(Content warning: sexual assault, sex trafficking, torture. Summary section includes particularly graphic language.)
What we mean is, we’re confused.
We’re trying to process an overwhelming world. We are Growing Up, and it makes us want to cry. Why should this be a part of growing up?
Yes, we’re angry, and anger is perhaps the most easily communicated emotion across our collective writings, petitions, and social media posts. But for every angry sentence spoken is an ocean of emotions much harder to articulate. This is much scarier than anger. When I talk to my female friends these days, there is an echo of numbness, an internal chaos that settles in when anger starts getting old. I don’t understand the world anymore. I can’t process this. I don’t know what to think. Where to begin thinking.
A brief summary for those new to the issue:
*Content warning: graphic descriptions of sexual coercion and violence.
*This was largely taken from a petition by Korea Feminism Education for Elementary Schools. Translation by Jenny Chung, Naryeong Kim, Hope Yoon. Full text available on their blog.
In February, A mass sexual blackmailing and trafficking case came to the surface in South Korea, causing nationwide outrage and petitions for the government to release the identities of all confirmed perpetrators. The perpetrators operated by obtaining personal information about their targets, then forcing them to film and send increasingly graphic and extreme sexual content by threatening to publicize their personal information. These videos were shared in chat rooms on the app Telegram. Members of the chat rooms would pay hundreds of dollars to access a series of rooms with incrementally longer, more exclusive, and more graphic content, hence the name “Nth Room” (N번방).
At least 2,000 images or videos of women of all ages, including minors, were created and distributed. These images and videos are extremely graphic: some victims had “slave” carved into their skin and were forced to film themselves mutilating their own genitals or performing sex acts on a sibling. The examples are endless and none are less horrific; I cannot bring myself to list some of them. The “Nth Room” was the first of a series of Telegram chat rooms that produced and distributed illegal pornographic material of women and girls obtained through coercion.
A variation of these pay-to-access chat rooms are so-called “acquaintance violation rooms” (지인능욕방), where people would post pictures of women they know—classmates, coworkers, ex-girlfriends—along with descriptions of them, and photoshop their faces onto pornographic images and videos. Members of these chat rooms would then collectively chime in on verbally insulting the posted acquaintance.
The total number of participants across all such chat rooms is difficult to be determined, given overlapping profiles in the system and the rapid generation and deletion of rooms. Estimates range from 10,000 to 260,000.
What we mean is, this is not an isolated incident.
Here’s a quote translated from a book titled “Men Who Do Not Purchase Sex” (성매매 안 하는 남자들), a 2018 series of essays on the sex industry by men observing the culture from the inside: “I’ve heard it said that if you de-stress after long working hours by drinking, it negatively impacts your productivity at work the following day, so it’s more cost-effective to purchase sex or hang out with your girlfriend. To me, this sounded like they were treating women only as sex objects, but that statement was taken as obvious truth. Purchasing sex is not a form of deviation, but a part of daily life for a large portion of Korean men.”
I’m taken back to a senior trip my friends and I took to Busan last summer. On a moonlit night, after enjoying an evening of laughter and company and teenage games, we left our Airbnb in search of a karaoke room. We found a street full of them, but when we arrived at the first one, a man looked us up and down and told us this “wasn’t a place for singing”. The initial confusion faded as we visited another place, and another, realizing they were all sex trade venues operating under the guise of karaoke. There are plenty of euphemisms: “room salons”, “massage bars”, even “ear cleaning rooms”. Every time I log onto a search portal for part-time jobs (알바몬/알바천국), I am flooded with ads from “bars” soliciting young women at a rate much higher than minimum wage, most of which hide the sexual nature of their businesses.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the existence of a sex industry. But the reality in Korea is that the industry coaxes vulnerable and isolated women into violent and dangerous work, manipulating them into further debt until they are essentially chained to their “employers” with no means of escape. This is sex trafficking. This is modern slavery. Korea’s hush-hush approach, with prostitution criminalized but widely tolerated as an “open secret”, does nothing but damage the ability of these women to receive the minimum level of legal protection needed against exploitation. The sex industry will never disappear, and our job isn’t to create a world without it. Our job is to create a world where people are not pushed into such extreme poverty that they have no choice but to enter an industry they don’t want to be a part of. Our job is to create a safe world for those that choose to engage in sex work, where legal or medical protection is available when needed, where they have the agency to refuse violent or abusive clients, and where they have the means to exit the industry when they want to.
