Korean Gender Reader


1) Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Circumcision in Korea

Whether you’re for or against male circumcision, there’s no sugarcoating some shocking facts about the practice in Korea.

First, consider why it is was taken up so enthusiastically after the Korean War. Not so much for its perceived health benefits, but more because it was seen a way to catch up with the medical practices of the developed world (i.e., the U.S.). Indeed, it was done so wholeheartedly that now more than 90% of Korean men between the ages of about 12 and 40 are circumcised, far higher than the U.S. rate.

Despite being world-leaders in numbers of procedures performed however, unfortunately Korean doctors are actually woefully ignorant about the practice, as Seamus Walsh explains at Asadal Thought:

What I find truly incredible is that the same misconceptions and outright false beliefs that were held about circumcision in the 50s – effects on sexual performance, prevention of STDs, cleanliness etc – are still so prevalent in Korea today, regardless of the fact that the rest of the developed world has moved on in its attitudes and knowledge, making such beliefs redundant.

Also, one of the journal articles he examines concludes that:

The mistaken and outdated notions of South Korean doctors about circumcision…seem to be a leading contributory factor to the extraordinarily high rate of circumcision [there].

Next, as most English teachers in Korea are probably well aware, Korean parents (painfully) get their sons circumcised in their early-teens rather than as babies. And finally, in what I regard as the most damning indictment of the practice, those parents often do so for no more compelling reason than the fact that all their sons’ friends are getting it done, as surveys of the parents make clear.


Update: By a wonderful coincidence, a related article from the Canadian medical website CMAJ appeared in my Google News Alerts as I was typing the above. Here’s what it says about South Korea:

…South Korea…may be the only country on earth where the majority of men are circumcised but not as infants, and do so for reasons unrelated to health, religion or aesthetics. According to one paper, almost 85% of males 16–39 years old are circumcised in South Korea, the vast majority around the age of 12 (BJUI1999;83:28-33).

No one can say for certain how the country came to embrace circumcision so quickly — the procedure was basically unheard of there in the 1940s — though the prevailing theory is that South Korean men were influenced by circumcised American soldiers during the Korean War in the 1950s. “Within a decade, South Koreans came to believe that practicing circumcision was ‘advanced and modern,’ just like the American soldiers,” US sexologist Robert Francoeur wrote (http://gkorea.nayana.com/s1.html). “If Americans did it, it must be good.”

In the 1960s, South Korea’s doctors made a big push for circumcision, launching a widespread media campaign promoting it as better for hygiene and health. Since then, the practice had become the cultural norm. “Korea has no religious background, it is nevertheless practiced during adolescence, largely initiated by peer pressure,” states the South Korean study. “Therefore, it has partly become a ‘rite of passage’ and is fully integrated into present Korea culture.”

(Taken by a friend of mine at Hongdae Station this summer. Is it still there?)

2. Homophobia in K-pop

No, really. As Megan at Seoulbeats explains:

Just take a little time and browse some K-pop videos on YouTube. Odds are, on at least one video by a boy group, you’re going to see a comment along these lines:”See, this is why K-pop and Korea are superior to America! Because boys can look and act like this and not be accused of being gay!” This is hardly anything to celebrate. In fact, this is precisely the problem. People pretend that homosexuality doesn’t exist. It wouldn’t matter if a boy group member snogged his bandmates in public (ahem, Heechul), because it’s nothing. It’s just fanservice, they’re just close like brothers, is all. No way my oppas are gay! Even if an idol was to stand up on a table and scream at the top of their lungs that they were gay, it would mean nothing. This acceptance of behavior commonly pegged as gay in the West isn’t acceptance at all. It’s discrimination so strong it assumes that homosexuality doesn’t even really exist.

Maybe I’m just prejudiced by coming from New Zealand, where the only time men touch is when they’re fighting or playing rugby, and where if a guy doesn’t don’t like beer, cricket, or rugby then both the men and the women will think he’s gay, but still: I think the physical affection and pink clothes are something to celebrate. Also, please correct me if I wrong, but I’d argue that it’s overwhelmingly foreign audiences that are making such comments about Korean male singers, whereas the question of their sexuality wouldn’t be an issue in Korea itself.

