“Just meet me downstairs in 30 minutes” was all my friend Mr. Park would say when I asked what he had in mind. It was Friday night and I had, actually, been planning to spend it alone, but I was so happy to hear from my friend that I changed my mind. Mr. Park and I hadn’t seen each other in almost a month, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, which I was very close to finishing, would keep for another day or so. When I slid into the front seat of Mr. Park’s car a little more than a half hour later, he was all smiles and mystery. “I am going to make your night,” was all he would say. He put on some Korean pop music and started to drive.
Soon after we got off the highway–we were in an area of Seoul to which I had never been before–we pulled into a large parking lot. I could see three large houses, each with a lit porch. When I asked where we were, all he would say was, “Miari,” and he motioned with his head for me to follow him. As we got closer to the houses, I saw that the porches were filled with women wearing hamboks, the traditional Korean dress. Each house had its own color, purple, green and yellow. Mr. Park led me towards the purple house, and as soon as he stepped up onto the wooden floor of the porch, one of the women jumped up to greet him, throwing her arms around his shoulders and placing a happy kiss on his cheek. She looked very young–I found out later she was eighteen–and she led him by the hand, chattering loudly and gleefully in Korean I could not understand at all, behind an older woman who showed us to the room where we would spend the evening.
Very sparsely furnished, with just a low table, some floor mats for us to sit on and a space heater, the room was painted an industrial yellow that was cracking in some places, and the tiles on the floor might have come from a hospital or a high school cafeteria. As my friend and his companion made themselves comfortable on the mats on one side of the table, he nodded to one of the mats on the other side. As I took my place opposite them, the older woman who’d brought us to the room, smiling sideways at me with what I can only describe as gleeful mischief in her eyes, placed a platter of fruit and some beer between us. Mr. Park’s companion, who told me her name was Ms. Ham, opened the bottle and poured, first for Mr. Park and then for me. She asked me in a slightly accented, not-too-stilted English where I was from, how long I’d been in Korea, what I was doing there and a little bit about my life back home. Then, with a sly tilt of her mouth and one eye on Mr. Park, she asked me, “Do you like to fuck?”
Her tone was so matter-of-fact, so apparently without guile, that I answered with only the slightest hesitation. “Sometimes,” I answered. “Do you?”
Just then, there was a knock on the door. Mr. Park said something in Korean and then turned to me. He explained that they had brought a woman for me and that if I did not think she was pretty enough, I could send her back and they would bring another one more to my liking. Not knowing what else to do, I nodded my head. Mr. Park said something else in Korean, the door opened and the same older woman stood their with my companion.
“Is she pretty enough?” Mr. Park asked me.
“Yes,” I said, having decided that I would answer this way whether I thought she was pretty or not.
He nodded his head at the older woman, who backed out and closed the door. My partner bowed slightly–her name was Ms. Cho–took a seat to my right and immediately refilled my beer. It turned out that she spoke no English and so Ms. Ham continued in her role as mistress of ceremonies. Spearing a piece of fruit with a toothpick and placing it delicately in my friend’s mouth, then nodding to Ms. Cho to do the same with me, she looked directly at me and said, “Tonight we will enjoy each other.” A good place to start, she suggested, was with a song. “Do you sing?” she asked me.
“Will you sing for us?”
I sang Summertime, and then she sang a Korean folksong, and then Mr. Park sang, and my partner did as well, and in between the songs we drank and ate, and the women flirted with us, puckering their lips for us to kiss them, running their hands up the insides of our thighs and, in Ms. Cho’s case, reaching into my shirt to stroke my nipple. When Ms. Ham saw me give a little gasp of pleasure, she smiled and asked if I’d ever had sex with a Korean woman. I told her no–which was true at the time–and she told me that she’d heard American men liked Korean women because their vaginas were so tight. She’d never been with an American man, she went on, and she wondered if what she’d heard was true, that we all had exceptionally large penises. Would I, she wanted to know, take my pants off so she could see for herself?
