its stance that the commercial sex trade cannot be legal. Gender Equality Minister Kim Hee-jung said in that sex was “something that cannot be sold and bought.”

Sarah Benson, the chief executive officer for a Dublin-based NGO supporting women affected by prostitution, said while no individual should be punished for selling sex, evidence shows that decriminalization of prostitution does not help the sex trade and or sex trafficking victims. According to Benson, Germany and the Netherlands did not see a decline in human trafficking and violence directed at prostitutes in spite of decriminalizing sex work early in the last decade. 

“Even when you offer the opportunity to legitimize the business of prostitution, those who organize it (will) attempt to and continue to operate criminally,” she said in a press meeting at the International Symposium on the Prevention of Sex Trafficking held in Seoul on Wednesday.

“And most importantly, the conditions for persons in prostitution do not improve, human trafficking increases because of the size of the sex trade increases. The ability of the police to target and challenge traffickers is compromised because when you make something a legitimate business then the opportunity to go on and investigate becomes more difficult.”

Benson said the sex trade is a very clear example of a hierarchy of power, and therefore purchasers of sex and traffickers should not be decriminalized.

“Nobody is ever forced to buy sex,” she said. “The person in prostitution in the vast majority of cases is somebody who is either coerced or (does so) for a variety of other reasons which are still based on vulnerability and lack of other options.”

By Claire Lee (
catch table
Korea Herald daum