Policing the Student Body: Sookmyung Women’s University students told to cover up

Sookmyung Women's University Festival Dress Code(Source: TVChosun)

Watching a news report about the controversial new dress code for last week’s festival at Sookmyung Women’s University, I was surprised to hear that it was the student union that was responsible, and aghast to learn that it was under the assumption that wearing revealing clothes leads to more sex crimes against women.

Fortunately though, at least the report itself ended with a commentator from the Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education, who pointed out the potential for victim-blaming from such misguided beliefs. As so few other reports mentioned that (I’ve only found one other), I thought it was worth highlighting here.

Alas, there were technical issues with the sound in the online video, and rather than fixing those MBN just decided to delete it. But the transcript is still available:


숙명여대 총학생회가 축제 기간에 입을 수 있는 복장 규정을 마련했는데, 치마 길이와 심한 노출 등을 규제하고 있습니다. 성 상품화에 젖은 대학문화를 자정하겠다는 취지인데 논란이 일고 있습니다.
주진희 기자입니다.

For the university festival period, the Sookmyung Women’s University student union has set rules for students’ dress, regulating the length of skirts and the amount of exposure. This attempt to regulate university culture, which is steeped in sexual objectification, has raised a lot of controversy.

Reporter, Ju Jin-hee:

친구 얼굴에 물풍선을 던지거나 인간 두더지 게임을 하며 학업 스트레스를 날립니다. 해가 지면 캠퍼스에 주점이 설치되고 축제 분위기는 무르익습니다. 주점마다 자극적인 문구와 공연으로 치열한 호객 행위가 벌어집니다. 여성 속옷인 가터벨트를 찬 가정부 그림을 이용한 홍보지부터 성적인 은유를 함축한 메뉴판까지. 노골적으로 성을 상품화한 축제로 변질될 우려가 일자, 축제 시작 전 숙명여대 학생회는 혹시 모를 불상사를 막자며 복장 규정을 강화했습니다. 허벅지의 절반을 드러내는 치마는 금지. 만일 입으려면 속바지를 착용하도록 했습니다. 가슴골이 보이거나 속살이 비치는 의상은 물론이고, 옆트임이 있는 치마도 금지했습니다. 만일 어겼다가 적발되면 벌금을 내도록 했습니다. 이해가 간다는 반응의 학생들도 많지만…

During the day, doing things like throwing water balloons at students’ faces and playing whack-a-mole with them is a way of relieving stress at festivals.

But once the sun goes down, the festival atmosphere takes a more adult turn, with students promoting their departments with eye-catching posters and performances and making money for them by selling alcohol [James: With flow-on benefits for their MTs and so on].

In this vein, [the Department of Art and Crafts] made a provocative poster with a maid wearing a garter belt, and a menu with suggestively-named foods.

Sookmyung Women's University Maid and Menu(Sources: Kookje; Goodbuyselly)

Because of worries about such increasing sexual objectification in festivals, the student union set rules about clothing in order to avert any incidents.* These include: only being allowed to show 50% of the thigh; having to wear shorts under a mini-skirt; and mesh tops, dresses showing cleavage, and those with side-slits [James: Is that the right term?] all banned, with offenders being fined.

Many students responded that they understood these rules, but…

(James: It’s this line — “노골적으로 성을 상품화한 축제로 변질될 우려가 일자, 축제 시작 전 숙명여대 학생회는 혹시 모를 불상사를 막자며 복장 규정을 강화했습니다” — that sounds like victim-blaming. If better Korean speakers than I feel that’s a little extreme though, or a misinterpretation, I’d be very happy to be proven wrong!)

Interview: Sookmyung Women’s University Student:

“여대로써 많은 불상사가 생기지 않도록 엄격한 규제를 한 것에 대해서 찬성을 하고요. 그렇게 다 가리고 있는 건 아니잖아요.”

“Because this is a women’s university, I agree that regulations had to be made before an incident occurred. Students have been pretty blatant [about wearing revealing clothing and so on].

반면 비판 여론도 만만치 않습니다.

On the other hand, there were a lot of criticisms.

Interview, Kim Han-min, University Student:

“저는 솔직히 문란하다고 생각 안 하거든요. 그런 거 하나하나도 패션에 대한 자유가 될 수 있는데, 규제가 조금 심했다고 생각하고 있어요.”

“To be honest, I don’t think it’s lewd at all. This is about fashion and personal freedom, so I think the regulations are too harsh.”

전문가들은 여성의 짧은 치마가 문제될 수 있다는 사고방식 자체가 더 문제라는 지적입니다.

Experts pointed out that it’s the notion that women’s short skirts are problematic that is more of an issue:

Interview: Seong In-ja, Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education

“고육지책으로 마련된 걸로 보이긴 하지만 또 한편에서의 우려는 성범죄 안에서 피해자에게 원인이 있다는 ‘피해자 유발론’으로….”

