Last night at around 9 o’clock, I was heading home after work, when a van coming from the direction I was walking towards, stopped in front of me. The van was green, old and beat up, with blacked out windows; the kind of large van you often see shuttling students to their after-school academies or moving migrant workers from factory to factory. It was a narrow street with cars parked along both sides, so I had to shimmy between the van and another car in order to continue on my way. As I passed the sliding door on the side of the van, it slid open and a woman stepped out of the van. Behind her I caught a glimpse of 3 other women, sitting there in the darkness. They were not migrant workers… well, not in the traditional sense at least. These 4 ladies were all dressed up and made up; at least one of them was wearing fur, and all wore heavy perms, coupled with heavy makeup. After passing, I turned and watched them disappear into a hair salon as the dirty, old van drove off. I suppose they were heading in for a touch up before the night’s work began.
How sad the whole sight was. A group of women dressed in faux-luxury being dropped off at the hairdressers like someone’s dry-cleaning. I was left wondering where they would go when the van returned like a cattle car to pick them up. A “singing” room? A hostess bar? A “massage” parlor?
I was reminded of the last time I had seen ladies of the night out of context like that. A while ago I had gone to a kimbap joint (Korea’s answer to the greasy-spoon diner) for a late breakfast, when two such ladies came in and sat down. That time, I assumed they had just finished a shift, as they had on hoodies and jeans, but still wore the ridiculous makeup, thick perfume, and pinned up hair of the previous night. They also spoke in strong language filled with curses that women here never use in public, as they ate their breakfast slash dinner.
These two scenes left me wondering, as I often do, how people employed in the world’s oldest profession spend their time away from work. Do they have families? Boyfriends? Do they go to the movies? Go out for coffee with friends?
Korea has a huge sex industry, where women (and some men) of all ages are engaged in some form of selling their bodies. And it really is huge. Everywhere in every city of any size you can find the neon lights of places where you can buy a woman for an hour or two. Small taverns where older women work hoping to pay for their kids’ educations. Huge lounges where stunningly beautiful women enter a room 10 at a time introduce themselves and are then selected by the businessmen in attendance to “entertain” them for the evening. Motels where college, high school or even middle school students sell themselves on the internet meet clients. Karaoke bars where foreign women can be bought for your pleasure. Yet, despite it being in your face everywhere you go the local populace never really talks about it; men wanting to keep the privilege alive, perhaps thinking that speaking of it will bring it all crashing down on them, and women in denial, knowing that most of the men in their country, including their husbands and boyfriends visit these places, thinking that talking about it will make it more real: something that they will actually have to deal with.
This willful ignorance leaves a large segment of people, these sex-workers, living in a shadow world, a world from which, only on rare occasions, such as last night, they emerge and we can catch a brief glimpse of them, out in the light. But, what’s really going on in that dark world? One can only hope that it’s not as terrible as the imagination would have us believe. But, until society admits that it’s all there and starts talking about prostitution in a rational way, woman will continue to be dropped off at the cleaners in cube vans.