I thought I’d take a break from politics and talk a little bit about a story in the Stars and Stripes on “juicy bars” being a conduit for prostitution. The Stripes story covers the scene up in Dongducheon near Camp Casey in Area I. I don’t have any first hand knowledge of that bar district, but GI Korea at ROKdrop offers his take here.
My perspectives are based on what I have observed in Itaewon and also what I saw during my travels to the Philippines. I admit up front to being somewhat conflicted on the issues raised in this story. I certainly understand and adhere to the DoD prohibitions regarding prostitution. However, I’m not at all convinced that the “human trafficing” aspect is as widespread as this story would lead you to believe. For me at least there is a huge difference in a woman choosing to be a prostitute as opposed to being forced to do so. While that may sound obvious, the line can sometimes get fuzzy. Now, I have never met anyone working in the bars in Itaewon or the Philippineswho wasn’t doing so by choice. On the other hand, I’ve met more than a few who were working in the bars because they had no other choice. Yes, you could choose not to work the bars but for some that means choosing not to feed your family. Some choice, huh?
As I mentioned above my experience is limited to Itaewon. And I think the bars like those mentioned in the Stripes article probably only exist here up on “hooker hill”. And those are all off limits to DoD personnel and regulary patrolled by the MPs and Korean police. I expect some soldiers break the rules of course, but I’m guessing that’s not the clientele keeping these joints in business. So, I don’t think you can fault the actions taken or otherwise blame USFK for whatever overt prostitution still taking place in Itaewon.
Before we get into my critique of the Stripes article, let’s begin with some definitions and a caveat. A juicy bar is a bar where a young woman (degrees of attractiveness vary) will sit and keep you company as long as you are buying her drinks. These drinks are expensive (at least W10,000 but usually W20,000 in Itaewon) and normally consists of juice and little or no alcohol. So, you meet juicy girls in juicy bars. Some juicy bars also provide sex for a price (either on or off premises), others do not. I am not aware of any bar openly selling sex in addition to juice that is not on the off limits list for Itaewon.
Which is not to say that a juicy girl in a “legit” bar won’t engage in sex, but it would be more along the lines of a personal transaction without the knowledge or participation of the bar. I don’t know if that makes it anymore prostitution than does spending lots of money on a traditional date with a “regular” girl that ends in lovemaking. Perhaps we all have our price in that regard.
Not all juicy bars are created equal. Some are sleazy like those pictured in the Stripes article. Others are quite upscale with very attractive women elegantly dressed (meaning sexy, not slutty). I’d say there are more of the latter type in Itaewon. Also, at most Itaewon bars and pubs the staff will gladly accept a drink offer from a customer. Some (like Dolce Vita) charge the regular price, others charge W10,000. I make a distinction here because these bars aren’t selling juice and generally the bargirl stays on her side of the bar. For example, I sometimes buy the bartender a drink in lieu of a tip.
The caveat is that I’m no expert in that I rarely visit “juicy bars”, usually only in a “boys night out” setting, and I never buy W20,000 drinks which puts me in the unpopular “cheap Charlie” category. So, since I won’t pop for an expensive drink it is unlikely that I would be solicited for anything more pricey on the “menu” if you get my meaning. Having said that, I have lived here almost 5 years and have friends and acquaintences more well versed in the juicy scene than I, so I also speak with the benefit of that vicarious experience.
Ok then, on to the article:
Prostitution and indentured servitude are everyday realities at many of these popular hangouts for American soldiers, according to past and present bar girls, many of whom were enticed from the Philippines to work in the South Korean bars with false promises that they could earn legitimate incomes as singers and entertainers.
“If you don’t sell a lot of drinks, [the bar owners] are going to push you to go out with a customer to make money,” said Jenny, a former bar girl who asked not to be fully identified. “I was shocked the first night I worked there.”
Ok, well at least in Itaewon all the legit juicy bars I’ve seen (not off limits) employ Koreans. The only exploited Filipinas I’ve met here are the ones who came to Korea as “mail order” brides to Korean men. I’ve heard some real horror stories about that.
Almost every Filipina I encountered in the Philippines was looking for a way out. Many, after the briefest acquaintance, were asking me to “sponsor” them to come to Korea, no strings attached. Of course I declined to help someone circumvent Korean immigration laws, but I question if these folks so desperate to escape the crushing poverty and hopelessness of their lives really don’t know what being an “entertainer” in Korea entails. Again, acknowledging that there are exceptions, I don’t believe the majority of these young women are being forced into sexual slavery.
And it’s all happening right under the noses of U.S. military officials and the South Korean and Philippine governments, women’s advocacy groups assert.
“Three governments are to be blamed for their irresponsibility,” said Yu Young-nim, director of My Sister’s Place, a social service agency that helps Philippine bar girls forced into prostitution in South Korea. “The Philippine government for not working hard to create job opportunities for its poor people, the Korean government for not managing and controlling jobs [given to immigrants] and the U.S. government for neglecting its responsibility to supervise its soldiers and for not helping these victims.”