“These rules appear to be a desperate measure, and there is a genuine worry that they shift the blame of sexual crimes onto the victims…”

축제 문화를 자정하려는 취지에서 만들었지만, 좀 더 현실성있고 고민이 담긴 규정이 마련돼야한다는 목소리도 나오고 있습니다.

These rules appear aimed at regulating [excessively sexual] festival culture, but some voices are saying a much more realistic and nuanced approach is needed (end).

sookmyung-womens-university-festival(Source: Extreme Movie; edited for brightness)

Of course, that only skims the surface of the issues raised by the dress code (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for the ensuing debate), and it would be good if it turned to be motivated less by supposed crime prevention than avoiding pictures of students later appearing on Ilbe and so on (although again, should that dictate what students are allowed to wear?). If anyone likes, I’d be happy do some more investigating and translating to learn more.

In the meantime, I wisely invested my time in interviewing Peter Daley instead, a professor at Sookmyung (and expert on Korean cults), to gauge the atmosphere and his students’ reactions. To his surprise, they felt it was a non-issue that had been blown all out of proportion:

“I only found out about the dress-code through the article in the Korea Times….[a female coworker of mine] felt it was a bit draconian. The students are adults, but weren’t being treated as such…she also mentioned that some students do have larger breasts…are they going to be penalized just because they can’t hide that part of their anatomy?

…Contrast that with what my students said, and that was a different reaction entirely…I expected that [raising it in class] would lead to some kind of debate and that students would be passionate about it, but they just kind of laughed it off…they said only guys were worried about the rules [because they’d see less]!

He hasn’t taught at Sookmyung long enough to attend previous festivals, but, whether because of the new dress-code or not, he didn’t see students wearing anything particularly risqué last Friday (“Certainly nothing too different from what young Korean women normally wear in the summer, or at other university festivals.”). Nor did the security guards seem to be tasked with measuring skirts with rulers, as if they were teachers at a high school.

But if someone had seen too much thigh? Sookymung isn’t a school, and the students are no longer children. The last time grown women were penalized for what they wore, it was by the fashion police of the 1970s, during the military dictatorship.

So yes, perhaps the students really should have been angrier.

busty girl problems korean fashion police(Sources: Busty Girl Comics, 추억의 편린들)

But I’m not one of them, and can’t presume to know their needs and feelings better than they do. Also, Daley concedes that without this year’s dress code, fashions at previous festivals may well have been more extreme, and indeed fashion photographer and blogger Michael Hurt said on Facebook that things at his own school’s festival are “getting insane,” although again that banning isn’t the solution (reprinted with permission):

But I think [the message it sends, that girls’ worth is all in their looks] is precisely the point that this culture is struggling with right now. One of the reasons they dress this way, and this is even hinted at in the quotes lifted from the students for the [Korea Times] article, is that they have really come to commodify value themselves in terms of their sexuality, the expressions of which are primarily guided by over sexualized images in the media. I think something needs to be done to counteract this tendency, but this culture is lacking in terms of concrete strategies to do so besides banning or making rules. I think the same is true in the US to a lesser extent, but both cultures seem to have a problem dealing with where the line should be without having to litigate it.

I’d be grateful if readers could supply any more details about events at Sookmyung; for instance, although the student union came up with it, I’m sure that the dress code was actually at the behest of the university administration. Also, I’ve never attended any Korean university festival myself (I always have two young kids to look after, and teach at a very Christian university far from home), so I’d be very interested to hear what they’re like. What are your experiences and impressions? Have you heard of dress codes elsewhere? Do you think, even if you don’t agree with the ban, that something like it was inevitable?

Update) Among many other relevant and interesting posts by Michael, make sure to check out “The Cultural Politics of Short Skirts in Korea.”

Update 2) I realize the irony of only quoting two middle-aged men for this article, but, well, you get what you pay for sorry(!) that can’t be helped with my family and day job down here in Busan unfortunately. Most of the links do include input from the students though, and if readers would like me to investigate further then I’m happy to focus on finding a student’s perspective to translate (here’s a good candidate).

Update 3) Some interesting related reading: “Dress Codes for Girls: Are Teachers the New Objectifiers?” at Ms. blog, and “Say Goodbye, Skimpy. Film Fest on the Alert for ‘Overexposed’ Actresses” at Busan Haps.

Update 4) Here, here, here, and here are some more Korean articles that look interesting.

