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Exposing ‘invisible’ male sex workers in South Korea

Some 10 years since South Korea enacted its antiprostitution law, new forms of sex trade have continued to evolve in legal loopholes, including sex services for women and overseas prostitution. With the law vocally opposed by an increasing number of sex workers, its efficacy has constantly been questioned. The Korea Herald will publish a three-part series shedding light on the hidden side of Korea’s sex industry. The following is the first installment. -- Ed.

At first glance, he looks like an ordinary young man in his late 20s. Casually dressed in blue jeans and a black sweater, the man also exudes an athletic vibe. Most would believe him if he claimed to work at a fitness club, or as a professional athlete.

The man, in fact, is a part-time sex worker targeting women. His job mostly involves meeting his female clients at a motel room, usually during the day, and offering “special” massage services, which includes intercourse upon request. “Almost a half of my clients are women in their 20s,” he said, when The Korea Herald met him posing as a potential client. “About 8 percent of them are pregnant ladies.”

According to South Korea’s antiprostitution laws, what he does is illegal and both he and his clients may face a maximum of one year behind bars. But when it comes to male sex workers, South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality -- which is in charge of regulating the nation’s illegal sex trade business – currently has no statistics.

“We’ve actually never had any data or reports on them,” said Choi Soo-young from the ministry’s Women’s Right Support Division. 
Illustration by The Korea Herald
Illustration by The Korea Herald

It’s been more than 10 years since South Korea enacted its antiprostitution law, which criminalized both the buying and selling of sex. Yet the nation’s adult industry still flourishes, with new forms of the sex trade emerging.

With or without the Gender Ministry’s willingness to tackle such sex services targeting women, these male “massage therapists” have existed for at least 10 years in Seoul, according to reports and sources. And the industry may be more thriving now than ever-- all behind closed doors.

According to a 2005 investigative report by local weekly Ilyo Seoul, parlors that offer erotic massage services, including genital stimulation, were becoming increasingly popular among women in their 30s, especially in Seoul’s posh districts including Apgujeong and Cheongdam. Almost all services were given by male masseurs, who would sometimes use extra equipment, such as adult sex toys for women, upon request.

Today, the services for women have become even more discreet in the country where sex services for men, on the other hand, have been relatively more common and therefore face wider crackdowns.
“You don’t have to worry about getting caught (by the police) at all,” the male sex worker assured. “We either visit our client in her house (for the service), or meet her in a motel room. We are not doing this at a parlor. It’s all private. There’s no way the authorities are going to find out.”

The man offers three massage options -- courses A, B and C. Course A is an hour-long service consisting of a regular aromatherapy massage. Course B adds “sensual touches” to the mix. Those who choose to get the Course C, which costs 200,000 won ($177) per single session, can make any request they want, including intercourse. “Almost every client chooses to get Course C,” he said.

And it’s not even that hard to find such services online. Searching “yeoseong (women) massage” in Korean on popular search engines including Google and Naver, tens of thousands of results appear. One of the popular massage services for women is called the “Handsome Boy Massage,” while another is called “Luxury Aroma.” Some websites, upon logging in, offer seminude photographs of their massage therapists. The photographs remind one of bodybuilding competitions.

“Women like getting facials done,” the sex worker said. “It’s almost like that. I think (our services) established itself as a part of leisure culture. A lot of our clients are young women (in their 20s). Some women would (go to a motel) together with friends and get the service at the same time, in separate rooms.”

Shin Jeong-ae (not her real name), a 51-year-old married woman, has been receiving such massages, without intercourse, for the last four years. In 2011, she had a number of health issues, including chronic indigestion and leg pain. “I thought massage was a better option than working out,” she said. “My friend recommended it and I went for it.”

Shin usually asks her male therapists visit her home for the services, which she describes as “similar to caressing between a man and a woman.” Most of her therapists are in their late 20s or early 30s. “It’s such a stress-reliever,” she said. “My body feels so light after getting the services. It also helps with indigestion.”

Shin said she has a stable marriage with her husband, and does not feel bad about getting such services. “I don’t feel bad. It’s just massage,” she said. “But I once thought (while getting the service), oh, now I can sort of understand why people cheat.”

Sung Kyung-won, an expert in sex education, said the idea that men usually have higher sex drive than women is largely a myth. “I think buying sex has to do with power. Those who do it want to assert their dominance through purchasing sex,” she said. “I think more women would’ve paid for sex in the earlier years if they had the power and financial means to do it. I’m not saying that it’s morally right. But such an industry obviously exists because there is a demand. And more women are becoming financially independent.”

Indeed, the male sex worker said most of his clients are women with stable jobs and income. He said he also has an option of saying no to a client’s request to have intercourse.

“If I really don’t like the client, I’d just finish the service by giving the massage only for the entire two hours. And then I’d lie that I don’t give the ‘special’ treatments and she would call someone else for such services,” he said. “But I can’t do this too many times because it will make my employer unhappy.”

The services’ main clientele also includes female sex workers, who visit these women-only clubs as a way of releasing their work-related stress. “I’d assume many female sex workers, especially those who work in bars and drink a lot at work, would use those massage services,” said a former female sex worker, who spent almost 20 years in the industry and preferred to remain anonymous.

“I know female sex workers who would visit those female-exclusive bars and clubs, and make the male workers go through exactly what they had to endure while serving their male clients, such as masturbating in public. The women would go crazy if they didn’t release their stress.”

While the male sex worker could afford to mostly greet clients who are “physically attractive and financially stable,” the range of clients received by the former female sex worker was less selective, and sometimes included those experiencing sexual dysfunction. She spent most of her income as a sex worker paying off her family debt. She never married.

The male sex worker, in the meantime, works as a freelancer in the health and fitness sector, and dreams of running his own business one day. He also dates women, keeping his part-time job a secret. “Of course they (his ex-girlfriends) didn’t know,” he said. “I can never let them know that.”

By Claire Lee and Suk Gee-hyun
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