Religion and prostitution in South Korea

Last year, while I was still teaching at a public middle school in South Korea, Russell Blackford asked me a question in e-mail about religion in South Korea.

I directed him to these posts, and also sent along some additional thoughts, which I asked him not to share until I was no longer teaching (didn’t know how my employer would feel about me, middle school teacher, being quoted on the issue of prostitution in South Korea). But now that I’m back in the states, I can safely post what I told Russell at the time:

South Korea is in many ways a fairly repressive society. That’s sometimes attributed to “Confucian values,” but I’ve never seen any clear evidence of a connection to religion so much as fear, ignorance, and the fact that people who know to keep their mouths shut about it because you can get away with a lot so long as you’re quiet about it.

My encounters with religion in Korea have been few. I don’t think any of my closest coworkers are at all religious, for example. Here’s basically the entirety of my encounters with religion in South Korea.

For Buddhism and Confucianism: I’ve seen Buddhist temples while being touristy with other foreigners, and seen apparently devout people praying at them. But does it have any impact on public life? Not that I’ve seen.

For Christianity: I had 1 student ask me if I was a Christian, and follow up by telling me she was. I also occasionally see churches. Other than that, I never notice it, though occasionally I hear about Christians attempting to influence public life. From what I gather, they try, but have basically no influence.

Aside from the thing with the creationists, another foreign teacher told me the story of how she had wanted to get involved in some anti-human trafficking protests organized by some Christians… until she started to get the impression that they didn’t care much about the welfare of trafficked women, but rather just wanted to oppose prostitution.

The unfortunate reality is that neither version of the anti-prostitution position (either in the form of legitimate concerns about trafficking or just wanting to police illicit sex) has much power here in South Korea. The Christian anti-prostitution protesters were very much a minority viewpoint. It’s officially illegal, but a red light district operates more or less openly in Itaewon (a neighborhood near one of the military bases). One of my Korean coworkers told me she had heard a statistic that 50% of Korean men have visited prostitutes at least once in their lives, and apparently some Korean men consider visiting prostitutes a way of cementing business relationships.

It’s a great example of what I said above–about how you can get away with a lot as long as you’re quiet about it. But again, I can’t tell that this is the product of religion, so much as ignorance and a self-perpetuating code of silence.

I may be wrong about that. Maybe looking closer, and I’d see religion’s influence on public life more. But I think that’s somewhat unlikely. Part of the issue is that Korea is divided between Christians, followers of more traditional religions, and the non-religious, so no one group is calling the shots.

I once heard it said that religion is something of a generational thing: the oldest generation is very traditional, does ancestor worship, etc., the middle generation has a lot of people who converted to Christianity, and the youngest generation thinks religion is a huge joke. I’ve heard stories of students asking their foreign teachers “do you believe in God?” in a way that implies it’s some silly thing only Americans believe in. Now what I’ve just given you in this paragraph is obviously something of a simplification, but I’m not sure it’s so far off.

The main point, anyway, is that Korea seems very secular from a US point of view (though maybe it wouldn’t seem so secular from an Australian point of view, I don’t know).

Note: since writing this, I’ve spent more time following the work of some sex workers’ rights advocates, and feel the need to amend the paragraphs on prostitution. Now, when I hear about Christian anti-sex work activists not really caring about the welfare of trafficked women, I think, “of course they don’t!”

I’ve also learned to be skeptical of claims of women being coerced into prostitution. While in South Korea, I heard some anecdotes that seemed to support the view that this really was a problem in the country, but I can’t say for sure.

In any case, it being not just accepted, but expected for Korean men to visit prostitutes, even if they’re married, is definitely a thing in South Korea. See here, for example. I stand by being deeply creeped out by that part of the culture.

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