Should the Sexualization of Teens in K-Pop be Banned?

(15 year-old f(x) band member Sulli {최설리} in February 2010 Oh! Boy Magazine; source)

In short, “yes, but…”(!), as I explain in this opinion piece I recently penned for the Korea Herald. It’s pretty faithful to the original, for which I’m grateful, but unfortunately two crucial sentences on boy-bands got edited out at the beginning of paragraph 4. It should read:

This is why this discussion is overwhelmingly about girls. However, owners of boy-bands too have been affected by the ensuing pressure to make them stand out from their competitors. Add in Korea’s notoriously high levels of illegal downloading, ensuring that profits in the Korean music industry are overwhelmingly from concerts and commercial endorsements (and which explains why 75% of Korean commercials feature celebrities), then courting controversy with ever more provocative performances is a no-brainer really.

Still, only 800 words long even with those inserted, at best the article only gives an introduction to some of the issues involved really. For any interested new readers and old readers that haven’t already then, please read my post Reading the Lolita Effect in Korea, Part 2: The role of K-pop and the Korean media in sexual socialization and the formation of body image for a much more comprehensive discussion of those, and for the many caveats I would have liked to have added to the generalizations in the article!^^

24 thoughts on “Should the Sexualization of Teens in K-Pop be Banned?

  1. I think it’s dangerous to give the government further motivation to censor considering how ludicrious and random its censorship already is, as these reports every few months show:

    — wherein they find it pressing to shield kids from hearing the word ‘club’ or ‘drink’ in a pop song, while alcohol ads and whatever else is seen every time you stroll down a city street. Consider also how broadcasters react to such signals — as seen when restricting pop star outfits on music shows where a) the restrictions are way too conservative from any sensible perspective, and impossible to predict, and b) the censorship is sexist and affects female performers more than male (ie grinding on the floor is ok, if you’re a guy).

    I just don’t have faith in this system limiting restrictions to what’s fair and square.


    1. I do think they need to work further on standardized contract rules and punish companies who don’t follow suit harshly, though. A bigger concern is work hours, having a say on career choices, transparent payment. Outside the question of minors, of course, k-pop stars are still far less sexualised than western counterparts, and I think a more problematic message may be communicated if the idols are suddenly going to become coy… as they once were back with FinK.L & Co (though Lee Hyori took no harm).


      1. Thanks for the comment, but I address the issue of the arbitrary, frequently bizarre censorship in the last paragraph of the article. I completely agree that we can’t talk about adding another layer of censorship unless the whole system is completely overhauled, preferably by putting it into the hands of one independent body (unlikely given the LMB Administration’s pervasive and increasing control of the Korean media though)


        1. On that subject, I read on omona that MBC has decided “to ban entertainers who engage in social activism from appearing on its programs”. Certain kinds of social activist are still welcome, it seems:

          Progressive culture critic Chin Jung-kwon said on his Twitter that he doesn’t understand the list, which he claims allows the appearance of a lawyer openly making political remarks and bans that of an entertainer making remarks in the public interest.

          He mentioned conservative lawyer Jun Won-tchack, who regularly appears on the radio program in question. “Jun was spokesman of the Liberty Forward Party. Why are people like Jun, who are deeply involved in politics, allowed to appear without question?”


  2. As nice as it would be to live in a world where women (and men for that matter) are not objectified or put in compromising situations for the sake of money or fame, but as the old adage goes “sex sells,” so trying to censor sexual themes and images would most likely harm the bottom line for these corporations, which would in turn affect how much music is made available to consumers.

    It’s a nice idea, but I have no idea how to control it in actual practice. Would contracts and legislation suffice? Who would actually enforce rules and how? It sounds like this would cost more money (probably from taxpayers) and would mean less money for everyone else.


    1. Sorry, but your comment just baffles me. Preventing music companies from exploiting minors would harm them financially? Hell, I guess I’d better not complain then.

      But, hypothetically speaking, if they did have to stop, somehow I think they’ll still be able to able to produce plenty of music without 15 year-olds bending over in hot pants to sell it.

