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.

  • MNb

    “of course they don’t!”
    You’re getting cynical. That doesn’t mean you’re wrong.

  • John Jones

    If it is an inherent flaw peculiar to religion that people can get away with things as long as they keep silent about it, one wonders if the pharmaceutical companies are using a different, legitimate type of silence in promoting questionable drugs for behaviour to vulnerable groups. The atheist cum scientific-skeptic moral sense stinks to high heaven of hypocrisy. But as in any religious or political venture, one never draws attention to ones own, similar, crimes.

    • smrnda

      Could you please clarify what drug you refer to? Otherwise your comment is so vague as to be meaningless.

      • smrnda

        Second thought, ‘behavior’ makes me think this is some ‘birth control will kill you’ nonsense, and ‘vulnerable groups’ perhaps indicates what, anti vax sentiments? Probably shouldn’t have fed this one.. apologies…

        • Kevin

          I think the drug could be plan B while the vulnerable groups would be young girls, referring to the stance that many have for having a lower age restriction for accessing the medication. Also, since this is more tied to abortion in the religious-minded, it would also register higher for moral outrage. I’m not sure where the hypocrisy comes into play though.

  • John Jones

    I do not need to draw attention to the moral crimes of pharmaceutical companies. How much was Glaxo fined recently, 2 billion?
    Millions of lives have been blighted by life-long tranquilisation on the superstitious premise of brain “disorder” which is a euphemism for a type of social rejection. Here in the Uk many thousands have died prematurely in old peoples homes from tranquillisation and anti-psychotics. The govt are trying to stop it by giving advice to docs but old practices die hard. In the USa babies and kids are given amphetamines in a new socially sanctioned era of behaviour control. Elsewhere reports show that antipsychotics have little effect. ” Side effects” like murders and suicides are well-known but no-one does anything about it except govt. advice to the prescribers, who get kick-backs from Pharma.

    Aside from that we are lumbered with the superstition of chemical possession – the foundation-stone of psychology. Here some people are affected by their brain chemicals but not others. Those who are driven by their brain chemicals (possessed by them) are given chemical elixirs to combat the possession.

    By hypocrisy I meant that while it is fair to criticize the shortcomings of religion, it appears that it is not fair to criticize the shortcomings of science. I think this is because to do so would mean admitting that social forces direct both science and religion. However, it might be excusable to focus skeptical forces on religion in order not to dissipate effort. But then I think this approach isn’t serving us well, and ignoring other dangerous sources of unrecognised injustices.

    • Dorfl

      Isn’t this a bit like opening a book of pie recipes and complaining that it didn’t explain how to make soup?

      If you come to an atheist blog, you are more likely to find posts criticising religion than the pharmaceutical industry. If you want to read a blog criticising pharma, I’d recommend Ben Goldacre’s

    • J. Quinton

      “Aside from that we are lumbered with the superstition of chemical possession – the foundation-stone of psychology”

      Do you not think the brain runs on biochemistry?

    • smrnda

      I guess I misread you.

      I’d have to start by saying that I share your belief that we (at least in the States) are so obsessed with avoiding ‘chemical dependency’ that doctors don’t always provide people with adequate pain killers.

      But the brain does run on biochemistry. I myself have (among other things) epilepsy and I’ve been diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder, so I’ve had manic episodes along with actual visual, auditory and tactile hallucinations. I got put on some different medications, and they pretty much did the job of removing both problems entirely, with the added bonus that the same meds treated my occasional migraines. Medications are sometimes overused – I’d say high rates of depression can indicate social and cultural factors that are more relevant than brain chemistry, but there’s enough evidence that drugs DO fix problems with the brain.

      Also, atheists and skeptics are interested in debunking bad science. However, I find that those that do tend to specialize in medicine or some branch of the life sciences and not philosophy.

  • John Jones

    Just a couple of things before I go.
    Schizo-affective disorder, depression, etc are lifestyle choices based on Clinical beliefs and strategems for living. They are not diagnoses. Doctors are one of the few groups of people who have real power to enforce, through suggestion and threat (stigmatisation) social policy on standards of behaviour.

    Yes, atheists are against religion and I have no business being here, it would seem, even though I am neither atheist nor religious. Yet it seems deeply unfair for an outsider to see atheists flaying religious injustices and superstitions while ignoring injustices and superstitions in their own backyard. They have every right to do that, of course, and it helps to focus ones resources, but it muddles and breeds suspicion about the atheist agenda.

    • smrnda

      A fan of Thomas Szasz I imagine? Yeah, hallucinations *never* actually occur. I mean, I guess when people take LSD they’re just saying they see things because they want to seem cool.

      Listen – brains are physical organs. Like all organs, they don’t always work properly. Medication fixes things. The only people who doubt this are conspiracy theorists, scientologists, quacks and ignoramuses.

      As a person who has actually had hallucinations, I resent people who know nothing turning mental health into an issue of doctors enforcing some kind agenda. No, if you are hearing voices and nobody is there, it’s an hallucination. Some drugs cause them, some stop them when they are happening and they shouldn’t be.

      I’d write further, but I don’t waste time on idiots.

      Also, if your theories about what mental illness actually * are correct, why does medication work better than the old talk therapy for treating psychotic disorders? All autosuggestion and the placebo effect?

      • smrnda

        Also, doctors have done a lot to reduce stigma to mental illness by figuring out that they are actual real, physical illnesses with physical causes. People like you, who argue that they are ‘lifestyle choices’ caused by faulty ‘stratagems for living’ create the stigma.

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