Expert Interview: “Spycam Isn’t Just an Issue of Pornography”

Interview

Since the beginning of May, tens of thousands of women have taken to protesting monthly on the streets of Hyehwa, Seoul, demanding an end to South Korea’s pervasive problem of molka, or spycam porn. Their protests have been the largest recorded women’s rallies in South Korean history, and the government is taking notice.

Five ministries held a joint press conference in June and declared a “war against molka,” promising a comprehensive reform in multiple directions, including education and law enforcement. Billions of won will be poured into monitoring public toilets nationwide and installing spycam detectors. Police will start cracking down on websites that host illegal spycam content, and lawmakers will discuss ways to reform the current law. 

Chang Dahye believes a key component of the reforms must address the narrow way illegal spycam content is currently defined. Chang, who researches the issue at the Korea Institute of Criminology, says, “The current approach doesn’t allow for the kind of legal interpretation or punishment that aligns with the damages that victims actually feel.”

What does she mean? What is the current legal definition, and how should it be changed? 

This is part of a Korea Exposé series on South Korea’s spycam problem. The consumption of secretly filmed/distributed footages as a widely accepted pornographic genre puts unknown masses of ordinary citizens, mostly women, under surveillance without consent or even knowledge.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Korea Exposé: In May, a female suspect in a spycam case was arrested and paraded before media after secretly shooting a male model in Hongik University. That’s what incited the protesters to come out to the streets, citing gender discrimination in police investigations. Do you think this criticism is justified? 

I think it’s unavoidable for police to have gender bias. This isn’t a uniquely Korean problem; the way sex is consumed is usually by objectifying women. This’s simply the way things are. So when a man is objectified in a similar way, the case feels unique. I think law enforcement would respond more sensitively because they perceive a case [with a male victim] to be special. [Editor’s Note: Statistically, it’s hard to prove that police are biased in favor of male victims.] 

 

How widespread is the problem of sex crime involving spy cameras? 

In recent years, there has been a spike in cases reported to the police. Crimes involving spycam have increased over the years, although one can say the issue has been widespread in South Korea for a while.

Ordinary women feel afraid that they can be used as content and distributed as an object of sexual amusement. When we think of porn, we usually think of content that’s produced in studios. Spycam is different: Despite the subjects not having agreed to this sexual objectification, ordinary and everyday images get proliferated in a very sexual way.

Images of women — at home, walking on the streets, full body shots — get uploaded to various online communities. Without one’s knowledge, one can be exposed to sexual objectification and appraisal. And that’s what makes women afraid. You can be a victim without even knowing. 

Video shot and edited by Youjin Do

 

But how valid is this fear? There are no clear statistics available on the size of the spycam porn industry. 

I don’t think this fear is exaggerated. It’s a rational fear. When Soranet became more well-known, people found out that a lot of the original uploaders were the women’s husbands, boyfriends and other acquaintances. Men would upload photos of their girlfriends and wives and ask others to rate these women’s genitals. 

The spycam problem is most likely larger than the recorded number of cases that police deal with. There are many victims whose cases are rejected by police — and these rejections aren’t included in the stats. 

 

Why are many cases rejected?

If police think a report doesn’t amount to a case, they can reject it. If a victim is fully clothed in the footage…the content doesn’t qualify as pornographic material. But there’s a problem with that: Camera resolutions are great these days. People can zoom into a particular body part, cut it and re-appropriate it. 

Another example: if someone — not a victim — finds a spy camera and reports it to the police, and the camera contains footages of multiple people’s genitalia, but not a face. In this case, the police can’t identify a victim, so they refuse to take the case. 

Basically, each content needs to meet the legal definition of pornography; once it does, then there needs to be an identifiable victim.

 

Can you tell us about how different victims are affected by spycam footages? 

A lot of the victims find out through others who have seen the footages. Often, if the footages have proliferated enough for acquaintances to find out, it could have been years since the contents were first uploaded. 