Sorry, I think that is an unfair burden to lay at the doorstep of government. Hell, most of the “progressive” governments in Europe have thrown in the towel and legalized/regulated the prostitution industry. I certainly don’t think that closing all juicy bars is going to solve anything. USFK does a decent job monitoring the bars for illicit activites and places those found in violation of DoD regualtions off limits. Korea is a soveriegn nation and is responsible for enforcing its own immigration and anti-prostitution laws. Well, they are about as good at doing so as the USA is within its own borders. Most of the Filipinas I know in Korea are here illegally. And prostitution is rampant throughout Korea, not just around U.S. military bases. Hell, it’s not even that well hidden. You have the notorious glass houses, the double pole barber shops, and the room salons pretty much everywhere you go. And most of these are catering to Korean men, not foreigners.
And then there is the Philippines. Prostitution, although technically illegal, is big business there. And yeah, 20 years ago it was centered around the big U.S. military complexes at Clark and Subic Bay. Guess what, those places are still thriving long after Uncle Sam departed by serving sex tourists from around the globe. And a whole lot of those tourists are Koreans. So here’s the thing. If a Filipina in her desperation chooses a life of prostitution (again, it may be the only viable option, but still a choice if you will) should she sell herself for $30 in Angeles City, or 5 times that in Seoul? To be clear, I am not saying that trafficing does not exist. I am saying that the vast majority are choosing to use the only real asset they own (their body) to support themselves and their family. The smart ones come to Korea (and Japan and the USA) to maximum the value of that asset.
Do I feel good about that? No, not at all. I spent some time in the bars in the Philippines talking with the girls. And it was depressing as hell. So, at first I thought these young women are being exploited. But then I thought, if they didn’t have this they would have nothing. It seems to me that if a man can “sell his body” doing back breaking work as a laborer, it should be a woman’s choice to utilize her body as best meets her needs and circumstances.
So, close all the juicy bars in Korea and send the girls home. Be assured you will not be improving the circumstances of those unfortunates one iota.
U.S. military representatives say they believe most of the juicy bars stick to selling juice — and the few minutes of female companionship that each $10 glass can buy a servicemember. That is why they say they have not put all the juicy bars categorically off-limits.
“There is a constant review, all the time, of all these places,” said Charles Johnson, an action officer with the USFK working group. “A decision was made years ago that glass houses were off limits because … the thought is it is probably an unhealthy or immoral area that lends itself to prostitution. With the other establishments, it’s a case-by-case basis.”
I think that’s the right approach and all that can be reasonably expected.
Once the women secure their visas, the 300 or so promoters in South Korea who pay to import them essentially rent the women out to clubs on a monthly basis. According to a variety of sources, the women sign contracts ranging from three months to a year that entitle them to free room and board, and a salary (not including tips) ranging from about 700,000 to 900,000 won — or about $560 to $725 — per month.
Club owner Cho said their jobs “simply speaking … are to drink together and chat with the soldiers.” In exchange, soldiers are asked to buy them drinks, usually starting at $10 for a small glass of juice. The more money the soldier spends on drinks, the longer the woman sits with him, Cho said, adding that the club and the women split the juice money 50-50.
Well, you know what? That’s pretty good wages comparitively speaking. The bargirls in the Philippines I spoke with might make 10,000 pesos ($200) in a good month. The girls with legit jobs, like working at the mall make half that. And you can’t get a mall job without at least two years of college which is beyond the reach of poor families in the provinces. Again, I have tons of empathy for these girls and the harshness of their lives, but I don’t see any real advantage to taking away the only means of a viable income. I pay my Filipina maid $320 a month and she sends most of that home to support her family. So, these juicy girls are doing exceptionally well, relatively speaking.
“If you do not sell enough juice, the mama-san who controls the women in the clubs, they force the women to go to the ‘bar fine,’ ” Yu said. “ ‘Bar fine’ means prostitution.”
The former juicy bar employees said soldiers and other customers usually paid $150 to bring them from the bar to a hotel room for sex, with the women getting $40 of that money.
First of all, any bar that allows “bar fines” is immediately subject to being placed off limits. In the Philippines, a “bar fine” is called an EWR–Early Work Release. The way that works is the customer pays the bar a set sum, usually around $30. This entitles the bargirl to leave work early. The bar normally gives the girl half the barfine. What happens after that is contingent on what two consenting adults agree to do.
Now, I am not so naive as to not understand that the EWR concept is a convienent workaround to the prostitution laws. Still, at least in the Philippines, the bargirls can refuse an EWR request. They only go with the customers they choose to be with. Sometimes the EWR involves bar hopping or dinner or lounging at the pool. And yes, I am sure that in some (most?) cases it ends up with sexual intercourse.
Would these girls do this sort of work if they had better options? Some may, I suspect most would not. But it strikes me as being disingenuous to claim they are being exploited. Again, I have not ever witnessed any case of someone being forced into prostitution. I have however heard many sad tales about being the only means of support for children and family. Many of these girls hate what they do, but hate the alternative more.
I just can’t accept the premise that putting these people out of the only work that pays enough to provide food and shelter is making the world a better place.
Yes, let’s castrate anyone who enslaves or otherwise forces these young women into prostitution. But don’t take away one of the few options available in a desperate life for those who choose it.