Staid Seoul Opens Sex Museum

SEOUL, South Korea -- An upscale neighborhood a block from the presidential residence in Seoul has a new cultural icon: South Korea's first museum of sex.

Inside, people pay 10,000 won ($8) to sample a motley display of Japanese erotica, an old Chinese knife for castration and black-and-white snapshots of naked women U.S. soldiers kept on their helmet liners during World War II and in Vietnam.

Opened a week ago, "Asia Eros Museum" is a sensation in this deeply Confucian society that has stifled public talk of sex while harboring one of the most prosperous sex industries in Asia.

In the first survey of its kind, government-funded experts estimated that selling sex generated 24 trillion won ($20 billion) last year, or 4.1 percent of the country's gross domestic product, and employed 330,000 women, thousands of them from Russia and the Philippines. Some experts say the figures are grossly underestimated.

Alarmed, the government's Ministry of Gender Equality designated fighting the sex industry a top policy goal for this year.

Koreans like to depict themselves as a chaste nation. An old dictum goes, "Boys and girls should not sit together in the same room after they turn seven." Women used to wear baggy hanbok dresses that hid their physical shape, and were told not to smile at men outside their families.

In February, the National Assembly refused to let a filmmaker shoot a scene of an actress in a miniskirt walking through its main gate. Film crew members accused the assembly of rejecting their request because the actress was playing a prostitute elected to parliament.

So instead, the crew filmed the actress climbing over the assembly's main steel gate while parliamentary security guards tried to stop her.

In real life, however, attitudes about sex are rapidly changing. Young couples kiss in public -- an act that would have invited disapproving stares, if not a tongue-lashing, from old people a decade ago. A flood of porn on cyberspace is clicks away in this highly wired country.

"It's time to break the taboo and start a discourse on sex, its pleasure, its distortions and superstitions," said Martin Shim, a curator at Asia Eros Museum.

Shim's narrow three-story museum exhibits hundreds of erotic artifacts, from Indian carvings and Tibetan statutes to Chinese folding screens and Korean paintings. It also illustrates Chinese erotic foot-binding and ancient Korean worship for a penis-shaped rock believed to help women bear boys.

By law, prostitutes and customers can be jailed for up to one year in South Korea, and adulterers twice as much.

But enforcement has been so lax that "until recently many people didn't even know prostitution was illegal," said Song Ae-ri, a sex industry expert at the Ministry of Gender Equality.

Today, the government encourages sex education in grade school and upward. It is pushing for a new law to increase penalties for running a brothel or arranging prostitution elsewhere from the current maximum five years in prison to a minimum of five years.

Besides 70 red-light districts, thousands of steam-bath saunas, barber shops, night clubs and "love" motels -- whose roofs are often shaped like Disney Land castles -- serve as fronts for prostitution. In Seoul's "business clubs," office workers offer prostitutes like party favors during drinking sessions considered crucial to building camaraderie and smoothing business deals.

"With our rapid economic growth, workers are driven to more competition, and sex has become a way of letting off their stress, rather than an expression of love," said Koo Sung-ae, a sex educator.

In May, local media appeared scandalized when a Seoul cafe hosted orgies of men and women who romped naked, wearing only feather masks. According to police, they selected "a king" by lottery and did whatever he bid them do.

The cafe's arrested owner told police he got his business idea from foreign porn web sites and "was very proud of bringing a new culture of free sex in Korea," said police Sergeant Chang Sung-ki.

"I don't see any difference between them and beasts," fumed Choi Joon-hwan, 72, a visitor to the sex museum.

For celebrities, violating the public code on sexual conduct carries a steep price.

When video footage of popular actresses and singers having sex with their boyfriends turned up on the Internet in recent years, they were expelled from public life, with television stations scrambling to cancel their appearances. One of them apologized for her "crime" and fled to the United States. Later she even changed her name.