Korean Sexuality: Still Awaiting a Revolution?

(The Beast and the Beauty, 2005. Source)

On a recent episode of Thinking Allowed, a BBC4 radio show and podcast, host Laurie Taylor talked to Kate Fisher and Simon Szreter about their new book Sex Before the Sexual Revolution, an “illuminating exploration of intimate life in England between 1918 and 1963, which involved them speaking frankly and in depth to almost a hundred people about their sex lives in the period”. Fascinating in its own right, my ears immediately pricked up upon hearing the following at 16:10 (source, below right):

Laurie Taylor:

Let’s turn to some things you found out as a result of your, I mean, very sensitively conducted conversations…I mean, Kate, one of the things is about this, this…the notion is that people were utterly ignorant about sex before marriage. Does the research bear this out?

Kate Fisher:

Yes and no. This is a world in which sexual info is increasingly available, but it’s still one in which parents are reluctant to talk to their children, where schools don’t…er…give away information until after 1944, and even still, that’s fairly limited. So people are having to piece things together, listen to jokes, overhear other people…

But what’s particularly striking, is the ways in which women in particular, even when they did come across information, they were careful to not find out too much. They wanted to maintain a sense of ignorance in order to…

Laurie Taylor:

Yes, particularly working-class women though, yes…this idea that they should be innocent…

Kate Fisher:

They should be innocent and indeed they saw innocence as part of an attractive naivety…Their attractiveness was bound up with appearing naive, and innocent, and sort of coy.

Which as you’ve probably already guessed, has striking parallels with the attitudes of Korean women today.

Not that I want to overstate those of course. But I do think it’s no coincidence, and it’s certainly got my intellectual juices flowing. In particular, over whether UK society at the time had its own equivalent to aegyo (애교), and, regardless, how much such notions of female sexuality underscore it (albeit very much in combination with financial dependence on male breadwinners).

Food for thought anyway!^^ Meanwhile, for a glowing review of the book itself, see The Guardian here (I’m sold!), and to listen to the full interview, scroll to 11:35 here, or alternatively you can download the whole podcast here (it’s the February 16 episode).

Update – Naturally, the point that most got my attention in the interview of the authors was also mentioned in the book review:

The book’s three sections – “What was sex?”, “What was love?” and “Exploring sex and love in marriage” – take us through the whole cycle of the interviewees’ awareness of sex, from the rudimentary and often non-existent provision of sex education, through courtship, petting, birth control, marriage and parenthood. The social context is clearly delineated, but even the woeful ignorance of the young about sex – “the profound and beautiful ignorance of sex”, as one respondent calls it – is examined with great subtlety. “For women of all classes, the preservation of innocence and modesty was a complex cultural accomplishment in which many around them had to play their protective role and with which they had to comply. It was an enduring positive element of their self-identity, instilled into them by their parents, especially their mothers.”

19 thoughts on “Korean Sexuality: Still Awaiting a Revolution?

  1. From the Guardian’s review, this particular phrase stands out:

    “People make the best of their situations; human ingenuity and creativity will not be denied. ‘We hope,’ they say, ‘to resist the tendency to look for modern forms of pleasure in the past and find its absence indicative of “repression” or inhibition.'”

    It is this quote that sets the tone for the entire review, in my opinion, and one that goes rather against the tone of most articles on the comparison of sexual mores of different time periods or cultures. I find this approach refreshing. Longer comment later.


    1. Indeed, and that was very much the tone of the interview also. I think partially because of the host’s own advanced age perhaps, and consequent frustration with such representations of his generation, but still…

      Looking forward to the comment!


  2. Look up writings about “feminine charms” to compare them with the modern Korean concept of 애교. That was back when there were charm schools for women and stuff, wasn’t it?


    1. Yeah. Forgive me if I’m projecting here, but with aegyo being so utterly unlike any female behavior in Western countries today, and Korea being the first place most of us first encounter it, then it’s been very natural and tempting to view it as something quintessentially Korean. But now I’m beginning to have serious doubts, and realize that any investigation/explanation of it worthy of the name definitely has to consider overseas precedents and look for similarities between them.


