“Korean Women are Sexually Conservative”

korean-etude-advertisement-song-hye-gyo(Source: Naver)

As they say, first impressions last, and my own first introduction to Korean sexual politics came with a bang when the scandal over the Baek Ji-young (백지영) sex tape erupted in late-2000. The way she was treated by the Korean media was hypocritical and shocking, and confirmed what I’d learned at university: Korea was a deeply patriarchal and sexually-conservative society.

Or at least, as the “Korean Gender Guy,”™ that’s what I’d like to pretend informed my first year in Korea. The truth is, I barely noticed at the time, being rather more concerned with getting into my Korean girlfriend’s pants. But they also say that the best way to learn a new culture is to sleep with the locals, and what I learned about sexual politics that way was no less important for being so base: the books were simply wrong about how prudish Koreans were. I’ve been poking fun at the huge gap between image and reality ever since.

But with a nod of appreciation to the advice of this regular commenter, it’s high time to move on from that extremely simplistic conception of the subject.

Just like it is misguided to think of, say, all American voters as mere “conservatives” or “liberals,” the reality is that Korean society is both profoundly sexually-liberal in some instances and sexually-conservative in others. For instance: most Koreans have sex before marriage; Korea has one of the largest prostitution industries in the world; Korean teenagers increasingly dance extremely provocatively on television; Korean women are increasingly objectified in advertisements; and, overall, censorship of sexual content in movies is rapidly easing.

And yet that combination by no means implies that Korean men and women are equally able to express and enjoy their sexuality in 2009, let alone that, like almost a decade ago, a female celebrity secretly filmed while having sex with her boyfriend wouldn’t again be ostracized by the Korean media. Indeed, one can argue that to describe Korean society as simply “sexual-conservative” is merely to gloss over its profound double-standards.

One such double-standard is the need for sexually-active women to appear inexperienced and virginal to their partners, and in that vein, this survey of condom use and sexual activity in Korea – probably the most comprehensive of its kind – found that a majority of them did so to the extent that they regarded contraception as entirely men’s responsibility, as I discussed last December. Either they didn’t provide it themselves, they didn’t insist on their partners using condoms, and/or they would even feign complete ignorance of all contraceptive methods.

Again, that’s to be expected from a “sexually-conservative” society. But bear in mind the fact that love hotels are ubiquitous here, and – as that survey demonstrates – are well used. So while this particular double-standard is hardly confined to Korea, it is particularly severe in its effects on Korean women.

In light of that, the fact that rates of oral contraceptive pill usage are extremely low in Korea (3%) shouldn’t have been a surprise to me when I learned it from this recent Korean blog post, which I’ve translated below. But while I was certainly aware of the scare-tactics used – for various reasons – by Japanese medical authorities to dissuade women from using the pill there for instance, and which meant that it was only legalized as late as 1999 (see here, here and here), in hindsight perhaps I was too optimistic about Korean women’s reaction to similar tactics used here in January. So I was taken aback:

피임에 보수적인 여자들 – When it Comes to Contraception, Korean Women Are Conservative

Korean Pill Cartoon 1Mr Kang, reporter: “As women are actively making advances in Korean society, so too are women becoming more open and assertive about sexual matters.”

Korean Pill Cartoon 2a

Mr Kang: “Today, we are going to meet Ms. Kim, a cool, forward-thinking woman with free and open attitudes to love.”

Ms Kim, caption: “I have 900 intimate male-friends…but that’s what happens if you’re as pretty as I. It’s not a crime!”

Korean Pill Cartoon 3Mr Kang: “I will ask about modern women’s opinions on sex and love…Nice to meet you Ms Kim. Ms Kim, I heard that you have very liberal and open attitudes to love. Is that true?”

Ms Kim: ” Yes. I don’t care about men that leave me, and I don’t say no to men that approach me…I’m so cool!”

Korean Pill Cartoon 4Mr Kang: “Since you are old enough, I assume that you have sex with your boyfriends. Do you take the initiative and/or insist on using contraception?”

Ms Kim: “Contraception? Surely that is men’s responsibility, yes?”

