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Sex business lives on despite crackdown

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Joined: 24 Jan 2004

PostPosted: Tue May 31, 2005 9:20 pm    Post subject: Sex business lives on despite crackdown Reply with quote

As I was reading this I thought - No Way a Korean reporter would write this kinda down to earth material -- and sure enough, at the end, I discovered it was written by a foreinger. I wonder what motivated him ...


Regardless of public indignation and police crackdowns, the sex business remains pervasive and ubiquitous in Korean society at various levels.
Walk down just about any street in any town - from barber shop to room salon to business club to sauna to "sports massage" parlor to neighborhood hostess bar to an out-and-out red light district; it's difficult to find a street where sex or value-added sexual services are not offered in some form.

Even though the reality and enormity of the industry is there for everyone to see, most people remain in denial that a large number of men and women are involved in a thriving sex business.

The vast majority of people do not want to consider that it is perhaps their daughter or sister, or even their mother, aunt or grandmother who is or was involved in the sex industry.

Sex workers are more often than not ignored by society in general, outcasts - "not anyone I know," would be the answer from almost anyone.

Work in the sex industry here is varied. Ms. X, a woman who owns a bar on Itaewon's infamous "hooker hill," described sex work in Korea as being of two main types: one to do with "entertainment," with sex as an option for the girl to make extra money (most bars or hostess positions), or as a straight sex-for-money relationship such as is found in a typical red-light district.

Ms. X had worked the American-style "entertainment" end as a "juicy girl" in a bar during most of her 20s, earning money from customers by making 50 percent on every 20,000 won drink a male customer bought her. "Juicy" bars are generally only found in places such as Itaewon which cater mostly to foreigners.

The Korean-style "entertainment" establishment that is not to Ms. X's liking involves drinking prodigious amounts of alcohol with male customers who tend to come in large groups.

In most room salons, "mi-in clubs," and business clubs, the women don't have a choice when it comes to taking customers, who, according to Ms. X, tend to be far more demanding and disrespectful of their hostesses. Also, Korean men tend to drink far more than Westerners when socializing, and they usually come in groups rather than singly or in pairs as is mostly the case with foreigners.

In the Korean-style case, drinking/hostess establishments give the workers a flat fee for a group of customers, usually in the range of 30,000 to 50,000 won. In places catering to foreigners, the money is a 50/50 split for every drink purchased, with no upper limit.

Ms. X now owns the bar where she once worked as a "juicy girl."

Women working for Korean places have to drink large amounts of alcohol to earn comparably less money than "juicy girls" and may have to resort to a "second stop" - going somewhere for sex with a customer - to get another few hundred thousand won.

A "room salon girl," in order to make any decent money, has to try to stay fairly sober as a rule to convince a customer to go out for sex after drinks, whereas the foreigner-oriented "juicy girl" makes the most money drinking "special" - read "non-alcoholic" - cocktails while encouraging their clients to buy as many drinks as possible. Sex for money, if the "juicy girl" actually wants to offer any, is occasional and usually involves a returning customer or one who has spent a lot of money on drinks.

There are places that offer straight sex, using a bar as a front, although in Itaewon, much of the money is made on drinks, drinks, and more drinks, with sex as an option if the girl is willing and the price is worth it.

In the Korean entertainment genre, the game is to imbibe as little alcohol as possible while encouraging a customer to drink more. But there is no direct financial incentive to get anyone to drink more, since the girl receives a flat fee for the group and going off with a customer is where a hostess makes more money.

Ms. X is a "juicy girl" who saved her money and bought out the owner of the bar, and now she keeps all of her drink tab.

What of straight sex-for-money in typical red-light districts exclusively for Korean men?

Ms. Y, who is in her early 20s and comes from a mall town in the southern part of the peninsula, was frank about her reasons for working in a red-light district, one of the many found in almost any medium-sized Korean city as well as all over Seoul - Cheongnyangni, Miari, Yongsan, Yeongdeungpo.

Her room, which she said is typical of many and any others these days, was surprisingly spacious and clean, albeit suggestively decorated in red. She agreed to talk for about 15 minutes, since that's about all the time she gives a customer.

Getting right to the point, I asked how people generally got into her kind of work - was she in debt, were there cases she knew of women trapped in debt bondage, or perhaps even women kidnapped from the countryside and forced into the sex trade here?

She laughed dismissively, saying that was a ridiculous a notion nowadays, although perhaps such cases occurred in the 1970s or 1980s and were still sometimes reported in the media. She said there so many women wanting to and looking for work in red-light districts now that there was no need for any ruthless recruiting.

She said her room and all the furniture in it was completely free and part of a package deal readily available in most red-light districts. A woman could walk in off the street, not pay a dime for a room, and start earning money for herself and the house virtually immediately.

Ms. Y laughed off the anti-sex-trade law as a show for the media and the public, after which it was back to business as usual.

Brief talks with a few other women confirmed the crackdown had scared a few girls away and briefly kept recruitment down, but it's apparent to any observer that major red-light districts around Seoul are generally operating as before.

Ms. Y explained that most working girls lived and worked in their rooms, with a day off once a week. They came into the trade for all kinds of reasons - from supporting family members back home, paying off personal debts, accumulating capital to start their own businesses, or just to make a lot more money than they could otherwise elsewhere.

In her case, her mother was in hospital and she decided to come to Seoul to earn the money to cover the bills. She was allowed by the house to adjust her schedule to work three weeks without a break and take one week off to travel back home. She lamented that she therefore had no rest days for three weeks at a time.

The government's 2002 estimates say there are about 1 million women engaged in sex work at any one time, mind-boggling until one remembers it would take a high number to support an industry that comprised 4.4 percent of the GDP - more than forestry, fishing and agriculture combined (4.1 percent). The estimate was conservative since it dealt with semi-formal places of prostitution where numbers of workers and estimated income can be tracked.

Considering that there are other forms of prostitution which are nearly impossible to track, it indicates between one-sixth to one-tenth of women in the country at some time have worked in some capacity or the other in the sex trade or on the periphery. And some of them use the money they own as capital to start "legitimate" or other businesses.

By Michael Hurt Contributing writer
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