‘Room Cafes’ for Amorous Korean Teens: Dens of depravity or a necessary evil?

Juno a little more eager than Jenny(Source)

“As in most places, Japanese junior high schools have a naughty-boy contingent fond of teasing girls and sexual braggadocio….Such boys grow up to be sukebe (lechers) and girls are not supposed to like them. As they both grow older, however, the boys’ approaches might be a little more subtle and the girls a little more responsive. Having sex, however, is a different matter.

The scope is rather limited. Being compelled to wear uniforms rules out love hotels, for all sex-orientated businesses are officially prohibited from servicing high-school pupils by law. Many private schools, especially the conservative kind who staunchly emphasize shitsuke — discipline — tend to keep an even stricter eye on students, even outside the school building. A government survey conducted in 1980 revealed that 40 per cent of young people aged between fifteen and nineteen never associated socially with members of the opposite sex at all, and that only 7 per cent were going steady. Although increasing, the likelihood of sexual hanky-panky is still not very great.

(Pink Samurai: An erotic exploration of Japanese society by Nicholas Bornoff {1992}, pp. 115-116.)

In Korean society, there is almost a universal taboo against adolescents dating, meaning that they have to do it secretly. Indeed, having sexual relationships or even dating the opposite sex is virtually considered a crime by adolescents here, and hence that which does occur is in places far from the eyes of adults.

(Oh Yun-ho, “The Effects of Having Sex at an Early Age” {translation}, Medical Today, January 25 2010)
DVD Rooms Pink Samurai(Sources: left, right)

You really have to wonder where Oh did his research in 2010. Because teenage couples were already easy to spot around schools and hagwons back then. Not least, because Korea’s first ad to feature kissing, in 2008, had just helped normalize PDA for couples of all ages.

Sex, however, is still a different matter, with young lovers having no more options—and probably much less free time —than their parents did at their age. Not for nothing did a 2006 study of over 70,000 13-18 year-olds find that only 5.1% had sexual experience, and just last week I would have wagered it was still in single figures.

Then I read about ‘room cafes,’ and for a moment I was no longer sure. I learned that, paralleling developments in the prostitution industry, where ‘kissing rooms‘—the Korean equivalent of massage parlors—have proliferated to avoid the 2004 Special Law on Prostitution, but in which it is “highly likely that after kissing, additional, actual sex might be arranged,” these establishments likewise avoided love hotels’ legal restrictions against admitting teens by being classified as food establishments instead.

However, judging by image searches, many room cafes—perhaps most?—are indeed cafes or coffee shops, and it’s telling that the following, alarmist article doesn’t mention those. Instead, it focuses on rooms’ lack of locks, and all of the smoking, drinking, and wild sex allegedly occurring within.

Underage drinking and smoking I am against. But the wild sex?

I can’t deny that I think most adolescents aren’t psychologically ready for it—and often not even physiologically ready for it—until their late-teens. But hey, regardless of what I think, not only are even middle-schoolers above the age of consent in Korea (it’s 13 here), but if some teenagers are going to do it—and some are going to do it—then, all other options being barred to them, it’s surely best that they do it in the safety and relative privacy of a new room cafe. Especially when the alternatives would be dark alleys behind their schools, or in the older, seedier variety of ‘DVD rooms‘ still out there…

Korean Roomcafe룸카페서 뭐든 다해요청소년 탈선 온상 어쩌나… “Anything is possible in a room cafe” What can be done about these [modern-day opium-dens] for teenagers?

잠금장치만 없을 뿐 멀티방과 비슷, 흡연·음주·성관계…
일반음식점으로 분류돼 여전히 단속 사각지대

There’s no locks, but they’re just the same as multi-rooms — smoking, drinking, and sex…

Classified as restaurants, they are under the police radar

by Kim Gwan-jin, Hankook Ilbo, 12/08/2013

“오늘만 세 번째 치우는데요, 뭘.” / “Jeez, just today I’ve [already] cleaned up three rooms [like this].”

토요일인 지난 10일, 10대 청소년으로 보이는 한 커플이 조금 전까지 머문 1평 남짓한 칸막이 방안은 담요와 긴 베개가 어지럽게 엉켜 있었다. 방 한 쪽에 놓인 휴지통 안에는 콘돔과 맥주캔, 휴지가 뒤섞여 있었지만 방을 정리하러 온 직원 A씨는 대수롭지 않다는 반응이다. A씨는 “평일 주말 할 것 없이 일주일에 4~5일은 이런 쓰레기를 꼭 치운다”고 말했다.

