Research Spotlight

An Analysis of Sexual Violence – The Relationship Between Sex Crimes and Prostitution in South Korea

Seo-Young Cho

Asian Development Perspectives 9, no. 1 (2018): 12-34.

Key Takeaway:

A South Korean study of 480 male sex offenders found increased frequency of buying sex significantly increased the probability of committing sex crimes, including sexual assault, forced sex with a stranger, and forced sex with a partner. Purchasing sex from a prostituted minor (under the age of 20) exacerbated severity of sex crimes committed. Strong agreement with rape myths, lower levels of self-esteem, and sexual abuse by parents during childhood increased likelihood of committing sex crimes. Sexual abuse by parents during childhood, committing sexual assaults, forced sex with a stranger, forced sex with a partner, and agreement with prostitution myths increased the likelihood of buying sex.

Study Highlights

This study examined the connections between prostitution and sex crimes in South Korea. It tested three possible relationships between prostitution and sex crimes: 1) that increased frequency of sex buying decreases sex crimes, 2) that increased frequency of sex buying increases sex crimes, or 3) that demand for prostitution has no effect on sex crimes. The study found support for #2: “…the experience of buying sex has substantial explanatory power over the probability of one committing a sex crime” (p. 24).

The data analyzed in this study were collected by the Korean Institute of Criminology using the Survey on Sex Criminals, which surveyed 480 male sex offenders in prisons or probation centers. The survey asked participants about how often respondents had paid for sex with either adults or minors (defined in this study as people under the age of 20 years) in the year prior to their imprisonment. The survey also asked participants about their belief in rape myths (e.g., women enjoy being raped) and prostitution myths (e.g., the belief that prostitution decreases sex crimes by providing an alternative way to act on sexual impulses). The study reported that:

  • A separate 2014 survey of Korean men reported that 27% paid for sex in the previous year. In contrast, this study reported that 38% of surveyed Korean sex offenders paid for sex in the year prior to their imprisonment.
  • Increased frequency of buying sex significantly increased the probability of committing sex crimes. Buying sex accounted for 2-14% of the variation in the probability of committing a sex crime. An increase of one standard deviation in the frequency of buying sex increased the probability of committing sexual assaults by 19.8-30.6 percentage points, forced sex with a stranger by 15.6-36.4 percentage points, and forced sex with a partner by 17.6 percentage points.
  • Generally, the experience of buying sex from an adult did not necessarily aggravate the severity of sex crimes committed, measured by more violent/severe types of rape (e.g., acquaintance rape, raping underage victims, and using more sadistic means, such as confinement, for rape).
  • However, purchasing sex from a prostituted minor (under the age of 20) exacerbated the severity of sex crimes committed. An increase of one standard deviation in frequency of buying sex from minors increased the probability of committing acquaintance rape, raping a minor, and using sadistic means (e.g., confinement) by 6.1, 5.4, and 1.4 percentage points, respectively.
  • Other factors that influenced the likelihood of committing sex crimes included:
  • Strong agreement with rape myths (2 percentage points increase in probability of committing forced sex with a partner)
  • Lower levels of self-esteem (3.1-4.1 percentage points higher probability of committing sexual assaults)
  • Being sexually abused by parents during childhood (increase in probability of forcing sex with a partner by 2.5 percentage points)
  • Other factors that influenced the likelihood of buying sex included:
  • Being sexually abused by parents during childhood “to a large extent”
  • Committing sexual assaults (3.4-11.2 percentage points increase in probability of buying sex)
  • Committing forced sex with a stranger (11.3-32.6 percentage points increase in probability of buying sex)
  • Committing forced sex with a partner (9.3-36.6 percentage points increase in probability of buying sex
  • Agreement with prostitution myths
  • Power and anger were important determinants of raping acquaintances, which supports the idea that rape is not only a function of sexual impulses, but also that of dominance and power. This provides important evidence against claims that prostitution reduces sex crimes by providing an outlet for sexual desires of potential offenders.

Commentary

Of note, this study did not examine acts of sexual violence committed against prostituted persons within the context of a commercial sex transaction, but only examined the effect of sex buying prevalence on probability to commit other sex crimes, outside the context of prostitution. While several other studies have demonstrated high levels of violence within prostitution,1 this study shows that the experience of buying sex may increase the probability of committing other sex crimes. These results also show that purchasing sex with minors is related to more severe, violent types of sex crimes, perhaps because buying sex with a minor is already legally rape (regardless of the commercial aspect).

The author of this study is rightly cautious about concluding that their research demonstrates a causal relationship between buying sex and other types of sexual violence. The study is based on self-reports of prior sex buying, and willingness to disclose or conceal that behavior may be correlated with willingness to commit other offenses, rather than a correlation with the actual behavior of purchasing sex. With cautions about the findings not being proof of direct causation kept in mind, this study nevertheless is an important contribution to the body of evidence showing the strong overlap between the populations of men predisposed to buy sex and those willing to commit violent sex offenses against women and minors.2 This strongly suggests that sexual violence and the purchase of sex may arise from shared sets of traits and attitudes of men “at risk” of these behaviors.

This study adds to the collective evidence and refutes the contention that removing all restrictions on prostitution will reduce sex crimes and provides counter-evidence of the presumed benefits of legalized or fully decriminalized prostitution advanced by its advocates. The role of power and control in explaining rape is consistent with the evidence provided in this study that refutes the claim that prostitution can reduce sex crimes by satisfying the sexual desires of potential offenders, and provides further evidence that buying sex may instead promote other forms of sexual violence.

Footnotes

  1. Yan Hong et al., “Partner Violence and Psychosocial Distress among Female Sex Workers in China,” PLoS One 8, no. 4 (2013): e62290, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062290; M. D. Amogne, T. T. Balcha, and A. Agardh, “Prevalence and Correlates of Physical Violence and Rape among Female Sex Workers in Ethiopia: A Cross-sectional Study with Respondent-Driven Sampling from 11 Major Towns,” BMJ Open 9, no. 7 (2019), doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2018-028247; K. R. Hearld et al., “Female Sex Workers’ Experiences of Violence and Substance Use on the Haitian, Dominican Republic Border,” Annals of Global Health 86, no. 1 (2020), doi:10.5334/aogh.2889; Anna Abelson et al., “Lifetime Experiences of Gender-Based Violence, Depression and Condom Use among Female Sex Workers in Cameroon,” International Journal of Social Psychiatry 65, no. 6 (2019), doi:10.1177/0020764019858646; Kalonde Malama et al., “Client-Initiated Violence Against Zambian Female Sex Workers: Prevalence and Associations With Behavior, Environment, and Sexual History,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence (2019), doi:10.1177/0886260519860083.
  2. Jennifer A. McCarthy, “Internet Sexual Activity: A Comparison Between Contact and Non-contact Child Pornography Offenders,” Journal of Sexual Aggression 16, no. 2 (2010): 181-195, doi:10.1080/13552601003760006; Yaniv Efrati, Ortal Shukron, and Robert Epstein, “Compulsive Sexual Behavior and Sexual Offending: Differences in Cognitive Schemas, Sensation Seeking, and Impulsivity,” Journal of Behavioral Addictions 8, no. 3 (2019): 432-441, doi:10.1556/2006.8.2019.36; Arjan Blokland and Victor van der Geest, “Life-course Transitions and Desistance in Sex Offenders,” in Sex Offenders: A Criminal Career Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015): 257-288, doi:10.1002/9781118314630.ch12.

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