Just then, Mr. Park said something in Korean that I couldn’t understand. I assumed he had seen that Ms. Ham’s question had made me uncomfortable and told her to ease up a bit because she stopped talking, got up and turned on the space heater. We drank a little more as the room got warmer. Then, Mr. Park spoke Korean again and Ms. Ham began to get undressed. Ms. Cho sat frozen by my side. Ms. Ham stopped undoing the top of her hambok, gave Ms. Cho a look of what I can only describe as compassionate urgency and with a nod of her head urged my partner to follow her example. Ms. Cho turned her head quickly to look at me and then locked her eyes on the ground. I started to protest that it was not really necessary for them to get undressed, but Mr. Park leaned forward a little bit and spoke again, this time raising his voice, and I didn’t need to understand what his words meant to know they had contained a threat.
“You’ll have to excuse her,” he said as Ms. Cho joined Ms. Ham in disrobing, neither woman looking up as they did so. He nodded towards Ms. Cho who was now sitting naked with her back to the wall, hugging her knees to her chest with one arm so her breasts were covered, while placing the crumpled fabric of her hambok in front of her that nothing else was exposed either. “She’s only sixteen and has been here just a few months.”
Now it was my turn to freeze. If she was that young, the odds were she’d been trafficked. It was, of course, entirely possible that the same was true of Ms. Ham, but Ms. Ham had been playing her role so naturally and with such good humor, and she and Mr. Park–who clearly was one of her regulars–seemed so genuinely to like each other, that the possibility she’d been brought to Miari against her will had not crossed my mind. I was angry, confused and not a little bit disgusted with myself. The only thing I could think to say was that I wanted to leave, and I stood up, ready to walk out by myself if necessary.
Mr. Park stood up as well and reached across the table to touch my arm. “Richard, please sit down and let me explain.” Reluctantly, since I realized that even if I did walk out, I had no idea where I was or where I would go, I did as he asked. The women breathed an obvious sigh of relief.
If we left now, Mr. Park told me, not only would the women not get paid for the night, but they would likely be blamed for our leaving, which meant they would also be punished and have to pay a fine, or perhaps even be beaten. I suggested at least that we ought to let them put their clothes back on, but he explained further that when the “show girl” came in a little bit later, if the girls were not naked, she would report them and the same consequences would very likely apply. I sat back down–what else, really, could I do–unable in my guilt even to look at the child still cowering next to me.
Fortunately, in that it relieved me of having to figure out what to do or how to behave, the showgirl came in almost immediately after I sat down. Smiling and without any introduction, she hiked up the skirts of her hambok, took an egg from the tray she had placed on the edge of our table when she entered, and inserted it into her vagina. She kept it there for about ten seconds, caught it in her hand as she let it fall out and in one, smooth, obviously very practiced motion, cracked it on the edge of my class and stirred it into my beer with a wink, insisting I should drink it “for stamina.” I half-expected her to try to make that happen by raising a glass and toasting me, but without even the smallest pause for dramatic effect, she picked a bottle-opener up from the tray, wrapped the handle in some cloth, inserted it where she had put the egg, and used it to open two fresh bottles of beer, which she poured for Mr. Park and myself into the two clean glasses that were also on the tray. (Ms. Ham very unobtrusively removed the glass with my beer-egg mixture in it to the other end of the table.) Once again, I was expecting a toast, but, again, without pausing, the showgirl picked up from the tray a long stick, wrapped one end of it, just as she had done the bottle opener, and put that end into her vagina. Then, using a match to light the other end, which was covered in some kind of flammable material, she hiked herself over to Mr. Park and lit his cigarette with the flame dangling from her genitals. (I don’t smoke, or she would have done the same for me.) Finally, she dipped a calligraphy brush in ink, wrapped and inserted it as she had done the other two implements, asked me my name and how to spell it, and then used her vagina to write “Richard” in script on a long piece of butcher block paper she’d brought for the purpose.
