Shin-Park Jin-young, Prostitution: a Black Hole of Common Sense, translation oversight by Kim Puja, translated by Masaki Ohata and Emi Hagiwara, commentary by Akane Onozawa and Yumeno Nito, Korokara, 2022.
While many books and translations have been published in Japan on the issue of the “comfort women” during the war, few works have been published discussing the reality of prostitution in contemporary South Korea. Prostitution: a Black Hole of Common Sense is probably the first book in Japanese to reveal in detail the reality of prostitution in contemporary South Korea. The author is Shin-Park Jin-young, who has been involved in the support movement for prostituted women in Korea from an anti-prostitution standpoint for twenty years.
The history of the sex industry in Korea began with the country’s prewar colonization by Japan. The sex trade, which had existed only partially before that time, was systematically introduced, organized, industrialized, and expanded to every corner of the Korean peninsula as a licensed prostitution system by Japanese colonizers. The so-called “comfort women” system was an extension of this system.
Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War and the liberation of Korea were supposed to have put an end to the system. Indeed, after “liberating” Korea, the U.S. military officially abolished Korea’s prewar licensed prostitution system. However, unofficially, it was preserved and reorganized into a new sex trade system for U.S. soldiers during the Korean War.
Even after the enactment in 1961 of the Law for the Prevention of Corrupt Practices (as a sub-standard version of Japan’s 1956 Prostitution Prevention Law), so-called concentrated prostitution areas (former “Yukaku”, licensed brothel quarters, originally created by the Japanese during the colonial period) operated with an exemption under the law, and a state-controlled prostitution system continued, even though the law did, in principle, ban prostitution. The military dictatorship that lasted a long time in South Korea after the war made great use of the sexual exploitation of women for economic growth and the acquisition of foreign currency (even when a curfew was imposed under this dictatorship, the prostitution districts enjoyed special exemption). Two examples of sexual exploitation being used in this way comprised U.S. military base camptown prostitution and so-called “kisaeng” tourism by Japanese white-collar men.
In South Korea, as in Japan, the status of women was extremely low, and the country had a culture that took for granted men’s buying of women for money. Under Korea’s homosocial culture of entertainment and business, the sex industry has been used, as in Japan, to entertain business partners and superiors. Women in the sex industry were held in slavery and sexually exploited without mercy under various systems (especially the advance loan system) introduced by Japan during the colonial period. The advance loans were renamed “advance payments” to continue the system of forcing women into debt and forcing them to be sexually exploited. When prostituted women tried to leave the sex industry, they were accused by venue owners of failing to repay these advance payments and were treated as criminals.
A significant turning point in this situation came with the democratization of South Korea following the fall of the dictatorship in 1987, and the fires that broke out in 2000 and 2002 in two prostitution districts. In the first fire, five women died in a room where they were being held captive. In the second fire, 15 women died inside a brothel whose windows and doorways were barred with iron bars and double-locked inside and out. Shocked by this incident, women’s groups united to create a major movement for the enactment of a new human rights law to replace the Law for the Prevention of Corrupt Practices.
This led to the enactment of the Sex Trade Prevention Laws in 2004. These laws punish punters and pimps, and protect and support prostituted women. Under the laws, a number of counseling and support facilities and a support framework have been established. They are landmark laws in the history of prostitution in Korea, but they have a critical weakness. Because of strong resistance from conservatives, the laws fail to completely decriminalize women who are prostituted, and include a provision that makes “voluntary” prostitutes punishable. Thus, prostituted women now have to prove that they are coerced rather than voluntarily involved. Hurdles to establishing such proof are extremely high and dangerous for them, as they must bring claims against the “poju” (traffickers, brothel managers, or pimps) who hold the power of life and death over them. As a result, a large number of prostituted women are punished as criminals.
The book by Shin-Park Jin-young reveals in detail how, despite the enactment of the 2004 laws and some important achievements, prostitution still infests contemporary South Korea in all its respects and devours Korean society with impunity. “Prostitution has become such an everyday experience that it is difficult to find a place in South Korea where it does not exist,” says the author (p. 88). Red-light districts have shrunk somewhat but still remain in place, and various forms of the sex trade are conducted under a variety of terminologies, which are helpfully explained in a glossary added to the end of Shin-Park’s book. The police often cozy up to the pimps and hinder law enforcement. And irresponsible scholars advocating “sex work is work” ideologically back the sex industry, portraying victims as if they were voluntary agents. All of this is a familiar scene in Japan.
