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Korean Grandmothers Selling Sex
June 11, 2014 8:30 AM   Subscribe

Korean grandmothers sell Bacchus drinks (energy drinks) and sex on the side. Once part of Korea's economic engine, older Korean women are turning to prostitution to pay for their living costs. The Bacchus women also work the hiking trails where they offer coffee and sex.
posted by ichimunki (34 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'd like to meet these people who are so energized from hiking that they need a quickie off the trail in order to maintain equilibrium.
posted by Kokopuff at 8:48 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]


Yes, I'd like an energy drink and a handjob. Thanks.
posted by ChuckRamone at 8:53 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


Whatever your thoughts on elderly Korean prostitution, please let's not impugn the reputation of trail sex.
posted by crayz at 8:59 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


If all the old people are poor, how do the old men have money to buy drinks and sex from the old women?

If the old men like having women around, why don't they just all band together and take care of each other?

Yes I know these are stupid, naive questions.
posted by maggiemaggie at 8:59 AM on June 11 [8 favorites]


If all the old people are poor, how do the old men have money

That was my thought too...that and growing irritation when they kept writing 'grandparents' when they meant 'older Korean women'.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 9:04 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]


South Korea remains quite patriarchal, even though women have made huge strides towards equality in recent years and the fact their current President is a woman. There's an approximately 40% pay gap between the sexes, and women are massively underrepresented in top managerial positions. Most women in top executive positions can attribute that to dynastic success -- working in family business.

Part of the problem is a glass ceiling. Part of it is women playing it safe, so to speak: seeking positions that are stable as opposed to ones which will allow them to climb the corporate ladder. But unfortunately for South Korea, all of this is interrelated. They have the lowest fertility rate of any developed country. They're experiencing a labor shortage. Culturally, there is pressure on women to start and raise families instead of work. And men are expected to support their families who in turn support them and their wives when they grow old, so older women aren't necessarily thought of in terms of needing financial support. Their men or families are expected to provide.

It all adds up to a terrible combination.
posted by zarq at 9:08 AM on June 11 [6 favorites]


that and growing irritation when they kept writing 'grandparents' when they meant 'older Korean women'.

I think that might in part be because the Korean word for "grandmother" is also a polite term to use for any woman of that generation.
posted by yoink at 9:17 AM on June 11 [6 favorites]


Inside those bags the Bacchus Ladies carry is the source of a hidden epidemic: a special injection supposed to help older men achieve erections - delivered directly into the vein. Dr Lee confirms that the needles aren't disposed of afterwards, but used again - 10 or 20 times.

Holy WTF!

The sex trade doesn't bother me. Worldwide, it is what it is. But the unsafe practice demonstrated here looks like a catastrophe waiting to happen.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:17 AM on June 11 [11 favorites]


Bacchus drink?

I wonder what's in it? Or is it just wine?

And what the heck is in something injectable?

Sidebar: I used to see an energy drink in Europe called "Erektus." It had a cartoon character on the cover with a...er, "lump" under the character's pants....
posted by CrowGoat at 9:43 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


This story is SENSATIONAL! And I don't really mean that in a good way. Though I don't really know the first thing about Korean culture, I'm inclined not to believe that things are as grim as they are portrayed - there might be a smaller segment that is, in fact, struggling in ways that are new to Korean culture but the pervasiveness this article implies I suspect is like how (as I've been asked more than a few times if it's true or not) in America everyone has a couple guns and they carry them with them all the time.
Interesting, but I'm gonna look for another source.
posted by From Bklyn at 9:56 AM on June 11


I'm a bit intrigued by the subject of Korean sex workers. I got interested in the subject because they seem to always feature in the movies and in Korean drama. Father gets in debt to loan sharks, then dies, so his hot but innocent daughter has to go and work in a Karoke bar, or as a coffee girl -- if the eldest son of the Chaebol doesn't save her.

