The Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the country’s antiprostitution law Thursday, dismissing “voluntary sex trade” unconstitutional.
In a 6-to-3 ruling, the court confirmed the legality of the antisex trade act punishing both those who voluntarily sell and buy sex, citing the need to repress demand for prostitution.
The verdict came three years after the top court began to review the act to rule whether it violates voluntary sex workers’ freedom to choose their job and what to do with their own bodies.
“Demand for sex trade is a major cause for expansion of the sex industry, so it is all the more important to restrain demand by punishing those who pay for sex,” a judge said in the ruling.
“If the demand is not regulated, adults, young people and even women from less developed countries could continue to be lured into the sex industry.”
The judge said that prostitution cannot be seen as a free transaction of sex between individuals, given its violent and exploitative nature.
“To root out sex trade, women selling sex should also be punished. Otherwise, the society will see more sex workers working for economic gains,” he said. “The public values for sound sex culture and morals outweighs restriction of individuals’ rights to decide what to do with their bodies.”
The Seoul Northern District Court asked the Constitutional Court for a review of the antiprostitution law after Kim Jeong-mi, a 45-year-old woman accused of selling sex for 130,000 won ($114), submitted a petition to repeal the act in 2012.
The sex trafficking law, which took effect in 2004 to protect sex workers, stipulates that both purchasing and selling of sex can face a penalty of up to one year in prison or a fine of up to 3 million won. But it gives exemption to people forced into prostitution.
Only one judge fully opposed the antiprostitution law, calling it is a violation of sex traders’ rights to make decisions about their own bodies. The other two dissenting judges stated that those buying sex should be punished, but not those selling sex.
“If the state intervenes in an individual’s private sex life, it would result in forcing certain morals on people,” the judge against the law said. “Punishing women who voluntarily sell sex for a living is human rights violation threatening their survival and another violence by the state.”
Since its enactment, seven cases have been brought to the Constitutional Court by people who paid for sex or those who ran prostitution businesses. The court, however, either dismissed the case or ruled the law constitutional. Thursday’s ruling was the first petition filed by a sex worker.
Kang Hyun-joon, head of sex workers’ rights group Hanteo National Union, called the decision “unacceptable.”
“Since the enforcement of the antiprostitution law, sex laborers have struggled (for their rights),” he told the reporters outside the Constitutional Court in central Seoul. “The decision will push the workers once again to death.”
“They might have chosen to sell sex because they were uneducated and received nothing from their parents,” he said. “But they also belong to this country and should be respected as human beings for their choices.
He also vowed to submit a petition to the United Nations‘ Human Rights Council to challenge the government’s decision.
In a report released in May of 2013, the U.N. body suggested legalizing prostitution as a way to create safer conditions for sex workers and to combat human trafficking as well as sex-related diseases like HIV.
According to a poll of 538 adults aged 19 or over by Realmeter, the public are split over the antisex trade law, with 43.2 percent of respondents against the law. Thirty-seven percent said that it should be in place.
By gender, opposition to the antiprostitution law was higher among men at 59.4 percent than women at 37.4 percent.
In response to the ruling, the Ministry of Women and Family welcomed the decision, hailing it for “making sure that sex cannot be subject to trade for money whatsoever” and “upholding values to maintain social order and boost public morals through a ban on sex trade.”
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org