However, under these circumstances, those who are campaigning to support the parties involved, such as Shin-Park Jin-young, are working day and night to rescue and support victims, in spite of the inadequate 2004 laws. What has become clear is the existence of a complex and diverse network of actors that profit from driving women into, and keeping them in, the sex industry. Shin-Park Jin-young notes:
‘People in the world vaguely assume that the manager of the brothel, or the resident venue manager, is the pimping agent, and they assume that he or she is the lone entity involved in the transaction. However, a closer look at the prostitution system, focusing on “trading,” reveals that different types of agents play fragmented roles in the organization of the sex trade…As we meet one prostituted woman and assist her in getting out of prostitution, we come across the various role holders that surround her. Prostitution is an act of making money by controlling “human bodies” belonging to vulnerable people. And to make this possible, it is always accompanied by other illicit criminal activities…The people in the holding and mediating structures, who are complicit in this are not just the brothel keepers who operate the venues, but also a great variety of others, ranging from money lenders, referral agencies, and plastic surgeons who invest money.’ (pp. 92-93)
This structure includes a web of vendors who sell clothing, cosmetics, and beverages to women who are restricted from leaving the venues (even dry cleaners and Yakult vendor ladies!), obstetricians and gynecologists who perform abortions and treat sexually transmitted diseases, and psychiatrists who irresponsibly prescribe diet pills and depression medication. A huge network has formed to swarm around women’s bodies and devour profits from them without limit.
Shin-Park Jin-young asserts that “it is a fiction that women ‘consent’ to prostitution” (p. 125). This is not said as an abstract proposition learned from some feminist book, but it is rather a conclusion drawn from her activities supporting prostituted women for 20 years. It is the sex buyer who has the right to choose, and the women on the selling side are merely chosen and sorted through. Taking advantage of her vulnerabilities, many people try to put a woman on the rails of prostitution by any means necessary.
‘For women to step into the prostitution market is not a matter of choice, as in, “I’m going into prostitution.” When a woman needs money, her friend, an acquaintance of her sister’s, an owner of a beauty salon that she uses, or someone else, are waiting for her and encroaching on her time of need. They may visit her after seeing a job ad for a brothel, or they may introduce her to a brothel to pay off a debt, or through chatting with punters or through an online application, etc, they will introduce her to the trade. In any case, this “work” takes place in a market where many things, including people and places, are precisely arranged. It is only when the place becomes a place to deal with punters, whether in a brothel or on a street corner, that “the work” begins.’ (pp. 126-127)
But when “the work” begins, the choice is not with the women, but with the buyers from the start.
‘Not everything will naturally fall into place once an individual woman decides to become a prostitute. First, they must be ready to be sold, to be chosen by punters. Those who say that they would accept anyone as long as she is young, are now in a higher position once the choice has been made. If they think a woman is not attractive enough, they will turn her down, even when she had been dispatched to meet them. A woman who has waited for a punter in fear and shame is, in the end, forced to admit she was not chosen, after thinking thousands of times about why he did not show up. In all the venues where prostitution happens, punters make incessant and insulting product reviews as they select women, bargaining with them about what services they will give them. The process of choosing the goods one desires is already a consumer right for them.’ (pp. 127-128)
What happens after the woman is “fortunately” chosen by the buyer? There are many things that must be done even before the real work begins.