Mr Kang (gray text): “I’m surprised that you’re so conservative.”

Ms. Kim (gray text): “It is totally men’s responsibility!”

Granted, a bizarre cartoon, and probably one that detracts from rather than evinces the following points made by the blogger:

이전보다 자유로와진 미혼남녀의 성생활이나 성 담론에 비해 아직도 피임에 대한 인식은 무척 보수적이죠. 게다가 아직까지 수많은 여성들은 ‘피임=남자의 책임’이라는 구시대적 사고방식을 가지고 있는 듯 합니다. 한국 여성 피임 인식 조사에 따르면, 여성의 60%는 성관계 시 피임을 하지 않는 것으로 나타났는데 이는 ‘설마~’와 ‘막연함’ 때문이라고 합니다.

“Compared to the past, people are much more sexually active these days, and talk about sexual matters much more openly. But they are still surprisingly conservative when it comes to using contraception. In particular, many women stick to the traditional line that it is entirely men’s responsibility. According to a survey by the WHO, 60% of Korean women don’t use any contraception at all, maintaining an “it won’t happen to me” attitude.”

International Rates of Pill Usage Korea

물론, 남자에게도 책임은 있겠지만 여성들 역시 능동적일 필요가 있다고 보는데요, 통계에 따르면 남자들의 피임 방식인 “CONDOM”은 피임에 성공할 확률이 85%에 지나지 않는다고 합니다. 반면에 여성들이 준비할 수 있는 ‘먹는 피임약’인 경우, 성공 확률이 무려 99%에 이른다고 하네요.

“Of course men also have a responsibility to use contraception, but it seems that women are not fulfilling theirs. According to statistics, whereas condoms are 85% effective in preventing pregnancy, the use of the oral contraceptive pill is done entirely by women and is as much as 99% effective.”

Korean Pill vs Condom Cartoon

더치페이의 나라 네덜란드에서는 피임에 대해서도 서로를 배려하기 위해 CONDOM과 피임약을 모두 사용하는 이른바 ‘더치피임’이 널리 퍼지고 있다고 합니다. 또한 요즘 나오는 먹는 피임약(야즈)은 피임 뿐만 아니라 여드름 및 월경전불쾌장애(심한 형태의 월경전 증후군)에도 치료 효과를 인정받았다고 하니 여성 스스로를 위해서라도 꼭 한번 고려해볼 수 있길 바랍니다.

“In the Netherlands, when it comes to contraception people combine condoms with the use of the pill in order to be safer, and this is known as “Dutch [Style] Contraception.” In addition, a  new form of the pill called “Yaz” is coming onto the market, which combines a contraceptive function with helping to prevent skin problems and PMT. Women should consider this new product as an option.”

Men Women Gender 50 50And I’m afraid that that is all, although it attracted a great many commenters, most of whom agree that contraception is also women’s responsibility. But they take issue with the blogger’s description of women that don’t use the pill as “conservative,” citing concerns about side-effects, to which my response would be to direct them to this comment.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already read my earlier post on condom use and rates of sexual activity in Korea then I strongly recommend you do so to place this new information in context, and you may also be interested in the recent appointment of a minor Korean-American celebrity being named “goodwill ambassador for the Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to promote a campaign teaching young Korean women about sex and reduce abortions.” This has many positives of course, but I’d echo Brian in Jeollanam-do’s concerns that this may be “a product of, and will contribute to the perpetuation of, the belief that Americans and Westerners alone can be open about sex,” to which I’d add the stereotype that Westerners and especially Caucasians are overall much “more sexual” than Koreans. Finally, for a very frank discussion from the front-line as it were (an American woman dating Korean men), make sure to check out Doing it Korean Style!

Update: Apologies for not mentioning Dating in Korea also.

16 thoughts on ““Korean Women are Sexually Conservative”

  1. Argh, why YAZ?! Yaz is being investigated in the US and Europe for the high rates of blood clotting that it causes. Basically, if you take Yaz, you can wind up with a pulmonary embolism or deep vein thrombosis despite being a healthy young woman–I did, on a related drug. There are currently class action lawsuits being undertaken in the US.

