The other day Robert Neff discovered an article titled "Who Gets Sick From Yellow Fever? What Carceral Feminism Does Not See." To answer the obvious question, carceral feminism "is used to define any feminist who believes the criminal justice system should protect and serve women who are victims of rape and other forms of male violence". The term is used by those who criticize such an approach, as the author of this article does. To understand why, we start in... Itaewon.
When the dark glides over, it masks the emptied beer cans and vomit stains, and brightens up with neon lights to welcome couples and tourists to trans bars, massage parlors, 'Homo Hill,' and hip-hop clubs.Thus Itaewon is seething with sex of all sorts. Though she does end the paragraph by saying that "Itaewon has rebranded itself as a hotspot for foodies, tourism, and nightlife," tales of streets full of Koreans dining at upscale eateries and drinking in craft beer bars is not the first impression she wants to create. [For more on the gentrification of US military camp towns, see this interview with Geoffrey Cain.]
One of its staple landmarks 'Hooker Hill' echoes its legacy of sex workers, criminals, and foreigners. It is in Itaewon that I first overheard young white men talk about their sexual conquests of 'tight Asian pussies.'Sadly, she seems unaware that its been 12 years now since the wretched hive of white scum and villainy expanded to Hongdae. Or as the Herald Gyeongje put it in 2005, Hongdae was "an area hot with youthful passion that has degenerated from being mixed up with foreigners," which led to certain rumors that caused great bitterness.
Yellow fever, however, is not a simple matter of preferences. During my time working at the Seoul Rape Crisis Center, one of the more well-established response service in Korea, I saw how yellow bodies silently absorbed this cost: sexual assault of Korean women by white men, mostly American, constituted at least a third of the Center’s cases.That's a rather shocking statistic. This is partly because this list (#21) of registered, non-gyopo foreigners in Korea (by city / district / province / county) as of the end of December last year (from the Korean Immigration Service's website; a list of registered gyopo is here (#41)) reveals that the population of registered foreigners from Western countries with the largest populations in Seoul consisted of 9738 men; for Gyeonggi-do, there were 5929 men. As those from other Western countries might add up to another 1000 or so, that would make for a total of 16,667. This would not include tourists, however. This chart (#3), showing the total number of foreigners in Korea in December 2016 by country and visa category, shows that there were 14,027 men from North America and 3163 men from Australia (the two largest Western countries represented in that category by far) who were in Korea on a B2 Tourist visa. We have no idea where they stayed or what percentage were white; among registered foreigners, gyopo make up about a third of Americans and half of Canadians. I would imagine an estimate of 15,000 white male tourists from these countries being in the capital area would be a very generous one indeed. Also not included among registered foreigners are US military. There were said to be 29,300 in Korea in 2014, With the closure of bases near the DMZ and expansion of Camp Humphries in Pyeongtaek, I'm not sure how many are in the capital area now. Let's be generous and say 20,000.
Thus, 16,600 registered male westerners + 15,000 male western tourists + 20,000 US military = 51,600 western males in the capital area, the population of which is 10,290,000 (for Seoul) and 12,342,448 (for Gyeonggi-do) for a grand total of 22,633,000, which should be divided in half for the male portion of the population (11,317,000). 51,600 thus makes up 0.46% of the male population of the capital area, and yet somehow they are responsible for a third of the Rape Crisis Center's annual cases, suggesting they rape at a rate 66 times more than their percentage of the population. This is, frankly, unbelievable. Perhaps this center is a branch in Itaewon; referring to it as "the Seoul Rape Crisis Center," however, gives the impression that it is not a branch. Needless to say, I'm rather skeptical. [Update: A link to the center's site is here; it's in Daehangno, so my skepticism just increased by a few orders of magnitude (hat tip to John Power).]
Just who are these dangerous, sex-crime-committing white men?
From what I could gather, they were recent college graduates from the US who had come to Korea to ‘make easy money’ (read: teach English in one of many hak-wons, or tutoring academies) and ‘experience the nightlife.’ [...] With the constant influx of young, college-educated white men in Korea, yellow fever flows back to the East.Ah, so it's English teachers, then. Her problem with "carceral feminism" is that these men cannot be incarcerated due to the freedom their American passports and globalization gives them:
If the American state can prove its neoliberal conviction through deploying Korea as an example, so too can whiteness assert its masculinity by consuming ‘tight Asian pussies.’ Under white gaze, Korean girls, available and desperate, come with no strings attached; when there are strings, they can be severed easily by flying back to the US.[...]