Sex work seemed so ubiquitous and common place, I struggled a bit to believe it. Which is how I came across this statement on Wikipedia:

In 2003, the Korean Institute of Criminology announced that 260,000 women, or 1 of 25 of young Korean women, may be engaged in the sex industry. However, the Korean Feminist Association alleged that from 514,000 to 1.2 million Korean women participate in the prostitution industry.[11] In addition, a similar report by the Institute noted that 20% of men in their 20s pay for sex at least four times a month,[12] with 358,000 visiting prostitutes daily.[13]

If it really is as prevalent as those estimates, it's hard to imagine that those halmonies haven't sold sex before. But never having been to Korea or even met a Korean, I have no clue whether any of this is true.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:56 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]


CrowGoat: "Bacchus drink? "

It's an extremely popular brand of non-carbonated energy drink called Bacchus that was first sold only in pharmacies. It's gone through at least a couple of formula changes over the years. You can buy it in America in some Asian markets.
posted by zarq at 9:58 AM on June 11


zarq: "CrowGoat: "Bacchus drink? "

It's an extremely popular brand of non-carbonated energy drink called Bacchus that was first sold only in pharmacies. It's gone through at least a couple of formula changes over the years. You can buy it in America in some Asian markets.
"

Heh, I love the first review on one of those sites:
LORI JONES@2010-08-31 15:56:35
I AM FROM THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA CANTON GEORGIA. I JUST TRIED BACCHUS-F ENERGY DRINK FOR THE FIRST TIME AND THE TASTE IS WONDERFUL. BETTER THAN RED BULL OR MONSTER ENERGY DRINKS. TO TELL THE TRUTH I LOVE IT THANK YOU.
I AM TOTALLY AMPED UP ON CAFFEINE AND B VITAMINS AND MUST USE THE BILLY MAYS KEY!!!!
posted by symbioid at 10:08 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]


From Bklyn: " Interesting, but I'm gonna look for another source."

It's believable. There is a long, extensive history of prostitution in South Korea. In 2002, sex trade there accounted for more than 4% of the country's GDP. Keep in mind that we're talking about an industrialized, developed nation, not a third world backwater. It was big news at the time, since that number was actually bigger than the percentage of Korea's GDP from both agriculture and fisheries. In response, in 2004 the government began cracking down heavily on prostitution. A move which was largely successful. Sex trade currently accounts for around 1.6% of the country's GDP.

Women who have difficulty supporting themselves in South Korea, such as immigrants from the DPRK or runaway girls, often turn to prostitution to survive. The government's crackdown has made their lives more dangerous and difficult.
posted by zarq at 10:11 AM on June 11 [7 favorites]


More: 'This Isn't Happening'. Prostitution in South Korea. Does it actually exist?

Also, this Reddit post talks about prostitution variants in Korea. When it was originally posted earlier this year caused a bit of an uproar, because it made quite a few people in r/Korea uncomfortable.
posted by zarq at 10:21 AM on June 11 [4 favorites]


It's a sign of success and cultural recognition when even Korea is now the subject of English-language discussions about cherry-picked, out-of-context, somewhat implausible wacky/creepy/strange cultural traits of Asians.

In your face, Japan!
posted by KokuRyu at 10:45 AM on June 11 [4 favorites]


Barbershops These are rather seedy places that are usually staffed by older women. There are two variants: A jerkoff/blowjob place or a sex place. At jerkoff places, they just jerk you off. Sometimes the girl who greets you and gets you hard is different than the girl who actually jerks you. A mate of mine had a bad experience when after they put the towel over his eyes, he peeked to find that the owner was jerking him off (an old man).

WTF!
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:52 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


In 2003, the Korean Institute of Criminology announced that 260,000 women, or 1 of 25 of young Korean women, may be engaged in the sex industry. However, the Korean Feminist Association alleged that from 514,000 to 1.2 million Korean women participate in the prostitution industry.[11] In addition, a similar report by the Institute noted that 20% of men in their 20s pay for sex at least four times a month,[12] with 358,000 visiting prostitutes daily.[13]

It's strange and dismaying to see an entire culture apparently and in some sense voluntarily re-enacting the traumas of its history.

This is so much like a version of the 'comfort women' enslaved by the Japanese during WWII, which was presumably a continuation of the plight of Korean women during the entire Japanese occupation of Korea formalized in 1910, but which has roots extending into the 19th century.

How would such things be passed on to succeeding generations?
posted by jamjam at 10:53 AM on June 11


A mate of mine had a bad experience when after they put the towel over his eyes, he peeked to find that the owner was jerking him off (an old man).

