by Ellen Groves
Most of us have been to towns located around military bases, and they all tend to look alike. The closer you get to the base, the more unsavory the neighborhoods become. There are run-down businesses, strip clubs, massage parlors, and prostitutes walking the streets. It’s a strange phenomenon, but sex has been bought and sold around military bases for a long time, due to the endless demand from soldiers. Unfortunately, this has caused “military towns” to become hubs for human trafficking. More specifically, sex trafficking. In this two-part blog post, we’re going to explore the military’s response to sex trafficking/prostitution throughout history.
One of the worst cases of military involvement was in South Korea during World War II and the Korean War. South Korean sex workers were encouraged by their government to please American soldiers, and were called patriots for boosting the economy and keeping the American soldiers happy. While women in the U.S were taking to the workforce, women in South Korea were forced to take to the street.
South Korea had a strict “hands off” attitude for soldiers and Korean women, but the rules didn’t apply to sex workers, entertainers, and dancers; so they created specific areas around the U.S bases for these women to work called “camptowns”. Most women that worked at the camptowns were from poor, rural families that had nowhere else to go, but as the demand grew, more and more women were coerced into selling themselves. Legislation was passed to legalize prostitution in areas known as “camptowns”, and the demand for women sex workers soared. The South Korean government and U.S military worked together to make these camptowns possible.
By 1958, there were an estimated 300,000 sex workers, and over half worked in camptowns. The government had started giving classes to the “entertainment women” that included English, etiquette, and ways to sell themselves to American soldiers.
After mass outbreaks of venereal diseases, the government instituted regulations for their “entertainment women”. They began testing the girls for diseases and tagging them. Those who tested positive for diseases were quarantined in a detention center. After Korean officials legalized the special districts for Americans, Military Police were allowed to arrest women without health inspection cards.
They also created some pretty hilarious Anti-VD posters.
In 1965, 85 percent of soldiers admitted to being with a prostitute.
Women were often “owned” by G.I.s in a way similar to the concubine tradition. Some men had their “steadies” and others owned their girls with a house. When it was time for the G.I to report back to the U.S, they would often sell the girl(s) to incoming soldiers. It’s horrifying to think that anyone, regardless of gender, were bought and sold due to convenience.
The South Korean government allowed this because they didn’t want American soldiers to leave. The American military presence was needed due to tensions between the North and South Koreas, and the South Korean economy was struggling. “They urged us to sell as much as possible to the GI’s, praising us as ‘dollar-earning patriots,’” recounts former sex worker Aeran Kim. “Our government was one big pimp for the U.S. military.” (Quote from Politco Magazine)
In an interview with the New York Times, a former prostitute from the camptowns recounted her experience in the camptowns. “Jeon, 71, who agreed to talk only if she was identified by just her surname, said she was an 18-year-old war orphan in 1956 when hunger drove her to Dongduchon, a camp town near the border with North Korea. She had a son in the 1960s, but she became convinced that he would have a better future in the United States and gave him up for adoption when he was 13. “The more I think about my life, the more I think women like me were the biggest sacrifice for my country’s alliance with the Americans,” she said. “Looking back, I think my body was not mine, but the government’s and the U.S. military’s.” (CHOE SANG-HUNJAN. Jan. 7, 2009)
In my next post, I’m going to go more into detail about how the camptowns of South Korea started the trend of selling sex near military bases. They affected not only South Korean bases, but bases all over the world. Bases are supposed to symbolize freedom and honor, but have created a business of slavery. The worst part is: everyone knows it. People know that the strip clubs and massage parlors are fronts for sex trafficking, but they go anyway. It’s time to give these women recognition. It’s time to stop accepting this as the norm. It’s time to be outraged.