I definitely agree with Megan though, that the corollary of allowing such a wide range of gender-bending (skillfully exploited by G-Dragon [지드래곤] throughout his career; hence the sticker above!) considerably narrows the range of what is regarded as genuinely homosexual behavior, although I think she’s putting it much too strongly when she says that people deny that possibility altogether (despite what the foreign media says, few Koreans now deny that homosexuals exist). Indeed, that that possibility is still very much open is evidenced by so many male celebrities making a lot of homophobic comments recently, lest their clothes and behavior cause people to question their sexual orientation (which to be fair, Megan also discusses).


3) Science Blogging at its Finest

Remember last month, when one of my favorite blogs I09 told you about a study published in the latest issue of Hormones and Behavior, that concluded that women’s facial features and estrogen levels correlate with their self-reported desire to have children? Since then, two science bloggers wrote even-handed critiques of the study, to which the author of it responded with a blog post of her own.

In short, this was the internet was invented for, and you can read more about those exchanges at a follow-up post at I09 here.

4) The More Egalitarian the Society is, the More “Innate” Biological Differences Disappear

Back when I was an undergraduate student, I read The New Sexual Revolution by Robert Poole (1994), which would come to have a big influence on how I viewed the nature/nurture debate regarding differences between the sexes. As the introduction on Amazon explains:

In this controversial study of gender differences, Robert Poole outlines the recent research which has strongly challenged the notion that men and women would be equal if only they were brought up in the same way. The research has revealed that the brains of men and women are different in distinct ways and that it is these differences which account for much of the mental, emotional and psychological variation between the sexes.

To be sure, after four years of writing about gender issues I’m much more in the nurture camp now, and indeed I regularly make arguments about the influence of one’s environment in gender socialization myself. However, I do still think that there are some innate – not learned – differences between the sexes, especially men’s greater hand-eye coordination and spatial ability mentioned in the book’s introduction, which Poole suggested may be why men prefer playing computer games to women.


Then I read on Sociological Images about spatial ability tests given to two tribes in Northern India, the Karbi and the Khasi. As the post explains:

– The Karbi are patrilineal.  Only the men own property, and they pass that property to their sons.  Males get more education.

Khasi society is matrilineal.  Men turn their earnings over to their wives.  Only women own property, which is passed along only to daughters.  Males and females have similar levels of education.

And whereas the Karbi men were much better at spatial ability than the women, the difference between the Khasi men and women was negligible.

For sure, it’s just one study, and there are also methodological issues to consider. But if the result holds true, and the relationship can be confirmed by a wide range of other groups, then it will definitely force me to reassess some beliefs about male/female differences I’ve held dear for the last 17 years!


5) Gay-Han-Min-Guk: Gay Culture in Korea

For the last two years, I’ve been referring readers wanting a good quick history of Korean LGBT issues to a paper by Professor Douglas Sanders of the University of British Colombia, a noted author on human rights and LGBT issues, and as it happens also the first openly gay person to speak at the UN. And I still will, but now I’ll also link to this post by Michael Hurt and Josh Forman at Groove Korea, which does a good job of filling in the last two years (and much more).

25 thoughts on “Korean Gender Reader

  1. About #4 & the “biological differences,” have you read the book “When God was a Woman” by Merlin Stone? If not, I encourage you to read it. Though it’s about past civilizations and cultures and their religion/society, It touches on the idea of “biological” differences between the sexes that we assume in our culture (and ‘supported’ by scientific researches) in a historical point of view. It challenged me to rethink what is so firmly believed as biological differences and the seemingly inevitable gender roles that are ‘born’ from it. It’s not a scientific research, but it may totally change the way you view gender roles/stereotypes and the biological differences that we think support such roles/stereotypes.


      1. You might be interested in this post at Echidne of the Snakes – it’s about spatial ability testing, and she also quotes from Delusions. It’s part of a series of posts she’s written about the science of sex differences.


        1. I find myself wondering whether sex differences aren’t more pronounced in societies of greater inequality along axes other than gender inequality. (i.e large have/have-not gap societies versus less broad-gapped societies.)

