United States: The Role Of Military Forces In The Growth Of The Commercial Sex Industry - Equality Now

United States: The Role Of Military Forces In The Growth Of The Commercial Sex Industry

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(Photo courtesy of Saewoomtuh)

In March 2002, Fox Television broadcast an undercover investigative report documenting the participation of U.S. military forces stationed in South Korea in the commercial sex industry. In the report, American Courtesy Patrol officers stationed in bars near the Camp Casey base in Tongduch'on willingly share detailed information with journalist Tom Merriman on the mechanics of the commercial sex industry in the bars and the trafficking of women to South Korea to supply the demand for prostitution by U.S. military forces. "They get off the plane and the Korean nationals that work at the airport take their visa and their passport away, put them in a line on the side, and they go to auction. All these clubowners buy these girls at auctions," says one Courtesy Patrol officer. He further explains that the trafficked women will not get their passports or visas back until they earn enough money to pay for the expense incurred by the clubowner. The Courtesy Patrol officer agrees when questioned by the reporter that his responsibilities include keeping all the bars safe. "That's our job," he says and then advises the undercover reporter how to "barter" for the services of a prostitute. Women in the camptown bars from Russia and the Philippines confirm on camera that they have been trafficked to South Korea, that their passports have been taken, and that they are not free to go home. 

According to the U.S. State Department, as many as four million women and children a year are lured by traffickers, often linked to organized crime, to destinations all over the world with promises of higher paying jobs, as nannies, waitresses or dancers, than they could get at home. After arriving in a foreign country, the women are forced into prostitution, often treated brutally and kept in inhuman living quarters. The story of "Lana" was featured in the American publication Military Times, which in August 2002 published an exposé of the link between the demand of U.S. servicemen for prostitution and the trafficking of women into the commercial sex industry. Back home in the Kyrgyz Republic, Lana worked in a shoe factory for $20 a month. One day she saw a newspaper advertisement looking for women to dance and chat in nightclubs serving U.S. servicemen in South Korea. The ad promised $2,000 for the first six months, an enormous increase over her dismal wages. Lana responded to the advertisement. When she arrived in South Korea, heavily in debt to her new employers for her travel and upkeep, she was forced by her employer, who took away her passport, to engage in prostitution for American servicemen. Living with nine other women from the bar in a three-room apartment with a video camera mounted over the front door to monitor her movements, she was only permitted 30 minutes of freedom each day.

Despite the fact that under the U.S. Forces, Korea (USFK) Regulation "all houses of prostitution" are formally "off-limits" to military personnel in South Korea, U.S. military commanders in South Korea condone and support the commercial sex industry by assigning Courtesy Patrol officers to the bars to facilitate safe access to prostitution for U.S. servicemen. Following an investigation prompted by the Fox report, the USFK issued a statement reporting their assessment that "most establishments were disco-type dancing clubs providing a safe, clean environment," further proclaiming that the purpose of Courtesy Patrols is "to deter acts of violence, to enforce curfews, and when applicable, prevent USFK personnel access to off-limits establishments." The undercover Fox investigation documents that the bars in question are promoting prostitution and that the Courtesy Patrol Officers, by their own admission, facilitate rather than prevent USFK personnel access to these establishments.

Solicitation of prostitution is an offence under Korean law, as it is under Article 134 of the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice, which penalizes misconduct that discredits the military or is prejudicial to good order and discipline. Such misconduct is punishable by dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement of one year. No American servicemen have been held accountable for solicitation of prostitution in South Korea, or elsewhere in recent times, despite the widespread and well-documented evidence of their participation in the commercial sex industry. The International Office for Migration estimates that at least 5,000 women since the mid-1990s, though probably many more, have been trafficked into South Korea alone to supply commercial sex services, including to the 37,000 U.S. military personnel stationed there. Many of the clubs, bars and brothels surrounding military bases cater almost exclusively to U.S. servicemen.

Local organizations in South Korea are actively campaigning against the commercial sex industry and addressing the needs of women in prostitution for rehabilitation and alternative income. Saewoomtuh is one organization currently working for the reform of Korea's laws on prostitution so that customers, procurers and pimps are treated as criminals while prostitutes are treated as victims eligible for a wide array of social services. The organization helps women leave prostitution and find other sources of income for their survival. Saewoomtuh's model program, begun in 1998, includes alternative income generating opportunities, a program for support networking and a group counseling and policy discussion program for ex-prostitutes. The work of organizations like Saewoomtuh seeks to address the root causes of prostitution and diminish the lure of opportunities that seem to offer quick money but all too often lead to exploitation by the commercial sex industry.

Currently, there are over 1.4 million active duty U.S. military personnel worldwide. It is widely recognized that almost everywhere U.S. troops are stationed there is a concurrent and dramatic growth of the commercial sex industry, which demonstrates profound disrespect for women and causes deep public resentment in the host country, to the detriment of foreign relations. In 1999 when U.S. forces returned to the Philippines, for example, the number of registered "entertainers" in Angeles City almost doubled, according to a U.S. military newspaper. A Presidential Directive issued on 25 February 2003 by U.S. President George W. Bush stated, "Prostitution and related activities, which are inherently harmful and dehumanizing, contribute to the phenomenon of trafficking in persons, as does sex tourism, which is an estimated $1 billion per year business worldwide." In its 2002 Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. Department of State recognized the close link between trafficking and prostitution by acknowledging prostitution as one of the primary reasons for which women are trafficked.

The Fox investigative report has generated a bipartisan congressional protest in Washington.  "[T]he military is in effect helping to line the pockets of human traffickers rather than furthering our country's commitment . . . to put an end to this abomination against humanity," wrote thirteen Members of Congress to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on 31 May 2002. U.S. military personnel, as consumers of prostituted women, are effectively and substantially contributing to the demand for sex trafficking.