The Nth Room Case: A Warning to Local Communities
Just how many cases of sexual violence and discrimination have been overlooked?
※ Editor’s note: The following article covers the Telegram Nth room sexual exploitation case (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nth_room_case) within the context of the village of Sannae, near Jirisan. It is written by Sang-sun Jeong, who is currently engaging in a one-woman protest to make her village safe for everyone.
It was recommended that the committee should undergo in-depth relevant study before properly commencing its work. Therefore in order to help the new organisation get on its feet, members of the Jirisan Women’s Association and the committee came together once a month to study issues relating to gender equality, sexual violence and sexual awareness. But after running these meetings for just six months, another incident of sexual harassment was reported within Sannae.
How could there be yet another incident of sexual violence in my community; especiailly when we were in the very process of setting up both an association and rules to prevent ongoing sexual violence? Was there really any hope at all for improvement in my home village?
‘Don’t go causing trouble’ - the words heard by victims and never by perpetrators
Twenty-three minutes and 35 seconds. This is the average time between one case of sexual offence and another in Korea (as stated in the 2015 press release of the National Assembly Safety Administration Committee). We live in a society where sexual violence happens, at a minimum, every 23 minutes and 35 seconds. Less than 10% of victims report the crimes, and even among that small number of reports, only 44.8% of perpetrators are prosecuted. This is the lowest prosecution rate for any violent crime. Given these grim statistics, how can there have been so many reports of sexual violence in Sannae?
Unsurprisingly, sexually violent crimes are especially likely to be minimized and covered up. But still, it is difficult to claim that people in Sannae have a particularly poor view of women, or unique gender stereotypes. Instead, it seems that we refuse to allow incidents of sexual violence and discrimination to fade away into unreported statistics as in other areas and organisations. But what is it then about the Sannae community that has resulted in these high reporting levels?
In a society where incidents are remembered by the name of the victim instead of that of the offender, and the mainstream media uncritically reports the offender’s account of events, victims of sexual assault often find it difficult to come forward with their experiences. There are further many instances when the victim themselves struggles to understand that what they have experienced was sexual assault.
Perpetrators often receive external assistance from wider society in concealing their crimes. People around the victim tell them:
‘Don’t go causing trouble now.’
‘Don’t kick up a fuss.’
In Sannae, however, women have been able to avoid these recommendations to follow the status quo. They see local unity against sexual harassment in the Gender Equality Committee, and they know that they can access support and counselling if and when they need it.
The reason that these cases of sexual harrassment were able to come to light in the Sannae Community was primarily due to the resolve of the victims. These women focused less on the risk of damage to their own personal lives, and more on how revealing these incidents could allow for their local community to evolve and reflect on sexual crime.
Furthermore, after the Gender Equality Committee announced that they would not allow the new case to be trivially dismissed, directors from the local Silsang Temple Standing Committee [which owns the land on which Indramang is located] came forward to publicly support the committee. The two groups decided to take joint action. They hoped that this would ensure that perpetrators would feel the weight of their crimes, and engage in critical self-action to prevent future re-offenses.
Firstly, the committees arranged counselling for victims and interview sessions with perpetrators. Afterward, perpetrators read a letter of reflection in front of local residents. Rather than freely exchanging their opinions on the situation, residents were asked to remain silent and take some time to think.
The Gender Equality Committee conducted ten educational sessions for the perpetrator, and two sessions of gender equality training for local community members in the first half of the year. In addition, the nature of the incident and the subsequent process undertaken by the Committee were both published in a local newsletter for the Indramang community. These promising results reflected the unflinching resolve of the Gender Equality Committee. Backed with support from the Standing Real Estate Committee, it was hoped that this incident would ultimately function as an opportunity to raise awareness on the severity of local sexual harassment and sexual crimes.
Naturally, the program did not operate completely smoothly.
‘Is this all really necessary?’
‘Think of the shame you are bringing on his family’
‘Who exactly are you doing this for?’
‘Is this really the most peaceful way you could have done things?’
We were reproached constantly with such criticisms, both face-to-face and in more indirect manners. But for every question we received, we would respond frankly:
‘Yes, this is all completely necessary.’
‘Don’t concern yourself with his family, and please spend some time thinking about what makes you embarrassed and uncomfortable about this.’
‘We are doing this for the good of everyone.’
‘This is not peaceful? So what do you think ‘peaceful’ means?’
(As a side note, I actually ran into one of the families in question at a neighborhood cafe. They bowed to me and greeted me kindly, and asked for continued help to learn more in the future.)
The experiences of victims of sexual violence are often hidden away, meaning reports of sexual crimes likewise are reduced. This creates a village that is safe not for everyone but only for ‘them’: the perpetrators. Concealing sexual violence behind a facade of ‘peace’ causes civic and communal consciousness to fade away. It should therefore follow that those who talk about the value of the community should be equally concerned with equality, peace and equity.
But uprooting this culture has frequently been very nerve-racking. It has been difficult to encourage residents who have lived in the village for over ten years to engage in our educational programs - particularly as part of the program involves making them understand that they may have been compliant or even supportive of gendered violence.
I remember how cold the winter breeze was on the first day of one of our training program. Both the facilitators and the participants found the whole situation so awkward they couldn’t even look each other in the eye. But even at that early stage, we knew that this was the best way for things to improve. We needed to say things that had never been said, and face things that had never been addressed before.
