Victim Blaming: Why “she should have just moved” isn’t a solution to harassment on public transport

Crowded Korean Subway(Source)

First, please read “Man Tries to Take Advantage of Drunk Girl on Seoul Subway” at koreaBANG. Then, with permission, my friend’s response to it:

Line 2 [in Seoul] really disturbs me, I try to avoid it because I have too many weird experiences. I have also made interventions like the one in this video, to ask someone if they know another passenger or if they need help.

In one of the comments, 니애미종범 basically writes “she should have moved” which seems like a simple thing, but I can speak from my own personal experience. On three different occasions a stranger has sat uncomfortably close to me and I moved, and they FOLLOWED me. Two of those times I moved again and they left me alone. I was lucky that there were other passengers around because I just said to them to (politely) leave me alone. But in one of those cases, the guy CONTINUED to sit next to me and talk about my appearance, ask me questions, even though I kept politely declining conversation and then said directly that I do not like to talk to someone I do not know. At that point, I decided to get off the train with a larger group of people… I pretended to go toward the stairs but when out of view I dashed onto another car and walked through the train 3 more cars… I called my boyfriend and asked him to hurry and meet me at the station and described the guy to him and told him I needed him to meet me… I debated whether to try to call the police and how to describe the situation or ask if there was a security box at the station where I would exit… All this time, I thought I had been out of sight… but then he appeared at my side AGAIN… he had seen me and followed me further. At that point, there were no people standing to get off the train and I was really afraid to get off onto an empty train platform again, so I stood up in the middle of the car and just walked around and made light conversation with random people so that people would notice me… and he finally stopped, but when I exited the train I was looking behind my back.

This is besides the frequent (monthly?) ‘accidental’ butt groping on a crowded bus or subway that does not seem so ‘accidental.’ I have taken to wearing my backpack even though it would be more ‘convenient’ to other passengers if I stored it on the top shelf, because wearing my backpack creates a buffer between me and other people and creates a little bit of space so that it is not so easy to discreetly grope and pretend it is ‘by accident.’ Even so, I still have to often tell someone not to touch me.

There are also a number of posts that criticize the person who intervened. I think it is important to be supportive to other people in our community. I try hard to avoid sending a friend home alone, or drunk, but sometimes you can’t control that. So, I take photos of taxis or other things. If my friend has been drinking, I tell the taxi driver directly where she/he is supposed to go, that someone is waiting, and photograph the name plate in the front seat of their taxi that says their name and taxi ID, etc. as well as the plate #. I ask about how long it will take and how much it will be and verbally confirm to the passenger so taxi driver avoids arguing the bill, etc. I do this because I think it “discourages” the idea that my friend is vulnerable, but it isn’t enough because there are still predatory people, complex situations and laws, and we need to support each other in navigating these scenarios.


While she’d like to remain anonymous, she adds for the sake of context that she is a (Caucasian) foreigner, with intermediate Korean skills. Also, another issue is the perception that police will not help and that self-defense might be dangerous to legal liability and visa status, which unfortunately happened with two of her friends that were assaulted

As a non-Seoulite, I was aware that Line 1 was dangerous, but had no idea about Line 2 (although to a certain extent, traveling on any line can be an unpleasant experience for non-Koreans and non-Caucasians). But as my friend tells me, apparently it’s a magnet for sexual harassers because “it connects a number of universities with stops like Gangnam, Sillim, Sadang and others that are very crowded.”

What are readers’ own experiences? How do you recommend dealing with harassers on the subway?

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16 thoughts on “Victim Blaming: Why “she should have just moved” isn’t a solution to harassment on public transport

  1. I’m grateful I never had to deal with that while living in Korea – most likely because I never had to ride the subway without my very tall and attentive husband, and often was surrounded by students or friends as well.


  2. There is a certain sense amongst foreigners that nothing we do will change behavior in the short (and some would argue long) term, and so our best defense is avoiding issues that might crop up. With that said, I’ve noticed a growing number of locals doing something illegal (subway selling, throwing cards from a motorcycle) have gotten quite skiddish as soon as a camera is produced. One quickly turned the opposite way, and attempted to continue her ‘job’ stuffing cards into nooks on the subway car while avoiding my camera. More than a few subway sellers move on when they see my iPhone camera pointed at them along with a thumb-down-the-way, move-it-on type of motion. It may help that I’m a fairly tall guy (6’0″), but it doesn’t stop the guy from doing the same thing to someone else.