20 000 Won, same as in town.
posted by a halcyon day at 11:01 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]


KokuRyu: “It's a sign of success and cultural recognition when even Korea is now the subject of English-language discussions about cherry-picked, out-of-context, somewhat implausible wacky/creepy/strange cultural traits of Asians. ¶ In your face, Japan!”

There are a lot of awful jokes here that I'd rather not see, but aside from that the conversation appears to be pretty even-handed. Several people (particularly zarq) have provided links with some background, and we're discussing the topic rationally, I think. Did you have some examples of cherry-picking or implausible tales that you'd like to point up, or some context you feel like you could provide?

I mean: my own context is that my friend in Korea has been posting things about this on his Facebook feed, and some of us have been talking about it there. He's kind of intrigued by it, but we've had an interesting conversation about good and bad cultural differences. I guess it's possible that we're all way out of our depth, but as far as I can tell we recognize our limitations.
posted by koeselitz at 11:04 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


This is so much like a version of the 'comfort women' enslaved by the Japanese during WWII.

See also, Gisaengs.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:12 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


KokuRyu: "It's a sign of success and cultural recognition when even Korea is now the subject of English-language discussions about cherry-picked, out-of-context, somewhat implausible wacky/creepy/strange cultural traits of Asians. "

My personal concern is that I think it is unfortunately, depressingly plausible.
posted by zarq at 2:29 PM on June 11


It's strange and dismaying to see an entire culture apparently and in some sense voluntarily re-enacting the traumas of its history.

I don't think prostitution/sex work is limited to Korea. Or Japan. Or China. Or Thailand. It's a big business around the world. We just tend not to see it where we live because we are used to it.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:32 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]


. Did you have some examples of cherry-picking or implausible tales that you'd like to point up, or some context you feel like you could provide?

Well, we're not in school so I don't feel compelled to do anything, although I would say that it is extremely difficult to discuss this sort of thing out of context. Context means having a good understanding of a different culture, including enough understanding to be able to read the language.

It's impossible. All the foreign reportage you see on TV or read in the newspapers is bullshit. It really is. Even when someone like Evan Osnos, who apparently reads Mandarin, goes "over there" and reports for the New Yorker, you as viewer/reader/information consumer are just getting a pinhole view, and the presenter (eg, Osnos, a Harvard-educated member of the American Ivy League intelligentsia) is choosing the particular pinhole.

Yeah, there are probably Korean ajumma's that are doing this sort of thing, but is that the whole story? I don't know. I certainly don't trust the BBC to tell me either.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:37 PM on June 11


Yeah, there are probably Korean ajumma's that are doing this sort of thing, but is that the whole story?

Not limited to Koreans.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:40 PM on June 11


I think that might in part be because the Korean word for "grandmother" is also a polite term to use for any woman of that generation.

That's a good point, but it does make me wonder if the BBC also translates 'oppa' as 'older brother' all the time - that's got to make for some interesting stories...
posted by lesbiassparrow at 4:32 PM on June 11


Not limited to Koreans.

My point exactly, but I'll throw in this miserable tidbit as well.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:54 PM on June 11


KokuRyu: “It's impossible. All the foreign reportage you see on TV or read in the newspapers is bullshit. It really is. Even when someone like Evan Osnos, who apparently reads Mandarin, goes "over there" and reports for the New Yorker, you as viewer/reader/information consumer are just getting a pinhole view, and the presenter (eg, Osnos, a Harvard-educated member of the American Ivy League intelligentsia) is choosing the particular pinhole. ¶ Yeah, there are probably Korean ajumma's that are doing this sort of thing, but is that the whole story? I don't know. I certainly don't trust the BBC to tell me either.”

I gather from this that Lucy Williamson, the BBC correspondent who put this piece together, has been in Seoul for at least two years, since she was covering things there in 2012 and has reported from there regularly since then. Before that, I guess she was in Jakarta. I can't say whether that means definitively that this was reported well, though. Of course anybody can move to another country and misunderstand it. You could live there for many years and misunderstand it, particularly if it's a very different cultural milieu than you're used to, a wholly different language and script system, so that immersion takes longer, and you are tempted to stick with foreign fellow-travelers.

Still: how much context is necessary? By the argument you're presenting, it sounds a bit like nobody should ever report on anything that happens in another country, because we just aren't there. But surely that's not the case, is it?