Many victims find it hard to continue their normal social activities. They feel daunted and frightened by the thought that they could be recognized. I have seen cases where the women quit their jobs or consider getting plastic surgery. In extreme cases the women change their names, move somewhere else, even commit suicide. 

 

Technological development has enabled images to be shot, distributed and reproduced very easily. 

Too easily. Anyone can access the contents and distribute them. When you had the ‘Miss O Video Scandal or celebrity spycam scandals in the past, the technology wasn’t advanced enough to allow this kind of proliferation.

[Editor’s Note: The ‘Miss O Video Scandal’ is one of South Korea’s most famous celebrity spycam scandals. In 1998, a VHS sex tape of actress Oh Hyun-kyung and a male model was leaked to the public. Despite being a victim, O apologized for the scandal and put her career on hold. It took a decade for her to resume acting.] 

Nowadays, smartphones and computers make everything much too easy. You can shoot wherever you want. 

The Korean porn market isn’t small. There are not many studies estimating the exact scale. On famous webhard platforms — where you download contents through P2P networking — ‘Rated R’ contents are a lucrative source of income [for the platform operators]. Many of these contents aren’t copyrighted, and the traffic typically benefits the platform operators more than the content uploaders. 

The first Hyehwa rally on May 19, 2018. (Youjin Do/Korea Exposé)

With technological development, the methods of violence — including sexual violence — have become so different. There is so much diversity in violence happening online. The violence is so diverse and so pervasive; it’s inevitable that there is a generational gap. People in their 40s and 50s, whose lives aren’t as intertwined with online communities, don’t really understand what’s going on. 

If you look at people in their teens to 30s, the online world is just as important as the offline world. The way many of them experience sexual harassment, sex talks and misogyny is online.  

Can policy catch up to the way sexual violence is changing? We really need better interpretations [of the law] that factor in the particular characteristics of the online world.

 

According to Article 14 of the relevant law, criminals can get fined between 5 million to 30 million won or be imprisoned for 3 to 5 years, depending on the severity of the crime. Is this enough? 

I don’t think spycam is an issue of sentencing, but rather one of awareness. Sexually objectifying women, shooting women’s bodies without their consent and distributing/consuming the images—awareness is still weak when it comes to perceiving these actions as criminal, or at least an act that can harm another person. This isn’t just the problem of ordinary consumers; law enforcement agencies are share that mindset. 

Even if there are victims, law enforcement officers don’t always think the problem is that serious. There’s even a tendency to perceive online sex crimes as not as severe as sex crimes entailing physical contact.

And yes, criminals can be imprisoned — but most are fined. Penalties are usually minor. 

If you look at the case from the victim’s point of view, victimhood doesn’t end. Spycam footage remains forever and gets continually watched. And this continuous damage is a serious problem. 

 

How do you assess the current government policy toward digital sex crimes? 

This is the really frustrating part: The problem is, the current approach to regulating and punishing online sex crimes are focused primarily on regulating ‘obscene materials,’ i.e. porn. 

According to Article 14, it’s a crime only if you take or distribute “pictures or videos of another person’s body in a way that can induce sexual desire or humiliation.” It basically refers to porn, and there are clear differences between porn and spycam footage that circulates as porn.  

Law enforcement authorities need to think differently about these spycam crimes. Authorities continue to approach the spycam issue through the lens of pornography and think that spycam footage doesn’t merit their attention because it doesn’t look like traditional porn. The current approach doesn’t allow for the kind of legal interpretation or punishment that aligns with the damages that victims actually feel. 

What’s important isn’t whether or not the content qualifies as ‘obscene/pornographic,’ whether it’s sexual. We need to start from the question of whether the content violated someone’s right to dignity. If an image of someone was filmed and distributed without that person’s consent, it doesn’t matter whether that image was sexual. The individual’s rights were violated. 

 

Listen to a behind-the-scenes interview with KÉ managing editor Haeryun Kang on this topic.

Cover image: A protester at the second anti-spycam rally on June 9, 2018. (Youjin Do/Korea Exposé)

Haeryun Kang is Korea Exposé's managing editor.