I had a debate last night with some Korean folks about the "social problem" of prostitution (which I define in my classes in the standard sociological sense of the term), which is a part of the class I teach on the subject. Basically, my argument was that "prostitution has become a part of Korean culture," which bothered one woman who felt I was generalizing about "culture" too much. I got her point, but went on to explain that I'm not talking in terms of generalities, but specific histories and circumstances peculiar to Korea. Like any country, there are historically specific conditions and circumstances that lead to particular "social problems."
For example, the US has a particular relationship (problem) with race that Korea does not have. It may seem obvious to state here, but the US was built on immigration and the movement of populations -- whether forced, coerced, or voluntary -- and in particular, theft of Indian lands and use of chattel slavery to build the capital for America's industrialization; as was true for waves of Scotch-Irish, German, Irish, Chinese, then Japanese, and Eastern European immigrants brought in to supply the grist for America's industrial mill. These structural circumstances led to unique and peculiar changes in the culture, which can be loosely defined as the habits, norms, and roles one finds in the lived experience of a given society. In other words, the way blacks behave towards whites, Asians in California were treated by caucasian workers, or Latino migrant workers now, or more specifically, the Jim Crow system or specific discriminatory laws against Chinese in San Francisico -- these things become a part of the "culture."
And as a culture evolves, social norms and mores changes, and the definition of what is viewed as a "social problem" changes. If you didn't read the definition found at the link listed above, here's the definition:
"Social problems are societal induced conditions that harms any segment of the population. Social problems are also related to acts and conditions that violate the norms and values found in society."
Racially discriminatory laws and practices that were part of the culture of the US and more viciously, the Jim Crow South, came to be seen as a "social problem" in America. And as recorded incidents, clearly-defined patterns in economics, politics, law, and lived experience point out, racism still remains a social problem in the United States.
Now, to the problem of prostitution in South Korea. Using a similar definition of the "social problem," which forces us to keep things non-ethnocentric in that it is squarely grounded in the "norms and values found" in Korea, not just in the norms that I as an outsider might bring, it is clear that institutionalized prostitution has been defined in this society in the news, academia, and by numerous government bureaus as 1) a social phenomenon that continues to occur far out-of-sync with what is generally expected in a developed society, and 2) an institutionalized practice that, as such, violates the "norms and values found in society."
Therefore, it is, by definition, a "social problem" in Korea. Period. And the utility of comparing the social problems in the US versus Korea is to point out the usefulness of the definition itself: WHAT IS CONSIDERED A SOCIAL PROBLEM DIFFERS FROM SOCIETY TO SOCIETY, COUNTRY TO COUNTRY, CULTURE TO CULTURE.
Of course, when someone talks about something inherently viewed as negative as a part of one's culture, one gets emotionally defensive. That's natural. But one thing bothered me about the conversation: it was that ultimate of dismissive folk sayings I hate, usually attributed to Mark Twain, that there are three types of falsehoods: "Lies, damned lies, and statistics."
What Marky Mark was actually pointing out was that statistics can be used out of context. They have, inherently, flaws and margins of error. There can be problems with their generation, as they might have to do with sample size, sampling methodology, or interpretation. And they have to be matched against common sense and/or observation -- this is when they become MOST useful, not less.
Case in point is the standard story of the finding that 40% of sick days occur on Mondays or Fridays. So this led to middle management panic that workers were bilking the system. But 2/5 days of the work week is 40%, stupid. and the other three are 60%. DUH.
Or the standard confusion of correlation and causation. The size of my belly and the continuing expansion of the universe may be 100% correlated in terms of time, but my belly is NOT the CAUSE of the universe's expansion. Nor is television watching the CAUSE of shorter life spans; it's the sedentary activity that tends to follow in a person who watches more TV than others, most reasonably.
Or the white researcher interviewing blacks about their opinions on race, or the Korean researcher studying the "Korean face" using his own standards for Koreanness and handpicked samples from nursing colleges in Malaysia, Mongolia, and Korea. Of COURSE you're going to get statistical differences between the types when YOU YOURSELF DEFINED THE IDEAL TYPES. Again, Duh.
But what bothered me, after I gave my standard delivery of the statistics gathered on prostitution over a long period of time, using different quantitative and qualitative models, from differently-interested domestic and foreign bodies, from both the government and private sector -- as found in stats kept by the Korean Bureau of Criminology, Ministry of Gender and the Family, and the YWCA, to name the main ones -- was that this piece of bolstering evidence was dismissed BECAUSE they are statistics.
I don't mind people quibbling with the methodology or context of any given set of statistics. But what is absolutely a pet peeve with me is when people simple EQUIVOCATE, e.g. "Well, statistics can't be believed because both sides can just cook them or make them up." Or some variation on the myth that STATISTICS are not to be believed. Or that because there is a problematic aspect in a set of data, the argument has to be thrown out.
Well, what's the point of doing social science, then? Or science at all?
