Can a 22-year old Korean woman really be ignorant of the contraceptive pill? In this day and age? And if not…then why would she lie about it?
The woman in question is Kim So-mi (김소미), a student at Seoul National University who appeared in one of Korea’s first television commercials for the pill after a ban on them was lifted in 2006, and who claimed that “she only found out about the pill when she was doing the shoot” (정작 김씨는 광고를 찍으면서 피임약에 대해 처음으로 알게 됐다고 털어놨다). Putting aside for a moment the fact that that was rather a strange time to discover what one was appearing in a commercial for, then at first glance her claim appears reasonable: based on my own and especially female friends’ (Korean and Western) experiences and discussions with them, there are indeed a great many otherwise smart and sophisticated 20 and 30-something Korean women who are shockingly ignorant of sexual matters. And, as I explain here, knowledge of contraceptive methods and healthy attitudes to sex tend not to be suddenly and miraculously acquired upon their wedding nights either.
On the other hand, despite oft-cited taboos against premarital sex in Korea, in the most recent comprehensive survey that I’m aware of (PDF here) not only did over half of Korean 18-30 year-olds report having had sex before marriage (albeit with large differences between the sexes, as I’ll discuss), but even recent celebrities’ bulging waistlines at weddings are not creating the scandal that they used to, which is very surprising considering the high moral standards that Korean female celebrities especially are normally held to. Not only do those taboos belie a large amount of premarital sex in practice then, arguably this is increasingly publicly tolerated too, albeit with strong and enduring double-standards and still quite some way to go before any couples can be open about it as I’ll explain.
But given that environment, then it is not unreasonable to question a 22 year-old woman’s complete ignorance of the very existence of the pill, particularly someone whose supposed intelligence is emphasized throughout the commercial (“똑똑하다” in the stillshot above means “smart”), the pharmaceutical company Organon International making sure to not only make mention of the prestigious university she attends, and presenting a rather more bookish-looking version of her in the commercial below than the stillshot would suggest, but also to stress that taking responsibility for one’s own contraception was “the smart way to do love”, which sounds only slightly less strange and forced a choice of words in the original Korean – 좋은 사랑을 하려면 진짜 똑똑해야 한다고 생각해요 – than it does in English (update: sorry, but the video has since been deleted, and that was the only one I could find).
In this stress on her intelligence, I think the commercial would be somewhat endearing to most long-term expats, for it is really quintessentially Korean: can you imagine the pill being advertised in any Western country using a rather nerdish-looking undergraduate from an elite university? As such, it reminds me also of early Korean commercials for deodorants (unfortunately too old for me to find a video of), which seemed to devote more attention to motherly figures dispensing advice to daughters on how and why to use it rather than on their supposed benefits for attracting the opposite sex, or alternatively how Korean blind date shows will often feature the blind-date chooser’s parents also, not merely to watch in the audience but as integral parts of the show. All of which are healthy reminders that while Korea appears to be very similar to Western countries on the surface – they use contraception, they wear deodorant (albeit only in the summer), they have dating programs…and so on – in reality the narratives and social codes operating behind most things are sometimes very different.
But this veneer of modernity, however, definitely has its dark sides. Fellow blogger and writer Gord Sellar, for instance (whom I think I take the phrase “veneer of modernity” from), recently briefly mentions in passing how the mere trappings of a modern driving system – laws, speed cameras, sidewalks, traffic police, and so on – without the backdrop of a well-developed driving ethos as it were produces something quite unlike (and rather more dangerous than) the experience of driving in most developed countries. And in this particular case, a mere veneer of modern, rational notions of sexuality becomes much less benign when a woman like Kim So-mi not only feels compelled to defend her appearance in a commercial for the pill, but also by choosing to do so not by pointing out how empowering it genuinely is to women but rather – through claiming ignorance of what it even was – by distancing herself from the sexually-active women who would be aware of it and use it. Moreover, her preceding statement that she “had nothing to feel guilty about” – 마음에 찔리는 일을 하는 것도 아니라고 생각한다 – is, while true, someone at odds with that sentiment, and merely serves to highlights the forced nature of her feigned ignorance all the more.