Right after the Nth Room case came to the forefront of national attention, Pornhub saw a spike in searches with related keywords (in Korean): “Telegram Nth room”, “Nth room Korea high school middle school students”, and so on. So many people came across news coverage of this incident and wanted to access the content in question—enough people to cause a search spike on Pornhub. Ironically, Pornhub is banned in Korea. So is all online pornography.
Say it again: not an isolated incident.
While I’ve deliberately kept this article focused on the sex industry while not expanding into sexual abuse in general or the Me Too movement, it’s impossible to complete the discussion without at least briefly widening our scope.
Last week, I was hanging out with a few male college students and a couple of girls who had just graduated from high school. While discussing advice for college life, the men launched into a series of safety precautions such as “don’t walk alone in the city at night”, “always party with a friend”, or “don’t leave your drink unattended”. I listened quietly for a while until I interrupted to tell them that every girl has already learned all of this many times over—we learned it not with language but our own bodies, with urgency and immediacy and fear. (College is not the first time women have to think about this.) The girls nodded and the boys went “oh, yeah”.
When I posted on my personal social media account that I was looking for voices surrounding the Nth Room issue, a student I had attended high school with reached out to me. She—let’s call her Z—shared that when she was fifteen, she was standing in a smoothie shop with a friend at night when three drunk men began openly making comments about their legs. They pretended not to hear. She said: “all of a sudden, the man lunged toward us and ran his hand down my leg. His friends pulled him away, but he kept trying to come towards us.” Z told me that while there were workers and other customers present in the small space, not a single person spoke out, helped, or made the men leave the store. Everyone watched the man harass a 15-year-old and no one said a thing. It was up to Z and her friend to make a quick escape.
Z now realizes that such incidents are terrifyingly common, and that while people are quick to voice their concerns over social media, they are much less inclined to get involved in a real-life situation.
When the Me Too movement went viral, I wrote an article for my high school magazine. It was a direct and bitter criticism of the school’s silence around sexual harassment and assault within the community, including anonymous interviews of student victims. The article had some positive reception—the school’s director consulted me on ways to take action, and a middle school English teacher added the article to her syllabus. But I also remember the readers who doubted my statement that sexual assault exists between students, some even asking: “do you know what the definition of assault is? Are you sure that’s what really happened?”
When sexual abuse is silenced, doubted, or tolerated, the culture paves the way for a heinous network like the Nth Room to emerge and profit. This discussion is not limited to those directly implicated in the sex industry. This is about the social norms that enable such horrible manifestations of the industry.
Say it AGAIN: not an isolated incident.
The police are still investigating the case, and photos of newly-identified perpetrators are still being released in the media. Many are, at this point, numbed by the faces on our screens, which is a valid reaction. What is not a helpful attitude is acting like these perpetrators are at a great distance from ourselves and the women around us. No, they are among us. They are in our communities and living without consequence.
Just this week I heard that there was a widespread problem in an institution adjacent to myself, with high school students of a similar social demographic maintaining a network shockingly similar to the Nth Room. A part of me feels that people will never understand how serious and pervasive the issue is until it directly affects someone they know personally and wrecks their own social circles. A part of me would like to believe that empathy can bring us a long way. Another part of me observed #NthRoom trend for a few days on Instagram and proceed calmly towards its death and eventual burial in a graveyard of national silence.
What we mean is, we feel helpless.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people, Korean and non-Korean, say: “if I have a daughter, there’s no way I’m raising her in Korea”.
In a country still so haunted by the history of comfort women, the amount of inaction is staggering. Where are the men so easily aroused to anger when discussing the Japanese military’s sex trafficking acts during WWII? Where is the visibility and vocal action around the sex trafficking going on right here, right now?