The normalization and prevalence of sexual violence against Korean women by white men demonstrate the material consequence of the unequal distribution of mobility.[...] The Rape Crisis Center’s record quantifies this kind of assault as a third of its annual cases[. ...] These assaults often take place in bars, clubs, and motels of areas like Itaewon. Survivors rarely know their assailants, and do not recall enough identifiable details to file a report. Those who are able to make a report find themselves in a dead end when they find out that their assailants have left the country. White men come and go–untraceable and unaccountable. [...]
He has been removed, but at his own will, and his ability to return cannot be removed from his whiteness and Korea’s neoliberal development. Without the assailant to prosecute, carceral approaches can neither support individual survivors, nor address the root cause. The cycle of white men leaving behind survivors continues.There's nothing wrong with examining structural reasons for a phenomenon that most certainly does occur. And to be sure, "carceral approaches" face limitations when their targets can flee the country with relative ease. But there there is not enough of the concrete here (beyond the exaggerated statistic above), and readers are faced with this:
Interrogating the process through which yellow fever becomes embedded in Korea’s cultural economy presents a compelling case study of the intersections of neoliberal development and racialized colonial desire. [...]
[We must move] beyond yellow fever as fantasy. To resist the fantasy, we must begin by restoring its bodies–bodies that echo the history of American GIs and the women they used up and left–and reckon with the forces of globalization, borders, misogyny, and colonial desire that lie at its heart.And so we deal with embeddedness, intersections, colonial desire and bodies. There may be another academic term missing from all of this, however. That these "assaults often take place in bars, clubs, and motels of areas like Itaewon" and that the women "do not recall enough" suggests perhaps that they were drinking with these men. The reason they might be drawn to them? The US is the land of milk and honey for these women:
For women, dating white men is a means through which they can access this fantasy. A friend of mine recounted her peers’ reaction when she revealed her partner to be a white American. “That’s the dream!” they exclaimed. In this dream, life is prosperous, exciting, and stable. The white man lives this dream and, thus, the proximity to him brings the dream closer. The white man becomes the dream.These women are portrayed as being deluded by the fantasy of America. Which might suggest why the author never uses the term "agency," since she basically robs these women of it by portraying them as nothing but victims, both of white men and of their own delusions which prompt them to approach these likely rapists in the first place. Korean girls, she says, are "available and desperate," but this sounds more like a description of Korea decades ago (at least regarding the use of 'desperate').
And when she writes that "their immobile bodies absorb the cost of whiteness," I'm reminded of cases like this, and the way in which white women are perceived by some Korean men who want to "ride the white horse" and post tips on "hunting" white or other foreign women. One gets the idea, however, that Koreans can only serve as victims, and not perpetrators.
(Both scenes are from the 2003 film "Please Teach Me English")
What is rather disturbing is the degree to which the attitude above, particularly in demonizing white men and portraying Korean women as dupes and victims, is similar to others we've seen before, such as this:
It's always just sad that some thoughtless women sympathize with foreigners who they don't realize have approached them with this (sexually demeaning) way of thinking about Korean women." "This is a place where people who are worried about this and who want to make an issue of foreigners who demean Korean women as if they are all cheap whores."The place in question is the Anti-English Spectrum cafe, and the writer was 'Bba'allyuchi,' its founder. The cafe was founded during the 2005 English Spectrum Incident, and responded to women seen dancing with foreign men in a less-than favorable fashion: "Some online articles and the Anti-English Spectrum cafe branded us as whores, yanggongju, and pimps." Likewise, for members of the cafe and critics of these women, there was a corollary to "tight Asian pussy": "but later when a Korean guy takes her home, he'll know by her massively stretched hole he's been tricked and she's a whore."
