My Response: Gender in Modern Korea

I must start this post by saying that it is written in response to a very good post from The Grand Narrative by James Turnbull. It’s basic framework is taken directly from a far too lengthy comment I posted there, but I’ve since tried to make it a bit more substantial and post-worthy. I strongly recommend reading this post, and spending some time reading the rest of the blog, as it really is the best place to get information and discussion about sexuality, gender, feminism and other issues in Korea. Also, I won’t try and rehash anything that’s been said over there here, because I could never do it as well! Like I said, this is a response to a post.

A statue from Love Land in Jeju-do

A statue from Love Land in Jeju-do

My first remark is unfortunately about something James said that I disagree with. The main reference point for James’s article is a piece by So-hee Lee entitled ‘The Concept of Female Sexuality in Korean Popular Culture,’ taken from the book Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class and Consumption in the Republic of Korea. In discussing this essay, James remarks that

“in this section of the chapter I think Lee disproportionately blames Korean husbands seeing their wives as asexual, unattractive ajumma (아주마) for their sexless marriages.”

In reality, my personal view is that Lee’s comments are certainly accurate, and this definitely has been very important in shaping the sexual identity (or non-identity) of Korean women. I think the point James was trying to make is that women hold just as many stereotypes and preconceptions about themselves and their marriage, and so this is equally to blame as how their husbands view them. This is by no means inaccurate, but we should not discard just how different the attitudes of Korean husbands (particularly from the older generations) towards their wives are compared with the ones someone might be familiar with if they had never been to Korea. I’m not saying that, by dint of being Korean, these attitudes are wrong, just that there are differences. Of course, in these discussions it can be all too easy to make generalisations, so I must point out that I’m not referring to all Koreans (or even the majority), just an observable and noteworthy number.

I’ve brought this up with many Koreans, male and female, and the general consensus seems to be that husbands, especially of that older generation, would feel in some way guilty if they thought of their wives as sexual beings. The reason for that is that they view it somewhat like incest. The wife is a part of the family, no different to any other member. I’m sure some people would be very quick to ascribe this to Confucianism, but I’m not sure I can, largely because there is nothing prescribed within the Confucian canon about this. Although certainly in the Confucian tradition the husband is supposed to take the “higher” position in the hierarchy, he is also responsible for ensuring that those “lower” than him are well provided for and content. Now, that could be argued to mean that a husband should view his wife as a sexual being if only to ensure her needs are met. Also, my own opinion is that many husbands who are guilty of viewing their wives as sexless ajummas actually do this because they are a mother figure to them as well. The wife bears their children, and then raises them, becoming a mother, but in many ways she does the same for her husband within the home, almost as if she was mothering him, and this is perhaps why a husband would consider it incestuous. On the other hand, in defense of James’s point of view, it can be said that in a male-dominated society, where a woman’s prospects were limited (still mostly referring to older generations – the “traditionals”), her sense of achievement came from performing her “womanly” roles well, and this often meant forgoing self-grooming, manners and a sexually desirable “delicate” image. In effect, she turned herself into an ajumma (아줌마).

Fierce Ajumma

If you study a chart of Confucian familial relationships, there is one very interesting feature that is markedly different from what a similar familial chart would look like in non-Confucian societies (think family tree with titles instead of names). Unfortunately I won’t be able to draw one here, but basically, your parents are called your parents, but their siblings are also referred to as parents – 큰 아버지 (Big father) instead of older uncle etc etc., and the same pattern follows for every generation, a cousin is a brother/sister 4 “measures” distant (4 촌). Therefore, to a married woman, her husbands parents fit into the hierarchy at the same level as her own parents and their generation, and she would even call her husbands parents “mother” and “father” – this is still standard practice for speaking to parents-in-law in Korea, and I’m sure many people will have witnessed it. In effect, this system forces her to fit into the hierarchy on a generational level with her husband, a connection almost equivalent to being his sibling. So it is a bit complicated but still possible to actually explain why sex within a marriage after the kids have been born is considered by some to be incestuous and doesn’t really happen. This explanation, unlike the first one I gave, is clearly a result of a Confucian influence.

But my basic point remains as: I do think it has been very relevant that husbands see their wives as asexual/sexless ajummas, although the wives do see themselves as this as well. They may not feel happy about it in the end, or very fulfilled, but it’s self-perpetuating to some extent, and down to their husbands for the rest.

