[Statement] End the history of sexual exploitation!(9월 16일 성명서 영문버전)

[Statement from National Solidarity against Sexual Exploitation of Women]

It has been 20 years since the fire in Daemyeong-dong, Gunsan, and 16 years since the legislation of the anti-prostitution laws.

Amend the laws to adopt the gender equality model decriminalizing prostituted women and prohibiting the buying of sex.

End the history of sexual exploitation!

  • September 19, 2000, 9:15 am: Five women locked in a brothel in Daemyeong-dong, Gunsan, killed in fire
  • January 29, 2002, 11:50 am: Fourteen women locked in a brothel in Gaebok-dong, Gunsan, killed in fire

The deaths of prostituted women were the news that opened the new millennium. These gruesome incidents brought the devastating realities of the sex trade to the surface. As society had been turning a blind eye while calling prostitution and prostituted women “harlotry,” the women themselves were being trafficked in the midst of exploitation and violence and even losing their lives in captivity. A journal found in one of the burnt brothels had a wish written in it by one of the women to “become a bird and fly” with freedom.

“Harlotry”: A corrupt woman’s selling of her body

Until 2000, prostitution was defined as harlotry. Prostitution was considered a problem because “corrupt women sell their bodies.” A woman always had to try hard not to become a “harlot,” since she could turn into one and/or be treated like one. Prostitution, on the other hand, became a daily practice and a core part of male culture. The world’s sixth largest kingdom of prostitution was being perpetuated.

In 2000 and 2002, two fires in Daemyeong-dong and Gaebok-dong, Gunsan respectively, brought about a turning point in society’s awareness of prostitution. It was no longer an issue of “harlots,” but an issue of women’s human rights and sexual exploitation. The feminist movement, which successfully amended the definition of sexual violence from an issue of “chastity” to that of sexual autonomy and domestic violence from a “domestic matter” to a form of violence in intimate relationships, then attempted to redefine prostitution from a crime violating sexual norms to a form of violence against women. A movement standing against prostitution and sexual exploitation as well as activism from the sex trade survivors emerged. Despite its limits, the legislation which aims to see the prevention of prostitution as the responsibility of the state, place strict penalty for procurement, and assist in securing human rights of prostituted women came true as a result.

Sexual exploitation: Actions that deprive human rights for dignity, equality, autonomy, and physical and/or wellbeing by abusing individual’s sexuality for the purpose of sexual gratification and/or monetary and other benefits

The 2004 legislation of the anti-prostitution laws made it clear that prostitution is a form of violence against women and that prostituted women are victims of the exploitative structures of the sex trade. One of the limits the legislation has is that unless prostituted women prove the victimization caused by the sex trade, they are to be penalized just like procurers and sex buyers. What is forgotten in the law is that the sex trade is a giant industry as well as a cartel which encompasses all of Korean society. According to the national prostitution study in 2002 by the Korean Institute of Criminology, the scale of the sex trade was larger than the total of the agriculture and the fishing industries combined. The size of the industry, which was estimated to be the world’s sixth largest in 2016, is still standing strong in 2020 with a grave social impact. Within this gross structure, the talk of “voluntariness” and “choice” of individuals is a problematic framing which unjustly puts the responsibility of the state and our society onto the victims. 

Time to decriminalize all prostituted women

What kind of crime is prostitution, and why does South Korea see prostitution as a crime? For a long time, prostitution has been seen as a crime violating and distorting society’s sexual norms. If prostitution is just a crime regarding sexual norms, then we would have to ask whether the state holds the right to intervene in individuals’ sexual lives. Yet, prostitution is an issue in the sense that it turns women’s sexuality into commodities and legitimizes the notion that vulnerable women in poverty and without resources can be sold and bought. A society, in which vulnerable class/gender can be abused, hence normalizes inequality and violence against human rights. Prostitution is sexual exploitation and gendered violence. As long as prostitution is a form of violence against women and an issue of women’s human rights, criminalizing its victims can no longer be justified. We cannot expect the violence to be eradicated while criminalizing the victims. It has been 20 years since the fire in Gunsan and 16 years since the legislation of the anti-sex trade laws. An amendment with which prostituted women are decriminalized and the penalties for procurement and buying sex are better enforced is long overdue.

We demand the following.

First, penalties against victims is not acceptable. Decriminalize prostituted women!

Second, prostitution is a form of violence against women’s human rights. Decriminalize prostituted women!

Third, a just and equal world without sexual exploitation begins with decriminalizing prostituted women. Decriminalize prostituted women!

Sep 16, 2020

National Solidarity against Sexual Exploitation of Women

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