Thoughts from Korea – Part 3

The last time I visited Korea I wasn’t aware of red light districts, and I didn’t see any signs of prostitution and the sex industry. I didn’t know how commonplace and accepted it was. I was so appalled when I read the 2006 San Francisco Chronicle 4-part series on sex trafficking, which featured a South Korean woman who was trafficked through Mexico into LA and then SF. I was doing research for a paper I was writing on human trafficking and though I had heard of sex trafficking and the fight against sex trafficking by organizations such as IJM, I always thought the women trafficked into the US for prostitution and slavery were from Southeast Asia or Eastern Europe. It infuriated me to know that even in Koreatown in LA, there are people kidnapping women from Korea and trafficking them into the US to profit off of their forced sexual labor.

I wasn’t able to visit a red light district firsthand during my second trip to Korea. But on a Friday night, while relaxing at Tom N Toms Coffee, I did some research. I remember running into some websites identifying well-known red light districts in Korea, and I wanted to identify them on my map of Seoul and see where they were in relation to the places I had visited or passed through over the course of my trip. While doing that, I ran into a now-defunct blog whose writer (an English-speaking foreigner) discussed almost all things sex-related in Korea: maps and directions to red light districts not only in Seoul, but Busan and other cities, how much it costs to buy a prostitute, how prostitution takes place in massage parlors, hostess bars, and room salons. It made my blood boil to see him talk so matter of factly about this “industry.” The ins and outs, from a personal experience perspective. It not only made me mad that foreigners were coming to Korea for sex tourism and treating Korean women like objects for sale, but it also infuriated me to think about how if a foreigner knew so much about the sex industry in Korea, how much more would Korean men know about all the things that go on. The blogger did mention how most brothels excluded foreigners, saving the “best” for native Koreans.

As my brother and I went running through Gangnam at night, we saw littered on the ground business cards advertising prostitutes. We talked about the things we had heard about corporate culture in Korea. How business deals and functions take place in room salons and hostess bars, where paying for female hostesses and alcohol is essential to making and closing deals. How most of the men who patronize red light districts are working men with wives and children. Younger single people, on the other hand, don’t need to resort to prostitutes. They just sleep around with each other. They run off in groups to “love motels” and hook up. Sex is so out in the open–red light districts, room salons, love motels–and yet it seems like no one wants to acknowledge it. My dad’s friends told him that so many married men commit adultery by soliciting prostitutes or having mistresses on the side, who are themselves married women. I asked my dad which description he thought better fit: 1) Women have no idea of the extent of the sex industry in Korean culture, or 2) Women know about it but assume their husbands aren’t the ones participating. Without pausing, my dad said he thought it was #2. It made sense. Korean people tend to sweep things under the rug. They know all this crap is there but refuse to talk about it. It’s the culture of shame and saving face. “I know the problem is out there, but it’s not my problem, it’s their problem.”

After I came back to the US, my brother and dad stayed another two weeks. My brother was able to get in touch with a church in Seoul that had a ministry dedicated to reaching out to the red light districts and prostitutes. He was able to visit and walk through a red light district just south of the Han River. Of the many things he observed and was struck by was the fact that just across the street from this red light district was a huge shopping mall. Families with children walked by the glowing red windows, minding their own business. It was a tangible example of the entrenched willful ignorance toward the dark underbelly of Korean society.

I know there are going to be some pervs that stumble on this blog post from the Internet after entering some prurient search terms. There is already one guy who got to my previous post using the keyword “sex in lotte hotel seoul.” Wtf? These people who hide behind their computer screens, indulging in their sick fantasies…I just want to beat them with my fists.

This is the kind of permissive and passive attitude toward sex and marriage that I saw in Korea the second time around. I have one more observation that I wanted to throw out there. Something that seemed peculiar to me. One curious thing I noticed was that almost no one wore wedding rings in Korea. Even couples that had children. Even some of my dad’s Christian friends. Even my extended family members here in the States. There’s probably some cultural reason for it, even if it’s something as cheesy as the fact that wearing a ring is uncomfortable (which I’ve heard before from my parents). But it’s such a stark contrast to America, where some men go to great lengths to remind themselves of their wedding vows and to signal to others their faithfulness. I know that what ultimately matters is having a good marriage, not looking like you have a good marriage. I know that many American marriages are in shambles, even if spouses “faithfully” wear their wedding rings. But if Koreans can’t even do something as simple as keep a ring on every day as a reminder of their marriage vows, is that an indicator of deeper issues?


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Brittany on January 25, 2013 at 10:28 PM

    Hey Sam. I stumbled across your blog while trying to google ministries that reach out to the red light district in Korea. My heart very much aches for this industry and how lightly it is taken. Over the past month my heart has been strongly moved to reach out to women in these situations, but I have been lost in where to start or how to go about it. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind telling me the ministry your brother was involved in, or if you know of any other ministeries. I don’t live in Seoul, but I’m about 40 minutes south of Gwangju. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

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