South Korean women demand harsher penalties to combat epidemic of ‘spycam porn’
The number of spycam crimes surged from about 1,100 in 2010 to more than 6,500 last year, but most offenders were fined or given suspended jail terms
Thousands of South Korean women gathered in Seoul on Saturday to demand stronger government action to fight the spread of intimate photos and footage taken by hidden cameras, which they say has women living in constant anxiety and distress.
Police said about 18,000 took part in the all-women protest, with demonstrators calling for stronger investigations and punishments against male offenders who photograph or film women without their knowledge and post the material online.
“Those men who film such videos! Those who upload them! Those who watch them! All of them should be punished sternly!” the protesters chanted in unison at the rally held in central Seoul.
Many held banners reading “My life is not your porn” and “We’re humans, not a sexual object for your sick fantasy”.
Most of the protesters were teenagers or those in their 20s – a demographic seen as the main target of the spycam epidemic.
“I and my friends always look around to see if there are any suspicious holes on a wall or a door whenever we walk into a public toilet stall,” said one 22-year-old protester who declined to be named. “What kind of country has South Korea become? A country where women can’t even pee without having to worry about having their butts filmed in secret?”
Many protesters covered their faces with baseball caps, sunglasses and surgical masks as instructed by organisers, who intended to make a statement against an environment in which women constantly worry about tiny cameras hidden in bathrooms or being filmed from under their skirts at subway stations.
However, there was also criticism about the organisers’ tight control over the protests and the decision to block the participation of those who weren’t “biologically women”.
Protesters, many of them wearing red T-shirts with signs that read “Angry women will change the world”, roared in support as two women volunteered to have their heads shaved on a stage.
“Let’s fight until the last seed of illicit filming dies,” one protester shouted into the microphone while another shaved off her hair. “Here’s my message to men: I am not an object of our sexual desires! I am a first-rate citizen, just like you!”
South Korea has struggled over the years to deal with perpetrators who use tiny cameras or smartphones to film under women’s clothing to see their genitals or underwear. The footage is heavily circulated on illicit porn sites, such as Soranet, which had more than 1 million users before police managed to shut it down in 2016. An unknown number of similar sites are still running.
South Korea takes pride in its tech prowess, from ultra-fast broadband to cutting-edge smartphones. About 95 per cent of its 50 million people possess smartphones – the highest in the world. But its technological advances have also given rise to an army of tech-savvy peeping Toms in a male-dominated country with a poor record on women’s rights.
The number of spycam crimes surged from about 1,100 in 2010 to more than 6,500 last year, but most offenders were fined or given suspended jail terms described by many women’s rights groups as a mere slap on the wrist. The offenders have included college professors, schoolteachers, doctors, church pastors, public servants, police officers and even a court judge.
Since 2004, South Korea has required smartphones to make large shutter sounds when taking pictures and videos to prevent such crimes. However, phone cameras can be silenced through apps and there’s also an abundance of miniaturised cameras that can be hidden inside bags, shoes and toilets or small holes drilled into bathroom walls and doors.
Amid rising criticism, South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday ordered government officials to explore tougher punishments for hidden-camera crimes and also ensure that the perpetrators’ actions are immediately notified to employers.
“We must make sure that the offenders suffer greater damage than the damage they inflict,” Moon said in a cabinet meeting.
The national government plans to spend 5 billion won (US$4.5 million) to equip local governments with more camera detecting equipment and strengthen inspections of bathrooms in public spaces and private buildings. There are also plans to widen inspections to elementary, middle and high schools.
Under South Korean law, creating intimate sexual images without consent is punishable by a prison term of up to five years or a fine of up to 10 million won. Distributing such images for the purpose of profit is punishable by up to seven years in prison or a 30 million won fine.
Saturday’s gathering in Seoul was a follow-up to large protests by women in May and June over the proliferation of hidden-camera images as pornographic material.
The protests were sparked by the arrest of a 25-year-old woman in May who was found to have secretly taken a photo of a male colleague while he posed nude for university art students and uploaded it online.
The swift investigation struck a nerve among many women who questioned whether the police care about the hidden-camera issue only in rare instances in which the victim is male. Protesters pointed to countless cases involving female victims that were closed because the police were unable to track down the perpetrators or porn sites based on foreign servers. The National Police Agency had denied that officers treat cases involving male victims more seriously.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse