Kate J. Sim on Foreign Men and Sexual Violence in Korea (Or, What Happens When You Study Critical Theory But Not Statistics)

Update (31 March 2017): Matt over at Gusts of Popular Feeling of course beat me to the punch on this, though I didn’t see his post until just now. His numbers are different from mine: he remembers to include numbers for U.S. servicemen (which I didn’t: they’re probably about 20,000 in the Seoul area, but that’s an estimate he gives, and makes a marginal difference), and he’s using a different source and criteria for tourist data (I went with all Europeans, Oceanians, and Canadians/Americans, since Koreans tend to assume anyone white is “American.”)

Despite these differences, Sim’s argument still looks ridiculous. But Matt also digs a little more into the exoticization of Western women in Korean culture (and how it , and the history of the whole moral panic over white (and black, and foreign in general) male sexuality in Korea as well, tracing a thread through bad news reportage, sexploitation films, and more, all of which—even if you’re already convinced Sim is peddling rubbish—provides context on the genealogy of these ideas, which makes his post worth the read. 

Original Post: Apparently, you can be an expert on sexual violence in Korea, a graduate of Harvard and a D.Phil candidate at Oxford, while being either completely innumerate, surprisingly bigoted, or just plain too lazy to look up the data… or maybe all three of those things at once.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about an article titled, Who Gets Sick From Yellow Fever? What Carceral Feminism Does Not See, by Oxford Internet Institute D.Phil candidate Kate Sim:

 

This article was published not long ago, and is a pretty good example of the kind of xenophobic nonsense I’ve long since gotten used to hearing, while living in Korea… but maybe it’ll give someone some talking points in terms of refuting this nonsense if I address it here. Make no mistake, what Kate Sim argues here is wholly xenophobic, racist, and insulting both to Korean women and to white men living in Korea.

But mainly, it’s just fuzzy-headed nonsense. I’m going to take a moment to unpack the demographics that Sim is ignoring, and show why they demonstrate how nonsensical her claims are. 

The heart of Sim’s bizarre, nonsensical claim is here (emphasis mine):

During my time working at the Seoul Rape Crisis Center, one of the more well-established response service in Korea, I saw how yellow bodies silently absorbed this cost: sexual assault of Korean women by white men, mostly American, constituted at least a third of the Center’s cases. This is, of course, invisible to those in the West because of the concealed workings of globalization, racism and colonialism, and the failures of carceral feminist approaches to sexual violence.

Later on in her piece, she repeats this claim, following up with alarming speculations:

The normalization and prevalence of sexual violence against Korean women by white men demonstrate the material consequence of the unequal distribution of mobility. The Rape Crisis Center’s record quantifies this kind of assault as a third of its annual cases, but I wonder what the recorded incidents amount to and how many go unrecorded.

Let’s be clear: what Sim’s attempting to suggest here is twofold:

  1. That the one-third statistic somehow scales more broadly to Korea as a nation. (Otherwise it would make no sense to say that white males’ violence against Korean women is “normalized” and “prevalent” in South Korea.)
  2. That white men may in fact be responsible for more than a third of sexual violence in South Korea.

I couldn’t find information about this Seoul Rape Crisis Center she mentions. However, even if the numbers she cites are true for that center—which seems unlikely even if it is located in Itaewon—there is absolutely no way it could scale more generally.

To understand why, you need to know something—even just a little—about population demographics in South Korea. So let’s get into that.

Basic Demographics:

So, in 2011 it was big news when, for the first time, more than 3% of the South Korean population was foreign nationals. However, only a tiny fraction of those all foreigners in Korea are male, white, and Western. In fact, it’s impossible to know how much of that population is white: the Korean government doesn’t provide numbers by ethnicity, only by country of origin and sex.  However, it does keep close records of foreigners residing in Korea by nationality: here are the most recent numbers, for September 2016.

If we add up all the male resident foreign nationals from North America, Europe, South Africa, and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand, mainly) we get a total of approximately 121,200 men.

Of course, some percentage of those individuals isn’t white—there’s a sizeable number who are overseas Koreans, and people of other ethnicities or mixed-race status—but even if for simplicity’s sake we assume they were all white, Sim’s claim is utterly untenable. Why?

  • 50,500,000: the South Korean population (2016)
  • 120,000: “Western” male residents in Korea

In other words, Sim is implying that 0.24% of the population is responsible for 33% of the sexual violence.

Even if every white man were on a 24/7 rape spree for the past year, they’d never manage to perpetrate 33% of the sexual violence in the country, let alone the more than 33%, which, remember, Sim implied they might be responsible for:

The Rape Crisis Center’s record quantifies this kind of assault as a third of its annual cases, but I wonder what the recorded incidents amount to and how many go unrecorded.

Before switching her Twitter feed to protected mode, Sim was called on this. She defended her claim, stating that she was “talking about tourists” anyway.

Tourist Demographics

Does the claim that tourists  are perpetrating sexual crimes in Korea help make Sim’s argument less ridiculous?

Not really: it just shows how poorly she understands the demographics of tourism in Korea. In fact, the South Korean government tracks tourists by sex and country of origin, too: here’s the official government statistics for tourists for 2016.

Examining the numbers we see a few interesting things:

  • The vast majority of tourists visiting South Korea (80%-85%) are Asians, not Westerners. (Who, presumably, are immune to accusations of “Yellow Fever.”) In that group, females outnumber males 3:2.  That number is changing but in general the stereotypical tourist to Korea is still a Chinese woman, not a white man.
  • In 2016, South Korea had about 1.2 million male tourists from Europe, the Americas, and Oceania.
  • We don’t (and can’t) know the ages or racial demographics of those male tourists: many  are likely white, but many are also likely ethnic Koreans, or members of other ethnic groups. Also, some proportion of them are certainly infants and young children.
  • Presumably all those female tourists are subject to the same danger of sexual violence that Korean women face. Therefore, we must also factor them into the overall population calculation, if we’re going to factor tourists into the Western male population.

Once again, a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals a lot:

  • 67.5 million: Overall Population (including all tourists)
  • 1.2 million: Foreign “Western” Male Population (including all “Western” male tourists) (1.77% of total)

Now we’re talking about approximately 1.8% of the population being responsible for 33% of the sexual violence here. 

That’s slightly less ridiculous than 0.24%, but we’re still in D.W. Griffiths territory if we’re supposed to take seriously that those white men are on a secret rape spree.

And of course, that’s assuming all tourists are here all at once. In reality, they’d be distributed over the full year. I don’t have the time to graph it all out, but even assuming half those Western male tourists were in-country at one time (say, at the peak of the tourist season), you only have a total of about 720,000 Western men in Korea: I imagine it’s rare for even that many Western men to actually be physically present in Korea at the same time.

If we generously recalculate, assuming half the tourists who visit the country come at the peak of the tourist season, we get:

  • 600,000 tourists + 120,000 resident = 720,000 “Western men”
  • 8.6 million tourists + 50.5 million residents = 59,100,000 overall national population
  • Percentage of aggregate “population” that is “Western men”: 1.22%

Crime Statistics

All of this made even more clearly ridiculous by the crime statistics in Korea: for reported crimes, non-Koreans in Korea perpetrate disproportionately lower rates of reported sexual violence than the general Korean population.

From the above link:

As for rape (including crimes similar to rape) crime rates, [the rate for] Pakistan’s [foreign residents in Korea] was 5.85 times higher than Korea’s, Bangladesh was 3.2 times higher, Kyrgyzstan was 2.83 times higher, Sri Lanka was 2.43 times higher, and Mongolia was 1.86 times higher.

There’s no mention of “white bodies” (or lurid musings about “Yellow Fever”) among those numbers, for good reason: the rate of reported sexual violence (and violent crime overall) perpetrated by white men in Korea is lower, per capita, than the overall national rate. Those white guys in Korea actually have the effect, statistically, of reducing the apparent rate of sexual crime… unless, of course, we take the word of those who simply categorize any interracial sex as a sex crime.

Now, before I go on, one more thing deserves a moment of scrutiny. While describing how counselors at the Seoul Rape Crisis Center handle cases where foreign perpetrators are reported, she writes:

Survivors rarely know their assailants, and do not recall enough identifiable details to file a report. Those who are able to make a report find themselves in a dead end when they find out that their assailants have left the country. White men come and go–untraceable and unaccountable.