This Saturday the 10th [of August], I saw what looked like a teenage couple just leaving a messy, one pyeong (3.3m²) room, leaving a blanket and a long pillow tangled together. Condoms, beer cans, and used tissues were in the bin in the corner, but an employee, “A,” said that this was nothing unusual: “Weekend, weekday, it doesn’t matter — I have to empty bins like this four or five times a week.”

서울 마포구에 위치한 이곳은 10m쯤 되는 긴 복도 양 쪽으로 작은 칸막이 방들이 빼곡한 일명 ‘룸카페’다. 소파가 놓여있고 벽걸이 TV가 설치된 방 구조가 얼핏 멀티방을 떠올리게 한다.

지난해 8월 탈선을 조장한단 이유로 미성년자의 멀티방 출입이 금지된 뒤 룸카페가 청소년들의 새로운 탈선의 온상이 되고 있지만 관련법조차 갖춰지지 않아 단속의 사각지대에 놓여 있다.

This so-called “room cafe” in Mapo-gu in Seoul has a hallway about 10m long with tightly-packed room partitions on either side. Inside each room is a sofa, wall-hangings/posters, and a TV — at a glance, it reminds you of a multimedia room [like a DVD room cafe].

Room cafes started appearing last August [James—But here’s a very similar article from May 2011] because teenagers were denied access to “multi-rooms.” They have become very popular among teens [since], but because [as of yet] there is no law regarding covering them then they operate well under the police radar.

James: Here’s how chincha describes multi-rooms:

Multi-rooms (멀티 방) are for the indecisive people, and can please on an everyday basis. They do exactly as the name describes – you can go there to do a wide multitude of things, including singing, watching films, and playing computer or console games. They are equipped with large TV screens, and sound systems. A multi-room is basically a combination of all the other bangs put together.

There’s all the entertainment you need in just one multi-room (멀티 방), meaning that families like to go to them.

Korean Multi-room(Source)


룸카페는 잠금장치만 없을 뿐 사실상 멀티방이나 다름없다. 게임기나 노래방 기계 소음을 막는다는 이유로 설치된 밀실에서 음주, 흡연, 성관계 등 탈선행위가 이어지던 멀티방과 전혀 차이가 없기 때문이다.

본보가 지난 5일부터 10일까지 서울 노원구와 종로구, 마포구, 송파구 룸카페 22곳을 직접 확인한 결과 매장 14곳에서 중고등학생들을 어렵지 않게 발견할 수 있었다. 서울 노원구 C룸카페 단골이라는 박모(18)군은 “멀티방 출입규정이 강화돼 지금은 룸카페를 간다”며 “술을 사 들고 와 친구들과 마시거나 여자친구와 스킨십도 자유롭게 할 수 있어 애용한다”고 말했다. 마포구 한 룸카페에서 만난 이모(16)양은 “문을 잠글 수 없지만 누가 와서 들여다 보는 것도 아니고 음주 등 할 건 다한다”고 말했다.

Korean Room Cafe HallwayApart from not having locks on doors, room cafes are little different to multi-rooms. In multi-rooms, there are “secret rooms” [ostensibly] set up to avoid the noises coming from the game rooms and karaoke rooms and so on, but where [in practice] it is possible to drink, smoke, and/or have sex (source, right).

This August 5-10, this newspaper investigated 22 room cafes in Nowon-gu, Jeongno-gu, Mapo-gu, and Songpa-gu in Seoul, finding that middle-school students had no problems entering 14 of them [James — *How* this was determined isn’t explained]. At “C” room cafe in Nowon-gu, Mr. Park (18), a regular customer, said “Because the entry rules for Multi-rooms have been strengthened, now I go to room cafes instead,” and that “I love being freely able to buy alcohol and drink with friends, or doing skinship with my girlfriend.” At another room cafe in Mapo-gu, Ms. Lee (16) said “Even though the doors don’t lock nobody peeks in, so we can drink and so on.”

