Sex and the University, Part 3: University Students’ Cohabitation Culture

(Live Together, 2007. Source)

Much to my regret later, I never properly met any Koreans in New Zealand before I first came here.

But by coincidence, a Korean woman replaced me in my last flat after I left. And as my ex-flatmates soon gleefully reported, she was the perfect flatmate, paying her share of the rent without ever actually spending so much as a single night there.

Glee rapidly turned to genuine concern though, as she completely disappeared a week after moving her stuff in, not answering her cell-phone at all for 2 weeks.

Alas, once she was back from her trip home(!), she explained she was actually living with her Korean boyfriend at his place. But, lest she be caught with him by her parents back in Korea somehow, she needed a separate address and home phone number, and a pretend bedroom just in case they made a surprise visit.

And once they were in the loop, then naturally that was fine with her flatmates, and she would end up spending less than, say, 4-5 hours a week there for the next 6 months.


Of course, I’m sure she had good reasons for what she did. And even 10 years later, openly cohabiting is a big taboo in Korea, testament to which is the fact Korean portal sites like Naver require age verification for you to search for anything related to donggeo, “동거”, the Korean word for cohabitation, placing it on a par with pornography and so on.

Granted, along with pregnancy, couples are generally forgiven if they have already made arrangements to marry, or at least do so shortly after being discovered.  But as a Seoul-based friend who wrote his MA thesis on them frequently lamented, that means it can be near impossible just to find cohabiting couples, let alone ones willing to talk about their experiences with a researcher.

Still, that’s not to say that they don’t exist, and fortunately amorous Yonsei University couples at least don’t seem to need to go to quite such extremes to hide their living arrangements, as the third of four articles on the “Sex and the University” theme from the Yonsei Chunchu (연세춘추) campus newspaper explains. Not really giving any background on the subject though, if you haven’t already then I recommend reading this short introductory article I wrote for the Korea Times before starting here, and it also has a list of links to many other related posts for anyone further interested.

Update: Strangely, the internet searches work fine if you add an extra term, and hence there’s unrestricted access to info about the 2007 movieLive Together (donggeo-donglak; 동거동락) in the opening image for instance, which sounds great to watch in bed with your partner interesting. Anybody seen it already? It’s also known as Happy Together, and yes, that is indeed a dildo mosaiced out at 0:42.

And without any further ado, thanks again to Marilyn for translating the article:

지금 사랑하는 사람과 살고 있나요? Are you living with the person you love?

원주캠, 신촌캠, 신림동 고시촌…요즘 젊은 세대들의 동거문화를 엿보다

Wonju campus, Shinchon campus, Sillim-dong gosichon [area where there are many people studying for Civil Service or other exams] – a look at the young generation’s cohabitation culture

『개인의 취향』, 『풀하우스』, 『옥탑방 고양이』….

모두 미혼남녀의 동거를 소재로 한 드라마들이다. 이런 드라마들은 동거생활의 알콩달콩한 면면을 보여주며 화제를 불러일으켰다. 미디어의 영향일까. 동거를 바라보는 대학생들의 시선은 관대한 편이다. 실제로 성의식 설문에 응답한 우리대학교 학생 중 43.6%가 “동거를 할 의향이 있는가”를 묻는 문항에 “그렇다”고 답했다. 그러나 동거에 대해 긍정적으로 생각한다는 것과 진짜 동거를 하는 것은 다른 법. 직접 학생들을 만나 실제 대학생들의 동거생활과 이에 대한 인식을 들어봤다.

Personal Preference, Full House, Attic Cat – all dramas about unmarried men and women cohabiting.  These dramas have caused a stir by portraying the cute side of cohabitation.  Does the media have influence [on us]?  University students’ views on cohabiting are on the tolerant side.  When asked, “Are you interested in cohabiting with a partner?”,  43.6% of students at our university who participated in a survey about attitudes toward sexuality said “yes.”  However, there is a difference between having positive views of cohabitation and actually cohabiting.  We met students and heard about real students’ experiences and perception of cohabitation.