    Yaz’ manufacturers must have some really good marketers. I’m not against BCP (there must be tons of Asian women suffering from awful menstrual periods who aren’t even aware that BCP can treat that problem) but there are far less dangerous options. There are low-dosage pills, the “minipill,” the Mirena IUD (even lower pregnancy rates than oral contraceptives), etc.

    “Third-generation pills” have “never been safer?” Well, that’s not exactly true. “Three independent studies published in December 1995 all concluded third generation oral contraceptives had about twice the risk of venous thrombosis when compared to second generation oral contraceptives. Numerous similar studies have found generally the same increased risk with the most common estimate of this risk being 1.5 to 2.4 -fold higher compared to second generation oral contraceptives. The difference in venous thrombosis risk between second and third generation OCs is even higher among women who use oral contraceptives for the first time.” (References at http://www.clotcare.com/clotcare/oralcontraceptivebloodclots.aspx )

    Dutch research, oddly enough, is actually at the forefront of identifying the thrombophilic risks of some of the particularly dangerous combinations among certain third-generation pills.

    Again, I’m not arguing against BCP, but it’s not as simple as as everyone makes it out to be. And in my experience, even in the relatively open US, doctors don’t describe the risks adequately. As a result, when I experienced symptoms of pulmonary embolism, I had no idea what was going on, and it was almost too late when I finally went to the right kind of doctor. If I thought doctors anywhere would really sit down with women and ask them about whether anyone in their families had ever had any kind of clotting-related problem (a number of which are tricky and you wouldn’t necessarily know about), and go on and describe the symptoms of DVT and pulmonary embolism regardless of family history, I’d be somewhat less worried. But this doesn’t even happen in the US. Based on what I know about Korean medicine it might be even less likely to happen there–I’ve only experienced Taiwanese prescribing methods, which consisted of packets of medications being pushed at me over a counter, haha.

    Still, I wish it were anything but Yaz! On the pulmonary embolism recovery bulletin board I use, most of the younger female demographic seems to be there because of Yaz, Yasmin, or a related hormonal birth control.


    1. Thank you very much for all that information, and I definitely see your point about YAZ: for people’s information, it takes just a few seconds to find whole websites devoted to lawsuits against Bayer HealthCare because of the risks of bloodclots associated with the medicine.

      As you can probably tell, I’m very pro the BCP (despite everything I’d ever heard about side-effects, my wife experienced none whatsoever), but I definitely respect people’s decision not to use it, and don’t at all consider someone simply alarmist and/or misguided for doing so.

      Or at least, not necessarily. Last year for instance, entirely too many Korean women believed that they could contract Mad Cow Disease from gelatin used in sanitary napkins (see here also), and (naturally) this was not a surprise given my long-held belief that the Korean education system inhibits the development of critical-thinking skills. Throw in the virtually non-existent sex-education system available for Korean students on top of that, then however patronizing it sounds I’d argue that Korean women are rarely well-informed when they reject the BCP.

      Not to imply that all sexually-active Western women are either of course, and I’m probably getting off topic here. It’s just…how to put it? I guess I’m saying that many of the points you make, however valid and correct, are essentially moot in the Korean context. Other factors then, most notably access to contraception, assume a correspondingly greater importance.

      The BCP doesn’t require a prescription here, and like you suspected based on your experience in Taiwan, pharmacists in Korea are extremely unlikely to take the time to properly caution women about their possible side-effects. Instead, they’re just as likely to lecture young women on their sexual habits and/or refuse to sell the BCP to them at all if they look unmarried, attitudes which unfortunately are just as likely to be shared by doctors and nurses. For that reason, despite the dangers you mention, I’m still very much in favor of the BCP remaining an over-the-counter option here, as I explained in the comments to that last post of mine on this issue.

      Again though, in light of that I shouldn’t have been surprised that BCP usage is only 3% here.


  2. Here is another reading regarding the birth control issue.

    My significant other was battling pre-endometriosis condition and the doctor prescribed birth control pills as an effective way to combat this. The doctor also (irrelevantly) commented that it would result in larger breasts and buttocks. Given the beneficial side effects, why is this not being touted as a selling feature by big pharma? Is the Korean public generally misinformed about health products or are they more conservative? What are the dynamics?


