Male flight attendants dance in front of female customers at a bar in Seoul.

Crowded into the cramped space, one by one people waited for Lucy Williamson, a female BBC reporter, to choose.

Located deep underground in the upscale Gangnam area of Seoul, South Korea, the young men working at Bar 123 are part of a popular profession in this country: the gigolo profession.

Bars like this are open all night, inviting female customers to choose and pay for male servers.

Minkyoung is very beautiful, wears expensive clothes, not like someone who has to pay to have a man with her.

`At regular bars, men sit and drink with me just for the purpose of having a one-night stand, but I don’t want that, so I often come here. I like the fun atmosphere here,` Minkyoung said.

These pubs hire male hostesses to serve drinks and entertain women.

Boys pub in Seoul

Prostitution is prohibited at bars like this.

James has worked at Bar 123 for several years now.

`The guys who do this job are very professional, we understand what we are doing,` James said.

`After talking for a few hours with a woman, we roughly understand what she does and how much money she earns. From there, we analyze that person’s personality and estimate what she is willing to do.`

James and other male escorts said that many of the customers are from the upper class in Korea, which comes with money and many unbelievable perks.

`She said ‘let’s sign the contract. I have it ready. No matter how much you want to write down, I’ll cover it all,’` James recalled.

At that time, James refused because he thought she was joking, but he immediately regretted it when he learned that another male escort had signed a contract with that woman for $97,000.

`If she offered now, I would sign immediately,` James said.

Service origination

Before the appearance of male escort bars, Korea only had one type of service for men, which was men being served drinks by beautiful hostesses.

After these hostesses finished working, they also needed to relax and Kim Dong-hee, a former gigolo, launched a new type of service when he opened a bar that hired all male staff to serve.

`What female flight attendants want us to do for them is exactly the same as what they are forced to do to make money while serving male customers,` Kim said.

`I think many of them are very miserable and lonely. They simply want to buy our time and our bodies.`

The profession of a gigolo in Korea

Billboard of a barĀ in Korea.

Female guests who come here, in addition to women working as bartenders, also come from many different segments of society.

Jasper Kim, director of the Asia-Pacific Global Research Group in Seoul, said many important cultural values have disappeared in this process.

`I think the rapid social changes that come with rapid economic growth leave Koreans wondering how to cope. Capitalism overwhelmed basic social norms a few decades ago.`

Tired of working long hours at the office, more and more Korean women feel lonely, while scientific and technological progress makes people increasingly distant.

`The humanistic element in previous Korean society has disappeared. People only focus on technology and work and no longer pay attention to human relationships,` Kim said.

`In many ways, today’s Korean society reminds me of American society in the 1960s, which witnessed many great changes due to a series of movements.`

Kim believes that many women who go to escort shops do not pay for sex but to have a confidant.

His shop has a different rule than the old-fashioned barboys, which is that touching is prohibited.

The interior of the shop is mainly red, the shop is divided into many discreet tables, where women pay hundreds, even thousands of dollars just to drink and chat with handsome guys.

Kim Nayu, a regular customer of the restaurant, was sitting at the innermost corner table.

`Confiding in friends is much cheaper,` she admits.

`It costs me money, but it’s worth it because I can relieve my emotions. People often go to a psychologist or psychiatrist, but I think this method is similar but gentler.`

The profession of a gigolo in Korea

The male flight attendant’s job is to pour wine, dance and confide in female customers.

Sung-il, Nayu’s flight attendant, said it is difficult to separate work and private life when working in this profession.

`It would be a lie to say that I have never been tempted to go further with a customer, because we are all human, men. However, we have our principles,` Sung-il said.

One of his customers often talked a lot about her husband and when the three of them met, Sung-il and the husband became close immediately.

`No one here hides when doing this job, and customers are also very open,` he said.

This openness is posing a new challenge for Korean society, where the lines between male escorts and male prostitutes are only slightly different, Lucy concludes.

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