매지리 동거족, 말하지 않아도 알아요

Cohabitation in Maejiri, known about even though they don’t talk about it

우리대학교 원주캠퍼스의 경우 학생 대부분이 타지방생이다. 그래서 통학생은 거의 없고 대부분 기숙사에 살거나 인근 지역인 ‘매지리’에서 자취한다. 상황이 이렇다보니 매지리에는 동거에 관해 다소 관대한 분위기가 형성돼 있다. 동거 사실을 공공연히 밝힐 정도는 아니지만 동거족이 많은 것은 알 사람들은 아는 사실이다. 실제로 매지리의 한 아파트에서 남자친구와 살고 있는 전아무개(23)씨는 친구들에게는 굳이 동거 사실을 숨기지 않는다고 말했다. 매지리에서 동거는 크게 문제시되는 사안이 아니기 때문이다. 그녀가 살고 있는 아파트에서 만난 김아무개(24) 커플은 완전한 동거 형태는 아니었지만 ‘거의’ 함께 살고 있다. 김씨는 기숙사생이지만 남자친구의 방에서 지내며 기숙사에는 거의 들어가지 않는다. 매지학사의 경우 기숙사비가 비싸지 않은 데다 집으로부터 의심을 피할 수 있기 때문에 들어가 살지 않더라도  일단 신청해두는 것이다. 김씨는 “이런 원주캠퍼스의 특징이 비교적 자유로운 동거 생활이 가능한 분위기를 조성하는 것 같다”고 말했다.

Most of the students at our university’s Wonju campus are from other areas. There are almost no students who commute from home, and most live in a dormitory or live independently in ’Maejiri’, a neighboring area. Because of that, an atmosphere of tolerance toward cohabitation has developed in Maejiri.  It’s not to the point where people publicly reveal their cohabitation, but it is an open secret that many people are doing it.  One Ms. Jeon (23), who actually lives in an apartment complex in Maejiri with her boyfriend, says that she doesn’t feel the need to hide the truth from her friends.  She says it’s because in Maejiri living together is not a very problematic issue.  In the same apartment complex, a Ms. Kim (24) and her partner are not quite in a cohabitation situation but are “almost” living together. Ms. Kim lives in a dormitory, but stays at her boyfriend’s place and hardly ever goes to the dorm.  In the case of the Maeji school,  a place where the dormitory fee is not expensive, students enter the dorm to avoid suspicion from home, so even though they don’t live there, it’s important to apply. Ms. Kim said, “One special feature of the Wonju campus is that it seems to create an atmosphere in which comparatively free cohabitation is possible.”


존재하지만 눈치 보이는 신촌

Sinchon, where it occurs but they care about others’ opinions

그렇다면 신촌캠퍼스의 상황은 어떠할까. 우리대학교 뿐 아니라 인근에 여러 대학이 밀집해있는 신촌의 경우 대학생들의 수 자체가 클 뿐 아니라 대학 간 커플도 종종 보인다. 그러나 동거를 대하는 학생들의 태도는 앞서 살펴본 매지리와는 사뭇 다르다. 신촌의 동거 커플들은 동거를 한다는 사실에 대해서는 크게 심각하게 받아들이지 않았다. 그러나 상대적으로 매지리에 비해 타인의 시선을 의식하고 있었다. 이아무개(22)씨는 여자친구와의 동거를 진지하게 고민해봤다고 했다. 그러나 그는 동거를 좋지 않게 보는 사람들의 시선이 신경 쓰여 망설이다 결국 단념했다. 지방에서 올라온 김아무개씨(21)는 그와는 조금 다른 경우로, 현재 신촌에서 여자친구와 함께 살고 있다. 김씨는 “처음엔 혼자 살았는데 어느 때부터 여자친구가 놀러오는 빈도가 잦아졌고 얼마 안가 동거를 제안하게 됐다”고 말했다. 그러나 둘 다 집에는 전혀 알리지 않았고 그것이 반드시 필요한 절차라고는 생각지 않는다고 했다.

