Granny’s a Prostitute, And Other Tales of Elderly Woe From South Korea

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Until recently, South Korea has had little need for the kind of social welfare state that is familiar to most residents of the developed world. Following the basic tenets of Confucius, the extended family unit took care of the aged. More and more often, that is no longer the case. And the result is geriatric prostitution.

Lucy Williamson of the BBC reported from Seoul, “South Korea’s grandparents are victims of their country’s economic success. As they worked to create Korea’s economic miracle, they invested their savings in the next generation. In a Confucian society, successful children are the best form of pension. But attitudes here have changed just as fast as living standards, and now many young people say they can’t afford to support themselves and their parents in Korea’s fast-paced, highly competitive society.”

A little historical context is important here. A 70-year-old South Korean was born during the Japanese occupation and was just at school age when the Korean War began. For a long time, South Korea was a poor country — it was one of those places moms said were full of starving people when confronted with a fussy eater. In the 1960s, its economy began the growth that has made it a newly developed nation. Although it had elections as early as 1948, democracy in the fullest sense of the word probably didn’t arrive until 1987. The Korea of today is a very different country from the one the oldest of its people knew.

As one man said, “Those who rely on their children are stupid. Our generation was submissive to our parents. We respected them. The current generation is more educated and experienced, so they don’t listen to us. I’m 60 years old and I don’t have any money. I can’t trust my children to help. They’re in deep trouble because they have to start preparing for their old age. Almost all of the old folks here are in the same situation.”

Pensions were introduced in South Korea only in 1988, and the country spends 1.6 percent of its GDP on the elderly — the OECD average is four times that. Only a fifth of old people get a pension of any kind. Hence, South Korea has the highest level of poverty among its elderly in the developed world. And so long as the kids were looking after Grandmama, that wasn’t that big a deal.

So to get by, a great many older Korean women (who outlive men in Korea as elsewhere, and therefore are alone) sell Bacchus, a brand of energy drink, in Jongmyo Shrine Park in Seoul. For some, though, that is merely a sideline offering. As one old man told Williamson, “We can find girlfriends here. They’ll ask us to play with them. Sex costs 20,000 to 30,000 won ($18 to $28), but sometimes they’ll give you a discount if they know you.” Selling Bacchus alone is good for maybe 5,000 won a day.

Now, men have a problem as they age, and that is that the spirit is often willing but the flesh is weak — flaccid even. Rather than take pills to get an erection, the guys who frequent Jongmyo Shrine Park let the prostitute give them an injection right into the vein of their John Thomas. It must work or the business wouldn’t happen.

However, as others have learned, sex and injections can lead to bad things. Dr. Lee Ho-Sun, the leading expert in this area of study, believes the needles get re-used 10 or 20 times. She says that a recent survey showed that about 40 percent of the men examined had a sexually transmitted disease, and this is aggravated by the fact that the really common ones weren’t even part of the test. Local governments have started classes to teach safe sex specifically and sex education in general to oldsters.

Does anyone else find this unacceptable and sad?

Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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