      1. Actually, now that I’m actually concentrating on it, I can think of several western figures that do in fact display some characteristics that overlap with 애교. Betty Boop, for example, while a cartoon character, uses an excessively high, lisping voice that really could work for the English version of 애교 . . .there’s certainly a long tradition of “ditzy dames” and “dumb blonds” that don’t completely overlap with 애교 but do share some characteristics.


        1. The first time that I saw a Korean idol showing off her 애교, I thought of Betty Boop! I also agree with your reference to the “ditzy dame” characters of Hollywood’s golden age. Really, all it takes is a switch to faux Brooklyn-accented English and I can’t hear much of a difference between “Adelaide’s Lament” and Minah from Girls Day on an 애교 bender!

          One thing though, and it could be my own limited experience, is that I can’t really think of a North American equivalent to the physical acting like a baby part of 애교. Are there really obvious examples from western countries that I am totally missing?

          Also, while I’ve seen many Korean male idols showing off their best 애교. I would be hard pressed to imagine Tyrone Power showing off his best Betty Boop impersonation.


          1. Hmm, to me 애교 sounds much more like “valley girl” talk than Brooklyn accents . . . which was also cultivated in part because it was an infantilizing, childish way of talking, and was strongly criticized by some groups for heralding the end of polite conversation. Like, totally!


      2. Reminds me of an episode of “How l Met Your Mother” called “Baby Talk.”


        Here’s an excerpt from the wiki: “Robin takes issue with Ted dating a girl who uses baby talk, while Ted, Barney, and Marshall defend girls using baby talk as a way for men to feel more manly and protective.”

        While I was watching this episode, I was thinking, wow, that looks A LOT like aegyo. Yes, it’s only a sitcom, but shows like this are supposed to be a reflection of modern American dating culture. Just something to consider.


        1. Although I remember it well (I’m also a big fan), I have to admit that that never occurred to my wife or me at the time. So thanks very much for passing that on, and it’s amazing what depths are emerging to (properly understanding) this whole aegyo thing…


    2. Charm schools (more properly “finishing schools”) weren’t intended to create a sense of anything like 애교 though – they were primarily for upper-class girls that followed the end of their regular education, and focused on etiquette for the higher levels of society they would join as adults. While certainly they worked to reinforce the social norms of the time, I don’t think that learning the complexities of continental style dinner service has that much overlap with the infantileism of 애교 – rather the opposite: instead of trying to get grown women to act younger, cuter, and more infantile, these schools focused on preparing girls for more mature roles in society. Not that making sure you know the proper order in which to lead people into the dining room is some kind of feminist breakthrough, but it wasn’t really infantalizing like 애교.


  3. Looking at the number of out of wedlock births, teenage pregancies, and family breakdown in the UK, one can perhaps be thankful that Korea has yet to fully embrace the sexual revolution of the 60s.


    1. Well, in fact Korea also has one of the highest divorce rates in the world. And until very very recently it had: one of the highest abortion rates in the world too; for decades was notorious for sending its out of wedlock children – which still very much exist here – overseas for adoption; and not insignificant numbers of Korean married women think it’s either perfectly normal, natural and acceptable for them to never experience an orgasm, to never have sex with their husbands again after having children, and/or for their husbands to regularly visit prostitutes.

      Call me a patronizing Westerner and cultural imperialist and all, but fully embracing the sexual revolution could hardly make things worse than they already are.


      1. Way to counter unsubstantiated statements with facts. *applause*

        The parallels you point out are eerie. And I’m really not convinced that aegyo-like phenomena didn’t exist in Europe, especially during the Victorian Age. Remember the charm schools that Roboseyo mentioned? And the language of fans? I wonder why Mary Wollstonecraft asserted that women should be taught to have intelligence and strength, and not be taught to infantilize themselves… In any case, the social ills of Korea today mimic the (what we would see as) problems inherent in sexual life of bygone times in the Anglophone West.

        No one can deny that there are problems with the way Korean society currently deals with sexuality (you gave a concise list of some of the biggest ones) and to be honest I’d rather live with American sexual culture than Korean sexual culture. However, I have my doubts about the adoption of modern Americanized sexual norms being the solutions for Korea’s social ills.

