Consumption and Possession as well as Production and Distribution as Acts of Digital Sexual Exploitation

Telegram “Nth Room” case… Moving beyond outrage in search of systematic legal change

Park Ju-yeon | 기사입력 2020/10/27 [09:13]

Consumption and Possession as well as Production and Distribution as Acts of Digital Sexual Exploitation

Telegram “Nth Room” case… Moving beyond outrage in search of systematic legal change

Park Ju-yeon | 입력 : 2020/10/27 [09:13]

A few months have passed since Tracer Team Fireworks [Chujeokdan Bulggot], along with other media sources, first exposed the enormous sexual exploitation of the Telegram “Nth Room” case to the world. Though the primary operators—Jo Ju-bin included—that ran the Nth Rooms have been arrested and charged, there is no news about the ‘watchers’ who paid hundreds of thousands or even millions of won to participate in these crimes.


Moreover, a number of media sources muffled the very essence of this issue by calling the circulated sexually exploitative materials “pornography”. Some even talked about the case as “a political maneuver” in the midst of a general election.


As the 21st National Assembly is about to take its seats, now is the time to stride beyond rage toward discussions on legal solutions for digital sexual exploitation.


▲ Different women’s organizations formed “The Committee for Telegram Sexual Exploitation Joint Countermeasures,” demanding fundamental solutions in response to the Telegram Sex Exploitation Case. This is the view at the press conference that took place in front of the stairs of Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in Gwanghwamun on March 26th.   ©The Committee for Telegram Sexual Exploitation Joint Countermeasures Facebook


On April 7th, the “Round Table in Search of Legal Systems for the Eradication of Digital Sexual Exploitation” was conducted jointly by the Korean Women’s Development Institute, the Korean Association of Gender and Law, the Minbyun Lawyers for a Democratic Society’s Women’s Rights Committee, and the Committee for Telegram Sexual Exploitation Joint Countermeasures. Analysis of the structures of sexual exploitation from a gender perspective and comments on seeking legislative tasks and improvement plans filled up the space. 


How did the digital world become a breeding ground for sex crimes?


“I started to wonder if there are cases that involve such a massive number of people like this in other parts of the world as well.”


Kim Ae-ra, an associate researcher at the Korean Women’s Development Institute, analyzed the structure within which sexual crimes are occurring on digital platforms.


“Korea is a society where changes in gendered sex culture and sexual perceptions are slow in progress while high-speed networks are fast and digital literacy is high. It seems like this reality brought such results.”


She said it must not be overlooked that “we are living in an individualized media age and the lines between consumption, production, and distribution are blurred with the rise of the internet. Moreover, ‘digital capitalism’ revolving around contents and influencers has been established.”


“It is also important to note what sexual violence has become. It no longer is only face-to-face sexual crimes but has become a business that is profitable—for instance by circulating anything from a woman’s [pirated] personal selfie to sexual exploitation videos.”


“It is easy to make channels within Telegram as well as to seek members [for the channel] without having any physical contact. Moreover, the fact that some of the suspects are in their teens shows that these crimes are free of limitations in age or time and space. It is also notable that these activities were industrialized in such a short period of time, highly possible due to the barriers for possession, consumption, distribution, and production (of sexual exploitation videos) being almost gone.”


In this structural environment, the men who used to watch porn together and share comments on their experiences buying sex are now showing male solidarity by collectively creating, producing, and distributing videos of sexual exploitation.


▲ “Round Table in Search of Legal Systems for the Eradication of Digital Sexual Exploitation” at the Korean Women’s Development Institute’s international conference hall, April 7th.  ©Korean Women’s Development Institute


Kim indicated that “social media definitely has a positive aspect of collecting and sharing ‘collective intelligence’, but this was the very aspect that led to organized crime in the ‘Nth room’ case”, though she emphasized that it was not completely unexpected.


“We need to see these crimes not as emerging from nowhere but as preexisting sexual crime culture just taking different forms with new technology.”


“Reproduction and distribution are acts of production”, consumption and possession are acts of violence


Since Jo Ju-bin was arrested, much attention has been drawn to what charges will be pressed against him and what punishment he will be receiving, but opinions are divided. Moreover, many people are looking towards how the participants and consumers will be punished.


In digital sexual exploitation cases like the “Nth Room,” the boundary between production and consumption is ambiguous and it is often difficult to grasp who the original producer is.


Kim argued that “we should consider reproduction and distribution also as acts of production” and, taking into account the specificities of the digital medium, redefine the categories of harm and damage caused by gender-based violence.


She explained that “for victims, the consumers are objects of fear as much as the producers and distributors (of sexually exploitative materials),” and that we should discuss “active consumers punishment” as well. “Since the relationships of production, distribution, consumption and possession are extremely close, we should research the harm and damage in this situation as well as discuss how to apply laws.”


Moreover, one cannot help but ask whether the platform really has no responsibility at all for this issue. Kim said, “As we already witnessed with what the Webhard Cartel (which distributed illegally-filmed videos) resulted in, platforms play a key role in digital sexual exploitation crimes. We should actively demand accountability from the platform services.”


▲ “These people wanted more and new videos, even though they knew that the videos being shared were created through illegal filming and threats. How are they different from [Jo Ju-bin]?” Graphics produced by ‘The Committee for Telegram Sexual Exploitation Joint Countermeasures’ emphasized that it is vital to punish users as well as the organizers in order to prevent such crimes.