A couple of questions come to mind:

  • If the victims don’t know their assailants, how do they know that they’re tourists?
  • If the victims don’t recall enough identifiable details to file a report, how can the counselors (and police) be sure that the assailants were actually tourists, and/or have left the country?

Sim is handwaving here, offering an absence of evidence as proof, because an otherwise unprovable (and untenable) argument doesn’t have to stand up to scrutiny. Her narrative of Yellow Fever and white male tourists flocking to Korea to rape locals fits with the nonsensical postcolonial narrative she wants to spin. She’s either clueless about this, or just hoping you’ll miss the fact that there’s no evidence of rampant white criminality here, and no population of white men large enough to perpetrate the number of crimes she’s talking about. And that’s to say nothing of her (questionable) suggestion that crimes by white tourists are less likely to be reported than those perpetrated by fellow Koreans—especially men from within the domestic educational, family, religious, or work social networks of the victims. (All I can say is that I expect exactly the opposite.1

None of this is to say that no sexual violence is perpetrated by white men in Korea: statistics show it does happen, just that it’s a marginal number of cases in absolute terms, and at a lower rate than the national average in per-capita terms.. The fact is that white men in Korea are responsible for very little of the unfortunately prevalent sexual violence here. (Which incidentally, as one physician told me from experience in several emergency rooms in Seoul, happens at a noticeably higher rate in the vicinity of red-light districts like Cheongryangni… which are both larger than the “Hooker Hill” Sim mentions, and of course serve Korean men exclusively.)

Also, it’s worth noting that in a Korean social context, foreign women—white and otherwise—are also exoticized and hypersexualized: if “yellow fever” is caused by this type of depiction of Asian women in the West, shouldn’t a similar dynamic exist in Korea? Anecdotally, I know personally of at least three Asian female students (one overseas-Korean and two foreign) whose classmates attempted to rape them (and in fact modified a typical rape strategy to take advantage of the fact the women were foreigners); meanwhile, I’ve heard multiple reports by Western women who were victims of sexual violence (or attempted sexual violence) by Korean perpetrators.2 And that’s to say nothing of incidents where sexual (and other) violence is endured by mail-order brides at the hands of Korean husbands here—again, a much larger population than the white male population in Korea.

This stuff ought to interest a supposed feminist with an concern for sexual violence… shouldn’t it?  Sim ought to know all this—she lived here, and she’s an academic who claims to be interested in sexual violence. One supposes she’s actually more interested in spinning a clever-sounding narrative about “carceral feminism” and Yellow Fever and postcolonial racial politics, and facts and numbers and evidence be damned. There’s really only two possible explanations: Sim’s either been blinded by racism (in a way that’s sadly common in South Korea, in fact), or she’s utterly incompetent to discuss the demographics of sexual violence in South Korea, or she was just too lazy to look up the statistics and facts.

None of those options is particularly flattering—especially for someone researching “rape prevention technology”—nor does it reflect well on the institutions at which she studied: Harvard should have equipped her with at least a little understanding of statistics, and nobody this innumerate should be a candidate for a D. Phil.

Ms. Sim is welcome to address my assessment in the comments: if she can explain how in the world it sounds reasonable for 1.7% of a population to be responsible for more than 33% of the sexual violence occuring within it, and how this is a secret that neither law enforcement not the media know about (especially when it would be front page news and a huge media scandal), I’m all ears.

In the meantime, for those of you who actually do care about South Korea’s problems with sexual violence, here’s something a little more sensible you might prefer to read on the subject: how it’s a systemic problem, and what Koreans and foreigners are doing to address that.

And if you find it shocking that I’m recommending a piece in Groove Magazine—a free expat rag in Seoul—over something by a D.Phil student at Oxford, well… yeah, I’m surprised at that myself. I guess it’s not a very good advertisement for Sim, or for the program that accepted her as a student.


  1. For the same reason that my students were willing to approach me for help when in suicidal crisis over the years: because I wasn’t perceived as being inside the social network, the cost of talking about such things with me was lower, and so was their perceived risk of social repercussions.