And in the context of the discussion we were having last night, as people were telling me not to point out Korea as a special case in terms of the SCALE of institutionalize prostitution, and that prostitution exists everywhere, there are no differences, just leave it alone -- how can I do that, when the historical, social, statistical, and observed evidence is all indicating one thing:
Prostitution happens to exist in Korean culture in a particular way, due to particular historical circumstances most directly related to its initial existence as a clear social status in the kisaeng courtesan, but then amplified a great deal as a part of the economy during the Japanese occupation period, especially in the concrete processes created by the "comfort women" system during the latter part of the Pacific War, which then found huge amplification under the Park Chung Hee regime as an industry protected and encouraged by the state. Park is infamous for bringing the institution to even the negotiation table in his "kisaeng diplomacy" and the present-day, measurable statistic of organized prostitution being 4.1% of the GDP (about the same as fishing, agriculture, and mining combined, which is 4.3%), or many NGOs' estimate of it being as high as 5-6% with informal prostitution included -- even these pale in comparison to what percent that might have been before it was being measured, but when it played an even larger role in the economy.
No American government officials ever came to a meeting of camptown prostitutes to praise them as "true patriots for the nation", with the equivalent of "축하" banner and all.
Now, me making that comparison is NOT to make a value judgement, which many Koreans tend to take it as. It is to point out that such a thing doesn't make SENSE to have existed in American history, politics, and in the end, culture, because it just didn't happen to be the way America needed to gather lots of capital. It just isn't part of the American story. And because of this difference, it doesn't also happen to be a stubborn leftover, legacy, or remnant that society now defines as a "social problem."
But if you take America's dependence on cotton as a cash crop, and the enslavement of African-Americans to maintain it, and the social relations that develop around the institution to justify its existence, you get RACISM as a peculiarly American social problem. One doesn't even REQUIRE statistics to admit, "Yeah. I guess that's a social problem," because the basics of the history is so clear. The historical reality of slavery has been well-defined for all Americans.
I posit that the resistance to what every outsider observes as KOREAN SOCIAL REALITY in terms of the commodification and subjugation of women in this society, especially as embodied in the rampant institutionalized prostitution that is as observable in terms of the sheer numbers and types of such places of business (room salons, business clubs, barber shops, massage parlors, handjob rooms, juicy bars, miin-chon, 단란주점, 도우미 노래방, which goes without even mentioning the vast numbers of red-light districts in every part of Seoul and every city in Korea) NARY REQUIRES statistics, either.
What I see as the frequent resistance of people to believe something that is OBVIOUS in observed reality if one simply COUNTS the number of houses of prostitution on a single city block in any part of this city -- Kangnam Station to Shinchon to City Hall to Apkujeong to Chungdam to nearly any neighborhood after midnight, when the plastic balloons, mini-trucks, and neon signs come on that aren't on during the day -- is partially a denial of obvious reality, coupled with the urge to throw out the many statistics that bolster easy observation because they make one very uncomfortable.
But I'm a human being. I understand emotions. But what makes it so easy for me to recognize that the US brutally kidnapped, displaced, and murdered MILLIONS of human beings for the sake of material gain, which has resulted in creating some negative aspects to my culture, i.e. discrimination and institutionalized racism? But when I mention institutionalized prostitution as a legacy of compressed and authoritarian development in the Korean context, people instantly start equivocating and dismissing my argument, while holding it to such an abnormally high bar of scrutiny, one would be hard-pressed to assert ANYTHING particular about Korean society.
Point is, had I mentioned that Korean women in factories were heavily exploited during the development period, as the result of overall labor exploitation, both gendered and not, people nod their heads. People "know" that this was a problem.
Or that migrant workers are both stigmatized and demonized in Korean society, even as their work is a crucial part of the economy, and nearly every horror story I tell about their treatment by Koreans and the amount of sheer human drudgery emphasized in the telling is greeted without an inkling of doubt? People "know" that this is a problem.
Or that blacks have a lot of trouble getting hired in Korea, since Koreans a) don't think blacks are as smart as whites, b) have "bad" accents, and c) hagwon moms won't want them, no matter what the hagwon wants. Even when I make a sweeping generalization in a fit of frustration or anger, such as "Koreans are racist and generally don't like black people," Koreans still nod their heads in sympathy, while shaking their heads in apology. People "know" this to be "true."
But when it comes to the easily-observed, trackable problem of organized prostitution in this country, bolstered by studies of history, politics, and the economy, coupled with tracking and statistics drawn from a variety of interests and sources, the issue is generalized and equivocated away ("prostitution is everywhere, not just Korea"), and any source, no matter how specific or valid, is instantly batted down ("Any side can manipulate statistics").
And suddenly, the statistics THEMSELVES are suspect, BECAUSE they are statistics.
That bothers me the most. Why the high level of scrutiny when I am making the LEAST amount of sweeping generalizations, but uncritical agreement when I am making the MOST?
This seems to me to be a question of what is "OK" to know or assert as social reality, rather than a reasoned counter-argument.