The harshly polarized nature of the feminist debate in Korea makes progress very difficult. After attending college in California for a few months, I had to readjust to being in a country where referring to myself as a feminist in an online comment section would instantly bring a torrent of diatribe and foul insults. A quick search for “feminist” or the more derogatory “femi” on Naver (Korea’s Google) reveals an abundance of posts likening feminism to a severe mental illness, or feminists to wild boars. While I recognize that the more extreme hate speech comes from a minority of the population, it’s too big a chunk of society to dismiss as “just a few rotten individuals”.
It’s also true that groups of radical misandrists labeling themselves as feminists have made it difficult for feminism as an ideology to widely flourish in Korea. Advocates or passive supporters of women’s rights are resorting to calling themselves “equalists” just to distance themselves from the feminist label—because the label is a scarlet letter, and there is no way to be properly heard with it emblazoned across your chest.
I began and deleted this post a dozen times. Because I know I will share it on social media where it will largely be read within the echo chamber of my progressive friends, and the rest of my followers will dismiss it as just another irritating voice. Just another scream into the void. Just another bout of unproductive anger to take to the grave. I am frustrated finding myself censoring my speech in front of those closest to myself, in fear that I would come across as too much of a bummer, the frowning feminist killjoy, or just too angry.
But we’re not just angry.
What we mean is, we are afraid.
Even when I was revising the summary section of this post, I found myself sweating, heartbeat quickening, stomach growing nauseous. Even after months of following and engaging with the issue, still the same fear, still the same disbelief.
Many men in my life—some of them my closest friends—were equally angered by this issue, which gave me a glimpse of solidarity. But so many more didn’t have anything to say. Even as Korean social media was stormed by reactions, posts, and petitions, my feed was flooded by female voices, a deafening outcry which served to highlight male silence.
Many men are equally angered, but none can be equally afraid. The industry feeds off female objectification. Conversations with my female friends revolve around a very visceral sense of fear, a shattered sense of safety or trust in their communities, and the inability to walk down a street without thinking about how many passersby harbor vicious attitudes towards women. We inevitably wonder if someone we know might have put our own photos on the “acquaintance violation room”. Conversations with my female friends revolve around our hands shaking and our speech faltering. Conversations with my male friends revolve around petitions and legalities.
So you better believe I have tears in my eyes as I write this, and that they are hot. You better believe there is a whole closet full of stories and experiences I am withholding writing about just because this is a public blog. You better believe this post doesn’t even cover half of what it’s like to be a woman in Korea. You better believe this is coming from someone with the privilege of a secure home, access to education, and a badass feminist mother who taught me to take no shit—you better believe that women with less fortunate circumstances are much more vulnerable to sexual violence.
This is what we mean when we say we are angry. We are so much more than angry. We are collectively bleeding, and getting tired of licking each other’s wounds in lieu of apologies and structural reform. We are ashamed of the culture that’s been breeding in the underbelly of our country, the communal moral fabric left tattered while a facade of glittering economic progress is flaunted to the global community. We are overwhelmed, tired, and afraid to exist in our own bodies. We are afraid. We are afraid. The man running the “karaoke bar” was right—this is not a place for singing. Not this country, not for us.
“So what can I do?”: Action Items
- Educate yourself about the sex industry in Korea
- “Save My Seoul”, a 2017 English documentary on the Korean sex trade (available on iTunes & Amazon).
- If you think the recent developments for the government to rid the city of (visible) prostitution is providing a solution, this 2018 article by Al Jazeera explains why it actually makes things more dangerous for sex workers.
- A 2019 article on underage sex trafficking in Korea and how the digital world exacerbates the problem
- Actively call out language that objectifies women, trivializes sexual harassment/assault, or defends the status quo of the sex industry in Korea. Fear of social backlash should not be a primary concern. Use your voice: if you are a Korean man, other Korean men are more likely to listen to you.
- Volunteer or donate within the U.S.
- Save My Seoul’s list of organizations linked here.
- Donate within Korea
- 막달레나 공동체 (Magdalene Collective), which supports victims of the sex industry to attain financial/emotional stability.
- 한국성폭력상담소 (Korea Sexual Violence Counseling Center), which provides sexual assault survivors with counseling, legal support, and healing programs.
- Venmo me at @hope_yoon and I will split your donation between these organizations.
- Continue to do all this and more when Nth Room-related arrests and legal decisions no longer appear on the news and social media