A sex doll brothel in Yongin-si that opened on April 11 shut down after operating for three days due to strong opposition from local residents. About 40,000 people signed a petition against the brothel. In a sex doll brothel, customers pay to use human-like sex dolls. Because they function like prostitution, opponents argue that sex doll brothels should be seen as sexual enterprises. However, brothels do not technically violate the Act on the Prevention of Commercial Sex Acts and Protection, etc. of Victims because prostitution is defined as an act that takes place among people. Moreover, under the current legislation, a sex doll brothel is considered an adult store. Thus, it does not need the permission of the local government to operate but only a business registration.
Nevertheless, under the Educational Environment Protection Act (EEPA), the brothel falls under facilities prohibited from operating in the Educational Environment Protection Zones. The petition against the brothel pointed out that there are 11 early childhood facilities and seven elementary, middle, and high schools within a 500 meter radius of the brothel.
Based on this act, Yongin-si responded that it had taken measures to close down the brothel.
The production, importation, and sale of sex dolls became legal in 2019 despite 250,000 petitioners protesting against it. Sex doll brothels are still controversial because there is a lack of regulations that protect underaged people from accessing them. Sex doll brothels fall under businesses harmful to juveniles. However, under the current law, sex doll brothels are legal to open anywhere — residential areas as well as the Educational Environment Protection Zones – meaning that sex doll brothels could open up next door.
While sex doll brothels remain in the blind spot of the law, public opinion contends that adult stores and brothels should be treated differently because brothels, unlike adult shops, directly contribute to the commercialization of women’s sex.
For instance, in a shocking commercial for sex dolls brothels, students from a women’s university were referred to as sex dolls. On March 12, a sex doll brothel located in Seongbuk-gu, Seoul uploaded an advertisement post on multiple social media websites about a sex doll with long brown hair titled, “[Sex Doll Brothel] Women’s University Student Came Over for a Haircut.”
The advertisement sparked controversy, with several women’s university students petitioning against the sex doll brothel. On April 20, RADSBOS, a radical lesbian feminist organization in Sungshin Women’s University, released an official statement in response to the issue. A total of 72 student organizations from various universities endorsed the statement.
“We are not dolls or sex toys,” RADSBOS wrote. “Regardless of the fact that sex dolls degrade women’s dignity, our male-dominated society has focused its priority on defending men’s desires in the name of sexual self-determination.”
The incident raised awareness of how the existence of sex dolls could not only directly encourage sexual objectification of women but also deteriorate women’s rights. According to RADSBOS, many students actively filed complaints to the Seongbuk-gu office. Although the brothel deleted the post and changed its name, students do not consider this as a sufficient response.
“We are outraged,” RADSBOS said. “This incident is only a preview of the appearance of sex dolls modeled after specific women. As long as sex doll brothels exist, women will be vulnerable to sexual objectification. Simply changing the name of sex brothels is not enough. We hope for further discussions about regulation policies to prevent women from being exposed to such danger.”
Dear Sisters, a feminist student organization, agrees sex dolls can project sexual objectification of women.
“We believe that the desire to possess real-life sex dolls derives from the idea that men view women as objects that they can possess,” Dear Sisters said. “The existence of sex dolls can lead more people to unconsciously perceive women’s bodies as sexual merchandise products.”
Professor Kim Sun-hye from the Graduate School of Women’s Studies shared her insight on the relationship between sex dolls and Korean society’s views on sexual objectification of women.
“The fact that sex dolls are produced, consumed, and distributed reflects how our society views sexuality,” she said. “It is important to understand the controversy over the legalization of importing sex dolls. The real issue is that the Korean society finds it acceptable for men to satisfy their sexual desires on women in any form. If our society condemned objectifying and making profit out of women’s bodies, sex dolls would have no significance in the first place.”
Kim further expressed her thoughts that it is indispensable for our society to start questioning the origin of creating male masturbation devices that resemble women’s bodies to fulfill men’s sexual desires.