        The reason I found the tone of the Guardian review refreshing was because it doesn’t
        automatically assume that “modern Anglophone culture = the best of all possible worlds” and “everything from a previous time or from another culture = inferior.” People have always found ways to be true to themselves and pursue happiness despite the restrictions that are present in any society, and that happens in Korean society today too, albeit it’s considered subversive… but then again, the personal has always been considered subversive, in any culture. (I’m making plenty of unsubstantiated statements myself, here.)

        Especially when the problem is not so much that Korea regards sex as evil (an oversimplification of the situation) as that Korean society is deeply conflicted in its approach to many issues, including that of sex. In light of that issue, would not the real solution be giving Korea time to grow into its cultural skin, rather than exhort it to reinvent itself by one revolution or another (Korea has already gone through plenty of those, and what you see are arguably its growing pains).

        Just throwing this out there.


        1. Don’t have time to reply properly tonight I’m afraid, and sorry that I can’t seem to get rid off my own gravatar after transferring your comment to where you intended it.

          But just quickly, I don’t know where or from whom you’re getting the argument “that aegyo-like phenomena didn’t exist in Europe, especially during the Victorian Age” sorry, as I certainly agree with you that it did(!), the behavior required of female characters in order to secure a man to provide for them in Jane Austin’s novels in particular coming to mind. And which reinforces, to me, that the foundation of aegyo (and its numerous equivalents) lies not in any sexual mores, but rather extreme financial dependence by women on men. Indeed, to argue that aegyo is due to sexual conservatism is to get it backwards: rather, in a Marxian Structuralist sense, the economic, male-breadwinner structure is determining that cultural, conservative sexual superstructure.

          Can expand/clarify tomorrow if necessary. But meanwhile, lest I give the wrong impression again, I fully concur that modern Anglophone culture does not equal the best of all possible worlds, and that a sexual revolution here very much needs to be on Korean terms, and grow organically.


          1. I seem to have got it from your comment above, which I misunderstood anyway:

            “…with aegyo being so utterly unlike any female behavior in Western countries today…”

            I think I failed to see the word “today” because it got orphaned at the beginning of the next line. My apologies.


          2. Austen’s novels are exactly what first came to mind when I began to understand the concept of aegyo! I was always amazed at how openly her characters discussed and displayed the skills and traits they considered to be marriageable qualities.

            For instance, no gathering was complete (it seems) without at least one person sitting down to tickle the ivories or maneuvering themselves into position to showcase some other accomplishment. No Korean talk show seems complete without an idol being given the opportunity to present themselves as being accomplished in either aegyo or “sekshy” dancing.

            The fact that even males are often asked to show off their aegyo makes perfect sense in light of what you’ve said, James, about the feminization of Korean ideals of male beauty.

            I really can’t get over how frankly they treat the subject though. You would think that accurately describing a person’s skill at being coy would defeat the purpose of their learning that skill in the first place, wouldn’t you?

            Regardless, I wish I could more easily think of a modern Western analogue. “Valley girl speak,” as Gomushin Girl suggests, is good, but one’s mastery of it is hardly ever mentioned. Our celebrities often dish on talk shows about how good their co-stars are at kissing and such… but that’s way too blatant to be used in comparison, don’t you think?


  4. That’s the one thing I find is so difficult to consistently take into account when analyzing Korean culture today. The place was completely and totally economically undeveloped about 60 years ago, and yet now that it has adopted a Western economic system, the benefits of which are generally obvious (because they are quantifiable), we expect it to have culturally “modernized” in a similar way, despite the fact that the benefits for doing so aren’t as obvious, particularly from inside a non-“modernized” culture, if one sees them at all (because they are qualitative, and thus subjective).

    It seems to me that the basic problem is that economic and cultural Westernization have gotten tangled up. By using a Western tool (using sex to sell) that is simultaneously cultural and economic, the change that neutralizes the potential damage (turning women into pure sex objects whose function outside of sex is restrained, uncertain, or in flux) has yet to occur. Everyone knows that sex sells, but no one is allowed to say so, and therefore no one can even begin to deal with the consequences. It’s like discovering that cake tastes good and having everyone eat it, yet pretending no one eats it and admonishing those who you catch in the act, and all the while everyone is developing diabetes. Not a healthy attitude toward…cake.

    Everytime I see a Korean TV ad or music video that is clearly using sex to sell, then read how little sex is acknowledged by Korean society, I have to roll my eyes a little bit at how out of synch things are there.


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