‘Many people assume that women in prostitution are always passive, that all they have to do is lie down and open their legs and that’s it. But the buyer is not buying sex simply with the intention of ejaculating. Once the deal is made and the woman moves into the room with the buyer, she quietly assesses whether he is a safe person. She must worry about whether the client has an STD or other infectious disease, and she cannot relax for even a moment making sure the buyer’s taste is not sadistic or that he will not try to use dangerous drugs or tools. The mission from that moment on for the woman is to quickly complete the prescribed service without offending the buyer. The more time she spends trying to complete the mission, the more money she loses and the more her body breaks down. So the woman’s goal is to arouse the buyer and make him ejaculate as quickly as possible. The buyer, on the other hand, wants to get what he paid for. This is how the invisible struggle takes place in the room.’ (p. 129)
And so the main event finally begins. What is it like? Is it just a sex act as people imagine? Shin-Park Jin-young says,
‘What constitutes actual prostitution is the entire process of meeting personal preferences and methods until the buyer reaches ejaculation. These preferences of buyers sometimes include drugs, sometimes verbal games and violence, sometimes sadomasochistic demands. The number of buyers is as diverse as the number of demands. To be a prostituted woman, to live as a prostituted woman, is a process of being repeatedly used like a tool for these sexual needs of punters.’ (pp. 131-132)
Shin-Park Jin-young asks if there is a boundary between prostitution and sexual violence. From the point of view of those who are subjected to such acts, the boundary, if any, is slight and extremely fluid. Both are one-sided sexual acts in which a woman is forced by power (sometimes by force of arms, sometimes by money) into a situation over which she has no control, to perform a sexual act that the other person desires. As a result, many suffer from depression and other mental illnesses, resort to drugs and alcohol, and suffer from PTSD long after they stop self-harming. Shin-Park Jin-young introduces the reality of the many prostituted women she has come into contact with.
‘The prostituted women I meet swear that prostitution is a form of rape. They also describe the buyers, no matter who they are, as mere beasts the moment they are in the room. They say they have to constantly have their whole bodies tense to deal with the buyer, which is why they are always in such bad shape. They take birth control pills all the time, stop menstruating, and their life lived without boundaries between day and night leads to early menopause and insomnia. These women cannot sleep without sleeping pills because of their messed-up biorhythms. In addition to insomnia, what most of the prostituted women have are symptoms of depression. These women have attempted to self-harm and commit suicide on numerous occasions, and, in a few cases, they have indeed killed themselves. In a study of women in prostitution, 60.7 percent were diagnosed with PTSD and 42.9 percent with complex PTSD. The younger they drift into prostitution and the longer they are in prostitution the more its severity increases.’ (pp. 144-145)
What other “job” causes PTSD in over 60% of those engaged in it? One study found that rates of PTSD are higher among prostituted women than among soldiers returning from the battlefield. With their eyes closed to these realities, pro sex work theorists argue that those who engage in “sex work” do so by free choice, with the exception of a few unfortunate victims. It is against liberal intellectuals who wield such irresponsible discourse that Shin-Park Jin-young feels indignation more than anything else. These ‘male intellectuals who call themselves progressive’ (p. 196) think they are doing something very noble by presenting the voices of a very few number of “agents” who purport to have chosen sex work themselves. These 21st-century liberals are no different from the 19th-century liberals who thought they were exporting civilization by colonizing “barbaric backward nations.” The only difference is that the object of colonization has changed from the nation to the female body.
Finally, Shin-Park Jin-young argues that in order to change the current situation in South Korea, which is also shared by Japan, it is necessary to introduce the Nordic model of legislation, which has been adopted in Sweden, Norway, France, Canada, Ireland, and other countries. The Nordic model legislation is a legal system that decriminalizes women on the side of those being bought and provides them with generous support and protection, while punishing the buyers and pimps. This assessment of what should be done is not based on some abstract proposition.
‘I am not advocating the Nordic model solely on any literal interpretation of politics or any judgment of merely moral and political correctness. I am saying that we should go down that road because the reality that has already been shown to us in the 20-odd years since [the law’s] implementation has demonstrated how it works and how it has changed the world of prostitution.’ (p. 205)
The book also contains accurate commentary and explanations by Akane Onozawa, Yumeno Nito, and Kim Puja, who complement the excellent work of Shin-Park Jin-young, and together convey much about the current situation and issues in Japan similar to those in South Korea.
My one query relates to the fact there was no mention in the book of how military conscription and the military forces are connected to prostitution in Korean society. While there are many pages devoted to the role that prewar Japanese colonization and the postwar U.S. military rule played in the introduction and establishment of South Korea’s prostitution culture, there is almost no mention of the Korean military. I wish the author had written about this point as well.
In any case, the arguments in this book, backed up by the author’s own 20 years of experience, are persuasive and appealing in a way that is not found in similar books. The equivalent book published in Japan is Empty Resume: 30 Years of Supporting Women Selling Sex in Shinjuku (Asahi Shimbunsha, 1987) by Sachiko Kanematsu, who supported prostituted women in Shinjuku for 30 years. I hope that many people will read this, as well as Shin-Park’s book.