*** Click the video above to watch Borderless News film inside real Korean brothels and talk to sex workers. This short film is part 3 in a special series on Asia’s multi billion-dollar commercial sex industry. Also see the first and second stories in the series.
First time visitors to Korea will likely only see bustling downtown Seoul, an ultra-modern mega city where men in suits and women wearing expensive brands strut down the streets and eat in pricey restaurants.
But hidden under the surface is another part Korea – the country’s massive sex industry.
The country’s commercial sex trade is estimated to be one of the world’s biggest, with perhaps more than a quarter of a million sex workers, according to some estimates. One statistic holds that 1 in 5 Korean women under age 30 have worked in some way in the sex industry, which is worth around $14 billion annually.
There are many contradictions between the sex industry and Korean society. Purchasing sex is a major pastime for a large chunk of Korea’s male population. But despite the industry’s massive size and importance in Korean men’s culture – especially corporate culture – it’s considered somewhat of a national embarrassment, and something never to be discussed with outsiders. Korean men will take a foreign colleague out drinking, drop him off at home and then go without him to a hostess club or brothel, and never mention this extra excursion to their overseas colleague.
But at the same, Korea’s sex industry is so widespread that even small towns have sizable red light districts, as shown in the short film above. It’s a truism that commercial sex is a part of Korean culture, and that many Korean men have purchased sex at one point in their lives. Many purchase sexual services regularly, and many coworkers head to brothels or hostess clubs as a group as part of a male bonding ritual.
One reason the industry is so large – likely even bigger than that of world sex destinations like Thailand – is that much corporate money is injected into the industry. Major Korean corporations and even mid-size and smaller firms have entertainment budgets. The funds are supposed to be used for departmental dinners to promote unit cohesion, or to take clients out to dinner. But in reality, the money is used to head to a variety of venues where office workers can buy sex and charge it to the company. There are venues for every budget.
Executives at larger companies with bigger budgets have been known to pay over $1,000 to have sex with a “hostess” at a hostess club. These are women whose official job is to chat with and pour drinks for male clientele, but if the price is right, the young women can – and usually do – provide full sexual services. Often, hostesses are university students. The sex is charged to the company, with some creative accounting work describing the purchase as “dinner,” “entertainment” or something of the sort.
Another reason for the industry’s sheer size is Korea’s ongoing war against women. It is nearly impossible for most women to move up the corporate ladder of Korea Inc, as most companies are ruled by old boys’ clubs. That leaves very few opportunities for many single women, especially those who need to support children or aging parents.
There are few jobs other than sex work for unskilled women to make ends meet. For many women in the industry, sex is the only option to provide for their families. Many Korean sex workers Borderless spoke to said sex work pays their bills and allows them to support elderly parents, even if they don’t like the job.
Click here to watch as Borderless filmed inside a Korean brothel and speaks to a sex worker about her rights.
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