In South Korea, an epidemic of online sex crimes is driving women to suicide and despair, according to a sweeping new report published this week by Human Rights Watch. 

The study outlines the dark underbelly of a tech-forward culture that boasts the highest rate of smartphone ownership in the world. A wave of abuses is battering women through covert spy cams and the distribution of nonconsensual images. The phenomenon has inflicted lifelong trauma on victims, researchers found, forcing some women to flee the country, forgo intimate relationships, defect from the internet, contemplate self-harm, or end their lives. 

The CEO of a company working with women to take down unwanted digital content estimated that about four of his clients die by suicide each year. 

“I was really shocked by how many of the women talked about killing themselves,” said report author Heather Barr, the interim co-director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch. Barr based the report on interviews with 38 subjects, including digital sex crime survivors, government officials, activists, and direct service providers for online abuse victims, as well as an online survey distributed to hundreds of women. “I think that’s an illustration of what the impact is for people. There’s something unique about this particular crime and I think it’s because it never ends.”

In the South Korean context, digital sex crimes involve capturing and sharing intimate footage of people — almost always, women and girls — without their consent. Perpetrators harness a number of methods to record and distribute the footage, from spy cameras hidden in public places like restrooms and hotels to surreptitiously filming women without their consent, to the publication of manipulated or nonconsensual intimate images. The phenomenon has exploded over the last decade. From 2008 to 2020, the percentage of sex crime prosecutions in South Korea involving illegal filming rose from four to 20%.

While the motives of perpetrators vary — some do it to make a profit, selling footage to websites and platforms, while others do it for pleasure or to exact revenge on ex-partners — the impact can leave victims with profound trauma. The psychological damage is often exacerbated by negative experiences with police officers and the legal system, the report found, with prosecutors dropping more than 40 percent of digital sex crime cases. 

The placement of spy cameras in public toilets was so pervasive that the Seoul government, in 2018, unveiled a program to inspect the city’s 20,000-plus restrooms daily. “This huge commitment of human resources was indicative of just how out of control the problem of people filming and trying to film intimate images of women and girls in public toilets—and other public locations—had become,” the report stated.

The spy cameras are often hidden in everyday objects like toothpaste tubes, coat hangers, or coffee cups, Barr explained, with the ability to stream footage directly to a user’s smartphone. The report recounted a chilling example of a victim whose boss gifted her a clock. The object, she later discovered, had been streaming footage from her bedroom to his cell phone for more than a month. When she approached him about it, he asked: “Is that the thing you stayed up all night to Google?” The experience affected her mental health; she now takes medication to manage her anxiety and depression.

Another subject learned a neighbor had been covertly filming her through her window. The police later found that he had images of seven other women stored on his electronic devices, and was charged a few years earlier for the same crime. Despite that, he received a suspended offense, underscoring criticism that perpetrators are not adequately punished for their crimes. In 2019, according to the report, prosecutors dropped 43.5 percent of sexual digital crime cases, while 79% percent of people convicted of recording nonconsensual intimate images were given a suspended sentence or fine in 2020.

“At the heart of the government response is a failure to appreciate how deep the impact of digital sex crimes is on survivors,” the report concludes. “Once a non-consensual image has been shared once, or the victim simply fears it might be shared, the fear of the image appearing or reappearing hangs over the survivor indefinitely.”