  2. Indeed, not just foreign women: I’ve been sexually harassed by Korean men myself—no violence, thank goodness—and at least two Western men I know had experiences that would, by Canadian or American law, be considered sexual assault perpetrated by a Korean man.

6 thoughts on “Kate J. Sim on Foreign Men and Sexual Violence in Korea (Or, What Happens When You Study Critical Theory But Not Statistics)

  1. Excellent, honestly this kind of xenophobic nonsense may sound harmless at first, but in the Koreasphere it becomes amplified, and a tool for special hate groups (as mentioned in the Popular Gusts link above) and can result in stigmatizing of an entire group, as codified in the current AIDS testing laws. For the record, I’m for testing every educator, unless you point out what a waste of money that would be, because it totally is. (according to another physician I talked to who does this for a living)

    1. Hi K.,

      I agree about how this kind of xenophobic nonsense ends up not being harmless when it gets amplified in Korean media (and especially in online discussions) and ends up codified in laws. Worse, this doesn’t just end up stigmatizing “white men” in Korea: it also ends up as justification for the dehumanization and stigmatization of Korean women who choose to date, marry, or even just associate with them, and the children of such couples as well.

      Beyond being racist (and doing nothing to actually prevent what it’s claimed to prevent: not all pedophiles are HIV-positive), HIV testing of E-class visa holders is stupid. The last I heard, there weren’t any cases of a foreign teacher being convicted of sexual abuse of a student in Korea, whereas there are some cases of Korean teachers perpetrating such crimes. As I argued regarding Ms. Sim’s argument, arguing that foreign teachers are the concern when it comes to the sexual abuse of Korean students actually drives attention away from the known facts and provides cover for the small number of Korean teachers who’re the main offenders.

      Also, HIV testing has attained a degree of acceptability so deeply entrenched that even foreign nationals on F-class spousal visas are being asked to get the test done when hired at universities, as a matter of university policy. Which is even stupider… they’re not obligated to test by law, and they’re doing it out of… what? Nobody ever seems willing to answer questions about such policies, except to say all foreign instructors are required to submit to such tests when hired.

      If people were serious about protecting the nation’s children from sexual abuse, they’d (a) get it into their heads that foreigners pose a lower, not a higher, amount of threat to those kids (based on the statistics we have) and (b) institutions would find ways of making such abuse more difficult to perpetrate (and less likely to happen) for all teachers.

  2. Nice post. Disappointed in no response from Sim. Her article says the 33% figure remains “invisible to those in the West because of the concealed workings of globalization, racism and colonialism, and the failures of carceral feminist approaches to sexual violence.” One would think she’d welcome an invitation for more “visibility” and discussion.

    1. Hi Ben,

      Yes, I also contacted Novara Media pointing out the sensationalism and unrealistic extrapolation in the article. The response, basically, was a claim that Sim “makes it clear” she’s only talking about one specific center. (I guess they didn’t really read the article, or that they are struggling with what words like “prevalent” mean.) There’s some nonsense about upholding a “high rate of journalistic integrity” as well. I’ve held off responding until I can call the center and confirm or discomfirm the 33% statistic Sim claims, because I would bet Novara Media’s “journalistic integrity” doesn’t extend as far as fact-checking things like that.

      In any case, Sim has definitely refused to engage. She was CCed on the email and did not reply at all, despite my including links to both my and Matt’s posts. Not that I’m really surprised.

  3. Sim is determined to be an ultra-nationalist, xenophobic racist with an agenda to push and no sensible, researched argument from you or anyone is going to change her mind.

    1. Yes, apparently. More puzzling is why Novara Media was willing to publish such tripe. I wrote an email to the editor, which ended up getting a response from the acting editor which gave the impression she hadn’t read the piece, or doesn’t understand what Sim is insinuating. The email was CCed to Sim, who of course did not respond.

      Puzzlingly, Novara Media’s acting editor also suggested that Novara Media has high standards for journalistic integrity. I’ll be responding as soon as I get a chance to contact the crisis center mentioned and see whether they’re willing to confirm or disconfirm the numbers claimed by Sim.

      But yes, on the whole, Sim’s arguments are startlingly similar to those offered by ultranationslist, xenophobic right-wing misogynistic men in Korea… the Ilbe crowd, specifically.

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