Such criticism has appeared more recently, of course. A 2012 report on MBC portrayed women in relationships with white men in a negative manner (complete with an AIDS scare), and the producer said that "the piece intended to portray 'Korean women who are out of their sense and get involved in these kinds of affairs.'" He also said that "We need to be awakened and try to change this culture," NoCut News that same year published its 12-part "The Reality and Twisted Values of Some White Men" Series, while the next year JTBC described foreign men who try to pick up Korean women as having committed "sex crimes" and even dramatized a 'pick up' manual:
In a similar manner, the internet tabloid Ilyo Sisa also published a tour de force in the summer of 2012 titled "'Tips for targeting Korean women' spread by foreign English instructor spreads quickly: Treat them as 'sex toys' and throw them away when they're finished":
The disparaging of Korean women by foreign English instructors and foreigners living in Gangnam or Itaewon is not something that just started yesterday. White men who deliberately approach Korean women for sex or to defraud them commit all kinds of illegal acts against Korean women. Even worse, anyone can commonly hear about incidents of illegal drug taking and rape by foreigners. However, claims that the cause of these incidents is a national character which is lenient towards white people are gaining traction. We are publicizing detailed excerpts of some posts from "Anti English Spectrum," a blog which denounces the barbarity of foreigners.[...]The tone of these such articles vacillates between portraying these women as victims of dastardly white men or as clueless dupes who are far too willing to trust white men (and thus are responsible for their predicament and deserve criticism (or worse)). I'll leave it to the reader to decide where "Under white gaze, Korean girls [are] available and desperate" fits.
Though Korean men have a more outstanding financial capability than white men, Korean women absorbed in white supremacy prefer white men more and think they can learn English for free and choose white men without hesitation. Among northeast Asians (Japan, China, Korea), Korean women are considered the easiest and fastest to sleep with[.] [...]
Because of the open sexual consciousness Korean women have towards white men, there are countless instances of harm done to them. One woman became pregnant after a one night stand with a white man she met in a club, and after finding out contacted the white man but he had already left the country and she decided to get an abortion.[...]
Another woman's case was even more serious. C, a university student who had dated a foreign man once, said in a media interview, "Foreigners' habitual fraud can be seen as charming. They often move in together with a girl and pretend to be her lover and then pocket the rent and deposit and leave the country, and a girl I know who dated a foreign man had a health check and was diagnosed with AIDS and sank into depression." "Most of them (white men) think of Korean woman as targets for one night stands, and there are almost none who think of having a romantic relationship with them. When something happens with a girl, they get afraid and evade responsibility by changing their phone number beforehand or by leaving the country and disappearing."
As for depicting them as victims of white men who would rape them, such one dimensional portrayals can be found outside of newspapers or websites:
(From the 2008 TV show "Sexy Mong Returns," billed as "an episode involving sexual assault by foreign English teachers, something that has been a social issue for some time." The rapist is in fact a Korean man who pretends to be a foreigner because women like foreigners more... but he still needs to drug and rape them for some reason.)
(From the 2008 TV show "Shin Hae-cheol's Damage." The episode, "Foreign Instructor and Club Girl," which features "Memories of an unforgettable gang rape!" can be watched here. Shin has performed at least one rather Anti-American song, with a little help from Psy.)
The latter film, Queen Bee, is from 1985 and features white and black foreigners violating their way through Itaewon. At that time there was a great deal of discussion on the place of white foreigners in Korean society (which led to the French foreign language teacher scandal of 1984), such as when an American was caught forging checks and living off the generosity of Korean women ("Koreans have a weakness for foreigners"), as well as an article about Itaewon from 1984 which differed from articles about Itaewon from the previous year in the Maeil Gyeongje (October 8, 1983) and Donga Ilbo (July 27, 1983) in that it portrayed foreigners in Itaewon in a very negative manner,
In January 2005 Ilda, a feminist journal, published an article about the English Spectrum incident which argued that "when extreme nationalism and patriarchal views meet, they run counter to the issue of women's rights." What happens, then, when nationalism and feminism meet? In the 1980s and 1990s there was a great deal of feminist organizing in regard to issues surrounding the US military presence in Korea. In many ways this is understandable; foreign men are a much easier target (one that Korean men would agree on) than taking on home-grown patriarchy. A Donga Ilbo article from 1988 titled "Obscene magazines, decadent movies, AIDS: 'Let's expel low American culture'" gives an example of the post-1988 Olympics mood:
There are many incidents of the ravaging of Korean women by U.S. forces in Korea and even crimes such as molestation, and in the climate of the unfair ROK-U.S. Status-of-Forces Agreement, Korean women wind up being thoughtlessly treated like "conquered women."While such negative portrayals of foreigners can (and did, and still does) move into racist territory, women are clear-cut victims in the stories it relays. One aspect of American culture which was bitterly criticized was an article by Hustler magazine called "Hustler's Olympic-goer's Guide to Korean Sex," which focused on paid sex in Itaewon and made some comments which raised the ire of Koreans who read it:
Korean women are the horniest, lustiest, most fuckable females on earth. Whatever she is like in the 'outside world,' bring a Korean female into close proximity of a cock, and her passions take over, [...A] huge cadre of the country's females are today sexual enthusiasts of the first order. They are available to all comers, black and white, foreign and domestic.In the view of the 1988 Donga Ilbo article above, the Hustler article "introduced Korean women as all being prostitutes," something which was understandably insulting. In discussing the international position of Korea, the activists criticized such things as the Korean government's kisaeng tourism and the resulting position of women vis-a-vis foreigners. Such criticism may have functioned in a more coherent manner when dealing with prostitution, but when it deals with sex outside of prostitution, problems seem to arise. This situation had already arisen by 1984, and people did not have kind things to say about the young women who 'gave it away for free' in Itaewon:
"It's not just foreigners' prostitutes, now it's female university students or teenagers from good families who chase after foreigners and spend money on them, and when I see it I think it's pathetic," said Hong Gwan-pyo, who has sold souvenirs in the area for 8 years, with a sour look on his face.[...]When nationalism comes into the picture, attempts to wrestle with "yellow fever" often end up taking on the tenor of yellow journalism, complete with misleading statistics and incredibly negative portrayals of certain (racial) groups. White men make easy money and rape and flee in the picture presented in the article. Relegating the Korean women involved in militarized prostitution to the category of 'victim of American imperialism' and nothing more was criticized in Hyun Sook Kim's chapter (in Dangerous Women: Gender and Korean Nationalism) "Yanggongju as an allegory of the nation":
Han Hyung-sik (46) said "On average I carry out marriage procedures for about 20 international couples a month, but more than 70% return to divorce. Wearing a bitter expression, he also said, "When you see the unbearable sight of girls who come from university who fall only for the the appearance of white people who seem to be imbued with 'ladies first' kindness and then marry badly, even one's sense of national pride is ruined."
[W]e must recognize that military sex workers have not been completely colonized by patriarchy, militarism, imperialism or neo-colonialism; the women do assert agency and subjectivity as Korean women. In what ways to the outcast military sex workers resist, reject, and try to invert the power hierarchy that relegates them to the lowest social standing? Do we retain the metaphor of nation as the representative discourse for collective unity and female identity, or can we develop an alternative discourse on/for military sex workers that will not re-colonize or subordinate their bodies or identities? This essay raises these unresolved questions and emphasizes the need to further investigate the ways in which the subject positions of working class women in sexual labor are constructed in defense of the nation. The first step towards 'pivoting the center' may be to chart the multiple, fragmented subjectivities of working class Korean women, such as military sex workers who have historically been excluded from scholarship and represented as passive objects in popular and radical representations. Answering these unresolved questions would thus require a critical feminist analysis of the power relations inscribed in the reading, writing and public presentations of women as the victim, the oppressed, and the exploited. Instead of essentializing the experiences of the women of Kijich'on as categorically "Yanggongju," we must begin acknowledging the agency, subjectivity, and resistance of working class women.Her chapter is critical of those who would define these women for their own purposes, rather than actually talking to them and hearing their own stories and understanding of their experiences. I haven't come across any more of her work, unfortunately.
As can be seen in the excerpts from Korean news media above, with criticism of the "open sexual consciousness Korean women have towards white men" and of "Korean women absorbed in white supremacy" or "Korean women who are out of their sense and get involved in these kinds of affairs," the portrayal of these women as deluded victims overlaps with what appears to be a Korean male desire to discipline these women, or at least demand more moral behavior from them (like not engaging in "sex crimes" with foreigners).
This isn't to say that sex crimes aren't committed by some white men in Korea, or that some don't treat women (or girls) in incredibly callous ways with long-term consequences. They do. But they aren't the only ones, and to focus on them alone suggests another agenda is at work. Even worse is the fact that by portraying Korean women as devoid of agency, or as passive dupes ("Under white gaze, Korean girls [are] available and desperate." "The white man becomes the dream."), this not only echoes the xenophobic and misogynist responses of Korean nationalists, it also inadvertently reproduces the discourse of those being criticized in the first place. Is there really that great a difference between "Korean girls [are] available and desperate" and Hustler's claim that "a huge cadre of the country's females are...available to all comers"?
Making use of nationalist tropes without first unearthing the assumptions embedded within them can undermine the very argument one is trying to make, and leave one, as in this case, stuck in bed between neocolonial pricks and misogynist xenophobes.