Women's March, Baltimore. CREDIT: <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_2018_Women%27s_March_locations#/media/File:WomensMarch.BaltimoreMD.20January2018_IMG_2443_(28027651679).jpg">Elvert Barnes</a> (<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en">CC</a>)
Women's March, Baltimore. CREDIT: Elvert Barnes (CC)

Sexual Exploitation: The Dynamics of Gender and Power

Feb 26, 2018

"Born and raised in California before moving to Seoul, Korea in 2010, I am an inquisitive 16-year-old who finds pleasure in understanding different cultures and learning new languages. When not studying, I can be found practicing the cello, binge-watching my favorite TV shows, or feeding the street cats in my neighborhood."--Katherine Yoon

ESSAY TOPIC: In your opinion, what is the greatest ethical challenge facing the world today?

The United States is currently undergoing a critical movement against sexual assault. In wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, victims of sexual harassment across all industries and backgrounds are now unabashedly disclosing their previously suppressed experiences. Thanks to the #MeToo social media campaign, the 'Weinstein effect' has also expanded internationally, precipitating a continuous cascade of allegations against powerful individuals including A-list actors, notable politicians, and wealthy businessmen. Aside from its plethora of positive effects, however, this pivotal movement has made one thing absolutely clear: sexual harassment is everywhere. The relationship between power and sexual exploitation affects every industry in every country and is the most pressing ethical issue in the world.

Here in Korea, the pop-idol culture permeates every aspect of life, and thousands of young people sacrifice their youth to desperately pursue dreams of becoming a famous singer, dancer, or model. But for girls, their path to bright lights often involves sharp detours into the darkness of predatory sexual behavior.

"If any of you wish to obtain even a sliver of success, you must address your obvious flaws; hair, skin, face, body—all must be perfect." His voice is still fresh in my mind, and I remember how he walked up and down the aisles of scantily dressed girls, whose only crime was ignorance of what we were getting ourselves into.

Pausing briefly to inspect each girl's physique, the man treaded slowly toward me, his heavy footsteps echoing off the cold concrete walls. An uncomfortable silence filled the room and we girls, aged 13 to 22, fidgeted anxiously under the man's suffocating gaze. "You want to become a fashion model?" he said to me while looking at my body, never acknowledging my eyes. "Lose weight."

My heart plummeted at hearing his 'advice,' for I was one of those many girls who naively harbored the dream of becoming a model. Though I'm no longer involved directly, my time in the Korean modeling industry gave me access to hear of and see multiple accounts of improper sexual incidents that were happening to my friends. Every week, it seemed there was another occurrence of a model being subject to various forms of abuse. From a 16-year-old who was pressured to strip naked for an 'artistic photo shoot' to quickly hushed cases of attempted rape, I was constantly haunted and disgusted by the repulsive truth of an outwardly glamorous industry.

All over the world, in developed and underdeveloped nations alike, such cases of sexual harassment are neglected or unreported altogether. According to a recent survey conducted by the Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, eight out of ten workers who suffer harassment choose to "just put up with it."

Why have these problems remained as an invisible pandemic for so many years? The predominant reason is that women still compete in environments where male sexuality dictates their values. Particularly for non-elite women in Asia, the prospect of facing sexual harassment while climbing the ladder to success is widely accepted as an inevitability, or even as standard practice. Women still have little awareness of their own rights and often do not realize that they are a victim of sexual harassment. When confronted with the ethical dilemma of succumbing to a supervisor's sexual advances versus losing promotion opportunities, most women ultimately choose to give in. Even in cases where women are physically assaulted or raped, more than 50 percent of victims choose to remain silent, and live in denial.

