Monday, July 8, 2013

Break the Chains - Part 2: Be a Man

This is Part 2 of "Break the Chains", a series of posts about human trafficking. You can find the first post here.

I should preface this post to say one really important thing to consider while reading: I love Korea. I really do, otherwise I wouldn't have come back to live here for another year. It's a country that has gone from extreme poverty to an economic and social powerhouse in 60 years and in that time, as a country and society, they have gotten alot of things right. Health care, the economy, infrastructure, and even the Confucianism-based ethics and morals that seem rub Westerners the wrong way all work together to form some kind of chaotic harmony that I am just coming to appreciate. I have many Korean friends, and I've met very few people here that I don't respect or love...and yes, that includes the ajumma that likes to shoulder check you on the subway.

So, when I am talking about Korean men in this article, it applies to all men. It's a universal message, and it's pretty simple:
If we're to break the chains of human trafficking in this world, men need to learn what it means to be men.
Human trafficking is a broad term that blankets anyone who is exploited. However, of those people who are exploited, it is estimated that 80% of them are sexually exploited, which includes prostitution and rape. That's startling, considering that the reported number of people who are trafficked each year is around 30 million (and that's a conservative estimate). Going deeper into those numbers, you have to consider that more than 70% of those people are women and 50% are children.

That's 24,000,000 people each year who are sexually exploited, and these are the people who are most vulnerable in our societies. All sex-equality aside: these people deserve protection, and they aren't getting it.

These numbers scare me, but in Korea they become downright startling. Here's Korea's sex trafficking statistics by the numbers, and take into consideration that most of their data comes from 2004 when they passed legislation to help protect these people. Also consider that this covers the sex industry, not statistics on rape or domestic abuse, and that these are conservative estimates based on known businesses and sectors. The numbers could be much higher.


In Korea, there are:


  • 500,000 women involved in the sex industry, according to the Ministry for Gender Equality. The Korean Feminist Association estimates that number to be around 1 million.
  • That's 1 out of 25 women selling themselves. 
  • For girls between 14 and 29, 1 out of 5 girls have worked in the sex industry at some point in their lives
  • 200,000 Korean youths running away from home each year. Half of the girls turn to prostitution to survive.
  • 60,000 known businesses in the sex trade pulling in $40 Billion USD each year
  • nearly 100 million sex-trade transactions each year.
As much as those numbers bother me, it's this one that really makes me ashamed for my gender:

1 in 5 Korean men in their 20's buy sex at least 4 times a month.

I'm not sure how to interpret this statistic. This isn't a minor crime we're talking about here. It's not like a small demographic is going out and buying women every night. It's a huge industry. It's widespread. And it's either socially ignored or accepted by Korean culture.

Now I haven't been here long enough to be a spokesperson for the Korean mindset...and yes, it's a mindset. It's very hard for a foreigner to understand how Korean culture thinks and operates because of the language barrier and how closed-off it is to Waygooks (Korean for 'foreigner'). That doesn't mean I haven't had the chance to observe Korean culture and the consensus of the foreigner community. It is widely known that Korea is a male-dominated society. 

Korea ranks 108 out of 135 according to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, ranking behind countries like Cambodia and the United Arab Emirates. For every $1 made by a Korean man, a woman will make $.54 on average. Of the 100 members of parliament, 16 are women. Men dominate the workforce, and I've seen this at a couple of companies in Korea. Management is almost solely men, which means that women are often passed up for promotions regularly. Like always, there are exceptions...but generally, women and men are not equal in the Korean workforce.

These are economic statistics, yes, but that workforce dominance directly translates to the sex industry and how men treat women in general here in Korea. There is rampant sexual abuse in the workplace (although, fortunately, I've never seen this firsthand). It is common practice at many companies to take clients out to the noraebangs (karaoke rooms) or to tearooms, which often leads to treating them to prostitutes working at these places. 