  3. My guess is just misinformed. I knew a long time before I was intimate that birth control could regulate periods and help acne or what not. My girlfriend has no knowledge of this and would most likely benefit from the regulation. When I told her she was surprised by it…never heard a word about it. It’s just funny because 9 years ago I was in High School and dating a girl that was on birth control just to regulate menstruation.

    I think it has to do with admitting something. As far as I have seen Korean’s have a hard time admitting their wrong, liking to justify things as they see fit. I hate to make a blanket statement but I guess that is what I am doing. I think it’s a good possibility that they may believe it endorses having sex early if used, or may give an excuse for some to ask for the pill under the guise of regulating menstruation when they really just want it for birth control.

    Just a guess.


    1. My view is also that they’re generally…nay, extremely misinformed on medical matters. Naturally that’s very much a result of the education system discouraging critical-thinking skills, as I argued in my last comment, but see this post for an explanation as to why they are particularly misinformed on medical matters specifically.

      As for your girlfriend’s specific case, I was aware of the same and at about the same age too. But in Koreans’ defense, I can recall watching an episode of the Australian soap Neighbors while I was there in 1989, the central theme of which was a father objecting to his teenage daughter using the pill to control period pain…for precisely the reasons you mention. Given everything else that I’ve mentioned in the post, then it’s entirely reasonable to suppose that such attitudes towards the pill still exist in Korea 20 years later.


  4. I think the days of getting harassed by your pharmacist are pretty much over . . . I’ve never had a problem at all (with the caveat that I’m noticably NOT Korean), and neither have my Korean-American and other western raised but ethnically Asian friends. Particularly if you know brand names, walking in and out is relatively straightforward, at least in metropolitan Seoul. We shouldn’t forget, either, than the pill *is* relatively new in Korea, and hasn’t yet been promoted heavily. A few years and a lot of ads later, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see its popularity increase.

    In the meantime, I think the biggest problem preventing more women from using it is the same kind of rumors that have plagued the pill in Japan. Most of my Korean friends (who are sadly used to me calling them up and asking them random questions like this – thanks James!) male and female assumed that hormonal birth control carried substantive medical risks.

    That said, I have to say that I, as a woman, didn’t know about the potential health benefits (besides the obvious) until I was in my mid-twenties. In high school sex ed, our teacher briefly mentioned the pill as a method of birth control, but didn’t go into detail beyond its role in stopping pregnancy but not STIs. I certainly had friends in high school and middle school who used the pill, but we really didn’t get into discussions of all the medical benefits and drawbacks (not to say we didn’t talk quite explicitly about sex itself – just not the nitty gritty of birth control/stv prevention . . . what can I say? It’s just not as titilating as talking about ways to tie a dude to your college-provided headboard.) It wasn’t until I had a close family member go on for medical reasons that were totally unrelated to its primary use that I heard anything about it. So, for all those reasons, I think the ignorance of Korean women regarding the pill is a bit less dramatic than it seems at first blush.

    I think 60% using NO birth control whatsoever might be a bit high . . . from what little I can ferret out, the withdrawl method (unreliable as it is) seems to be very popular. In the meantime, the link you provided (as well as her bretheren at Dating in Korea . . . and I think there’s a few others lurking around as well . . . ) seems to support Korean men having fairly good knowledge of and adherence to condom use.


    1. Sorry for taking so long to reply Gomushin Girl, and thanks for answering Avon’s queries below.

      Not that you claimed to speak for pharmacies outside Seoul, but my wife did report occasionally getting negative attitudes from some male, middle-aged pharmacists when buying the pill in both Jinju and Busan. They didn’t not give it to her or insult her or anything like that, but their manner was so disapproving that she chose not to return to those particular pharmacies again. Having said that, it’s not like there weren’t others in our local area that gave it to her just like you describe, and she also hasn’t used it since 2005, so that sort of thing may be less common here now.