하지만 관계당국은 뾰족한 수가 없다는 입장이다. 마포구청 관계자는 “멀티방은 ‘복합유통게임제공업’으로 영업신고를 하게 돼있지만 룸카페는 ‘일반음식점’으로 분류돼 있어 미성년자 출입을 금지할 수 없다”며 “일반음식점은 식품위생법상 방에 잠금장치 설치가 금지되는데 이를 준수하는 룸카페는 단속할 근거가 없다”고 말했다.

Korean Room Cafe Teen CoupleNevertheless, authorities have no clear solution to this. A concerned official in the Mapo-gu District Office explained “Multi-rooms are legally classified as ‘Multi-room-game-provider-businesses,’ but because room-cafes are classified as ‘general restaurants’ then they can’t restrict teenagers from entering,” and that “in normal restaurants, hygiene regulations state that locks cannot be installed on [dining] rooms. We can’t police room cafes if they are sticking to these regulations” (source, right).

더욱이 룸카페는 게임기를 방 안에 설치할 수 없게 돼 있지만 상당수 업소가 카운터에서 게임기를 대여해주는 방식으로 법망을 피해가고 있어 청소년 고객들이 더 몰리는 실정이다. 성윤숙 한국청소년정책연구원 박사는 “청소년들을 무조건 룸카페에 출입하지 못하게 하는 것은 또 다른 대체업소를 만들 뿐”이라며 “유리창 설치 의무화 등 업소의 내부 환경 변화를 통해 청소년들의 건전한 놀이공간이 되도록 유도해야 한다”고 말했다.

Room cafes are prohibited from installing game machines [James – Consoles?] in the rooms, but more and more are circumventing the rules and lending them to customers at the counter, which is something that attracts teens. Dr. Song Yun-suk of the National Youth Policy Institute said “If teenagers are prevented from freely entering room cafes, then alternatives will just spring up. Instead, through doing things like installing glass windows in them then their atmosphere can be changed and a healthy, wholesome free-time space for teens can be maintained.” (end)

No Sex. But no Noses Either...(Source: unknown)

As always, I appreciate readers pointing out any mistakes in my translation. And, as I haven’t taught teenagers myself in nearly 5 years, and haven’t even been in so much as a DVD room in 10 years (although my wife and I have — ahem — many fond memories of them), then it would be great to hear from teachers, and/or those who have seen the new multi-rooms and so on I’ve just learned about. Also, for anyone interested in reading more, please see:

  • Here for the 2006 survey of teens referred to
  • Here for more on Korea’s surprisingly low age of consent
  • Aljazeera for more on teenage prostitution
  • The Korea Herald for more on prostitution in general, and why a lack of police resources meant the 2004 law was doomed to failure, with a proliferation of kissing rooms (and so on) inevitable
  • Here and especially here for surveys on Korean university students’ sexual experience, habits, and beliefs
  • Busan Haps for more on Koreans’ habit of living with their parents until marriage, the main reason for the love hotel and various cafe/room establishments in the first place (but of course older, married couples also frequent them). As I write there though, numbers of single households are rapidly increasing (now 1 in 4 — higher than in many Western countries), and the Korea Joongang Daily recently wrote that high rents are encouraging 20-somethings to start flatting/getting housemates.
  • And finally The Korea Herald again for more on Korea’s OECD-lowest rate of out of wedlock births, although it has been increasing recently. Also, see here for more on Koreans’ stereotypes of single mothers being teens, despite most actually being in their late-20s and 30s, and unfortunately one also perpetuated by the government (albeit an improvement on calling them “ignorant whores” until 2010…)

Update: Frank Kogan has some interesting thoughts on a commenter’s suggestion that dating restrictions on middle-school students may be behind the lack of co-ed Korean pop groups (hint: he disagrees).

Update 2: On October 1, the article “Schools banned from disciplining students for pregnancy, relationships” appeared in the Korea Herald. It’s short enough that I may as well copy and paste the entire thing:

The Education Ministry said Tuesday it would prohibit schools from taking disciplinary measures against students for being pregnant or in a relationship.

The ministry ordered local education offices to revise related school regulations that it considers an improper breach of their rights to study.

Controversy stirred earlier this year when two high school students received an official reprimand of volunteer work for being in a relationship. One of them was removed from a position as class president. The school, in the southeastern part of the country, had required students to report private relationships along with violence and bullying.

In some other schools in Seoul and the surrounding areas, similar regulations were introduced at the parents’ request.

