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Elderly prostitutes reveal South Korea’s dark side

Poor pension system, erosion of family ties force some elderly to sell bodies to live

by

AP

As a dozen elderly men loitered in a small plaza near a movie theater, mostly chatting or watching people pass by, several deeply wrinkled women strolled among them, trolling for customers for sex in nearby motels.

“Hey, do you want to go with me? I can treat you really well,” a 76-year-old woman with a limp said as a reporter approached her on a recent sunny afternoon.

Despite a police crackdown last spring that resulted in 33 arrests, including an 84-year-old woman, the “Bacchus ladies” can still be seen near the Piccadilly theater in Seoul’s Jongno neighborhood. The nickname comes from the popular energy drink that many of the prostitutes have traditionally sold.

The middle-aged and elderly women and their customers — both pitied and scorned in this conservative country — provide a look at the dark side of South Korea’s rapid economic rise and at the erosion of traditional parent-child roles. As a growing ultra-competitive middle class has become preoccupied with getting ahead, many elderly and poor people have been left to fend for themselves.

Despite the country’s dramatic growth after the 1950-53 Korean War, many older women in South Korea’s male-dominated culture didn’t receive equal education and job opportunities in their youth. Widowed, divorced or abandoned by their children, some now find themselves without a social safety net and so are forced to take up prostitution. Some get paid to drink with older men and only occasionally have sex with them.

Elderly widowers and divorced men seek out the women to fulfill sexual desires or to fight loneliness amid lingering prejudice against second marriages and dating among senior citizens.

In late 2013 and early 2014, the number of Bacchus ladies peaked at 300 to 400 in the Jongno neighborhood alone, according to Lee Hosun, a professor at Korea Soongsil Cyber University in Seoul who has interviewed dozens of the women. Now, after the police raid, there are roughly 200, many in their 60s and 70s, Lee said, with about 20 women regularly in the Piccadilly plaza area. Hundreds more are believed to operate across the country.

Prostitution is illegal in South Korea, and traditional red-light zones have been disappearing as urban redevelopment projects encroach on old neighborhoods. Despite occasional raids, however, the sex business still thrives in the shadows.

“I know that I shouldn’t do this,” said the elderly prostitute with the limp, “but no one can say that I should starve to death rather than come here.” She agreed to talk with a reporter at a coffee shop after she failed to solicit any customers, but refused to give her name because her family doesn’t know she is a prostitute.

She started out selling Bacchus drinks about 20 years ago. A couple of years later, she began selling sex. She still does it so she can pay for arthritis treatment — about $250 a month.

She and her husband live with their son, a low-paid manual worker, and his family, relying partly on government subsidies. “Every women here is keeping this a secret from their families,” said the woman, wearing a checkered blouse and navy-blue pants.

One of the women says she needs the money to take care of her ailing mother. Another needs cash for her disabled children. One is illiterate. Some don’t talk with their adult children anymore. Some are ethnic Koreans from China who came to Seoul trying to find a better life.

“It’s a tragedy,” said Lee, the professor. “It’s like our mothers are forced to lift up their skirts to make money because their children won’t feed them.”

According to Confucian ideals, parents are to be cherished by their children. For centuries, elder sons took their parents into their homes and cared for them until they died. But as the country modernized, younger generations moved to cities for jobs and school, leaving many parents behind in the countryside. Others simply stopped looking out for their parents.

South Korea has one of the world’s fastest-aging populations, but pension and welfare systems for the elderly lag behind those in other developed countries. Nearly half of South Koreans age 65 and older live on less than half of the national median income, and the elderly suicide rate has nearly quadrupled over the past 25 years.

“My two children took all my money. I bought a house for my son when he got married, and I also spent a lot when marrying off my daughter,” said a divorced 71-year-old Bacchus lady at the plaza. “Now we don’t talk. I’ve been alone for a long time.”

The woman, who also declined to give her name, said she has been a prostitute for many years. “The first year, I felt really ashamed,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep well because I agonized over whether I should be doing this. Even now I cannot sleep well.”

The woman, dressed in a dark two-piece suit and red shoes, said she hadn’t had a customer in 10 days — a similar refrain at the plaza as the economy cools. “Some women here are skipping meals. How can they buy food when they can’t even pay their rent?”