    The biggest missing piece of the puzzle remains the most crucial: enforcement of whatever laws are actually made up.


    1. While I agree with you, I feel a bit ambivalent about an ‘active foreigner’ approach. I don’t want to trivialize the situation, but this is not the first time such an incident has occurred, (or even been filmed) and it’s unlikely to be the last. My experiences both online and offline have taught me that many Koreans don’t want our help, and many don’t think they need our help either. In fact, I just had an argument with my (Korean) wife last weekend about the big subway fight from 2008(?) with the hair-pulling ajumma. Her take: “neither you nor I can change Korea. You’re not a politician, you’re a guest. I understand your emotional response, but why get upset over something you can’t change. Korean culture belongs to Koreans, they have to change it when they’re ready.”

      This last sentiment in particular reminds me of the vicious backlash we saw from people (both foreigner and Korean) when bloggers ‘interfered’ by arguing that the old woman “went too far.” Even Roboseyo and The Korean himself told foreigners essentially to mind their own business, “don’t be so ethnocentric” was the rallying cry.

      I disagree with the moral relativism that was on display, but as I wrote above, I’m of two minds on topic. I *want* to help because I think it’s wrong to sexually harass someone–regardless of context–but I also understand it may be counter-productive to try to “fix” the “problem.”


      1. I agree with you wife.
        If you had a guest over at your home, him/her trying to “help” you to do the things right way would end up with him/her never getting invited. Isn’t it same for a country, just on a larger scale? Of course, if you stay longer period of time in Korea, you are not a guest any more, even if you weren’t born in Korea.

        I suggest you watch this wonderful TED Talk on what happens when we westerners come to help other counties thinking we have all the answers


        1. At the risk of sounding rude, might I ask your name? (You’ll notice that I use mine.) I only ask because I don’t think we’ve met before. How is it that you know how long I’ve been in Korea? For that matter, how long is ‘long enough’ to qualify for the right to be critical? 10 years? 20 years? I suspect that the answer is “however long you’ve been in Korea plus one.”

          To answer your question about guests, I would say two things. First, I would be hurt if a guest told me my house was dirty, but I also would be careful to keep it cleaner in advance of their next visit. (And if they told me there was no toilet paper in the bathroom, you can bet I would apologize, and then replace the roll.) Second, I criticize lots of countries, including my own on a weekly basis. As far as I can tell, my friends, family, and even my country(wo)men still welcome me home.

          I do understand a certain tendancy by people anywhere to be defensive of their home country. I also feel irritated sometimes when someone criticizes my hometown, or office, or something that I consider important and connected to me. In many ways it’s natural to resist criticism about our home countries. However, when such defensiveness becomes a reflex, it often is a result of misplaced nationalism.** I resent the idea that I need to qualify myself just to have a conversation about Korea, and frankly it reminds me of the Quintessential Korean Defense #3: “You shouldn’t air our dirty laundry.” (Or perhaps #5, if you think that living in Korea provides unique esoteric knowledge.)

          Don’t get me wrong, I understand the dangers and pitfalls of ethnocentrism. Just using logic to frame our discussion runs the risk excluding “Eastern” methods of discourse. (For the record, I’ve seen that Ted discussion before, and have read similar literature. I won’t make a tedious list, but it suffices to say that I’m aware of other perspectives on “Western” rhetoric.) Nonetheless, the opposite also holds true: refuse all frames of reference and you end up with a postmodernistic mess, in my opinion. Besides, if the discussion–between Koreans–of whether sexual harassment is acceptable is moot, then there isn’t a discussion, right? Why bother to read James’ take on the situation when nothing needs to be said or understood?

          At the end of the day Korea is valuable to me emotionally, financially, and physically. I don’t post here to bash Korea, I post in the hope that discussion will engender more understanding–on both sides–and help to make Korea better.