(In passing, I wonder how that relates – if at all – to Schering’s advertisements for the pill which feature Western celebrity lookalikes rather than Koreans. That’s supposedly Catherine Zeta-Jones on the above and left for instance (source), and others in the series can be found here, here, and here)
I could also mention that claiming complete ignorance of the pill somewhat compromises her credibility as a role model, which may well be why she hasn’t appeared in any further commercials for Organon International since, but you get the idea. And no, I don’t think I’m making too much of this one example, for it is this theme of relinquishing of sexual responsibility for the sake of saving face by unmarried Korean women that strongly comes across from the results of the aforementioned survey on condom use in Korea, and which I’ll discuss for the remainder of this post. But before I do, I should at the very least mention and link to three much more serious cases where decidedly archaic Korean attitudes to women’s sexuality caused genuine harm: first, that of Baek Ji-young (백지영) of course, as I briefly discuss here; next, demonstrating that that still has a great deal of resonance even eight years later, the case of Korean singer Ivy (아이비), whose career was significantly harmed by the merest suggestion of sexual impropriety earlier this year (and despite the rumors ultimately being proved false); and finally and even more alarmingly, that of Ok So-ri (옥소리), who will soon be going to jail for two years for adultery, despite it being common knowledge that tens if not hundreds of thousands of Korean men commit adultery every day. For more on that, see here, here and here.
(Update 1: I couldn’t find any information about what Organon thought of Kim So-mi’s comments, but I did find more here about the selection process for the commercial)
But first, let me address the question of why commercials for condoms specifically were allowed as early as 2004, despite the ban on commercials for contraceptives in general not being lifted until 2006 like I said. According to this source from just before the Organon commercial appeared, the reason is that those condom commercials were only used:
…as part of a public campaign promoting condom use, pushed by the Korea Federation for HIV/AIDS Prevention (KAIDS).
Recently, however, condom manufacturers such as Unidus have been promoting their products on cable television networks and the Internet, and are considering spreading the advertisements to national television.
Although the authorities have allowed television commercials for sex-related products, it remains to be seen whether the bigger television broadcasters accept the advertisements, with concerns that the commercials for condoms and contraceptives might offend viewers
This caused quite a bit of confusion and consternation amongst Korean observers at the time, and any Korean readers among you might be interested in this Korean blogger’s take on events that I’ve just found as I type this, but for the sake of getting this post up sooner rather than later I’ll have to skip translating it for non-Korean readers for now sorry (but I’m still happy to do so; just give me a buzz).
Some Reliable Statistics on Premarital Sex in South Korea (for a change)
For now though, let’s move onto the results of the survey (and for a more sociological discussion of the subject, see here and here). While it is possibly a little dated (the data-gathering was conducted in 2003), given its rigorous methodology and so on then I’d give much more credence to its results than, say, headline-grabbing ones in newspapers like this vacuous one from today (but still, thanks to ROK Drop for it, and see here for Robert Neff’s take on it at The Marmot’s Hole) or this one conducted by a television station last year. It also happens to be very short and readable, and so if you’ve read this far into the post then I highly recommend spending an extra ten minutes reading it for yourself, although I will do my best to present and analyze the most important results here. To start then:
- 27% of men 7.8% of women had sex before the age of 18
- “Contrary to the reported Korean situation, there are no significant gender differences in the rate of premarital sex and age at first intercourse compared to that in many other liberal, developed societies.”
- “Compared to other [developed] societies, although there are fewer sexually experienced youths under 18 in Korea, there has nevertheless been an increase in premarital sex and a substantial lowering of the age at first sexual intercourse….the rate for females has risen more rapidly than that for males.”
Already you’ll notice potential issues of over and under-reporting by men and women respectively throughout the survey, although in Korea in particular there is likely to be much more to the disparities than mere inflated egos and pretenses of feminine virtue as we’ll soon see. As for those figures for teenage sex specifically, they are clearly reason in themselves for Koreans to have a big rethink about just how effective their policy of sticking their heads in the sand has been so far: not only are they increasingly comparable to those for Westerners over time, odds are that Westerners at least will have received more than the handful of hours in front of a fifteen year-old video that counts for sex education in Korea (for students lucky enough to be living in Seoul that is). They also wouldn’t have to contend with pharmacists refusing to sell them condoms or any other other contraceptives either, nor internet portal sites refusing to allow them to conduct a mere internet search for information about how to use and buy condoms without presenting proof (via their national id number) that they’re over 18.
For an excellent discussion of public attitudes to teenage sexuality in the 1990s that provide a backdrop to those results, I highly recommend reading this post at Gusts of Popular Feeling, and it’s clear that little has changed over a decade later. Moreover, it’s just a thought, but in the almost complete absence of any information or adults talking to them about sex, then I invite readers to speculate about just whom exactly might be providing young Koreans with most of their sexual role models instead:
- In December 2005, there had been 3,829 cumulative reported cases of HIV/AIDS, of which males accounted for 90.7%. Of the new HIV infections among Korean women in 2004, all were attributed to heterosexual contact.