We applauded, but she barely stopped to acknowledge that we were acknowledging her. She gathered her things quickly and efficiently–I guess she had other shows to perform that night–and left as unceremoniously as she came, except that she made sure to place the paper with my name on it directly in front of me so I would know to take it home as a souvenir. After that, the highlight of the evening clearly finished, Mr. Park and I sat with Ms. Ham and Ms. Cho for a few more minutes, chatting about I don’t remember what, and then Mr. Park nodded his head. We stood up, said goodbye and walked out–leaving the paper with my name on it where it was–while the women got up to put their clothes back on and clean the room.
In the car, Mr. Park was all smiles. He asked me if I’d ever seen anything like that before, and I answered truthfully that I hadn’t. A small look of victory passed across his face when I said that, and I knew why. On more than one occasion, when he and I and some of his friends had been hanging out in a coffee shop or hotel cafe trying to figure out what to do, either he or one of his friends had said, “I think Richard wants to have sex tonight,” and I had always said no, that I wasn’t in the mood, adding, so as not to offend the man who had made the offer, that maybe we would do go next time. I knew that my refusal was a source of disappointment for Mr. Park, and maybe for his friends as well, for whom the offer to take me to have sex was a gesture of real friendship, just like it had been for Mr. Lee. Getting me to experience Miari had been Mr. Park’s way of showing me that he and his friends had been right all along, that I really did want to have sex, that all I had to do was give myself permission to enjoy what Korea had to offer in this way, and I am sure he believed that “next time” I would gladly go with him and his friends to have the sex for which he was hoping, I am sure, that my visit to Miari had whetted my appetite.
More than that, though, I think Mr. Park’s smile meant that he felt he’d put me in my place, proved to me that I was not as different from him and his friends as I pretended to be, though I imagine that he would have used the words better than rather than different from if you’d asked him–because I think they understood my constant refusal of their offers to take me to places like Miari as, in my mind anyway, an assertion of my own moral superiority. Yet I’d never thought of myself that way. It was true that I always turned down their offers to take me somewhere to have sex, but I would have been lying had I told you that I was not tempted, very tempted, to say yes, especially during the period when I did not have a lover in Korea and the loneliness and I felt missing my girlfriend back in the States was particularly acute. I said no, in other words, not because I thought I was morally superior to Mr. Park and his friends, but because no matter how much I might have been tempted to give myself over to the pleasures of paid female companionship, I did not want to allow myself to give in to that temptation in a situation where the availability of the companionship they offered to buy for me depended in no small measure on the coercion of women like Ms. Cho and terms of employment such as those under which she and Ms. Ham worked.
Would I have said yes to them if the situation were different? I honestly don’t know, though of course I did, tacitly, say yes to Mr. Park when I didn’t ask him to turn around and take me home after I realized what kind of place Miari was. In truth, I almost did, but I also did not want to embarrass or insult him. He was my friend and I knew he believed he was doing me a favor by bringing me somewhere he thought I was either too embarrassed or ashamed or otherwise hung up about to go myself. To be fair to me, cultural differences being what they are, I did not know if our friendship would have survived my telling him to take me home (though now I realize it probably would have), but it was also my desire not to insult him, not to make a scene, that allowed me to pretend I really had no choice but to follow him into the house. Making my friendship with Mr. Park the issue, in other words, allowed me not to have to face the fact that I was curious about what would happen, that I did wonder what it would be like to be served by women whose job it was, as Mr. Lee had said, “to please a man.”
I am not sure that I had any specific expectations of what the experience would be like, but I know I did not expect it to be alienating in the way that it was. Especially after I found out how young Ms. Cho was, but also before, there were moments when I had the feeling that I was hovering over the room, watching my body say and do things that did not belong to me. I remember having this experience specifically when Ms. Ham tried to get me to take off my pants and then, again, after the women had gotten undressed, when I had to face Ms. Cho as she refilled my beer glass after Mr. Park ordered her to do so. I’d like to say these experiences were alienating because they forced me to be someone I wasn’t, someone I didn’t want to be, and yet–despite the at least partial truth that explanation holds–there had also been moments earlier in the evening when I’d felt exquisitely centered in myself, when the sexual banter, the seductive glances, Ms. Cho’s touch, and her willingness to let me touch her, all became the sources of pleasure and, as importantly I think, of fun that it was their function to be.