          **I say “misplaced” because I’m not sure that nationalism is *never* appropriate or healthy. The World Cup and Olympics arguably bring together North and South Korea, or even South Africa for that matter. However, love of one country can turn into hate of another country, and I don’t think I need to elaborate with examples.


          1. No need to get angry, you just misunderstood what I said. When I said ‘”you” stay in Korea…’ I meant is as ‘”one” stays in Korea’. How could I have known you are in Korea at all? I’ve never been to Korea. Pardon for not being clear but I am not a native English speaker.

            A person is not a guest in another country when they get permanent residence permit or citizenship, in my view. Definitely when they get a right to vote. Maybe when they decide to stay indefinitely.

            You may not get my name because I don’t know you, and because if I give you my name here I have effectively given it to all the other 7 billion people on Earth. I choose to stay anonymous.

            Only thing I did is agree with you wife. I didn’t imagine it would make you this annoyed. :)


          2. I think there’s a pretty simple rule of thumb. Is it something of which the Romans approve or not? Then when in Rome you may or may not have a right to complain to the Romans. Is subway bum groping an accepted part of Korean culture? No? Then you have a right to draw attention to and complain about it. Is pushing, shoving, crowding, and bumping when getting on the subway (unless it’s someone much older than you) an accepted part of Korean culture? Yes? Then leave it for the Koreans to debate whether they should try to change it or not.


          3. Say we stipulate that you are correct: only “Romans” can talk about Rome. How do you define who is/isn’t Roman? That’s one of the problems with essentialism, it’s easy to say “only Koreans can talk about (or change) Korea,” but it’s extraordinarily difficult (impossible?) to define who is Korean. The usual responses vary from the problematic “you have to be born in Korea” to the circular logic of “Koreans decide who is Korean,” and I have yet to see a good answer to that question.


          4. I’m not saying that only the Romans can talk about Rome. Non-Romans can when it concerns anyone in Rome being mistreated by Roman standards. For example, if HIV tests are mandatory for all government employees in Korea, foreigners who want to work for the government shouldn’t complain about them. However, if the only government employees who need an HIV test are foreign language teachers, then they do have a right to complain.


          5. Well, but that’s only the tip of the metaphorical iceberg isn’t it? How do we know what Koreans think? (How do they know?) I’m not psychic, and I have yet to see a definitive survey of all 53 million Korean citizens. If you have, please let me know, I would love learn what all Koreans think. (Seriously.) Do we use the majority of Koreans? How do we define “majority”? How would we then survey that majority? What happens if we survey that majority, and the next week some people change their minds? How long do we wait between surveys? etc. etc.

            That rabbit goes very, very deep indeed.


  3. If I misunderstood your post, or sounded angry at you, I apologize. As we’ve established, we don’t know each other. (I have been to your blog, though, it looks nice.) For the record, I really wasn’t annoyed with you–or your opinion–but rather the way you *framed* your opinion.

    The “guest/host” analogy is one that is repeated often in Korea, and it is almost without exception used to silence criticism. (I, for one, have never seen a Korean tell a foreigner who is praising Korea to be quiet.) There are several problems with labelling foreigners “guests,” and I won’t try to address them all; however, I will elaborate on a few of the worst offenders below:

    a) Just using the label “guest” implies that expatriots are merely transient passersby.
    b) The nature of the “guest/host” relationship establishes a heirarchy with the guest at the bottom–which is extremely ironic, given that traditional Korean customs treat guests with such great respect and kindness
    c) It is a convenient and self-serving way to silence criticism; the definition can be adapted to protect the host country from criticism regardless of the source (e.g. Jasmine Lee)

    Also, the implication about guests is that some people are allowed to speak, and others are not. If you intended that as a moral stance, oegukeen, that sentiment is one that I can understand. I can certainly see how it might be rude for an actual tourist in Korea to start complaining about how different “everything” is. From an intellectual standpoint, though, I abhor the idea that there is a certain requirement one needs to think/speak/write critically–whether about their home country, their resident country, or anything else for that matter.


    1. Thank you. However, your wife wasn’t talking about criticizing Korea, but about changing Korea and that is what I was referencing in my response.