Gender Equality Minister Byun Do-yoon

Gender Equality Minister Byun Do-yoon - Ironically, definite Ajumma

I was also very interested to see this description of the “missy” term by Lee that James picked up on in his post: “a married woman who still looks like a single woman.” I’m not sure in “western” countries whether you would find people who thought that married and single women look noticeably different. It’s also curious that she said they look different, not that they dress differently, as of course, the married ajumma does look different typically as a person – change in haircut, gait, behaviour are all well-known (and often ridiculed) features of ajummas. I think it’s a signal of so many things that women effectively turn themselves into ajummas at a certain age or after marriage. The biggest issue of course is that the younger generations are fiercely against becoming ajummas, and perhaps the generations before them were as well – if you’re feeling really brave maybe you could ask one, but I’m not going to try! The deciding factor to me seems to be the men – and of course the level of gender inequality/equality. If the men are not open to accepting the sexuality of women in full, both before and after marriage, and before and after having children, then the women stand very little chance of casting off the shackles of sexlessness. Anything towards this end that is to be achieved would have to be achieved solely by the individual women, but to read more about that see James’s post as well as a post by Gord Sellar about Korean women in a consumer society here.


There is also a quote from Lee briefly discussing the “weakening of Korean familism.” I don’t want to stick too closely here to what Lee actually says about this, because James has analysed that in full anyway, but the phrasing does interest me. This idea that Korea has a strong and highly developed sense of familism is, while surely true, drummed into every Korean. Many talk about it proudly, saying things like “In Korean culture family is very important.” But the issue I want to raise is this; in what culture is family not important? Certainly in Korea there are very set actions that family members are expected to perform and so on, and they are important and highly conspicuous, to be sure. These actions are explicit and sometimes representative of hierarchical responsibilities and sentiments. Taking your parents to go shopping on a Saturday morning when you have other things you should be doing means you’re filial and love/respect your parents. Cooking for your husband’s parents means you’re a good wife to him and a filial daughter-in-law. When Koreans talk about “weakening of Korean familism” I don’t think the issue is really that family is becoming less important to Koreans – they just have to express their “familism” (is that really a word??) in different ways, eg. small gestures replacing large ones, saying how you feel instead of performing a set action that is supposed to prove it, acknowledging that you feel what you actually feel, rather than displaying that you feel what you think you should be feeling. I think that young Koreans have adapted in this way the best, but that perhaps leads to a larger generation gap in people’s perceptions of things like “family.”  A son from younger generations may find it hard living with his parents, harder still for his wife. He will naturally try and display his affection for his parents, but the affection they expect is demonstrated by him living with them. It is in individual cases like this where we will be able to really register the change in Korean “familism.” Does the family find a way to adapt to the new pressures and concerns of modern life and find new ways of expressing how they feel that can coexist with that, or will the older values remain unchanged through the will of the parents? And, if change does occur, has that weakened Korean familism or has it just changed, adapted, developed?

Korean Family

That’s about all I have to say in response to James’s post, and it roughly deals with gender issues post-marriage, and how female sexuality in Korea has and continues to change. I do, however, want to add something about female sexuality in Korea pre-marriage, specifically the sexuality of teenagers.

There is another excellent post about this subject by Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling that has all the background research you could possibly want to get a better understanding of the topic and the situation. He also has good posts about teenage prostitution in Korea here and here. What I have to say is short, and a brief internet search will reveal far more detailed statistics and analysis. South Korea has an incredibly high number of teenage girls selling sex, and not just 18 and 19 year olds, rather the concentration seems to be around 14/15, with girls as young as 12 taking part in what are known as “compensated dates” (원조교제, wonjo kyoje/gyoje in Korean). What is perhaps more troubling is that the majority of customers or clients for these young girls are not hormonal pubescent young boys who don’t have the self-confidence to try the “regular way,” rather they are older adult men in their 20s and 30s, sometimes older. It seems that men from all walks of life are “compensating” young girls for sexual services. Once again, don’t be fooled into thinking this represents all or even a majority, but it is still a considerable number. The posts at Gusts of Popular Feeling that I linked to, among other sources, have all the relevant statistics.

So why do men seek out young girls in this manner? My personal view is that in an indirect way these girls are victims, even if they enter into these activities willingly, so I’m not pleased about tarnishing them with this brush, but in essence they are prostitutes. It is also worth pointing out, however, that this is entirely illegal, and not condoned by the Korean government or by society in general, and you only need to search Korean portal/news sites to find evidence of this.

