With my considerable gratitude to its author for passing it on, I’ll let the following email speak for itself:
…As a foreign woman married to a Korean man, myself and my husband face a unique set of cultural obstacles in our marriage. It can be trying at times, but we are usually able to work out our differences through a serious commitment to communication. However, there is one aspect of being married to a Korean man that I continually struggle with. From what I have observed throughout my time in Korea (and please correct me if I’m wrong), it seems that frequenting prostitutes is an accepted part of life for Korean married men. In fact, it is often required of businessmen if they want to be successful and accepted among their coworkers. For example, I have a friend who was offered a highly coveted position with a certain large corporation. While working there, he was required to regularly go out drinking and visiting prostitutes with his team. Given the strong hierarchical nature of Korean society, he felt unable to say no to his superiors, yet his religious beliefs compelled him to reject this lifestyle. As a result, he had no other choice but to quit and try to find another line of work.
I am told by Korean friends that going out drinking and womanizing with coworkers is an integral part of business in Korea (and, I imagine, another way that female employees are excluded and held back in business). Although this was shocking to me at first, it wasn’t hard to believe once I became more familiar with the language and more observant of my surroundings. It’s impossible to go anywhere in this country without being faced with a constant barrage of prostitution venues. Of course, they often masquerade as something else- massage parlors, karaoke rooms, barber shops, tea shops, PC rooms, bars, rest houses, etc., but they all offer at least the possibility of sex. It’s not exactly comforting to walk around in the middle of the day and see middle-aged men in business suits going into cheap motels on their lunch breaks or after work before returning home to their families. Although I know my husband is a good man and he has assured me that he’ll never engage in that type of behavior, I find it hard to trust him completely when every man in his life, including his father, his friends, and his mentors, sets this kind of example.
When I ask my female friends how Korean women put up with this from their husbands, they tell me that it’s what the men must do if they are to be successful. One said that even though the husbands stay out all night with prostitutes, drink with them, touch their bodies, etc., it is their choice whether or not they go all the way. I simply can’t wrap my head around this rationalization. Where I come from, if a spouse cheats, it is expected that the couple will either get divorced or go into some serious marriage counseling. It is not simply tolerated, or at least not by those who have any self-respect. As I love my husband deeply, my greatest fear is that he will give in to his peers and join them some time, resulting in the end of our marriage. I can’t conceive of how Korean men can not only hurt and disrespect their wives like this, but also spend all their time fraternizing with coworkers and women rather than spending it with their children. This aspect of Korean culture is toxic to families, and is one of the reasons I don’t believe I could raise a family in Korea. I am truly interested to hear how other married women – both Korean and foreigners – deal with this problem. Have they experienced the same fears that I have, or have their experiences been different? Do they tolerate their husbands going out with coworkers and meeting women, and if so, why? Finally, for those like me who are greatly disturbed by this aspect of the culture, how do they overcome these anxieties and learn to trust their husbands? (end)
( “Shinjuku Salaryman” by Camera Freak. Source above: unknown )
As I too would soon quit any job that required regularly drinking with colleagues, let alone visiting prostitutes, then I don’t have anything to add personally I’m afraid. But I can point you towards my discussion of the effects on married couples’ sex lives, based on this post at the now defunct Japanese blog PingMag that began thus:
While Japan has an enormous sex-related industry, married couples don’t seem to do it that often (According to a Durex Survey, Japan ranks last internationally in terms of sexual activity.) And this would be the case in many modern societies as well. So for the last two years, author Sumie Kawakami gathered interviews of various Japanese women to depict this one aspect of society: Her latest book, Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage and the Modern Japanese Woman by the superb Chin Music Press portrays eleven sex lives in painstaking detail. Today PingMag talks to Sumie about the heart of relationships.
While that book is technically only about Japanese women, it’s obvious that the sexual problems faced by them – or indeed, with their husbands drinking often and visiting prostitutes – are intimately related to the salaryman system, which demands that men spend long hours away from home. And despite that being most associated with Japan, in fact Korea was the only country in the world where more than 50% of men were ever salarymen (before 1997), with the associated, profoundly gendered workplace culture and work/family balance unfortunately still very much remaining as ideals. Demonstrated, for one, by the fact that even in 2010 Korean women are still fired in droves as soon as they get married or pregnant for instance.
Not that I thought readers really needed any convincing of the relevance to Korean couples of course, and in fact I’ll be belatedly buying that book for that reason as soon as I finish this post (and this one; not related, but also interesting!).
But not before apologizing for not having covered the subject much earlier. For as I read the email, I belatedly realized that I’ve being hearing similar concerns from female friends and readers for years now, but…well, have never really been sure how to respond. In hindsight though, as a guy with no experience of working in such jobs, then possibly the best policy was indeed simply to be a good listener?
Regardless, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the author of the email again. And while she naturally wishes to remain anonymous, I’m sure she’ll contribute a lot to the ensuing discussion!
Update: By coincidence, Michael Hurt at the Scribblings of the Metropolitician has just written a post on Korean society’s denial of the pervasiveness, ubiquity, and above all systematic nature of prostitution that is highly relevant to the discussion here. A snippet:
…I posit that the resistance to what every outsider observes as KOREAN SOCIAL REALITY in terms of the commodification and subjugation of women in this society, especially as embodied in the rampant institutionalized prostitution that is as observable in terms of the sheer numbers and types of such places of business (room salons, business clubs, barber shops, massage parlors, handjob rooms, juicy bars, miin-chon, 단란주점, 도우미 노래방, which goes without even mentioning the vast numbers of red-light districts in every part of Seoul and every city in Korea) NARY REQUIRES statistics, either.
What I see as the frequent resistance of people to believe something that is OBVIOUS in observed reality if one simply COUNTS the number of houses of prostitution on a single city block in any part of this city — Kangnam Station to Shinchon to City Hall to Apkujeong to Chungdam to nearly any neighborhood after midnight, when the plastic balloons, mini-trucks, and neon signs come on that aren’t on during the day — is partially a denial of obvious reality, coupled with the urge to throw out the many statistics that bolster easy observation because they make one very uncomfortable.
But I’m a human being. I understand emotions. But what makes it so easy for me to recognize that the US brutally kidnapped, displaced, and murdered MILLIONS of human beings for the sake of material gain, which has resulted in creating some negative aspects to my culture, i.e. discrimination and institutionalized racism? But when I mention institutionalized prostitution as a legacy of compressed and authoritarian development in the Korean context, people instantly start equivocating and dismissing my argument, while holding it to such an abnormally high bar of scrutiny, one would be hard-pressed to assert ANYTHING particular about Korean society….(end)
Read the entire post here.