Why Korean Girls Don’t Say No: Contraception Commercials, Condom Use, and Double Standards in South Korea

(Updated, January 2014)

As the English-language media likes to point out, Korea is a “sexually conservative” country, but sometimes there’s something to the stereotype. For instance, contraceptive commercials were banned from television until as late as January 2006. What’s more, it wouldn’t be until July 2013 that condoms actually graced Korean screens. Ironic, considering exceptions had already been made for the sake of HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns that played in October 2004 (source, left: The Hankyoreh).

The delay is interesting, and deserves further investigation; possibly, some de-facto restrictions against condom commercials remained in 2006. Either way, contraceptive pill manufacturers at least soon took advantage of the lifting of the ban, starting with this commercial by Mercilon four months later, and now nobody bats an eye seeing the pill on television or at the cinema.

Originally, the first half of this post was devoted to that commercial, as public statements by the actress, 22 year-old SNU student Kim So-mi (김소미), appeared to indicate a false ignorance of the pill, as well as making sure to distance herself from the sexually-active women the commercial was aimed at. It was a bizarre instance of slut-shaming from someone in a contraceptive commercial, but it matched my own anecdotal experience that all too many Korean women feigned ignorance of contraception for the sake of their reputations, the corollary of which was not insisting on condom use and relying wholly on their male partners to “take care of things”. Admittedly unpalatable-sounding when coming from a non-Korean male (although hardly a phenomenon unique to Korea), later I confirmed them using numerous Korean sources.

korean-unmarried-couple-thinking-about-sex(Source, all screenshots: 여자도 모르는 여자이야기)

In hindsight however, I may have misinterpreted her, and as the commercial itself is unfortunately no longer available (alas, I didn’t know how to save videos in 2008) then I didn’t need to think twice about removing that commentary, and consequently the comments (sorry). But the second half of the post was my summary of this survey on “condom-related behaviors and attitudes among Korean youths”, at the time one of the most rigorous and recent available (albeit based on data collected in 2003), and as the PDF is again no longer publicly available then I’m happy to keep that summary below for the benefit of readers.

Here goes (with only a little editing of the original post):

  • 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.”

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 (although I admit there have been some improvements since this post was first written), then I invite readers to speculate about just whom exactly might be providing young Koreans with most of their sexual role models instead:

(Source: Textcube)
  • 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:

  • 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 (sperm?) before the 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.

And thus:

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.

durex-condoms-er-penetrate-the-korean-marketWhich makes Durex’s depiction on the right of its…er…penetration of the Korean market in August this year (source, right: The Korea Times) 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.

korean-unmarried-couple-having-sexor-not(Korean women taking responsibility for contraception…only in the movies?)

Back to 2014 now, if you’re after more recent surveys, there are many more translated and discussed in the “contraception“, “sexual relationships“, and “teenage sexuality” categories here (all of which come under the voluminous “Korean sexuality” one), but probably the most recent is this one conducted in 2012. Unfortunately though, no mention is made of its methodology, so the results must be taken with a grain of salt. But if any readers would like to help me rectify that by going through the original 260- page Korean report with me, I’d be very grateful!

15 thoughts on “Why Korean Girls Don’t Say No: Contraception Commercials, Condom Use, and Double Standards in South Korea

  1. I have one friend and she is selling her virginity, all of this for problems With her parents of university im from latín Américan

  2. Hi. this is a fascinating article. i’m actually doing a quick research on condom usage in Korea. and quite contrary to a lot of expat friends of mine thought, Korea’s condom use and contraception prevalence is pretty high, often towering over many european and and anglophone countries.

    Could i possibly ask you for the source of the quote “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.”? I need the actual statistical data for it. I did some quick research on UNPD data, but i couldn’t find something as specific.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, and no problem. The quote (and just about everything in the post) comes from “Gender Differences in Sexual Behavior and Condom-related Behaviours and Attitudes among Korean Youths” in the Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health, June 2007, 19: 45-52. (Sorry that I don’t have a PDF.)

      I’d be very interested to hear more about why you say “Korea’s condom use and contraception prevalence is pretty high” though, because honestly that pretty much goes against everything I’ve ever read, heard, and consequently written about the subject for the last 8 years. (And I make a point of using Korean sources too, so it’s not just an expat thing.) That said, I have to admit it’s been a while since I’ve looked at this topic in great depth, and that many of the journal articles sitting in my shelves are very outdated (like the one linked to above, which was published in 2007 and discusses data collected in 2003). So, for all I know contraception use has indeed dramatically increased/improved in recent years, especially among 20-somethings. If that’s true, that would be great news, so I’d be very, very happy for you to prove me wrong! :D

      1. Hi thanks..i guess the pdf is lost because it’s been very long time since that journal was published.

        i was doing my own research and according to United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Contraceptive Use 2015(i just literally copy pasted the suggested source format. just type that on google and it will direct you to the UN page and excel file format), the contraceptive prevalence of South Korea is actually 80%, and modern method only being 70% which is pretty high proportion even compared to many other OECD countries. (i.e Australia 72.2% and Germany only 61.6%)


        But then again, i’m a little unsure about if i’m reading all the measurements correctly and drawing the right conclusion from this massive excel file, because it does say that those percentages were drawn from “Data pertain to ever-married women of reproductive age,” meaning…it doesn’t talk about how much males(and gay males) use contraceptives? please let me know what you think.

  3. I’ve found this article very interesting. Thanks for the useful source and numbers, one of my friend just told me about her experience in South Korea and I thought was not real xxi century and many things has changed and some others doesn’t.
    Again thanks

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