She said most women at the plaza earn 200,000 to 300,000 won ($170 to $250) a month, but the very old women sometimes charge as little as 10,000 won ($8) for sex.

For the male customers, it is often a matter of staving off loneliness. Many elderly men were taught to sacrifice their personal lives for their companies and to keep their emotions hidden. After retirement, they often struggle to fill their days.

A 78-year-old divorced man said he comes to the Piccadilly plaza every day to kill time. He said he sometimes goes to a quiet back alley with a Bacchus lady to chat and pays 10,000 won to touch her hands and breasts.

“I’ve been living alone for a long time, so that kind of thing makes me feel refreshed,” said the man, who has virtually no contact with his two adult sons and their families. He identified himself only by his surname Jung. He used to buy sex from the women — 30,000 won ($25) for the older ones and 50,000 won ($42) for the younger.

Before the police crackdown, a subway station near the plaza and a public park near the Jongmyo Confucian shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage site, were the main hot spots for Bacchus ladies.

After the occasional raids, authorities usually release the women they round up with a warning or a small fine because they know the women are too old to make a fresh start, according to police.

“I feel really sorry for them,” said a police officer in the area and would only identify himself by his family name, Jeong.

Lee, the professor, said most of the women she has interviewed had dabbled in prostitution when they worked at karaoke bars and teahouses in their early years. Just a few — five or six — were ordinary housewives before turning into prostitution in their old age.

“No one told me they became prostitutes because they like it,” she said. “Is this really these elderly women’s dirty problem, or is it a problem caused by the ordinary people who point their fingers at them? I think it’s our society’s problem.”

  • Anil Samal

    It’s funny to read this news on Japanese news site
    Can you name one station in Japan where no prostitute business is going on.
    Can not say elderly prostitution is a problem or not for Korea,
    But the high school girl involve in prostitution for their fashion starting from the age of 14; That is what Japanese news should be worried about.
    Single Mother, Monster Parents, Joshi Kousei JK (Child Porn) and many more…

    • ishyg

      I think the issues you’ve mentioned are covered well enough, not just in this publication but on Japanese media as well. But it’s interesting to hear such things are happening over Japan’s neighbor, and among the elderly as well. This article is under Asia Pacific/Social Issues after all.

      • tisho

        I can bet you all the money in the world that we can walk for few kilometers downtown or any part of Tokyo or Japan and ask any random stranger on the street, and 99% of them will have no clue what you are talking about.

      • ishyg

        Really? Do you think it might be a reflection of people not caring rather than things not being covered by the media? Because I’m an outsider with regards to these things, but I went past a few articles here and there. It’s not frequent, but I’ve never failed to go a year without reading about JK since I’ve been to Japan. Might just be me, who knows. And I remember reading about single mothers and poverty just a few days ago, and about monster parents on one of the Japanese TV shows. I’m not sure if it’s the same as the monster parents Anil was talking about though.

      • tisho

        Oh trust me, they do care a lot more than you can imagine about anything related to Japan or in particular the perceived image of Japan. Some might say they don’t care, but try saying something negative or even something that could be perceived as negative of Japan or a question that has a premise negative of Japan, and they will quickly switch to defensive mode. They are rather extremely misinformed and uninformed of their own country and of the world and how the world views Japan, and their language also plays a very big role in this as well. For example, when foreigners see something completely stupid happening in Japan and say something like ”What a weird country”, they would translate this as ”Fushigi na kuni 不思議な国” which is totally different from what the foreigners have said. You must understand the fabric of Japan’s society, it is based on image. How you are perceived to be is far more important than how you actually are. Also, the group mentality is extremely strong in Japan. What you say about Japan for people equals what you say about themselves and their identity. You say something negative of Japan and they take that as if you are attacking them personally. If you are from America, and some other American does something wrong, you will be expected to take responsibility for that, anybody associated with that group will be hold responsible in their way ,and they apply the same thing for themselves as well. It is exactly that’s why that everything bad or negative towards Japan is constantly twisted and either hidden or portrayed in a good way for the country. The media can cover the child poverty, but only if it’s covered in a neutral way, not negative for Japan. The monster parents are also seen as neutral and not a negative thing for the whole country, but try saying something like – in America we don’t have that, and you will be instantly attacked. This topic is so big i can talk about this for hours. In general people are so delusional they have absolutely no clue of what is happening in their own country and how they are perceived abroad. You will hardly find a soul in Japan that knows how horrific media censorship they have, and how they barely have a freedom of speech, as anyone who dares say something negative of Japan will be harassed and possibly even physically attacked, including their families as well. They have one party authoritarian system, but if you ask them they have the best democracy out there. They have conflicts with all of their neighbors and insane amount of crimes many of which never gets covered, but if you ask the average person he will tell you that Japan is the most peaceful and safe country on the planet, if you ask him what about those child killing and raping, he will they tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about. If you ask them about their education system that drills insane conformity and obedience and linear memorization, they will tell you that you are crazy and Japan’s education system is the best in the world and they praise individualism and free thought. And i can give you thousands of examples if you want.