      Likewise, I don’t think the expense of preventing the exploitation of minors is a good reason not to do so, and seriously doubt that it would be that much of a burden on taxpayers. After all, until recently the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family was relying on a grand total of 0.04% of the entire government budget, but – amongst other things – somehow it still managed to regularly censor songs regardless!


      1. Of course this thing is just one big ethical issue. Perhaps my comment was not well thought out, but music industries around the world make vast amounts of money from scantily-clad and over-sexualized teen- and young adult-artists. They know what works, so I’m not sire they’d want to so easily drop the sexual images they’ve used effectively for decades now. If I were to sit down with a committee and work this out, I’m sure some way to stop it could be found, but thinking on my own, this is a big issue to change.

        And though the expense is certainly not a reason to not do anything, for a system that wants to keep as much of the pie for itself as it can, expense will certainly be taken into consideration as to whether this issue is to be tackled or not, at least in my opinion. If only greed didn’t produce more greed.


  3. Actually, instead of tryng to regulate the sexuality of K-pop, they should really go for much stronger labor laws in the industry, partcularly relating to minors. Chop agressively at the number of training hours allowed and the number of performances, include clauses for required academic work and free time for members who are still of school age, and change it so that the companies cannot hold as much sway over individual performers, especially minors. Essentially, make employing a minor so obnoxious that fewer groups will seek to employ younger members. It won’t solve all the problems, but it would take care of the thorny problem of middle school-aged girls in these bands, at least.


    1. When this law started to be discusses a few months ago, a lot of people looked at the sexy teens angle. But one of the things that gave it real legs is that the companies appear to be breaking child labour laws. As James’ opponent argues, though, this isn’t easy either. Do you count commuting, or just time in the studio? If you start counting training, it also gets tricky because not everyone getting singing or dancing lessons is “working.” Another problem is that, maybe not pop, but entertainment and modelling generally will always need child labour. I don’t mean to suggest there shouldn’t be a law, but there are likely to be loopholes.


      1. Good points GG and Paul, and when I heard about laws restricting the numbers of working hours for the sake of their health and so on, I was suddenly reminded of the effectiveness of laws restricting hagwons to only have classes till 11pm for instance. Having said that, I’m sure that the practical difficulties mentioned by Cho Dae-won and Paul are by no means insurmountable and/or have already been solved in other countries, and, even if they do prove too draconian for the Korean idol-trainee system, then by no means do I think it’s a problem if that forces management companies to reconsider the value of employing such young people. Also, whereas the hagwon example shows that such laws are regularly flouted in practice, there is at the very least a great deal of public interest in and/or concern about such issues since the (perceived) spate of sex crimes against children came to light a year ago, and hence the public attention given to young idols would surely provide an extra check on management companies.


  4. id really rather not have people’s standards on decency be made into laws period… minors or adults. sexuality even in younger years is completed normal and has always existed. its just how natural selection made us ;)


    1. Oh, I’m just fine with youngsters expressing their sexuality: like I say in the post I link to, it’s not like that turns on like a light once one turns 18. And also that with young women especially having their sexuality denied and/or vilified throughout history, it would be a pity to deny them the right to finally express it.

      Like I say in the article though, the girls themselves are saying that they’re often being forced to wear their revealing costumes and so on. So frequently it’s not them expressing their sexuality at all, but rather their management companies making them express a certain, narrow T&A version of sexuality for the sake of profit, which they may well reject personally (but are in little position to refuse).


  5. It’s not that simple!

    Should this kind of entertainment be even allowed?

    I mean, it’s not like we talking about a overly gifted boy/girl that plays Chopin on Violin before hundreds of people.
    But kids that dance and sing. Or rather prance around grabbing themselves while lip-syncing a song. Displaying themselves to an audience of millions in a choreographed way.

    Let’s not forget that this Kiddo-entertainment is not purely about the ‘Art’ or music or something higher.
    It’s to create and cater a certain kind of appetite in grown ups (that later can be commercially harvested), mostly the opposite gender.