By August this year, the total had risen to 5717, with almost exactly the same proportions of men to women. The survey notes that with such relatively low numbers, if women “were able to ensure that their partners use condoms consistently and properly, [then] HIV/AIDS would be prevented effectively.” They’re not, as we shall see, but on the positive side it should be noted that the majority of Koreans no longer see HIV/AIDS as a mere foreign, gay disease that doesn’t affect them.
- According to previous research, mostly conducted in the five years before this survey, “the percentage of consistent condom use among young people as well as in the general population was relatively lower than in other countries. It was found that only 18.6% of never married, sexually active young people aged 18-29 used condoms consistently…[and]…the reported condom use at first sexual intercourse was 18.7% for men and 13.4% for women. The reported condom use of high school students was much lower at 10%.”
Personally, I’m surprised that that last figure was even as high as 10%, given that vending machines in public toilets and from older friends would be about the only place high school students would obtain them. But of greater note already, albeit not a hugely significant statistical difference in this particular case, is the I think counter-intuitive finding (to Westerners) that more men than women reported using condoms the first time they had sex. Indeed, this disparity continued afterwards:
- “More men (17.3%) than women (13.6%) reported having consistent condom use with a steady partner…for other partner types, consistent condom use was less reported by women than by men. For experience with condoms, more men than women reported having used condoms.”
Why? Partially it is because Korean men are much more sexually active (or would promiscuous be a better word?):
- 50.4% of the single 19-30 year-old subjects reported having had sexual intercourse, but this disguises huge differences between men and women (67.3% and 30% respectively).
- “Men reported a higher proportion of sexual experiences with two or more multiple partners during the previous 12 months than women did (57.2% vs 41.0%).”
- “Single men were four times more likely to be [sexually] experienced than women.”
- “According to a recent study, the median age at first sexual intercourse for Korean men (21.0 years) was three years lower than that for Korean women, even though men marry, on average, later than women do….This difference may be interpreted as an indication that young men have sex with prostitutes or older experienced women. About 13% of young men age 20-29 reported that their sexual partners were prostitutes.”
And this in turn led to them being much more confident and knowledgeable about using them than Korean women:
- “Men were more likely to agree somewhat or completely that condoms protected against HIV and other STDs.”
- “Compared with women…men reported a higher level of self-efficacy in condom use when they were drunken.”
But this is of course only half the story, and somewhat of a chicken before the…er…egg one at that. For if you haven’t guessed already, the survey concludes that:
…these gender differences in sexual initiation and experience can be explained by strong, gender-based, double standards and values in the traditional culture. Single women in Korea are still expected to be passive and virgins at marriage. Although Korean women’s level of education and participation in the labor force has rapidly risen (albeit the latter still at the lowest levels in the OECD – James), the imposed attitudes on their expected social roles have not dramatically changed yet. Korean society still places emphasis on women’s virginity at marriage and women are supposed to be initiated into sex by their husbands.
Premarital sex may be a more serious concern to women because of their vulnerability….young sexually experienced females reported that they had been pressured by their boyfriends or other men to have sex as a proof of their love and been forced not to use a condom at first intercourse.
Which makes Durex’s depiction on the right of its…er…penetration of the Korean market in August this year (source) not a particularly accurate reflection of current Korean sexual mores, and unfortunately the women in it are less likely to be supposed role models as chosen simply because every public event in Korea requires scantily-clad females known as “narrator models.” More seriously though, the survey clears up a great deal of almost instinctive confusion I and I think many readers would have had recently over newspaper headlines such as “Women Inactive in Preventing Unwanted Pregnancy,” and “Korean Women Say Birth Control is Men’s Responsibility“, although I must confess that I never expected to be so, well…true, especially as my female Korean friends have all stated that they have to contend with Korean men often refusing to wear condoms, which unfortunately probably says much more about my choice of Korean female friends than it does of Korean men and women as a whole.
But I’m not merely covering all my bases when I say that it’s not all doom and gloom for Korean men and (especially) women, for I have seen teenage sex education centers, for instance, pop up around Busan since I first moved here, and, just like so many other Korean issues on which Koreans only appear to be unanimous and monolithic in their opinions to non-Korean speakers, the notion that contraception is solely a man’s responsibility is hardly a universally accepted and uncontested notion amongst young Koreans especially, as this blog post (for one) demonstrates (again, let me know if you’d like a translation). Moreover, and to put this post and myself to bed, while I may occasionally sound like a broken record when I point out this next (but someone has to), I think I’ve more than adequately demonstrated that increasingly sexual images of women in commercials and advertisements in recent years can and are having an effect on these double-standards also. Combined with knowledge that the English-language media and books on Korea especially tend to have a considerable lag behind trends in Korea then, it’s going to be very interesting to see the results of any similar survey in the future. Watch this space.