So then how is it done in Sinchon?  In Sinchon, where not only our university but several others are clustered, not only is there a large number of students, but also couples who go to university are often visible.  However, the students’ attitude towards cohabitation is quite different than that seen in Maejiri above.  Sinchon’s cohabitating couples don’t take living together very seriously.  Compared to Maejiri, though, they were more conscious of others’ views.  One Mr. Lee (22) has seriously considered cohabiting with his girlfriend.  But because some of the people whose views he cares about think that cohabitation is not good, the plans fell apart and he finally gave up.  A Mr. Kim (21), who came from outside of Seoul, was in a slightly different situation; he is currently living with his girlfriend in Sinchon.  He said, “At first I lived alone but at some point my girlfriend started coming over a lot and not much later I asked her to move in with me.”  However, he said the two have certainly not told their families, and he doesn’t think that it’s absolutely necessary to do so.


장래 약속한 동거커플 많은 신림동

Sillim-dong, where there are many cohabitating couples who’ve made promises for the future [about marriage]

신림동 고시촌은 함께 살며 고시를 준비하는 동거족들이 많은 지역이다. 이진아(25)씨는 자신의 고시촌 입주 당시를 회상하며 “큰 문화적 충격에 휩싸였었다”고 말했다. 동거하고 있는 커플들이 생각보다 너무 많았기 때문이었다. 주위 몇 집만 둘러봐도 동거 중인 커플들을 쉽게 볼 수 있다는 것이다. 이씨는 “공부에 전념하느라 연애할 여력이 없을 것 같은데 의외의 현상이었다”고 말했다. 또 다른 고시촌 거주 고시생인 김지영(28)씨도  비슷한 얘기를 전했다. 김씨는 “결혼을 약속한 남자친구와 함께 살며 공부하는 친구가 있다”며 “고시공부로 인한 외로움을 달래고 경제적인 부담도 줄이려는 것”이라 말했다. 김씨는 “같이 고시를 준비하는 고시촌 동거 커플들은 특히 장래를 약속한 사이가 많은 것 같다”고 덧붙였다.

The Sillim-dong gosichon is an area where there are many people cohabiting while preparing for major exams.   While recalling moving into the gosichon, Lee Jin Ah (25) said, “It was a big cultural shock.”  It was because there were many more cohabiting couples than she had thought.  It’s that looking around at just a few of the nearby houses, she can find many cohabiting couples.  Ms. Lee said, “It seemed like they would be too busy studying to have energy for romantic relationships so it was an unexpected situation.”  At another gosichon residence, Kim Ji Young (28), who is preparing for an exam, also had a similar story.  She said, “I have friends who are studying while living with boyfriends they have promised to marry,” and “It soothes the loneliness caused by studying for a major exam, and lessens the financial burden too.”  She added, “It seems that many of the couples cohabiting in the gosichon and preparing for a major exam together have made special promises about the future to each other [are engaged].”


(Part 1, Part 2, Part 4)

14 thoughts on “Sex and the University, Part 3: University Students’ Cohabitation Culture

  1. Really interesting article! And it comes at the right time for me. I have my own little experience to share about this… I almost got kicked out by my landlord (Yonsei alumni coincidentally) because I asked him if my boyfriend could move in with me. I’m asian-french and things are even more complicated because my boyfriend is african-french, he’ll arrive at the end of the month. My landlord didn’t want to shock the neighbourhood letting an unmarried couple live in his appartment complex (he owns two buildings in Hongdae). He told me it could shock the students’ parents if they saw us and they could make their children move out, so it will be bad for his reputation. I kind of understood him, he’s a really nice landlord and even though he doesn’t live there, he’s always around taking care of things.

    Anyway, fortunately, he talked to his wife who’s more liberal than him (quoting his words) and they changed their minds… :) Now I hope my neighbours won’t be shocked (they’re Hongdae students) but I can feel that young people’s view on cohabitation is changing too… :)


    1. Thanks for your comment, and I have a similar experience myself. Back in the summer of 2003, I got a job at a university in Gimhae, Busan. But rather than giving the standard 300,000 won a month for accommodation, the university’s policy was that you stay in the dorm provided or you get nothing at all. And once the head of the English department found out about my then girlfriend (now wife), he was adamant that she could not stay with me there, stressing at least a dozen times in the conversation that the dormitory floor for foreign teachers was above the women’s dorms…the implication that if it was above the guys’ dorms then it wouldn’t have been quite so bad.

      Needless to say, at then 27 I didn’t like being told whom I could and couldn’t live with, especially if forced into their accommodation under threat of a much lower salary otherwise, and so I didn’t take the job.

      7 years later, I’ve heard of many many similar stories with other university teachers and their partners, sometimes leading to them being fired, or at least their contracts not renewed. Which is ironic, considering how this and many other articles make clear, students have already been “corrupted” well before they meet the cohabiting foreign teachers.


  2. I’m a little befuddled by the talk of cohabitating in a goshiwon ~ I mean, how the heck would one cohabitate in a room that only holds (usually) a single bed, desk, and tiny wardrobe? Even the shared goshiwon rooms I’ve seen couldn’t be set up for successful cohabitation. I don’t know that many couples who would want to spend their time together talking about who gets the top bunk, after all . . . I’m wondering if the author just means that they’re living in the same goshiwon?


    1. Oh, I don’t know: before we met, my wife and sister-in-law lived in a one-room that wasn’t much bigger. And a little later, we both lived in a one-room that I got with a job I ended up doing for 3 months, and minus the attached kitchen and toilet then the living room was pretty tiny too. Which is not to say that I at least wasn’t going crazy by the 2nd month.

      I think it depends on what you’re used to: that first one-room of my wife’s was a real hovel, and most other student accommodation in the area was equally bad, with outside toilets and a hose connected to a tap in the kitchen sink for a shower. Compared to that, then the goshiwon below looks positively luxurious, and probably quite tolerable for a couple provided that it was only used for sleeping and sex.


      1. Ditto,

        Gomushin Girl may not have felt that stooopid power of love combined with circumstance. My (now) wife and I once lived in one bedroom the size of a postage stamp……

        Now she snores like a trucker, so that wouldn’t work. But in those hazy romantic days.. LOL..

        it was all possible..


        1. It’s not the size of the room so much as that they usually only have single beds. I can share a small space, but two people consistently sharing a tiny single bed? Particularly in goshiwon rooms where there’s not enough room to lay a yo or anything on the floor?


          1. You’ve got a point. Usually sleeping wrapped around each other anyway, my wife and I probably would have been okay in a single bed the first few months of our relationship, but once the passion wore off a little then it would have been too hot and uncomfortable really.


  3. I’m a bit late in posting, but something interesting happened in class today regarding this subject. I’m teaching a winter intensive (university) credit class, and yesterday the students were giving their self introduction presentations. One student said that he lived with his elder brother and then suddenly switched to talking about his girlfriend. Today when I came into the classroom, I happened upon his presentation notes which included the line ‘I live with my elder brother and my girlfriend.’ But the words ‘and my girlfriend’ were stroked out. I guess he chickened out at the last minute and decided that detail was too risque for class.


    1. I’m not surprised in hindsight: I’ve just been rereading that friend’s thesis that I mentioned in the post, and compared to that the article paints a very sanguine picture really. In particular – not that this is directly related to your comment sorry – there’s a huge double standard in attitudes to men and women that cohabit, one female interviewee of my friend’s recounting how she was almost attacked by a male classmate in a bar for revealing that she was cohabiting for instance. Primarily because female virginity is considered so important here of course, as I’m sure you’re well aware, but also partially because the woman in such arrangements is often perceived to be the effective mistress and/or victim of the man, actually married but claiming not to be.


  4. Reminds me of my Chinese friends at uni, one half finds no problem sharing house with guys, even sleeping in his room with no love relationship whilst the other half is totally against it. One tried to tell me girls are cleaner but I almost spewed my guts looking into her tea cup. She eventually even moved out of the Uni campus and now lives in private accomodation – not sure if it’s females only though.


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