      Expats are transient passersby, and guests, until get residence permit or even citizenship. Host’s duty is to make guests feel welcome, guest’s duty is to show gratefulness to host, no one is at the bottom.


      1. OK, Oegukeen… a few things:
        1. just by being here, guests ARE changing Korea. The question is not whether, the question is how, and in what direction. Their very presence means they are part of the process of Korea’s change, whether we ask them to be part of it or not.

        2. who cares whether expats are transient or permanent? What matters is how they act and speak. That host/guest thing? I submit that chestnut holds for tourists, and that’s it. Tourists should say nice things about Korea, or limit their complaints to things like “It’s hard to read the bus schedules.” Anybody who has a resident’s visa here has a stake here… some bigger and some smaller. The problem springs up when an expat’s level of assurance outstrips their level of knowledge about hte country and culture, or when being right becomes more important to them than having their message received in the most effective way possible. Or when their Significant Other is tired of talking about that kind of stuff, and just wants to watch TV. The guest/host thing comes out then, too, not out of ethnocentrism, but as the fastest way to end a conversation I’m too tired to continue.

        3. As for the TED talk… this is Korea 2012, not Korea 1965… the power and wealth dynamics involved with being a well-meaning but misinformed and culturally ignorant aid worker handing out KONY 2012 cards are wildly different from the nuanced web of power, hierarchy, aspiration, performativity, arrogance (on both sides) and otherness, that is a middle-aged Korean house marm attempting to prove to their neighborhood English teacher that Korea deserves to be a member of the OECD, or a group of Korean business leaders trying to earn hosting rights to FIFA World Cup 2026. VERY DIFFERENT. Yeah. If some first-month expat approaches Koreans with the attitude of a Foreign Legion WOrker teaching a man to fish… they deserve to get verbally smacked. But that’s hardly what’s happening in Korea, is it?

        And here’s the other bit: when the way Korea IS, doesn’t fit with the image Korea’s trying to project to the world through “Visit Korea” ads and such… isn’t it helpful, even for GUESTS to point that out?


        1. 1. The butterfly effect?
          2. You all act as if having manners is in direct conflict with freedom of speech.
          3. The TED talk is about those who think they know the best and think that others should just listen and do as they say and everything will be much better. The attitude is the same, and the outcome will be the same, no matter which year it is, and which sphere the problems are in.


          1. Three points to add onto this discussion:
            First, some of the comments here seem to suggest that sexual harassment/assault is not supposed to be commented on or that people (particularly so-called ‘guests’ or migrants) should not have the right intervene, or even that ‘guests’ in Korea don’t have grounds to critique Korean law.
            ***So, let’s check Korean law: rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment are all illegal in Korea. In the Korean court system witnesses (even non-citizens) are called upon to testify, so it isn’t as if observers of a crime are infringing on the privacy of the perp/victim.

            Second, many of these comments debating on the rights of the ‘guest / host’ don’t seem to acknowledge that this post is a reflection by a ‘guest’ in Korea to the sexual harassment / groping that she not only has ‘observed’ but has personally experienced and had to reject / avoid, it is not merely a reflection on whether or not to “intervene in Korean affairs” but also a threat she experienced in her own personal safety while living in Seoul.
            ***Legal and illegal migrants ALIKE are covered by law in Korea, and by several international statutes Korea has signed onto that ‘are supposed to’ protect human rights.

            Third, she writes that she perceives “that police will not help and that self-defense might be dangerous to legal liability and visa status, which unfortunately happened with two of her friends that were assaulted.”
            ***I want to share a link to this article about self-defense law by John Power at Korea Herald which ( ) points out that even through rape, sexual harassment and sexual assault are all illegal in Korea (as discussed above), ” Kang pointed out that Korea has relatively low violent crime compared to some other jurisdictions, he said that an overly restrictive conception of self-defense could inhibit victims of violence from legitimately defending themselves. “We need to keep in mind that Korea is generally regarded to be one of the safer parts of the world with a relatively low number of violent crimes,” said Kang. “Still, I believe a rigid, mechanical interpretation of the law runs the risk of psychologically deterring people from resorting to force as a legitimate means of defending themselves. ”


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