Content warning: descriptions of sexual torture, including to minors
When traffickers wished to sexually enslave women and girls before the rise of the Internet and the wide distribution of smartphones, they had to jump through various hoops such as getting women to leave their country and trap them in an actual physical location. This meant the criminals usually needed to provide basic services, like food, water, toilets and medical care to the enslaved women. To top it off, on a daily basis, they had to deal with the selves and actual, physical bodies of the trapped women. Those bodies that get pregnant, bleed every month, or catch sexually transmitted diseases.
This scenario has hardly disappeared, but some traffickers found a way to streamline the process. They know that many men prefer watching pornography to having sex. They also know that men enjoy watching women being violently, sexually abused in porn.
Criminals, as well as run-of-the-mill abusive opportunists have found out how to exploit this situation. Currently, one extremely horrifying example of such exploitation presents itself by the South Korean “Nth room” case. Here, men congregate in virtual “rooms” or groups within the secure messaging Telegram app to view sexual content extracted from girls enslaved online.
According to Korean activists, two young women or girls in South Korea now become “sexual slaves” every day. The number of men viewing their content surpasses 10,000 daily, which makes it a case of online sexual exploitation of an unprecedented scale. Despite its scale, the case has been underreported by major South Korean media, although a petition calling for international investigation got signatures from 200,000 people.
Urgent action must be taken on this issue. The women and young girls enslaved online, the youngest of which was identified as 11 years old, are coerced to perform sexual as well as unusually cruel acts and record them for the viewers’ sexual pleasure.
Some of these acts included cutting off a nipple, having sex with one’s brother, carving of the word “slave” or the pimp’s name with a knife in the skin, putting scissors into the vagina, eating feces, and even getting raped by assigned people. At least one of the victims has already committed suicide.
How it works
In the case of the “Nth Room”, there is little need for the exploiters to ever meet their “slaves” offline. Most sexual content is recorded by the young women and girls themselves, using their own webcams and phones. However, the pimps order the victims the type of content they’re supposed to provide. After the girls and women send the material to the exploiters, they post it in the form of videos or photographs in some of the Telegram app’s private chat rooms.
The exploiters use various tactics to force their victims to perform the desired acts, such as threats with disclosure of their pornographic materials to friends and family. If this particular tactic doesn’t work, they incite Nth Room male viewers to punish the resisting females by raping them. According to the Korean feminist activists, when a “slave” refuses to cooperate, the exploiters publish her identifying information - place of work, where she lives or goes to school - in chat rooms designed specifically for this purpose. Thus, male members of the chat rooms are incited to find the girl, rape her, record the rape and publish it online. These acts serve three goals: they punish the victim, warn other girls not to follow her path, and provide more lucrative pornographic material to sell, as footage of violent rape is expensive.
Men exchange links to the chat rooms in private messages, or in South Korean men’s online forums.
How traffickers trap women and girls
The online “enslavement” tactics vary. Some traffickers impersonate the police and threaten girls who have posted naked selfies online with prosecution, unless they send them more naked pictures or lewd videos. Some trick their victims into disclosing personal information and threaten to expose them (doxx) online unless the young women or girls become their “slaves” for a week. However, after the week-long “slavery” during which the victims usually send their naked pictures, the pimps possess more material for extortion and the enslavement never ends.
Members of the more violent “Park Sa rooms” that charge male viewers sums ranging from $600 to $1300 in virtual currencies for admission into the chat rooms, use another tactic to trap women in their net – they offer well-paid part-time employment. When women apply, the traffickers tell them the promised salary is only available through their “sponsorship” program. Women are supposed to be matched with a “sponsor” if they send naked pictures or videos of themselves. These are later used to coerce them into performing and recording sexually degrading and, in time, increasingly violent acts on themselves. The victims never receive any money.
According to South Korean sources, members of the South Korean online male communities have been aware of the Telegram’s sexually exploitative “Nth rooms” since at least February 2019, yet instead of reporting them to the police, they “begged for the link” that would lead them to the chat rooms.
The only man to report the crime was Kim-Jae Su (name changed). However, after he contacted the authorities in February 2019, the police showed no interest in investigating the case. Seeing that punishment for these acts of violence against women was unlikely, Kim-Jae Su himself soon became a leader of one of the “Nth rooms”. In November 2019, South Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh published an interview with Kim-Jae Su. After November, other major press agencies started to cover the “Nth room” case, but, according to Korean feminists, influential public TV networks didn’t pick up the story.
So far, we have information of just one man charged and sentenced for participating in these crimes. On November 21, 2019, a 31 years old man from Osan was sentenced to jail for possessing 91,890 clips featuring sexual exploitation of adolescents and children as well as for the sale of 2,590 of those clips. However, the judge sentenced him to just one year in prison.
Another evidence of South Korean authorities not taking these crimes seriously presented itself when one of the enslaved women reported the chat rooms to the police. They sent her away, arguing that, as she recorded the videos herself, she couldn’t report a crime.
Right now, South Korean women’s rights activists are trying to raise awareness of the case abroad by a change.org petition. Sadly, just as within their own country, the international media seem to be largely ignoring the case.
It is surprising, as around the world, online sexual exploitation and torture of (mostly female) children and young women is growing. According to the Internet Watch Foundation which monitors and removes online child pornography, self-generated imagery (or “selfies”) now accounts for nearly a third of web pages featuring sexual images of children. They add that “of the self-generated material featuring girls – be it images or videos - most (80.5%) were aged 11 to 13 years”.
Although this particular flavor of male sexual exploitation is currently limited to South Korea, cases such as the Nth room are bound to happen all over the world. The female sex, no matter the country of origin, is particularly vulnerable to online abuse. Everywhere, girls and young women tend to be less technically savvy than their male counterparts, therefore easier to trick into giving up their private information and explicit images. Due to structural oppression, we also often take risks to escape poverty or abusive situations.
In some countries, the kids (mostly girls) themselves are prosecuted for taking nude selfies and sending them to others. As the Marie Collins Foundation reported last year, in the UK, “children as young as 14 are being arrested for ‘youth sexting’ despite police guidance against taking action that can leave them with a criminal record”.
It is time to start prosecuting the perpetrators, not the victims. The international community must start treating online sexual abuse as a violation of human rights the same as physical sex trafficking no matter our country of origin. The silence around the “Nth room” case demonstrates that South Korean women and girls are being failed.