That dominance even seeps into the act of sex itself...especially when men buy women. For the documentary I'm working on, we interviewed women who worked in the sex industry in Korea. Their testimonies are horrifying. Men would beat them and threaten them, sometimes with knives to their throats, while having sex with them. These women were degraded and humiliated on a nightly basis, both verbally and physically. One woman told us she didn't feel like a human being. She was a product. The man bought her, much like he would buy something at a market. For that set time, she was his toy, and he could do what he wanted with her.

Regardless if you're a man or a woman, I want you to imagine that feeling for a moment. Just try to imagine how it must feel to see yourself not as a person...but as a product. A thing to be sold, used, and ultimately cast away. It's no wonder that many girls in the sex industry try to commit suicide. 

Now, as I'm writing this documentary, I feel so disconnected from them....because I'm a man. Chances are, I'll never feel that kind of vulnerability in my life. I'll never feel that discrimination, or that degradation. It's easy for me at times to feel guilty for being a man, or to turn my guilt into anger towards Korean men. How could they make these women feel this way? How do they excuse their culture and let something like this become 'socially acceptable'? At what point does your ignorance become incriminating?

During those times, I have to reel it back in and realize that it's not just Korea...this happens everywhere. Every country on this planet allows the sexual exploitation of women. Men have dominated women throughout human history, and today the image of 'being a man' is often associated with chauvinism and superiority masquerading as confidence. 

Let me be clear: men are not evil. We aren't the bad guys. Both men and women contribute to this warped vision of manliness. Men aren't expected to act chivalrous these days. We've let us excuse deplorable behavior as 'boys being boys', when these boys need to act like men. We've let it slide for too long, and the sexual exploitation that is rampant in Korea and around the world is a symptom of us devaluing our morals.

Like all injustices in this world, we have to ask ourselves "What can I do about it?" If something like this is so rampant, especially in a place like Korea, what can I do on a personal level that actually makes a difference? I've battled this question for most of my adult life, whether the dollar I give to an organization makes a real difference or whether a simple act of kindness translates to a better world. The thing is...it does help. Positive change starts with small steps. Even for something like sex trafficking, we have somewhere to start. All of us do, both men and women, and I said it at the beginning of this post:
If we're to break the chains of human trafficking in this world, men need to learn what it means to be men.
This means, as men, we need to destroy this idea that dominance is our birthright. We need to act like righteous men all the time, not just around women, and demand that our fellow men do the same. That means viewing women not just as equals, but respecting women and showing that in everything we do. Women need to demand this from us as well, and that includes dismissing the stereotype that all men must exhibit confidence at all times. For both sexes, I know we're going against biology here. But if we can evolve beyond living in caves and accomplishing wonders like going to space or splitting the atom, I think we can evolve to the point where we see women and men truly as equals. We all need to do our part, though, and realize that when we look away from problems like this we are just as bad as the John buying a girl at a brothel.
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I took a break tonight to go on my rooftop in Seoul and look out into the city. It's raining outside, and at 1 in the morning it's very quiet...even for a city. The clouds are low, and the streetlights illuminate them with an orange glow. On one side is a residential neighbor, and I can see all the way to the Han River. In Korea, many churches have this bright neon-red cross that sits on top of the steeple. You can see them for miles, and on that one side alone I counted 28 crosses. That's 28 churches, each with a congregation dedicated to the teachings of Jesus. 

On the other side of my apartment is the subway station and, just on the other side of that, are 10 blocks or so of brightly-lit motels, karaoke bars, massage parlors, and tearooms. It's small in comparison to other districts in Seoul. But, even on a Monday night, there are probably 50 or so places in that district that are selling women. That's not including the thousands of call cards thrown all over the sidewalk beckoning businessmen to call.

It's a fitting image for the project I'm working on, asking the righteous to take action against the other. It isn't a religious-only battle. It's a human rights battle, and the wrong side is winning right now. I hope and pray that, in my lifetime, we're able to turn the tide.