During the last day of the ten-session program, one of the participants who had originally been highly resistant to taking part said to us: ‘Thinking back, I realise now that there is a connection between my actions today as an adult, and the pornography that I was exposed to and watched as a teenager.’
Educational programs for perpetrators of sexual assault are critical as they help men to face up to their own responsibilities and actions in a way that they couldn’t before. Obviously legal retribution for crime is important, but there is a clear limit to how useful it can be if the perpetrator still fails to recognise his own personal problems, and if communal norms continue in the same stagnant way as before.
Yet while it is important that the perpetrator recognises that his actions were harmful, we must also recognise that we cannot arbitrarily decide who counts as a perpetrator or how he can receive forgiveness. It is also imperative that members of the local community look at what their ‘peaceful’ village really is: who the ‘peace’ is for, and whether this ‘peace’ exists for every resident. This process will help in reviving civic and communal consciousness, and a local sense of equality and equity. Even one incident should be enough for the whole community to reflect on their way of thinking. Instead of brushing such cases aside as being someone else’s business, the whole community should feel a sense of responsibility and come together to solve the issue. In that way, we can create a truly ‘peaceful’ environment for everybody.
‘I’m more of a victim here than they are.’
These are not the words of a woman who was subjected to sexual violence. These are, in fact, the protests of a male manager who was involved in a sexual assault in a neighbouring town a few years ago.
‘I’m sorry. But I will not allow the case to become public.’
This was the stance of the local village leader at the location of the sexual assault.
‘This isn’t the way we should go about things, for the benefit of the people living in this village.’
This was the criticism aimed at local feminist groups, who suggested that the community look further into rural gender norms.
The offender then went on to apply for the local Village Youth Fund, meaning that the Funding Committee should have explained to him why he was no longer a suitable candidate. But the leading commissioner instead asked, ‘Why don’t we let bygones be bygones and just give him the funds?’
Set misogyny and sexual violence against women as an urgent local agenda
Last week, I began my one-woman protest at an intersection in my village to raise awareness in my community about the Nth room sexual exploitation case enabled by the Telegram app.
It is estimated that there were over 26,000 men (though this number may include some duplicate accounts) in the “Nth room” chatrooms, actively contributing to sexual exploitation, violence and sexual trafficking. Another 60,000 men circulated and downloaded these sexually exploitative videos outside of the chatrooms.
Already I can hear the protests. ‘I had never even heard of Telegram.’ ‘I would never be involved in something like that.’ ‘“Not all men” - don’t treat us like we’re potential rapists.’ But of course, the situation is different when they’re making sexually degrading jokes in bars; when they’re laughing about men being breadwinners and women making sandwiches; when they’re objectifying women as sexual prizes to be won; when they dictate the lives of their daughters. But I digress. Ultimately, all of these patriarchal mindsets contributed towards the creation of the Nth rooms.
But my real concern here isn’t how many Nth room users actually exist in my community. Instead, I believe that it’s more important that we focus on addressing everyday sexism and gender in our village. The Sannae community has only now begun to break away from the old critique telling us not to rock the boat or disrupt the ‘peace’ in our little village. This communal ‘peace’ has constantly been an excuse - when women started creating local magazines for women; when women asked for further study on rural ideas of gender and sex; when we tried to publicise the incidents of sexual violence in our community. Now it is time for us to collectively face the dark consequences of concealing and covering women’s voices in the name of this communal ‘peace’.
Prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun, who joined the Ministry of Justice's Digital Task Force on Spreading Gender Equality Culture a few days ago, mentioned that Korea was currently in the midst of a digital ‘national crisis’. It’s not ‘pornography’, or ’smut’. It’s large-scale sexual exploitation, human trafficking and sexual assault online - all of which stem from the fundamental problem of everyday gender discrimination.
I hope with all my heart that Sannae becomes a place where anyone and everyone can live in safety. I hope that our village becomes known not only for being first in farming and as an alternative communal mecca, but also for having a welcoming local community free from sexual violence. Rather than hiding away with excuses of not knowing and not being involved, I wish for sexual violence to become a social issue that involves all members of the community coming together and accepting collective responsibility for the end goal of real change.
The sexual offenders of the Nth rooms will not simply go away with increased crackdowns and the threat of punishment. Only when society as a whole identifies the link between gender and violence; when we break away from old trends of justifying gender discrimination; and when we learn more about feminism and recognise our rights in relation to gender and sex will these sexual offences decrease. Luckily, my village already has some experience now in effectively responding to sexual violence. I hope that this will allow for my local community in Sannae to take the lead in inspiring such change in local communities across the whole of Korea.
‘I was talking to my colleague today at the workshop about what we could do to show support for your protest. For now, we’ve left a little something for you at the local convenience store. Let me know if there’s anything else you need!’
I would like to suggest that the most urgent local agenda for every region, organisation and school is adopting measures against sexual discrimination and violence. We need to eradicate sexual exploitation and sexual entertainment culture, and collectively re-evaluate gender-related culture as a whole. I will continue my one-woman protest on sexual discrimination and the Nth room case until we see real change.
By Sang-sun Jeong
Published: March 30, 2020
Translated by Chloe Sherliker
Original article: http://ildaro.com/8683
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