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Spycam porn rallies South Korea’s feminist movement

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When Seoul announced last week it would institute daily checks of 20,000 public restrooms to make sure they are free of spycams, it was just the latest move to combat a nationwide epidemic of voyeur pornography, reported Asia Times (Thailand).

Authorities have good reason to act: The issue has convulsed South Korea’s female population and is providing a rallying point for the country’s long-dormant feminist movement.

Spycam pornography is secretly shot in places such as changing rooms, public toilets and motel rooms, then posted online, often on person-to-person (P2P) content-sharing sites. Last year, some 6,000 cases were reported to police.

While Korean women were shaken by the misogynistic murder of a woman in Seoul’s trendy Gangnam district in 2016, and have more recently woken up to the issues and possibilities raised by the MeToo movement, it is spycam pornography that has rallied the gender, leading, in recent months, to the biggest female protests in the country’s history.

Multiple elements appear to be behind the phenomena.

Why South Korea?
First, South Korea’s social culture is male-dominated, blending traditional strands of neo-Confucianism with more recent elements of a paternalistic – almost Victorian – form of Christianity. Misogyny is common; gender inequality is rampant.

Despite being the world’s 11th largest economy, noted for its stable of global manufacturing brands, for its high-tech infrastructure, and for its status as a powerhouse of Asian pop culture, South Korea ranked 118th out of 144 countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report in 2017. That puts South Korea behind rivals China and Japan, and 25 places below the global average – just behind Ethiopia, Benin and Tunisia.

Second, South Korea is one of the most wired countries on the planet. There are more active smartphones then citizens in South Korea, and among the gadget-crazy population, USB spycams are widely sold. This digital mania, combined with South Korea’s leading mobile infrastructure and ultra-high speed Internet backbone, has enabled the growth of sophisticated online user communities, fully conversant with textual, aural and visual uploads. And as has been the case globally, the Internet has proven the perfect channel for the distribution of pornography.

Third, Koreans are an intensely communal, inter-connected people. In such a society, fads, trends and rumors travel with lightning speed. The marriage of communal culture with a superb online infrastructure has created an environment, where fear, indignation and even hysteria is easily communicated. Given the power of peer groups, Korea is also a shame culture: Some victims of spycam pornography have committed suicide.

“It is a problem of advanced technology and culture and the law and police not being able to catch up with it, it is not just an issue of pornography,” Kang Hae-ryung, a local journalist who has covered the issue in detail and who this month moderated a roundtable discussion called “My Life is Not Your Porn,” told Asia Times. “Women are being objectified by men who feel no shame. It makes it hard to define.”

What is puzzling is the apparently intensely powerful lure of spycam pornography, and its extraordinary spread. Seo Seung-hee, a speaker at Kang’s event who is the director of Cyber Lion, which monitors spy camera cases and assists victims, values the industry at a modest US$100 million. Given the volumes of traffic, clearly the trend is larger than economics.

“Last June it was easy to tell that, at any given time, under the heading of ‘Korean pornography,’ there were 40,000 to 200,000 files being shared of women that have been secretly recorded,” Seo said.

There are pre-Internet precedents: One of Korea’s most famous traditional painters of the 19th century “Hyewon” featured voyeurism as a frequent subject. One of the most beloved paintings by Hyewon (real name, Shin Yun-bok), depicts a pair of goggling men hiding in bushes ogling semi-naked women disporting in a stream. The scene is widely reproduced, including on postcards, mugs and other souvenirs sold in tourist shops nationwide.

One Korean male suggested that Korea’s voyeur porn fascination started out as a copy of the trend in Japan. Many Korean animations, and even the incredibly popular “K-drama” soap operas that rule Asian airwaves, were based on Japanese originals. However, Korean makers, with a second-mover advantage, improve upon the benchmarks set by their neighbor.

There is a nasty edge to the trend. Much content – data is hard to come by, given the shifting nature of online material – appears to be “revenge porn:” trysts filmed by couples, then uploaded by angry boyfriends after their girlfriends ditch them.

And some aspects can only be described as sadistically misogynistic. Activists say that in cases when women commit suicide after their spycam footage goes online, their films surge in popularity –mockingly known as “the last work of the deceased.”

Whatever the reasons behind it, women are angry. “We have lived exposed to sexism in Korea and we are realizing this, so now we are facing this discrimination – we are angry at society and we are trying to fix this,” said Kim Sun-hee, a student who attends an all-woman university. “We believe most porn filmed in Korea is filmed without female consent.”

The gravity of the issue has been recognized by authorities, both locally and nationally. They have responded with a range of initiatives.

Audible clicks law
For voyeurs perched in front of flickering computer screens in darkened rooms, it looks like the ultimate thrill. An apparently attractive woman appears on screen, undressing in a changing room. Thrill turns to shock when the woman turns to the camera: She has the face of a ghost. A written message warns, “You may be the one pushing her to suicide” – adding, “Police are monitoring this website.”

The clip was the brainchild of police in Busan, South Korea’s second city and was professionally produced by Samsung-affiliated ad agency Cheil Worldwide. Undercover police secretly uploaded it onto 23 web-sharing pornography websites which were downloaded 51,399 times. The result, according to a video publically released by Cheil, was that the consumption of spycam porn videos fell by 21%.

Though more creative than most, it is far from being the only official initiative deployed to combat the epidemic.