          Brains are extremely plastic, so they say, so who knows? It’s hard to measure what is innate since upbringing begins at birth. But I suspect some things really are hardwired into us. Mostly for the worse…


  2. Fair play to Seoulbeats for trying to take fan blogging more seriously, but I haven’t come across many well-written articles on that site so far. They tend to conclude with absolute certainty after presenting the most flimsy arguments.


  3. I remember when I taught a class of middle schoolers in Seoul one summer- one of the sixth grade boys said he would be gone for a week to get “cut down there,” “like all boys do.”

    He never came back for the whole summer session.


    1. Preaching to the converted my friend(!), although regardless of why Korean parents get it done to their sons, I don’t think it should be allowed for anything but absolute medical necessity. Certainly not until the boy is old enough to make the decision for himself.


      1. Agreed with all of the above, except that in Korea at the moment boys are making the decision for themself but it’s based on peer pressure and this assumption that it’s something the whole nation should do to be “advanced.” If you read the articles I linked you’ll see that for over a decade Korea had a circumcision rate of over 100%. How is this possible? It means that there was one circumcision performed for every birth plus extras. The extras would be older men who hadn’t had it done at the “right” age, who were nonetheless choosing to get it done for the aforementioned reasons. They had the choice but none of the facts, and the result is that in fact nobody really has the choice in Korea. Boys get circumcised, end of. I find this really disappointing.

        I suppose I should also mention that while my post is of course about circumcision in Korea, it’s also about more than that. Something which I touched on towards the end of the post is that this is just one example of many where Korea has opted to do something it sees as superficially indicating advancedness, either unnecessarily or because of misunderstanding the reality or facts, or from not having a consideration for different contexts.

        Another example of this is the desire for attractive, female, white English teachers – or at least English teachers who fit as many of these as possible. This is based on falsities that are commonly understood as universal truths in Korea. Women are better than men because foreign men are dirty and bad. White is advanced, White is English-speaker.

        The “Ubiquitous City” of Songdo.

        Giving everything an “English” name. Why does the milk I buy have Seoul Milk written on the carton in English? What purpose does that serve? Why does my entirely Korean calendar nevertheless have the months written in English? Why does my Korean glue stick say “Glue Stick” on it in English?

        Cosmetic surgery to get a “high nose.”

        Of course, the list could go on. My point is that there’s a sort of strange interplay between a superiority complex and an inferiority complex going on with these things. Superiority complex because there’s almost a sense of, we’re doing these things, we’ve succeeded, we’re advanced and other people aren’t. We’re just like the US, except in the ways we’re better.

        But this isn’t the overriding attitude, because there’s also s sense of, we’re coming from a disadvantaged place, we’ve got to catch up, places like the US are where we want to be. Whatever it takes to be “advanced” we have to do it because otherwise nobody will know about us.

        Of course, the usual caveats apply – this doesn’t represent all Koreans and so on.


  4. An adult student of mine told me that Korea is more humane than America in that babies(like in America or elsewhere) don’t have a choice to get it done while Koreans age 12 or whatever do.


  5. Circumcision in rural parts of the Philippines is done like mentioned here: http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20091006030230AAirrKq.

    I was circumcised around 12-13 and I remember the painful part was when the doctor was administering anaesthetics. After that I felt nothing. Then you’ll have to confine yourself at home and wear a large shirt that reaches below the knee. When its nearly healed it starts itching. Then after that you’ll have to remove the bandages and take a bath. A single droplet of water that drops on your glans feels a bit like a punch to the groin. Initially it will feel like that then it gets eventually better.


  6. fcai, “adminstering anaesthetics”
    it took 4-5 tries for a group of Korean “doctors” to hit my spine with the huge needle they use to numb you from below the waist(arthroscopic knee surgery). I didn’t want to be put completely under(die on a Korean slab) so I was aware of what was going on during the procedure. The shot I received is common among women who give birth but since most Korean women get c – sections(under pressure by Korean doctors/hospitals/husbands) they aren’t very good at it. I was in the fetal position for about 20 minutes while them umpalumpas tried to do their job. Almost 20 years beforehand in America, a doctor gave me the same shot in the back while sitting up in less than 1 minute on the first try.


    1. in my case the doctor shot the anaesthetic to my person and took less than a minute..

      yours must have hurt if it took them 4-5 tries and for 20 minutes.. sounds like the ones that did it were “apprentices” maybe.. the position you were in while they did it may also affected that..


