Good Intentions Can Do Harm
Korea Times, December 13, 2004
By Sealing Cheng

The South Korean government implemented a new law to ``eradicate prostitution'' in September. Both the Ministry of Gender Equality and key women's organizations claim the new law advances women's human rights. So why are women sex workers going on hunger strikes and taking to the streets in the thousands to protest against the law? And why won't the ministry or the women's organizations meet with the hunger strikers?

The ``Act on the Punishment of Intermediating in Sex Trade and Associated Acts'' at first glance looks like a welcome departure from the old law that penalizes all women in prostitution as fallen women. It offers protection for ``victims'' and penalizes all involvement in the sex trade. While clients, brothel-owners, and pimps could get jail sentences and fines, the victims could receive access to shelters, health services, vocational training, and even alternative business set-up funds.

What could be so wrong with the new law that those whom it intends to protect are protesting so vehemently against it? What could they possibly object to?

They object to the loss of their livelihood. They object to police crackdowns that are forcing them to work clandestinely, exposing them to great danger, and threatening their well-being and that of their families (sex workers have families too!). They object to being arrested along with clients, brothel-owners and pimps. For the sex workers, the new law is effectively an instrument of harassment.

The law protects only women who want to leave the sex trade but penalizes those who want to stay. Only victims who have been coerced into the sex trade are eligible for services. Those who cannot prove their innocence, like independent sex workers, could be charged and penalized.

The underlying assumption of the law, therefore, is wrong. Not all women in the sex trade are victims who want to be rescued from brothels. That they want to be free from exploitation and abuse does not mean that they want to be out of a job.

The principles of human rights demand that governments do no harm to a person and take extra care to promote the rights of people who are already marginalized.

Korean sex workers are now publicly demanding what other workers take for granted: their right to a livelihood. Their constitutional right as citizens to pursue happiness with dignity and worth as human beings. And with that, the recognition of sex work as a legitimate form of work.

To the sex workers, current attempts of the government and women's organizations to eradicate prostitution are in effect destroying their lives. Their public petition eloquently declares, ``we feel forsaken by the superficial policy of the Ministry of Gender Equality that does not correspond with our reality. Those who are wealthy and lack nothing do not seem interested in how difficult and urgent our immediate needs are. They are drowned in their own illusions, thinking they are helping us but in effect they have pushed us to this cold and bleak place.''

Why are the Korean government and women's organizations ignoring the voices of the sex workers? Why the rush to eradicate prostitution after years of tolerance of the illegal trade?

The Korean government has been under relentless U.S. pressure to demonstrate its commitment to combat trafficking. As part of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) passed in 2000, the U.S. State Department publishes the yearly Trafficking in Persons Report to monitor world efforts to combat trafficking. It identified Korea in 2001 with other lowest ranking countries like Sudan and Burma. It was a huge international embarrassment to the Korean government, which has taken pride as a regional leader in democracy.

The Korean government thus set out to prove its anti-trafficking commitments. While trafficking refers to the use of force, fraud, and deception in exploiting labor in all sectors, the Bush administration has implemented its anti-trafficking policy with a preoccupation with prostitution. In this context, a momentous shift from tolerance to zero-tolerance in the Korean government's approach to prostitution followed, with a big push from women's organizations.

The fervor of Korean women's organizations to eradicate prostitution is rooted in the conviction that prostitution is the key issue to women's subordination in Korea. They believe that prostitution is a form of male violence against women, and that no woman engages in prostitution voluntarily. The month-long hunger strike and mass protests (2,800 people on Oct. 7 and 2,000 on Nov. 1 in Seoul) clearly disprove this last point.

Women in the sex industry do experience violence and discrimination, but this is because they are marginalized and denied the rights everyone should be entitled to. It would be a mistake to extrapolate from these bad experiences to imply that all sex work is violent.

Exploitation is a problem facing all women, not just prostitutes, and needs to be tackled at its roots _ the family, workplace, education, class inequalities, and restrictive ideas about sexuality, to name a few. Women's subordination and their impeded access to valuable resources are entrenched in these social institutions. Prostitution is only an expression, not the cause, of such inequalities.

An effective intervention must be based on sincere interactions with the very women they are trying to assist. Those who have good intentions must realize that dealing with violence in the sex trade does not mean eradicating prostitution. Prostitution is not identical to violence or sex trafficking.

Korean sex workers have refused to be victims by speaking up. If the new law genuinely aims at promoting these women's rights, then neither the Korean government nor women's organizations can afford to ignore their voices.

The writer is a Rockefeller postdoctoral fellow at the Program for the Study of Sexuality, Gender, Health, and Human Rights at Columbia University. He (sic) has been researching prostitution-related issues in Korea since 1998.

Sealing Cheng