    If there is a market, there will be a demand and vice versa.
    One should never underestimate this.

    Even the most balanced individual- after being constantly exposed to a certain kind of stimuli ‘ in our case teen K-Pop (kids/teens nubile bodies/cuteness/innocence and so on)- at one point will develop an craving for that. And depending on their mental composition this can manifest in many ways.
    From: ‘aww, I find this cute’ – to ‘aww, It makes me horny’.

    Laws and restriction cannot properly address this. It’s either they use hard draconian laws, and risk absurdity.
    Or lax ones and risk whimsical interpretation of those.
    How short a skirt is too short; how much leg is ok; and how much skin is morally acceptable?
    Is this pose suggestive; or this hip sway to sexy?

    This issue is far to tangled to be solved properly, ever, without the card-house not collapsing


    1. Sorry, but please let me make sure I’ve understood your argument properly before I comment on it. In a nutshell, you’re saying that it’s too difficult to legislate such things, so we shouldn’t bother?


      1. In a nutshell:
        It should be banned!
        Because, its too difficult to legislate such things properly!

        Sorry, if I have been rather unclear, James. Next time I will not write before my morning coffee. But I believed my post to be transparent enough.

        To be frank, I cannot see an optimistic legal/cultural outcome on that matter, that is not a ban.



  6. I haven’t followed this all that closely, but one point that caught my attention when I first read some of the proposals awhile back was that they were trying to restrict the entertainment companies / managers from forcing the groups from giving too “sexy” performances. There seemed to be a glaring loophole, that is, if the entertainers actually WANT to give such performances absent outside pressure, presumably that would be allowed? That’s going to be a big can of worms….


  7. Sexual activity/thoughts amongst teens should not be denied but encouraging teens to be seen sexually before they are even legal is disturbing. Seeing how companies jump on the horn to sexualise their underage members as soon as they turn of age is disturbing. Like cattle waiting to get to the right weight. They are pumped with hormones to speed up the process. Idols are given more “risqué” behaviour and scripts to try and “ready” the audience.

    Any time 2NE1 releases a new song to stage I play the, “is Minji humping the floor?” game.

    I have walked past children’s clothes (under age 11) and seen sexually suggestive things plastered on them because apparently “they don’t know what it means”. Ugh. I knew a lot when I was 9 years old that some people in their mid teens still don’t know! Anyone heard of internet??? Who doesn’t know? Your imaginary child? VILLAINS!!

    Paedophiles don’t need reassurance that their behaviour is normal/justified just like how rape culture encourages rapists to think they are behaving normally.


    1. Sexual violations most often is the result of individuals with repressed sexuality, not an over-sexualiced society inspiring criminals. I hear they’re suggesting making female-only cars on Seoul subways – this is the worst possible method to create a society with less sex offenders. Similarly dressing entertainers up in nun outfits would not at all normalize the minds of individuals with perverted and illegal ideas of sex. Attitudes like that is the reason for the worldwide “slut walks” right now.


      1. No, I am not talking about inspiration. Not all people are rapists but when you live in a rape-apologist society, you reassure them that what they’re doing is fine when their non-rapist buddies make rape “jokes”, or blame the victim ect.

        Not all people are paedophiles, but when you sexualise under-age people and non-paedophile friends/people around you think it’s perfectly o.k. and make jailbait, “I’m waiting” “jokes”, it can reassure them of their behaviour and “urges”.

        So your comment isn’t aligning to what I’ve said.


  8. I enjoyed your interlocutor’s style of argument:

    Secondly, the guidelines of the FTC’s revision are vague. What is the standard of overexposure or sexualization and what is a human rights violation? So the level of exposure is just subjective.

    Secondly, unsupported statements are valid. What is good argumentation and reasoning and what is just crap on the page? So argumentation is undefined and saying what you want is ok.


  9. It’s the way capitalism works. It will exist until we have come up with a better economic system. I see no point in fighting its symptoms like sexism or racism. Fight the cause or see it come back right after you think you have beaten it.


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