Elderly Women In South Korea Turn To Prostitution to Keep From Starving

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
June 11 2014 4:52 PM

Elderly Women In South Korea Turn To Prostitution to Keep From Starving

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Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

On Monday, the BBC reported that some elderly women in South Korea have resorted to prostituting themselves to older men in order to make ends meet. The women call themselves "Bacchus Ladies," after an energy drink they sell to male customers.

The Bacchus Ladies—most of whom are in their sixth, seventh, and eighth decades of life—are part of the generation that toiled to build Korea's thriving market economy, (now fifteenth in the world by nominal GDP). They had hoped their children would uphold Confucian teachings on filial obligations by caring for their aged parents. But the younger generation, it seems, is too distracted by the demands of a competitive economy to care for their aging parents. So instead of starving, the women prostitute themselves in places such as Jongmyo Park in the heart of Seoul. 

While the BBC did not speak to an actual Bacchus Lady, they did reach out to Lee Ho-Sun, a doctor researching the women, and Kim Eun-ja, a 71-year-old who sells the Bacchus energy drink—but not sex. Korean authorities admit that crackdowns are not the answer, as seniors need to be able to vent their stress and sexual yearnings. But while the Korean government struggles to create an adequate retirement plan, the women know they must fend for themselves. A Bacchus woman aptly described her predicament to a researcher: “I'm hungry, I don't need respect, I don't need honor, I just want three meals a day." About 400 women work as Bacchus Ladies in the Jongmyo Park.

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There are, of course, serious health risks involved in this kind of unregulated prostitution. The Bacchus ladies often inject their clients—most of whom are retirees—with a special medicine to give them erections. The needles can be reused 10 to 20 times, meaning sexually transmitted diseases have become prevalent among the elderly. Nearly 40 percent of men tested in a local survey were infected. In response, some local governments have launched sex education clinics aimed at seniors—a Parks and Recreation joke come to life.

Irene Chidinma Nwoye is a writer and former Slate intern in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.

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