Under the new guidelines, schools are required to amend any rules that allowed them to suspend or expel pupils for being pregnant or in a relationship.

Local education offices will monitor and support schools as they implement the new rule.

The Ministry of Education also recommended schemes that could help teenage single mothers continue their studies.

For single mothers who seek transfers or admission to another school, the ministry allowed school principals to decide the graduation year for those pupils based on previously acquired credits and learning experience outside of school.

Once a student is pregnant, the school should also introduce an alternative program to help her remain on the school register.

Nine alternative schools for teenage single mothers currently exist in the country, including Narae and Dodam in Seoul.

By Lee Hyun-jeong


Update 3: In China, this time, via the BBC:

In recent weeks a number of Chinese secondary schools have introduced prescriptive new rules designed to discourage teenage romance. But this has been met with scorn and outrage on both social and official media, as the BBC’s Dong Le reports

Read the rest there.

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

9 thoughts on “‘Room Cafes’ for Amorous Korean Teens: Dens of depravity or a necessary evil?

  1. I agree with this wholeheartedly: “but if some teenagers are going to do it — and some are going to do it — then, all other options being barred to them, it’s surely best that they do it in the safety and relative privacy of a new room cafe.”

    People should realize that, no matter if they are liberal or conservative when it comes to teenage sex. When people think something is bad and that it shouldn’t happen, they tend to start ignoring that it does actually happen in the real world, and that only makes matters worse.


    1. Sorry for the late reply, and thanks. And I think that that especially applies to abortion — even though I’ve always been pro-choice, I like to think that if I wasn’t I’d surely be swayed by the fact that the more inaccessible or illegal abortion is, the more young women die to backstreet abortionists. Sadly though, I don’t think many pro-lifers in the real world are.

      A little tangential, but still interesting I hope, is the drinking age. For many obvious reasons I think it should be 18, but the reality is that the lower it is, the more young people die in drink-related road accidents and so on (this came up a lot in NZ 14 years ago or so, when the age was lowered from 20 to 18). So, despite those obvious reasons, I think it should be 20 or 21, and would vote for that if it ever came up…but then reluctantly accept that because 18 year-olds are already adults and so on, then they can’t really be denied the right to drink also.

      Damn you complicated real world!

      p.s. Apologies for typos etc. as I type this sleepily.


      1. I think you made good points, both for abortions and drinking age. I’m not sure if you agree but it seems to me the logical thing would be to use science to govern these kinds of decisions. We have good statistical data, and can even look at differences between societies that have different rules. Science can give us the answer in which conditions humans most flourish, instead of using our emotions and personal beliefs to make such decisions.


  2. Just wondering about that age of consent thing…”middle-schoolers above the age of consent in Korea (it’s 13 here),” Your link is broken. If you would please share something that shows it’s really thirteen?
    Step 1: Section 305 of the Criminal Law of the Republic of Korea: A person who engages in a sexual intercourse with a female minor who did not yet and will not turn the western age of 13 in the year the event has occurred is guilty of rape. Step 2: Section 305 of the Criminal Law lost its validity because the ACT ON THE PROTECTION OF CHILDREN AND JUVENILES FROM SEXUAL ABUSE supersedes the Section 305 of the Criminal Law. Step 3: ACT ON THE PROTECTION OF CHILDREN AND JUVENILES FROM SEXUAL ABUSE: The age of consent in South Korea is 19 years of age by date of birth. Step 4: Sex with a juvenile (under 19) under the following conditions is considered rape: person is stronger – discourages coercion by physical force person is older – discourages coercion by age hierarchy person is richer – discourages prostitution or sugar daddies person is a government employee – protects against bad press person is in a better position – discourages coercion by social position


    1. Sorry, and thanks for pointing out the broken link — here it is.

      Judging by what you’ve quoted above though, there’s been significant developments in the law since I wrote that post back in January 2010. I’ll have to do a follow-up sometime :)


  3. I went to a room cafe in hip Hyewha – just for the experience, honest – and it really didn’t seem like ‘anything was possible.’ The walls were basically partitions that didn’t reach the ceiling, so everyone could hear every conversation going on from both sides, and even the TV had a volume limit (meaning you couldn’t actually hear it properly beneath all the chatter). Also, the doors were just curtains. I suppose the owner’s ultra savvy.


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