“Cosmetic Surgery Loans” Sustain the Sex Industry of Korea

Collusion Among the Sex Industry, the Lending Industry, and the Cosmetic Surgery Industry

Narang 2021-04-12

In Korean society, you may get a loan if you want cosmetic surgery. Advertisements for a “cosmetic surgery loan” urge you to get cosmetic surgery, saying you do not need a fortune to get the surgery because you can borrow up to forty million won [about 35,000 USD]. Moneylenders say you can make repayments over twelve to sixty months, as if you are paying for a cell phone. Some of them coax you by saying that you will not be able to work for several months, as your face will swell after a surgery, and they could provide living expenses during that time.


South Korea, “the heaven of cosmetic surgeries,” accounts for 25% of the world’s twenty-one-trillion-won cosmetic surgery market. Accordingly, getting a loan for cosmetic surgery may even appear natural in Korea. Nonetheless, the sex industry, the lending industry, and the cosmetic surgery industry are colluding on the other side of “cosmetic surgery loans.”


Case study of Jeong-min, who started sex work in order to settle her debt from a cosmetic surgery loan


While preparing to enter the entertainment industry, 22-year-old Jeong-min felt it necessary to get cosmetic surgery. However, she could not ask her parents for money. While she was grappling with the problem, she discovered a “cosmetic surgery loan” on the web. When she contacted the moneylender, she was told not to worry about paying it back and to borrow away since she “could pay it back in two months through a high-paying part-time job.”


Accompanied by the surgery broker the moneylender introduced, Jeong-min visited a cosmetic surgery clinic and got a price quote. The surgeon suggested she get surgeries on her breasts, cheekbones, chin, eyes, and nose, which would cost twenty-two million won in total. The moneylender lent her twelve million won and introduced another moneylender to provide the remaining ten million won.


After getting the cosmetic surgeries, Jeong-min tried to work to pay her debt. However, she discovered that the high-paying part-time job the moneylender mentioned was working at an adult entertainment establishment. At first, she was told she “only needs to pour drinks,” but she later found out she also had to join the second round [engage in prostitution]. Consequently, with her body still swollen from the surgery, Jeong-min had to work at the establishment and join the second round to settle her debt. Even so, her debt was mounting up. She received one hundred thousand won for serving one table and two hundred thousand won for attending the second round, but she could not keep all three hundred thousand won. She had to pay ten thousand won per half hour whenever she arrived late, and she had to spend well over two hundred thousand won on her hair, makeup, and clothing rentals every day. Moreover, she had to pay daily interest on the loan she had taken out to afford lodgings. As a result, she borrowed from one place to pay debts from other places, and wound up borrowing from fourteen different moneylenders. In just a few months, she was left with seventy million won in debts.


(This case study is a composite of multiple cases that were submitted to a counseling center for women who were victimized by the sex industry.)


▲ Handouts that the Human Rights Action Center for Woman in Prostitution 'ELOOM' gave out to citizens during its campaign against loans that prey on women. “Bbung-yi-yo” [the name of the snack food, which can also mean “it’s a lie”] represents lies moneylenders tell, and the drinking yogurt represents predatory financial practices that suck the blood out of a woman through a straw stuck in her back.

“Cosmetic surgery loan”: Collusion among the sex industry, loan industry, and cosmetic surgery industry


As Jeongmin’s story elaborates, “cosmetic surgery loans” are becoming the gateways through which women enter the sex industry. Jeongmin became a sex worker to pay a debt that escalated to seventy million won, but she eventually had to file for bankruptcy because there was no way she could settle the debt. However, no one—not the moneylender who gave her the loan, the cosmetic surgery clinic, or the adult entertainment establishment—faced legal consequences.


A cosmetic surgery loan appears to be an individual matter, but it is the result of collusion among the sex industry, the loan industry, and the cosmetic surgery industry. In order for the sex industry to thrive, it is desirable for women to be in bigger debt. The bigger their debts are, the easier it is to lure them into the industry by promising, “You can make a lot of money in a short time and pay off your debt.” It is also easier to keep them in the industry for a longer period.


