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As a growing, ultra-competitive middle class has become preoccupied with getting ahead, many elderly and poor people have been left to fend for themselves.Despite the country’s dramatic growth after the 1950-53 Korean War, many older women in South Korea’s male-dominated culture didn’t receive equal education and job opportunities in their youth.Elderly widowers and divorced men, meanwhile, seek out the women to fulfill sexual desires or fight loneliness amid lingering prejudice against second marriages and dating among senior citizens.In late 2013 and early 2014, the number of “Bacchus ladies” peaked at about 300 to 400 in the Jongno neighborhood alone, according to Lee Hosun, a professor at Korea Soongsil Cyber University in Seoul who has interviewed dozens of the women.SEOUL, South Korea — As about a dozen elderly men loiter in a small plaza near a cinema, mostly chatting or watching people pass by, several deeply wrinkled women stroll among them, trolling for customers willing to pay for sex in nearby motels. I can treat you really well,” a 76-year-old woman with a limp says as a reporter approaches her on a recent sunny afternoon.Despite a police crackdown this spring that resulted in 33 arrests, including an 84-year-old woman, the so-called “Bacchus ladies” can still be seen near the Piccadilly theater in Seoul’s Jongno neighborhood.One of the women says she needs the money to take care of her ailing mother. Some get paid to drink with older men and only occasionally have sex with them. “It’s like our mothers are forced to lift up their skirts to make money because their children won’t feed them.” According to Confucian ideals, parents are to be cherished by their children.
“I feel really sorry for them,” said a police officer in the area who would only identify himself by his family name, Jeong.Lee, the professor, said that most of the women she has interviewed had dabbled in prostitution when they worked at karaoke bars and teahouses in their early years.Just a few — five or six — were ordinary housewives before turning into prostitution in their old age.She and her husband live with their son, a low-paid manual worker, and his family, relying partly on government subsidies. Some are ethnic Koreans from China who came to Seoul trying to find a better life.“Every woman here is keeping this a secret from their families,” said the woman, wearing a checkered blouse and navy blue pants. Widowed, divorced or abandoned by their children, many older women now find themselves without a social safety net and so are forced to take up prostitution.