      • ishyg

        I get you, and in fact I agree with you. To add, they have no qualms talking about how gaijins act even though they have two with them. True story.

        But I’m talking about how things are covered, and since you acknowledge that they are, but the Japanese are either indifferent or in denial about it, then we have nothing to discuss, I guess.

      • tisho

        No, i never said that. Not everything is covered, in fact, what i meant to say is that the reason they are so misinformed and uninformed is exactly because of their media, and the way their media portrays their own country and the rest of the world. I have witnessed thousands of times when a media would interview a foreigner and they would twist his words all the time to make it look positive for Japan. The Japanese media would never cover anything negative of Japan unless its in a positive way. For example, when Yukio Hatoyama went to Korea and knee down apologizing to that statue, no media in Japan covered that. Asahi, which is widely seen as the only left-wing media, but in reality is more like center-left, covered the story in literally less than 30 seconds. Fuji News, made a 10 min. report on that story portraying Yukio Hatoyama as some crazy lunatic who believes in Aliens and is not to be taken seriously. All the media in Japan on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing did not mention even once the millions of victims and inhumane crimes that Japan committed to other countries, it was entirely about Japan and how innocent Japan is, and how painful the Japanese feel bout the bombings.. but no mention of the reason for the bombings at all, or to the Koreans who also suffered the bombings in Hiroshima but were completely ignored by the Japanese government to this day, no mention of that too. Fuji TV even made another report of how the Japanese built something in Korea, an they would show some old Korean being happy about that, making it seem as if that was the Japanese occupation like of Korea. The ones in Japan that want to cover something useful for their people afraid of doing so, because they know if they talk about something negative for Japan they will see a mob of hundreds standing on their doors the next day protesting and accusing them of being ”evil koreans”. Why do you think JT doesn’t have a Japanese language version? You think that’s coincidence? They just don’t want to be target for those lunatics. I am not sure if you are familiar with this but few years ago Fuji TV was accused of being an anti-Japanese Korean TV because they would show too much Korean dramas and during the weather forecast, they would show the weather for Korea as well, instead of just Japan. I actually watched several youtube videos made by right-wing nuts claiming this. There was a huge demonstration against them, and ever since that they don’t dare say anything even remotely close to being negative of Japan. When a Japanese politician denies their war crimes, no Japanese media ever covers that, when that professor from Hokusei University got threatened to leave the university or else they will kill him and his family, because he was an ex-asahi journalist, no media talked about this. When the right-wingers threatened another university in Hokkaido with a bomb, no media talked about this. When the right-wingers threaten the people that guard some of the remaining statues of Korean victims in Japan, that they must remove them or else they will be killed, no media talked about this, the NYT covered this story. The Japanese media did not even cover the Olympus scandal, the Financial Times covered it, and then the Japanese media would copy the FT story. The list goes on and on and on. Just go to Yahoo Japan News and see for yourself which stories get covered. Not only are they not covering anything, they also constantly portray their own country in twisted way that misinforms people. They use phrases like 世界に誇れる平和国家ニッポン, which means, the peaceful nation praised by the entire world – Japan.., they don’t specifically underline this, but they casually insert these kind of phrases in their coverings. This is entirely false statement and misinforms people. I was also told several times by a foreigners in Japan that when a Japanese TV would either invite them to be guests or interview them, they would cut the people who act in a normal way, and only cover the ones that act like clueless fools, just to give the impression that this is what foreigners looks like compared to us Japanese. I was told once – ”wow!! i didn’t know they had Disney land in America too!?” the poor guy thought Disney Land is a Japanese thing. I can give you so many more examples of this, just go to any online japanese news website and see for yourself what is covered.