In any case, I liked this thread because people didn't take it at face value. You might notice that you were not the first one to express skepticism; in fact, several people brought up the same question you did before you. I appreciated zarq's linking to several things. I'm not sure how you felt about this International Business Times article which deals with a similar issue – prostitution in general in South Korea. It seems relatively fact-based, citing figures and quoting officials and members of social groups, but it might still be skewing things.

Either way, it's a conundrum. It's easy to dismiss all "Western" reportage as not really "getting it," but at this point the division between "Western" and "Eastern" reportage is blurring, and I think it's actually rather important now to report on cultural issues such as this.
posted by koeselitz at 5:15 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]


...Sometimes the girl who greets you and gets you hard is different than the girl who actually jerks you. A mate of mine had a bad experience when after they put the towel over his eyes, he peeked to find that the owner was jerking him off (an old man).

Funny that this is considered a "bad experience". I sort of agree with the visceral sentiment, but I also can't really explain why I would care who gives me a commercial handsky.

More evidence that human sexual behavior involves more than adding up orgasms!
posted by serif at 5:18 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]


Incidentally, KokuRyu, the International Business Times article has this bit, which is perhaps some of the "context" you seek:
The South Korean government’s Ministry for Gender Equality estimates that about 500,000 women work in the national sex industry, though, according to the Korean Feminist Association, the actual number may exceed 1 million. If that estimate is closer to the truth, it would mean that 1 out of every 25 women in the country is selling her body for sex -- despite the passage of tough anti-sex-trafficking legislation in recent years. (For women between the ages of 15 and 29, up to one-fifth have worked in the sex industry at one time or another, according to estimates.)
How does that compare? The "Prostitutes' Education Network" says about US figures:
It is difficult to estimate the number of persons who currently work, or have ever worked as prostitutes for many reasons including the various definitions of prostitution. National arrest figures [in the United States] range over 100,000. The National Task Force on Prostitution suggests that over one million people in the US have worked as prostitutes in the United States, or about 1% of American women.
So, according to the South Korean government, about 2% of South Korean women are currently engaged in prostitution (if the wording in the article is correct.) About 1% of American women have every engaged in prostitution (which of course is different from being engaged in it right now). We can safely say, if these figures are true, that prostitution is more than twice as prevalent in South Korea – although we still might be talking about a single percentage point. Maybe the South Korean government underestimates by half the number of women actually involved in prostitution. Still, we're talking about percentage points. We'd have to get some context for that, too.

The last bit of the paragraph quoted above is what gets me most: one-fifth of women 15-29 have worked in sex work at some point? That does sound very high. Maybe I'm letting the numbers carry me away.

In any case, it's interesting to try to get a frame on these kinds of things.
posted by koeselitz at 5:24 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]


I've lived in Korea for most of the last 18 years, as a lot of people here know already, because I never shut up about it, it seems. The sex industry here really is massive -- much bigger, I think, than the government acknowledges, and it is very much one of those things that Isn't Spoken About. There's only been one occasion where I've seen it up close, and it was such a strange experience -- even for me, when nothing much surprises me about Korean life after all this time -- that it might be interesting to others.

About 6 years ago or so, I was mostly teaching English classes (at the same multinational I still work for, but in a more Global HRD business-y area these days). My students (as they are today, when I do the occasional class) were adult men -- managers and engineers and other employees of the company. Some older than me, some of a similar age, some (but not many) younger. At the end of each 10-week session of classes, we would usually to go out to dinner together, which inevitably involved drinking a lot of soju, and then sometimes going on to '2-cha' or 'stage 2' after dinner, which was equally inevitably a norae-bang (singing room -- karaoke rooms, basically).

Norae-bangs are one of the many venues for prostitution here. There are two or three or five of them on every block, in shopping/entertainment areas. You can often tell by looking at the outside if it's one of 'those' ones, and it's a dead giveaway if once you're inside, the video loops on the screens in each of the private rooms are running bikini-girl videos behind the words.

I'm not a big norae-bang fan, but it's such a big thing here, and so ungrained a cultural thing to Drink-And-Do-An-Activity-Together-For-Group-Harmony that once I was sufficiently liquored up, I'd play along and belt out a Sinatra song or something. But in all the times I'd been to noraebangs in the years before, I'd never actually seen sex work going on. It's kept pretty well on the downlow, at least when there are foreigners around.