The truth is that, despite social progress in terms of legal protection and equal rights, women still assume a lower-status role in many traditionally patriarchal societies around the world. Regardless of one's affluence or social standing, women are often subconsciously expected to serve men, either as domestic or sexual objects, which results in the normalization of sexual harassment at the workplace. The issue is further exacerbated by generational conflicts as older individuals, both men and women alike, are generally more callous towards the concept of sexual harassment and gender equality compared to young people. In early November 2017, for instance, a private hospital in South Korea shocked the international community when it was uncovered that for years they had been coercing junior female nursing staff to perform erotic dance routines in front of colleagues, patients, and high-ranking hospital officials. All year round, these newly hired nurses were forced to practice choreography after hours without receiving overtime compensation in order to provide this perverted form of "entertainment"and "comfort." Even more concerning was that when the nurses sought assistance from their senior nurses, they were told that the practice was "normal"and not too react so "hysterically." Their older female counterparts could not, or would not, comprehend the young nurses' lamentations and instead opted to hold on to this submissive image of a woman, for fear of change.

More subtle forms of sexism also persist in the workplace, where workers will often casually utter sexual or misogynistic remarks without recognizing the intrusiveness of their words. Even the fact that female business attire tends to be much tighter than that of males suggests a deeply ingrained gender-prejudiced notion that women are expected to placate men's desires. In such a male-dominated work environment, women cannot help but feel compelled to "flirt" and utilize traditionally feminine characteristics in order to succeed. The most targeted women are those who demonstrate stereotypically 'masculine' traits, namely assertiveness and aggressiveness; they often feel pressured to suppress their competitive nature for fear of being labeled as domineering or "bossy," instead acting the part of a docile, diffident sycophant to pander to the egos of their male co-workers. Worse yet, such behavior eventually leads to sexual favoritism, thereby demoralizing diligent employees and creating a toxic working climate that does not value merit.

In spite of the prevalence of sexist behavior in work environments, most women are unwilling to speak up as they risk facing further misogynistic abuse in addition to other modes of retaliation. Part of the difficulty also stems from the sheer subtleness of such sexism, consequently hampering the detection of this constant vicious cycle of gender discrimination. When considering the possible consequences that may arise from reporting their offenders, such as the loss of a position or of social standing, most women convince themselves that the incident is insignificant, accepting that any effort to seek justice is futile. What's more, even women who do work hard to obtain high promotions are still faced with the obstacle of childbirth and often must retire to raise their children, hence largely contributing to the unjust male-dominated power dynamic prevailing in most industries.

To eliminate this inequitable power relationship, all industries must aim towards the equal representation of both genders in each level of the corporate ladder. Perhaps the most ostensible solution involves enforcing mandatory gender staffing ratios to ensure that men are not monopolizing positions of power in the workplace. Even businesses that hire more women are unfair in terms of management. For example, although most modeling agencies and fashion corporations have a majority of female employees, higher positions are almost exclusively filled by men. Another crucial predicament that must be addressed is how to eliminate sexual harassment, (or more precisely, sexual exploitation), as it is a severe byproduct of this unfair power dynamic. From implementing stricter penalties for companies where sexual harassment occurs to requiring further anti-harassment training regarding what contributes sexual harassment, there are a number of ways in which to tackle this issue.

Unfortunately, such measures would only be temporary at best; men will inevitably continue to hold higher positions as women either retire subsequent to having children or have difficulty in securing a job as companies prefer younger, unmarried applicants.

If lasting change is to be made, we need to transform the conventional career model and develop a new norm where women have the freedom to choose their own life patterns. Even after becoming a mother, women should easily be able to attend university and begin careers without social pressure and restrictions. Via this new norm, we will be able to see more mature women occupying places of power, thus instituting greater respect for women and decreasing the likelihood of sexual exploitation in the workplace. Less emphasis will be placed on a woman's sexual appeal, and instead, her merit will dictate her success, thereby reducing the implied power behind sexual misconduct.

From the denial of suffrage to unequal pay, women constitute the largest oppressed group to ever exist. If we truly want to move forward as a species, we must strive toward creating a world that is built for women just as much as it is built for men.

To access the other winning essays, click here.

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