Those moments of centeredness revealed to me the possibility of a sex industry that does not exploit the people who work in it in the ways that Ms. Cho, Ms. Ham, the showgirl and all the other women who worked in Miari were being exploited, but so what? The existence of that possibility does not change the fact of my participation in their exploitation. More to the point, it does not change the fact that, as a man, there was almost no way I could escape participating in their exploitation, not only because Miari and other places like it existed for my benefit whether I visited the or not, but also because, as I said at the end of Part 2, to have male friends–or at least to have the male friends that I had–was inevitably to patronize the sex industry, because even when these men did not go to such places to have sex, they went to bond over the bodies of the women they paid to be their companions.
On another night, for example, two other friends of mine, Mr. Kim and Mr. Jung, invited me out to a disco not far from where I lived. As soon as we entered, a greeter spoke with them briefly and led us away from the dance floor to an almost invisible corner table. Soon after we sat down, a waiter appeared with a platter of fruit, some bottles of beer and three women–Ms. Jo, Ms. Yoo, and Ms. Hwang–whom he presented very formally, lingering to make sure we found his choices acceptable. Ms. Hwang and Ms. Yoo took their seats next to Mr. Kim and Mr. Jung respectively, while Ms. Jo made herself comfortable next to me. The initial discussion was in Korean spoken much too fast for me to follow, which Ms. Jo tried to make up for by paying attention to me physically. She made appreciative noises as she ran her hands over my biceps; she teased with her fingers at the hair on my arms and my chest and kept tickling her palms by rubbing them against my beard, giggling like a young girl as she did so. Then, Mr. Jung looked up from something he was saying to Ms. Yoo and, indicating Ms. Jo with a nod of his head, said, “She’s pretty, isn’t she? You know, she isn’t wearing panties.”
Before I could even think how to respond, Miss Hwang laughed and whispered into Mr. Kim’s ear something that broadened the grin on his face into a fell-fledged smile. “She shaves herself,” he told me. “Do you want to feel it?”
Everyone was laughing, including Ms. Jo, and I was blushing, but when I looked into their eyes, I could see they were not trying to embarrass me. Rather they wanted me to know that this was why we were all there, to flirt and to play, and that if I wanted to go further, to do what came “naturally” with a woman like Ms. Jo at my side, that was why we were there too.
At that moment, the DJ began a set of slow music, what the Koreans call “blues,” a chance for couples to dance close, touching each other publicly in ways their culture otherwise frowns upon–or at least frowned upon when I was there. Ms. Jo smiled invitingly and led me to the dance floor, where she at first held her body a respectable distance from mine. As we found each other’s rhythm, however, and began to move more smoothly to the music, she drew closer, and I inhaled her scent, allowing myself to relax against the shape her body made against mine. I was, I suddenly realized, achingly lonely, missing my life and my lover in New York City more than I had thought. Ms. Jo was beautiful, compliant, extremely eager to please and ineluctably there. Of its own accord, my body began to reach for hers, but while I could see in the smile she gave as she felt me harden against her that she would have taken my money to take me into her body, her eyes were empty, revealing in her parted lips and almost perfectly white teeth nothing more than the mask of trained acquiescence that her job required her to wear. The obvious absence in her face of any real desire for me made my own desire for her feel shameful.
I could have had Ms. Jo anyway, of course–no one who meant anything to me would ever have had to know–but to do so would have been to do more than purchase a woman. It would have been to sell out the complexity of my loneliness. Prostitution wasn’t the issue for me at that moment; intimacy was, the way the “paradise” of men’s entitlement depends for its existence on the warping of our separateness, the yoking of male heterosexual desire so exclusively to women’s bodies that the interior emotional and psychological complexity of any given man’s desire can be reduced in a heartbeat to the need for a woman’s body into which to release himself. Ms. Jo, or any of the other Ms. Jo’s who might have stood in her place, had been mine to pay for even before she sat down beside me. I took her hand and led her back to our table, made excuses to friends about suddenly not feeling well, and walked out alone, relishing my solitude in the touch of the cool night air.