  7. For my Human Sexuality class in college, we read “Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women” by Anne Moir and David Jessel. Talks about how male and female brains are organized differently starting in the womb due to hormones, and function follows form. Consequently, males and females are typically born with different preferences and have differences in certain cognitive abilities (with such differences operating on a continuum). Nurture also plays a significant role and can either overcame/balance out these initial differences or exacerbate them (such as by emphasizing some skills over others). So in terms of the nature vs nurture debate, I’m somewhere in the middle.

    The book is also a good read for those curious about the “natural” origin of homosexuality – which is rooted in neonatal brain development. I put the word natural in quotes since it’s so controversial about whether or not people believe that it’s something one is born with (nature) vs something that one learns/chooses (nurture).


  8. I’m reminded of a Korean fellow I worked with for a couple of years, when I first came here in 2001. I had quickly learned about the mandantory military service for all Korean men, and began asking people what job they held during their service. I got some interesting answers, but none as funny as Mr. X. After great reluctance and repeated stonewalling my questions, he finally explained that he had been assigned as a nurse. His job during his 2-year military service? Circumsizing soldiers! Apparently many men didn’t want to pay the doctor for the procedure as a civilian, since they could get it done for free once they joined the Army.


    1. And in hindsight, why my wife used to encounter so many “My foreign boyfriend isn’t circumcised! Is that normal/okay/safe???!” type of questions on ‘international couples’ forums and Naver cafes!

      (Edit – and probably still would if she looked I mean. She doesn’t really check them out any more thought, as our damn kids keep us too busy now)


  9. I had a circumcision in Korea in the summer of 2001. It was quite a very bizarre experience on the slab one minute and in MacDonalds the next and all for less than the cost of a scale and polish. In the UK you’re in hospital for several days and I believe in the US, the procedure can cost up to several thousand dollars.

    I have to admit however, that Korean circumcisions are usually much neater than those performed in the US and definitely neater than the Philippines where the procedure is generally not a circumcision at all. I have seen some ghastly mutilations caused by over-zealous US, neonatal circumcision. Still, at least blood from the incision site is not manually sucked from the wound by the mouth as it is in some Jewish practices – a rite that recently caused a number of herpes infections in New York and which has resulted in the manufacture of a small tube that the ‘mohel’ can use to prevent contact while sucking blood from the wound. How this act repulsive act is tolerated I do not know, the power of religion, I guess.

    The difference between the US and Korea probably stems from the fact its easier to perform on older ‘victims’ and easier to gauge how much to remove for a more aesthetic result. In addition the US had a practice of radical circumcision which in many cases involves removing the frenulum – the single most erotically sensitive spot of the male anatomy. Most American men are totally unaware that this procedure was performed and that they were more than simply circumcised. When I last researched this topic, and very little research is available – it would appear that between 30-0% of American males have had their frenulum removed. Frenulectomy is not generally performed on Korean boys. In the US, this additional, unnecessary, and highly abusive practice requires only the consent to circumcise and many parents are blissfully ignorant of the difference between a circumcision and a circumcision plus frenulectomy – it’s simply all part of the same procedure.

    I know in the US removed foreskins can be sold for around $40 to skin cell research laboratories and for companies making face cream ‘ that’s right, face cream! I do not know if this is the case in Korea, but in the US I believe the sale of a foreskin is not deducted from the cost of the operation. It would be interesting to research if foreskins sold on in the US come at a higher price if the frenulum is part of the sale.

    I also believe Korean doctors perpetuate the myth that a foreskin is inherently phimotic (tight) and hence needs removing. There are even clams that Koreans carry a gene which causes this problem. I do not speak fluent Korean but it seems to be the case that the Korean term 포경, which refers to the act of ‘whaling’ and circumcision, is frequently translated as ‘phimosis.’


  10. No medical association in the world recommends circumcision of infants and the idea that circumcision prevents HIV is pure stupidity. Ironically, the USA has a higher circumcision rate than Denmark, the UK, and Japan and the USA has higher rates of HIV and penile cancer. Leave your child’s penis alone. No matter what age they are. His body. His choice.


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