Kim also pointed out that “discussions on technology-related crimes tend to revolve around technical supplementation and contingency plans.” These are valid discussions, but analysis on “why women, especially female children and teenagers, are victims of these crimes” shouldn’t be missing from the discourse as well.


“In order to understand the specificity of technology-related forms of gender violence such as image-based sexual exploitation, we need to consider how the medium of technology affects gender relationships as well as its harmfulness to women.”


We need to take into account the specificity of a ‘nonphysical sex crime’ in a digital medium


Yoon Duk-kyung, a researcher at the Korean Women’s Development Institute, explained that digital sex crime’s primary legal basis, Article 14 of the Sexual Violence Punishment Act (a special law on sexual violence crimes and punishment) has been continuously revised. It is significant to note that the acts of non-consensual distribution of self-filmed videos, distribution of re-filmed versions of pre-existing materials, and combination of materials from different sources, have become punishable.


However, she criticized that (the law) is “still limited in addressing the sexual objectification of non-sexual parts of the body or the whole body.”


For instance, there was a court ruling in the past that circulation of pictures of uniformed high school girls or pictures of non-sexual body parts does not qualify as “filming crimes with cameras” even though such acts of non-consensual filming often lead to verbal [written] sexual harassment through sexual objectification during the process of distribution.


Yoon suggested the legal direction to take to strictly punish digital sexual crimes, which are not physical rape, also as serious crimes.


She explained that it is important to “acknowledge digital sexual crimes as serious sexual crimes (though they do not consist of physical rape or violence) that dehumanize the victims by inflicting mental and physical pain through sexual humiliation”.


She deemed it particularly problematic that a crime is accepted as a sexual violation depending on the court’s views on concepts of sexual humiliation or sexual desire.


Furthermore, she emphasized that we must discuss whether ‘sexual humiliation,’ currently a requisite component of sexual crime, is really necessary in the structure of a particular crime, what role it plays in the crime, and if there is a need for it to be replaced with a different component because there is a fundamental issue that [the current definition of] this crime is based on the concept of ‘the obscene’, in which the body evokes sexual desire or humiliation.


In sexual crimes with cameras or other filming involved, there is a need to describe the crime and the victims’ emotions in more neutral language: for instance, “for sexual purposes” or “harassment” as well as “sexually offensive and insulting.”


Yoon indicated that it is “necessary to reform the laws regarding camera-related and other filming crimes because when mutually agreed-on and filmed sexual material is distributed non-consensually, and when third parties redistribute it, the perpetrators can be punished for distributing obscene materials but not additionally punished for it as a crime of sexual violence.”


She proposed modifying the legal criteria to stop revolving around the “body parts that can cause sexual desire or humiliation” and focus on “the basic type of privacy infringement crime” and in addition to that punishing when sexual attributes or illegalities are involved.


“It is also a possible solution to establish a new privacy infringement crime (under Article 316-2) within the criminal law and include privacy infringement crimes that are sexual in nature within the Sexual Violence Punishment Act.”


Victim protection as important as punishment of perpetrators


While illegal filming is problematic, as is shown in the “Nth Room” case, distribution and consumption are similarly serious matters. Yoon said it is urgent to “arrange a sentencing standard for digital sexual crimes.”


▲ On April 10th, members of the Committee for Telegram Sex Exploitation Joint Countermeasures attended the trial for a social services worker with the surname “Kang” who took part in the operation of the ‘Doctor’s Room’ and stood in front of the court with protesting pickets. Kang is on trial for threatening a woman before he was charged with being involved in the Telegram sexual exploitation case. The prosecution has requested the two cases be merged. The Committee for Telegram Sex Exploitation Joint Countermeasures announced that they will continue monitoring the trials so that every perpetrator involved in the Nth Room case will be prosecuted appropriately.  ©The Committee for Telegram Sex Exploitation Joint Countermeasures Facebook


She suggested considering “the introduction of a punitive damage compensation system to sanction the distribution and sale of illegal materials.”


“The punitive damage compensation system allows the imposition of additional indemnities, as well as fully guaranteed compensation, in cases where a victim suffers damage from the perpetrator’s ‘intentional or near-malice act.’ Since this practice already exists in laws such as the Subcontracting Transaction Fairness Act and the Credit Information Act, it is plausible to consider introducing it.”


Yoon also discussed the legal necessity of protecting the victims of digital sexual crimes.


The first step is to “explicitly define digital sexual crime within the Sexual Violation Prevention Act (a set of laws on preventing sexual crimes as well as on victim protection).” Since the law regulates the prevention of sexual violence, it is necessary to broaden the range of people who qualify as victims.


Moreover, she asserted that victims should be given further protection by taking regulations on crimes such as “the production, distribution, etc. of obscene materials depicting children or youth” from the Act on the Protection of Children and Youth Against Sex Offenses and “distributing obscene materials online” from the Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection, Etc, and adding these to the Sexual Violation Prevention Act.


The “Round Table in Search of Legal Systems for Eradication of Digital Sex Exploitation” was full of diverse discussions on legal solutions beyond what’s written here. A member of the ReSET project stated that “we need to consider a plan to punish even the possession of digital sexual crime materials and have conversations regarding the punishment of acts of watching, abetting, and instigation.”


She also pointed out that “since digital sexual crimes often start from personal information being leaked, the theft of personal information with the purpose of sexual exploitation must be punished.”


By Park Juyeon

Translated by Seung-a Han


*Original article:



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