The more women borrow, the better it is for the moneylenders. The moneylenders are certain that these women will pay off the principal and high interest even if it means they “have to sell their bodies.” In 2004, when the anti-prostitution law was passed, liabilities for advance payment for prostitution became invalid. Since then, owners of adult entertainment establishments have urged sex workers to borrow money from the moneylenders, instead of borrowing directly from them. Now, the old advance payments are disguised as “personal debts,” which women are liable for paying back.


On top of this, the cosmetic surgery industry joined the enterprise. The domestic cosmetic surgery market is already saturated, yet the number of cosmetic surgery clinics is increasing. As the competition in the cosmetic surgery industry intensified, some cosmetic surgery clinics started to collude with moneylenders.


Cosmetic surgery clinics pay a broker fee to moneylenders or brokers who bring women to the clinics. The broker’s fee inflates the surgery costs, so the clinics give excessively-high quotations and perform more surgeries than necessary. Women who do not have money in hand borrow it from the moneylenders to get cosmetic surgeries, and they eventually enter the sex industry in order to pay it back.


 “If I don’t get surgery, ‘madam’ won’t give me work.”


Women who are already working in the sex industry are also burdened by additional debts from cosmetic surgery loans. Women in the sex industry say madams strongly “recommend” (or, in reality, coerce) them to get surgery, so the sex workers do not have an option. Madams occasionally get a broker’s fee in this process.


Earlier this year, Lee Jeong-mi, the director of Korea Women’s House, included the following account in her report, “How Women in the Sex Industry are Influenced by Drugs, Alcohol, Diet Regimens, and Coercion into Cosmetic Surgery” (Women and Human Rights Vol. 15, Women’s Human Rights Institute of Korea):


“Anything from simple filler injections to breast augmentation and nose surgery are considered basic. With each surgery, debts increase by ten to twenty or thirty million won, so we make it to the second round whenever we can to deduct the debts. Madams recommend that we get cosmetic surgery, and if we don’t follow their recommendation, we don’t get to be in a ‘choice’ (an array from which male sex buyers make a selection). And if we don’t get to be in a choice, we can’t work and pay the interest, so we can’t help but get the surgery.”


“The most expensive procedure is getting laminate veneers. They’re also called ‘celebrities’ teeth.’ These days, you see a cosmetic surgeon and a dentist all at once. It usually costs from ten to twenty million won, but you can’t afford the cost of living for at least a month after the surgery because you can’t work. So, your debt ends up being twenty to thirty million won. Still, there’s no way you can avoid the surgery.”


▲ The sex industry, the lending industry, and the cosmetic surgery industry are archetypal industries that exploit the bodies of disadvantaged women in South Korea.  ©ILDA

“I almost paid everything back after three years of work, but then she told me to get a breast augmentation. The madam, that is. So, I borrowed twenty million won from a moneylender, but the actual surgery cost was around ten million. The rest must have gone to the madam as a broker’s fee. The madam takes money for urging me to get the surgery. But there’s no way I can ignore her suggestion. If she doesn’t assign me to work at a table, then I can’t make money and the amount I can’t make will become debt.”


Madams and pimps, who need to increase sales, constantly make comments on women’s bodies and urge them to get cosmetic surgeries. “The greatest spending made by women in the sex industry nowadays is for cosmetic surgeries,” says Lee Jeong-mi, the director of Korea Women’s House. “If a sex worker rejects the suggestion from her pimp, she will be denied a room to work in and thus denied an opportunity to make money.” Under this system, cosmetic surgery became the norm in the sex industry. 


How a “craving for cosmetic surgery” is constructed in the sex industry


However, women in the sex industry are not always coerced by madams into getting cosmetic surgery. The sex industry system, in which a male sex buyer chooses one woman over many, provokes a desire among sex workers to get cosmetic surgery and increase their “[breast] sizes.” That is the only way to be chosen more often and make a respectable income.


Yuna, an activist at Human Rights Action Center for Woman in Prostitution 'ELOOM' says, “In the so-called ‘demimonde’ community, it is easy to encounter questions about sizes or information about which parts to get surgery on, from whom to get a surgery, and from where to get a ‘cosmetic surgery loan.’”