The reason I’ve included this in this post is because many men, once they view their wives as sexless ajummas, for reasons mentioned above or otherwise, some will inevitably seek out other women for sex. Korea has a huge prostitution and sex industry as a whole, and anyone who has the experience of living in Korea will be able to tell you that adultery, especially by men, is quite common. We’re familiar in the “west” with the idea of men seeking out a “younger model,” and this seems to be similar to that on the part of the men. Also, young women – and virgins, or women with virginal qualities – have been held in higher esteem in many East Asian cultures up to a later date than in “western” ones, as evidenced by the greater amounts of what westerners would probably consider to be child pornography. In considering this, we must not make the mistake of trying to impose decidedly western morals or concepts on a different culture or society. Don’t forget, there was a time when, even in the most advanced “western” countries, girls were considered to be of marriageable age from their first period, and youthful features were most highly prized. Also, in societies were women are freer to express their sexuality, and where men are more accepting of this, sexual experience becomes a more desirable characteristic – just think about the term “MILF.” I don’t personally think there’s enough of an attraction towards this sexual experience among Korean men for an equivalent term referring to Ajummas to come into common vernacular. Besides, it would be too hard to pronounce… In Korea, features associated with youth are definitely the most highly prized – although this in itself does not lead directly to seeking out minors, and by no means excuses it.

For me, the real issue is sex education. Anyone who has worked in a Korean school will know that Koreans receive the absolute minimum of sex education, and what they do receive is of a very low standard. It was even worse for the older generations. And, again especially the older generations, what they lacked from their school in terms of sex education was not made up for by their parents. I’ve heard stories even today where grandmothers would be too embarrassed to talk about pregnancy. This means that the offending men likely had very little moral or scientific/factual education about sex. They would know it was required to produce children, and within marriage. But when there’s so much prostitution around them, and they’re disinclined to have sex with their wives after having children, how are they going to satisfy desires and curiosity.

Sex Ed

On top of this, women of a similar age to these men are not presented in a sexual way in Korea. Very few “dress to impress,” and there is certainly little to no sexualisation of Korean women over their early 30s. In fact, the most sexualised women in the media are teenage girls and very young women. The Wondergirls were even used in an advertising campaign against teenage prostitution. How they failed to see that this would cause more harm than good is beyond me. All it could have done was link the idea of a sexualised (albeit artificially) schoolgirl with the idea of paying for sex. In a country where it’s illegal to view pornography on the internet, but there are pictures of the Wondergirls seemingly everywhere you look, it seems to me as though this must create a desire among some older men.

SoHee of the Wonder Girls, born June 1992

SoHee of the Wonder Girls, born June 1992

As for the young girls involved, I think their reasons are similar, foremost among them again being lack of decent sex education, either at school or at home. Firstly, in a matter as important as this, impressionable young people need guidance as to what is and isn’t morally, legally and socially acceptable and why. Also, if young people have boundaries, even though they may overstep them, it will generally not be by too far, but knowing where the boundaries are remains important. If nobody discusses it with them, they have no fixed idea of where the boundaries are. Also, they are quite simply hormonal adolescents, and they are naturally curious. Their education should also fulfill a larger part of their curiosity. The cases of gang rape by schoolchildren when they later said they were emulating pornography shows that if their education doesn’t satisfy some of their curiosity, they will find other ways to do so – it’s natural. It would be much better for their curiosity to be satisfied by proper education than by pornography.

Lastly, the societal expectation of young girls (and really older unmarried women as well) is that they are “pure” and devoid of sexuality. However, as mentioned before, their role models in the media are highly sexualised. They aren’t shown as having no time for anything but studying, their spots are hidden, and they can aspire to be with rich, doting men. They are also symbols of consumerism, where status is apparently granted by what you own. Compensated dating makes the girls richer than they could ever be doing legitimate work, and enables them to keep up with the latest fashion trends. In fact, the statistics from Gusts of Popular Feeling show that the majority of girls who take part in these dates do so for the money. On top of that, there’s the factor of curiosity, the sense of being wanted, feeling pretty and being doted upon. It would also have a sense of the risque. Also, in the same way as the rate of suicide, I wonder if perhaps this phenomenon has a snowballing effect – these young people, and older ones too – see it around them and it becomes subconsciously more acceptable to them.

This post has grown greatly from what it started off as, but I’m very keen to read what anyone else has to add or comment on. I know there’s a variety of topics, but it seems like there could be so much for further discussion contained within all this, so please do comment.