      Not strictly related, but still interesting, was when she had to go to a doctor in Jinju back in 2000 when we were first dating (a condom broke). The doctor asked a great many questions about me – my name, where I worked etc. – and my wife, being a sweet and innocent naive Korean country girl back then, didn’t think twice about giving any answers, which he was careful to write down. To this day, I wonder what on Earth his purpose was: in case i would leave the country if she got pregnant, and the details would assist in finding me?? Regardless though, I doubt that that sort of thing would happen these days, or even if it was particularly representative of doctors then.

      Thinking about it now, I hear you that the ignorance regarding the pill here is to be expected really. Sometimes I’m probably projecting a little: I don’t mean to sound boastful or anything (although how would it?^^) but I knew about the health benefits of the pill at the tender age of perhaps 13 myself, testament to the very frank and straightforward sex-education I received from my father, and especially from the numerous books thrust in my face at that age. Seriously, he was so on to it that I knew where children came from at a very early age, but I struggled a great deal with figuring out where dogs came from, and have a distinct memory from about when I was 6 of imaging a dog in a woman’s womb…which he laughed about for days.

      Sorry, I’m droning on here (bedtime soon). I agree that the withdrawal method is quite popular here, and…”Dating in Korea?” Any link for that and the others lurking around? Thanks in advance…and especially from my male students, who are already enthralled with Doing it Korean Style!ㅋㅋ


  5. I hope I’m not veering too far from the topic, but where/what do the women, who don’t use birth control, do if they become pregnant? Last time I checked, abortion is illegal (please correct me, if I’m wrong) with domestic adoption and single motherhood being the less than desirable options. Is there even talk of abortion or choice for women?


  6. There’s not the same discourse and debate as in America, and most abortions are technically illegal . . . but also incredibly widespread. According to the Ministry of Health, 96% of unmarried women who find themselves pregnant choose abortion. Lots of married women have abortions too, if they feel the timing isn’t right for a child. Speculation is that basically its THE preferred method of “birth control”


  7. Thanks for the link!

    I have a ton of issues with the way Koreans deal with contraception, most of them stemming from personal experiences. As someone who has lived in the States for the first 23 years of my life, and has made it a point to be sexually informed, I’m shocked by how little contraception is discussed here. My understanding is that its rare for couples to discuss previous partners, ask about STI testing (or do it in the first place), or even talk about what feels good during sex. It’s really common for men to not offer nor suggest using a condom, and at the same time I think it’s a turn-off for a woman to be adamant about using protection. Put these two together and it’s not surprising that 60% of the population doesn’t use anything.

    Luckily (?) I’m viewed much differently as an “outsider” and can get away with being pushy about protection. But really, the whole situation just makes me terribly sad because it just shows how far behind Korea is with so many things. Anyway, I am very grateful you have created a platform for discussing topics such as these. And actually–do you know of any programs promoting the use of contraception or safe sex that one could get involved in in Korea?


    1. Thanks, and especially for having such an informative and entertaining blog in turn.

      And in all seriousness, some of my male students have become avid readers of it: partially because it’s something that’s interesting but also usually quite short and updated regularly, so they can look forward to reading it often and quickly, but primarily because they’re concerned about getting chances to date the locals when they go to live in Australia in February. Feeling very sympathetic because I had exactly the same concerns before I came to Korea, I try to offer advice about common misunderstandings and differences in dating culture, but of course your blog is a goldmine compared to what I can provide. Please…er…keep it up!

      As for programs promoting the use of contraception and or safe sex, I’m not aware of any off the top of my head, but by coincidence another female reader has emailed me to ask about Korean language feminist and/or gender blogs, so I’ll keep an eye out for while I look for those for her this weekend.


  8. This may seem strange after reading the comments but I am a Yaz user and I really like it and I am new to Korea and next month my last pack of Yaz will finish. Does anyone know where I can find Yaz in Korea? Is it even available in Korea or perhaps does it go by a different name. Any help would be much appreciated.


  9. About this part, in the first paragraph: “the books were simply wrong about how prudish Koreans were”
    Which books are you referring to? I certainly got the line about how sexually conservative Koreans are when I first came to Korea (in 2005), but I’ve never read that in a book about Korea…


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