“[For a woman in the sex industry,] Measuring, calculating, remodeling, and evaluating her own body directly correspond to profits. Transforming it into a profitable body is considered a self-investment that ensures a better job performance at an adult entertainment establishment, especially in relation to selling their bodies through getting ‘chosen’ by johns more often.”


Cosmetic surgeons are also aware of this fact. An employee who works in the promotional team of a cosmetic surgery clinic met with ‘ELOOM’ and said as follows:


“Many people who get this loan (i.e., cosmetic surgery loan) work at those places, and attractive girls get ‘chosen,’ but not the unattractive ones. And the chosen girls make a profoundly different amount of money every day, compared to girls who aren’t. Then, they [madams, pimps] tell them, ‘You really need to get a nose job, you’d make three to four hundred thousand more every day.’ When these girls hear that, they get the surgery even if it costs three million won. They conclude that because they will make three hundred thousand more after the surgery, they will be able to pay off the surgery if they go to the second round ten times. People usually get cosmetic surgeries to become attractive, but sex workers get them to make a difference in their incomes.”


In “Financialization of Korea's Sex Industry and the 'Securitization' Process of Women's Bodies” (PhD dissertation in 2014, Ewha Womans University), women’s studies scholar Kim Ju hee explains, “Because the ‘choice’ system involves choosing one woman among many as a partner, there are always more than two women competing from the initial stage. Therefore, in the sex industry, the competition for a better appearance and first impression is inevitably internalized in women…Because women in the sex industry cannot avoid the gateway of ‘choice,’ they must regularly care for their appearance while reading male customers’ eyes and the ambience of the establishment.”


Kim also adds that in the sex industry, sex workers must tend their appearance continuously because adult entertainment establishments are ranked. In South Korea, the establishments are ranked by upper, middle, and lower classes, and there are more than ten gradings once karaokes and “tenpro” (high-end prostitution venues) are included. Each establishment offers different services, and the major determinant for these grades is known to be the attractiveness of the women in the establishment.


Yet, Kim Ju Hee points out that “assuming that the establishments are ranked based on the ‘body value’ of the women is a reversal of the causality.” It is not the women’s attractiveness that stratifies the establishments. Rather, the ranking was invented in an attempt to maximize productivity through specialization. Kim argues that the women perpetually perceive shortcomings in their “body value” due to the fictional belief that “rankings are established based on their attractiveness.” In consequence, they come to accept that the grades they receive are decided by an objective standard based on their attractiveness.


▲ Activists from Human Rights Action Center for Woman in Prostitution 'ELOOM' launching the campaign “Loan collection! Why did you lend it to me?” by Gangnam Station on October 27th. The campaign was organized against loans that prey on women.  ©ILDA

It is hard to take a legal action against the damage done by a “cosmetic surgery loan”


Because the sex industry is systemized in this way, a woman in the industry must incessantly think about “how to make her body sellable.” Moreover, in order to afford cosmetic surgery, they end up being shackled to the sex industry longer than they had expected. This is why the craving for cosmetic surgery that has become ordinary in the sex industry cannot be attributed to an individual woman’s desire.


Transforming one’s body into a body that sells better also means being in bigger debt. For this reason, a cosmetic surgery loan in reality shares similar characters with an advance payment for prostitution. However, activists at counseling centers for the victims of the sex industry confess that it is hard to take legal action against cosmetic surgery loans.


“According to current medical law, it is illegal to solicit patients into a specific clinic for profit. However, the broker’s fee from clinics to the moneylenders is paid in cash, so it is hard to prove that there was a certain connection between them. Also, the moneylenders may avoid legal consequences by playing the innocent and saying, ‘We lent her money without knowing she was a sex worker.’” (Yuna, activist at ‘ELOOM’)


The sex industry, the lending industry, and the cosmetic surgery industry are archetypal industries that exploit the bodies of disadvantaged women in South Korea. Relying on the gender discriminatory structure of Korean society, these industries are “legally” feathering their nests while sustaining their humongous market.


*Additional reference: Forum “Collusion Among the Sex Industry, Lending Industry, and Cosmetic Surgery Industry—Asking Who Is Responsible for the Cosmetic Surgery Loan System”, December 7, 2016


By Narang

Published: December 16, 2016

Translated by Shyun J. Ahn


* Original article: http://ildaro.com/7700


◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).

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