Sex Volunteer: review

As one of the last few films screened at Sinema, Ryandall Lim reviews the film Sex Volunteers by Cho-Keyong-duk, South Korea.


Sex Volunteer: Open Secret 1st Story
(Director: Cho-Kyeong-duk; released: 22 Apr 2010, South Korea)

Screening at Sinema Old School on 11 Dec 2011

Do handicapped people, especially those who are mentally challenged, need sex?

It may seem inhumane to even ask this because I suppose all human beings have somewhat similar needs, wants and desires. So what makes one even harbour such insensitive questions?

But if you were to encounter a handicapped person on the street, what would your first thoughts be?  Would “does he or she have sex?” first cross your mind? Chances are, if at all, you’d probably be filled with pity-related thoughts.

Personally, harsh and frank as I may sound, handicapped people, especially those who are mentally handicapped, appear “asexual” to me – not because they are incapable of having sex (or probably the idea of them doing so is too absurd to ponder?), but that I would not associate them with sex in the first place because there are much more important issues for them (and me) to consider other than the frivolous need for self-gratification. Or is there? In other words, the mere thought of even linking them to sex would be inappropriate, even irreverent.

So what happens when you have a film that addresses this very thought?

Sex Volunteer: Open Secret 1st Story is a narrative that revolves around the topic of sex volunteers who provide physical pleasure to handicapped people. In it, film student Ye-ri befriends a man named Cheon-gil who suffers from cerebral palsy, and has no control over his limbs. Through her association with the man’s priest,  Father Jin-woo, she understands that Cheon-gil wants to experience sex. She decides to volunteer her body. Following which, Ye-ri decides to do a docu-movie about her experience and enlists the help of actors, including another disabled man to re-enact her encounter.

The film begins with a hotel bust in which Ye-ri, Father Jin-woo and Cheon-gil are arrested for alleged prostitution, followed by an intrusive reporter who is used as a storytelling device throughout to uncover Ye-ri’s story and address the movie’s themes. However, the 123-minute movie seems draggy: we go through the narration of Ye-Ri’s actual sex volunteer episode, followed by an almost re-creation of the same story through her school film production which appears as a film-within-film, in a cinema-verite format. Together with side plots of Ye-Ri’s other project  involving Seoul’s prostitutes in the red light district, her mother’s role as an activist for the prostitutes, and interviews with a founder of a sex volunteer organisation, the show at times seem confusing as viewers lose attention.

However, it succeeds in addressing and educating viewers to two of its important non-mainstream issues: that handicapped people do have sexual desires and that there are organisations set up to cater to their needs. But, it also throws up many unanswered questions:

  • Do handicapped people need such “help”? (Apart from medical claims that sex promotes a healthier life overall)
  • Should moral or religious implications be considered under such situations? (It is Father Jin-woo who condones Ye-ri’s sex volunteer service and he also buys sex toys for the disabled he counsels – is it right at all for him to meddle in such affairs?);
  • What role would emotions play in the role of sex volunteers? Would some volunteers end up emotionally scarred? (In the film, it was noted that most of the volunteers in the sex volunteer organisation were male, with the lone female dropping out due to reasons unspecified)
  • How would one know if the male volunteers were not just in it for personal gratification, or should we care at all since gratifying the disabled would be primary concern?
  • Are such organisations all that altruistic in their aims or are they based on pure pity? And if they are, should this be an issue since it can be argued that all red-light districts are set up with some “pity” involved?

But probably, the thought most on viewers’ minds:

  • How far can “volunteerism” go? (This was asked during the post-film dialogue and one panelist likened it to any other volunteer work “like planting a tree”. Now while I may agree that this may be one extreme form of volunteer work as it involves the body, there are implications and it may involve an extent of uncontrolled emotions, together with a list of other considerations including the questions above. So no, to me, it is not just like planting a tree: you can’t just wash away the dirt after the act is done – and i say this in the most unbiased way – there will probably be other intangible post-sex effects to deal with)

A search on the internet shows that sex volunteer organisations do exist but a large number of them involve some token payment to the volunteer. The roles required also vary in nature – from volunteers who facilitate disabled couples in the process of sexual intercourse to those who engage in the physical act themselves. One organisation even connects sex workers to disabled people to give them “renewed pride in their work”, while another calls for volunteers to satisfy married Japanese women who are still virgins. So the definition of sex volunteers may vary from organisation to organisation, according to their agenda. Now let me play devil’s advocate and ask another controversial question: how far can “volunteerism” go before it becomes another misnomer for prostitution in this sense?

But for now, this movie has opened up my mind at least. For one, it has allowed me to chide myself for despicably thinking that handicapped people were incapable of experiencing the normal desires that you and I are capable of feeling.

From the net:

And signing off with a trailer.

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