So me and the guys -- there were about 10 of us -- were in our private room, and they'd brought the non-optional plate of fruit and case of beers, and people were using the remote control to queue up their songs and general shambolic Korean-style drinking and singalong-having was well underway.

One of the older guys had left for a few minutes early on, and then come back. I hadn't paid any attention -- I was too busy badly harmonizing on a 'troat' song with another of the old fellows. We'd been there about 30 minutes when two women came in, wearing matching white miniskirt outfits that looked a little like 60s stewardess uniforms. One was probably 20 years old, the other probably around 40. My initial impression was that they were mother and daughter, but I didn't really have any evidence of that.

They stood at the front of the room in front of the screen, gave a little speech in a very formal sort of way, did a synchronized deep bow, and then, in perfect unison, first pulled up their tops to briefly display their breasts, then pulled down their skirts to display their crotches. Their weren't wearing any underwear.

I'm not prudish or anything, but I was kind of gobsmacked. I looked over at Mr Yang (the oldest guy in the room, mid 50's or so, and the sort of unofficial ringleader of the evening), and he winked at me. The women came over to the table, sat beside two of the guys, and started pouring beer for them. The younger woman took one of the guys' hands and put in on her breast.

I'm sure the other guys were disappointed in my violation of groupcentricity, but I wanted no part of whatever came next, and made my apologies, being sure to mention that my wife was waiting for me at home, and left.

The guys stopped suggesting we go for '2-cha' after semester's-end dinner after that, but nothing more was ever said. Since then I've been to noraebangs many times, but never encountered the seamier aspects of it again.

So, yeah, that's my only encounter with sex work here in all these years, and I came upon it completely by surprise. But it is everywhere, pretty much, from barber shops to norae-bangs to 'room salons' which are similar to the norae-bang private room setup, but dispense with the illusion that the group of men are there for anything but booze and sex.

How much the prevalence of the industry compares to other countries I couldn't really say, though.

Is this grandma-sex-worker story legit? I have my doubts that it's something that's in any way common, but I can't really discount it out of hand. Stranger things happen.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:02 PM on June 11 [4 favorites]


Related fun fact: salon.com is spuriously blocked by most corporate keyword-based net-filtering tools here in Korea because of the 'room salons' I mentioned earlier.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:20 PM on June 11


jamjam: "How would such things be passed on to succeeding generations?"

I would be very surprised if there was no prostitution in Korea until the comfort women, and that the current culture of prostitution is a passing on of the culture of comfort women to succeeding generations. It seems far more likely that Korea had a history of prostitution before the comfort women (as did Japan), and that the period of comfort women didn't truncate this history.
posted by Bugbread at 7:42 AM on June 12


I posted this link yesterday and I'm glad it sparked dialogue. I agree the title was sensational but I hope folks do more research and find the truth behind Korean sex work. My mother is Korean and the same age as the women mentioned in the article. She has a comfortable life and supportive family here in the US with no danger of this ever happening. But I wonder if she would choose the same path if put in the same position as the Bacchus women. I would not discount her doing this sort of thing.

The reasons why are complex but a lot of why comes from generational issues, cultural norms, desperation and group-think. Women like my mother were born in a generation during the Korean war and Japanese occupation. Prior to that, they were rarely allowed any freedoms outside (although they often ruled the house inside). So many of the women were used to being taken care of by their families. The expectation was they didn't have to work. When they got old, the community all expected their family to take care of their mothers enforcing the standard with shame and punishment.

Times have changed and family is no longer the social security bedrock of Korea but the country still operates as if it is. While the government tries to catch up with the times, older women with little to no education are left out. Koreans are nothing if practical. If they can make money with sex work and they are extremely poor, than sex work is the easy answer. Centuries of sanctioned sex work also contributes to the decision making. Also, older ladies (ajummas) in Korea are known for being super direct, very practical and used to getting their way. I'm sure they all rationalized it as a way of getting by.

Groupthink is huge in Korea. If one person has found a way of making money and getting by, it will easily have a following. My fear is this sort of ajumma sex will increase as more women get older and more women know about a pre-planned path to earn money.

I got very upset reading the article and will make sure to hug my mom the next time I see her.
posted by ichimunki at 8:27 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]


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