Last Monday, in a message emailed to foreign reporters, Seoul announced that 8,000 managers would be appointed to oversee 20,554 public restrooms citywide, with each person checking 2.5 restrooms per day for spycams. The city also shortlisted 1,000 public restrooms for “special monitoring,” by staff. “If they find something wrong, they will directly report to the responsible departments of Seoul or district offices,” the message said. “Then, Seoul city’s female safety guards will give a detailed check.”

Nationwide, Korea has even instituted a law in which all smartphones sold in the country must feature mandatory audible clicks on their cameras, as a way of combating “upskirt” shots in public places.

Yet none of these maneuvers has so far halted the epidemic, nor looks likely to. Nor have they calmed female fears. If anything, their ineffectiveness – compounded by a perceived unfairness in law enforcement – have provoked the fury of a long-dormant, but now highly vocal womens’ rights movement.

A furious awakening
Protests, first organized by online womens’ rights and feminist groups, have been hitting Seoul’s streets in monthly since June. At the last demonstration in August, approximately 40,000 protesters rallied. Protesters, many masked in classic militant fashion, hefted placards reading “If we burn, you burn,” “Don’t come to Korea, your daughter could be a porn star,” and “Don’t worry mother, your daughter is (a) soldier.”

The movement has spun off related organizations, civic groups and online forums – even businesses that offer to pull down victims’ videos from the internet have sprung up.

The central issue, for many of the movement’s advocates, is the ineffectiveness of authorities, alleged sexual discrimination against those who report crimes, and unfairness in law enforcement.

Seo is scathing about Seoul’s much-reported initiative to patrol public toilets. “That shows they are not thinking carefully about this. They are not looking at the root of the problem they are looking at the surface issue,” said Seo, who argues that the government should be taking on the porn industry and the file-sharing companies.

“Seoul Metropolitan Government is the local government that leads by way of example. So, what has Seoul done? In the last three years they have spent something like $800,000 to locate secret cameras in public spaces,” she said. “In those last three years there has not been one case of detection! Is this a well thought-out policy?”

Busan police force’s scare video, which had only a temporary effect on spycam porn views, has also been criticized. Activists decry the clip as it recalls pre-modern Korean ghost stories, in which women who suffer a terrible wrong come back from beyond the grave to haunt their victimizers. Those stories – which, in old Korea, were morality tales warning privileged males not to mistreat under-privileged females – are outdated: They portray women as perennial victims who lack agency, activists complain.

Another issue is the judiciary’s moderate sentencing. “If we look at data from the prosecutors’ office, in 2015, they were able to catch 97.% of those perpetrating camera crime; however, only 31.2% were prosecuted,” said Professor Yoonkim Ji-young, who researches the controversies surrounding Korean feminism. “72% of those cases ended in fines, 14% in suspended sentences, and only 5% were sentenced do any form of prison time.”

She added that when men are victims – such as in a well-publicized case earlier this year, when a woman published nude photos of a male model online, only to be quickly detected and sentenced – police are more responsive.

“It is clear that there is discrimination based on gender,” Yoonkim continued. “Even though it is considered a problem when man are making recordings of women, many women are told [by police] that this is a destiny or fate women need to endure.”

“It has been difficult to keep anger down while looking at how police approach investigations,” Seo added. “There is a clear difference when women are the perpetrators and men are the perpetrators.”

Fear of discrimination could explain the discrepancy between data and anger. Just 6,000 cases were reported last year; in a country of 50 million, that suggests the problem impacts a tiny segment of the population, and that the hysteria is massively disproportionate.

But if many more cases go unreported due to shame, or to fear that police investigations will be invasive or ineffectual, the rage becomes understandable.

There has also been demonization of some segments of the activist community – certain militant feminists have called for the severing of penises, for example, while others have railed against the Catholic Church – by mainstream and social media commentators.

“It is true that the way they act is very offensive but that is precisely because … there has been systemic oppression of women and they cannot address this within the context of the system, so women feel they have to go beyond the norm,” said Seo. “Traditional ways of fighting against social expectations have not been successful.”

While men may struggle to understand why it is spy cam porn, rather than a host of other sexual discrimination issues in Korea, that has motivated women to hit the streets in such numbers, women make the point clearly.

“The main reason is, this is not an experience that is far away from us – most young Korean women have had this kind of experience or have heard rumors or stories,” said Kim, the student. “It is real for us, we can hear it around us, but if we report it to the police, the police don’t give our reports validity. The laws are not adequate.”

Forging a new path
As it stands, spycam porn has become the central motivating force in a rising women rights’ movement nationwide.

“I would not say that the spy cam issue is a specific issue – it seems like it, but it has encompassed so many problems in Korea society: the objectification of women, technology, women speaking out, porn culture, sex education, the struggle between men and women over feminism, the gender problem in law enforcement, the lack of public safety for women,” said journalist Kang. “This is not just about spy cams.”

Protests are set to continue. And at least one activist hopes that a new chapter in Korea’s gender history is being written.

“Sometimes [feminism] is going to be radical, sometimes persuasive, sometimes rational, sometimes more quiet,” said Seo. “The pace of change is unprecedented and to be honest, is a little jarring – not only for women, but also for Korea as a whole, as they are breaking the rules of protest and breaking rules that have privileged men until now. This is a time for a new history of women.”

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