      • Anil Samal

        I will like to give you a Millions Likes.

      • KBeee

        I remember the outrage at an old TV episode of QI (QI = Quite Interesting), The question was “Who is the unluckiest man in the World?”
        The answer was the poor man that survived the Hiroshima bomb, then got evacuated to Nagasaki to recover.
        The contestants in the TV show basically said “Was he the Unluckiest man in the World, or the Luckiest? Because he survived.?
        Didn’t stop the storm from people in Japan that’d never seen the program bewailing how the “British made fun” of the survivor.

      • tisho

        Oh trust me, they do care a lot more than you can imagine about anything related to Japan or in particular the perceived image of Japan. Some might say they don’t care, but try saying something negative or even something that could be perceived as negative of Japan or a question that has a premise negative of Japan, and they will quickly switch to defensive mode. They are rather extremely misinformed and uninformed of their own country and of the world and how the world views Japan, and their language also plays a very big role in this as well. For example, when foreigners see something completely stupid happening in Japan and say something like ”What a weird country”, they would translate this as ”Fushigi na kuni 不思議な国” which is totally different from what the foreigners have said. You must understand the fabric of Japan’s society, it is based on image. How you are perceived to be is far more important than how you actually are. Also, the group mentality is extremely strong in Japan. What you say about Japan for people equals what you say about themselves and their identity. You say something negative of Japan and they take that as if you are attacking them personally. If you are from America, and some other American does something wrong, you will be expected to take responsibility for that, anybody associated with that group will be hold responsible in their way ,and they apply the same thing for themselves as well. It is exactly that’s why that everything bad or negative towards Japan is constantly twisted and either hidden or portrayed in a good way for the country. The media can cover the child poverty, but only if it’s covered in a neutral way, not negative for Japan. The monster parents are also seen as neutral and not a negative thing for the whole country, but try saying something like – in America we don’t have that, and you will be instantly attacked. This topic is so big i can talk about this for hours. In general people are so delusional they have absolutely no clue of what is happening in their own country and how they are perceived abroad. You will hardly find a soul in Japan that knows how horrific media censorship they have, and how they barely have a freedom of speech, as anyone who dares say something negative of Japan will be harassed and possibly even physically attacked, including their families as well. They have one party authoritarian system, but if you ask them they have the best democracy out there. They have conflicts with all of their neighbors and insane amount of crimes many of which never gets covered, but if you ask the average person he will tell you that Japan is the most peaceful and safe country on the planet, if you ask him what about those child killing and raping, he will they tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about. If you ask them about their education system that drills insane conformity and obedience and linear memorization, they will tell you that you are crazy and Japan’s education system is the best in the world and they praise individualism and free thought. And i can give you thousands of examples if you want.

    • ishyg

      I think the issues you’ve mentioned are covered well enough, not just in this publication but on Japanese media as well. But it’s interesting to hear such things are happening over Japan’s neighbor, and among the elderly as well. This article is under Asia Pacific/Social Issues after all.

  • Anil Samal

    It’s funny to read this news on Japanese news site
    Can you name one station in Japan where no prostitute business is going on.
    Can not say elderly prostitution is a problem or not for Korea,
    But the high school girl involve in prostitution for their fashion starting from the age of 14; That is what Japanese news should be worried about.
    Single Mother, Monster Parents, Joshi Kousei JK (Child Porn) and many more…

  • Andre Leonard

    “It’s a tragedy,” said Lee, the professor. “It’s like our mothers are forced to lift up their skirts to make money because their children won’t feed them.”

    Both sad and tragic what we have allowed..

  • PRADEEP CHATURVEDI

    KOREAN GOVERNMENT should aid the elderly who have done so much to become it a GREAT economic power. We cannot allow ELDERLY to be left alone which is inhumane and not acceptable.