Online sex crimes crisis in South Korea affecting all women, report finds
South Korea’s epidemic of online sexual abuse has left survivors traumatised for life, and is adversely affecting all women and girls in the country, according to a new report.
Molka – the use of hidden cameras to film or share explicit images of women without their consent – is forcing victims to contemplate suicide or to consider quitting their jobs or leaving the country, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in the report, My Life is Not Your Porn: Digital Sex Crimes in South Korea.
The trauma is worsened by encounters with unsympathetic police and courts, the US-based organisation said, and called on the government to introduce harsher penalties and educate men and boys about the dangers of consuming abusive images online.
“Digital sex crimes have become so common, and so feared, in South Korea that they are affecting the quality of life of all women and girls,” Heather Barr, HRW’s interim director of women’ rights, said on Wednesday.
Barr, who authored the report, added: “Women and girls told us they avoided using public toilets and felt anxious about hidden cameras in public and even in their homes. An alarming number of survivors of digital sex crimes said they had considered suicide.
“Officials in the legal justice system – most of whom are men – often seem to simply not understand, or not accept, that these are very serious crimes.”
The report, based on 38 interviews and an online survey involving hundreds of women, said sex crime prosecutions involving illegal filming rose 11-fold between 2008 and 2017, according to data from the Korean Institute of Criminology.
In 2008, fewer than 4% of prosecutions involved molka, but that had risen to 20% – almost 7,000 cases – by 2017.
“Digital sex crimes are an urgent crisis for South Korean women and girl,” said Lina Yoon, a senior researcher in HRW’s Asia division.
The crime is having a “devastating impact” on women, Yoon added. “Police take the issue lightly because there is no physical contact involved. They don’t realise how terrifying it can be.” The sharing of covert photos and video online means the crime “never ends for the survivors,” she said. “It stays with them throughout their lives.”
‘I’m quite afraid for my future’
Oh Soo-jin* was a 20-year-old student when she agreed to pose nude for a part-time modelling job.
Despite reassurances in her contract that the photographs would remain private, more than 700 images of her appeared on a website after she quit because her boss had demanded more sexually explicit images.
More photographs of Oh appeared – even after she sought help from the police – leading her to contemplate suicide.
“I’m quite afraid for my future,” she said. “[The images] are going to always be on someone’s computer, and I don’t know when this will stop. I thought that if this can’t stop, then I want to stop my life.”
Barr said most women who reported digital sex crimes had “terrible experiences” with the police, with some saying they had been mocked or told they would never find a marriage partner.
While upskirting and other non-consensual sexual imagery is now a global problem, it has taken hold quickly in South Korea, where perpetrators take advantage of the near-ubiquitous use of mobile devices and the world’s fastest internet speeds.
The president, Moon Jae-in, called for police to investigate the growing number of digital sex crimes after mass demonstrations in Seoul gained global attention in 2018.
In 2020, however, perpetrators receive a fine or a suspended sentence, or both, in 79% of cases. “It is not at all proportionate to the harm that has been done,” Barr said.
A year earlier, prosecutors dropped 43.5% of digital sex crime cases compared to 27.7% of homicide cases and 19% of robbery cases, although the sex crime cases that were prosecuted usually ended in a conviction, the report said.
HRW said the government needed to introduce tougher penalties for offenders, increase the number of female police officers, prosecutors, and judges, and address South Korea’s poor record on gender inequality.
* Name has been changed
International helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 and online chat is also available. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14.