Quick Hit: Harassment Framed as Affection

Dummy Harassment(Dummy Harassment by gaelx; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Via The Korea Herald:

Former National Assembly Speaker Park Hee-tae is to be questioned over allegations of molesting a golf caddie, police said Saturday…

…Park admitted that there had been some physical contact, but maintained that he did not “cross a line.” He told a local daily that he poked the woman’s breasts with a finger once, adding that it was an act of adoration because she “felt like his granddaughter.” (My emphasis)

Read the link for more details, or The Korea Times. I mention it because a friend pointed out that they’ve heard that excuse on more than a few occasions in Korea, which rang a definite bell. Sure enough, a few years ago I translated an article by Ilda Women’s Journal writer Park Hee-jeong, who said exactly that in relation to the following commercial back in 2005:

“I touched her because she’s like my daughter”

여성들이 이 광고를 보면서 느끼는 불편함의 한 켠은 ‘몸을 만지는’ 행위에 있다. 우리 사회에서는 가족이라든가 친하다는 이유로 타인의 몸에 손을 대는 행위가 쉽게 용납이 되는 경향이 있다. 나이 지긋한 분이 성희롱 가해자로 지목되면 “딸 같아서 만진 건데 잘못이냐?”는 변명(?)이 나오는 것도 그런 이유다…

One reason women feel uncomfortable watching this ad is because of the act of the daughter’s body being touched. That is because our society approves of and/or grants permission to men touching them in a friendly manner, like they would their own family members. Indeed, when an older male is accused of sexual harassment, often he fastens on to the excuse that “Can’t I affectionately touch someone like my own daughter?”…

…“딸 같아서 만진다”는 말이 통용되는 사회에서 삼성생명의 광고는 많은 여성들에게 불편한 기억을 환기시킨다. 광고 속에서는 의도된 스킨십이 아니었지만, 불편해하는 딸의 모습을 아름답게 바라보는 시점 자체가 이미 여성들을 불편하게 만들고 있는 것이다.

…“I just touched her like I would my daughter” is an excuse used so much in Korean society, that this Samsung Life Insurance commercial evokes many uncomfortable memories in women. In particular, having something that would in reality be so uncomfortable for the daughter, to be just cutely dismissed instead, already makes women feel uncomfortable. Even though the father’s intention was not skinship. (My emphasis)

See my 2011 post for the full article and translation. Like I argued there, the prevalence of such attitudes in 2005 still goes a long way towards explaining the rise of “ajosshi-” or “uncle-fandom” just a few years later. Or, more specifically, why the media so quickly framed and celebrated middle-aged men’s interest in (then) underage female-performers as purely paternal or avuncular, despite the girls’ increasingly sexualized performances.

But that’s a very familiar topic with readers, so I’ll wisely stop there, and later this month I’ll make sure to write a follow-up post on the important challenges to those media narratives that have arisen since (suggestions as to what to add would be welcome). Also, boys’ performances have likewise become problematic, so it’ll be interesting to explore similar permissive media narratives about “ajumma-fandom“—or curious lack thereof.

Until then, what do you think? Do you feel older Korean men still have a palpable sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, however much it is rationalized as affection? Or is Park Hee-tae’s case an unfortunate exception?

Update: By coincidence, this issue has just been raised in a posting at Reddit’s TwoXChromosomes. An excerpt:

But [my Korean father] would act strangely at times. He commented in public and in private how large my breasts were, and how I could have grown up without him there, how the last time he’d seen me I was so small. He would often say teasingly that he wanted to feel my boobs and he would constantly try but I would be very self conscious and embarrassed and turn away.

I asked him to please stop and get angry. I even cried once because he was making me feel bad and humiliated. He also kept trying to sneak in when I was bathing and kept implying that he wanted to bathe me like when I was young. He would often try to see me when I was changing. I felt very conflicted and always refused. I felt revolted by the whole thing.

Anyway, I admitted to my grandmother that I had felt strange, and kind of traumatized by this behavior. She immediately responded with, “You’re wrong about this. This is normal behavior in South Korea, and you’re just seeing this in the wrong light because you’re American. Your father has a temper problem, but he’s a pure person. I’m one hundred percent sure that he just was being a loving father.”

Read the rest there, as well as the numerous comments. Again, there’s quite a debate as to how common such excuses and rationalizations are in Korea (or not).

Update 2: Clearing out my archives, I came across the following case from October 2007:

An appellate court gave the “not guilty” verdict to a father who had touched his 11-year-old stepdaughter’s breasts, saying it was a “sign of affection.”

Kim, 43, was married in 1996. He became the stepfather of his wife’s daughter, whom he treated as his own child. He had often showed her affection through touching, which the girl did not used to consider as unpleasant…

…However, the Seoul High Court only acknowledged the domestic abuse [of his wife]. He was given a two-year suspended jail term and 160 hours of community service. It ruled: “Kim’s act was a rather excessive sign of affection spurred by alcohol.”

The court made this decision based on the fact that the girl had not reached puberty yet and previously had not felt uncomfortable about such acts as sleeping next to her and touching her hips.

Read the full article at the Korea Times or Waygook.

You are Beautiful, Stop Hating Your Body

You are beautiful, stop hating your body(Source: 숭실 총여학생회 다락 Facebook Page)

Oops, I haven’t written in a while. Time to find something about body-image, the media, or popular culture to complain about then.

Seriously(?) though, there’s only so many times you can mention that young Korean women are chronically underweight, and the likely reasons for that. Better to highlight groups actually doing something about it instead.

One group is the Soongsil University Female Students’ Association, which recently encouraged women to stop excessive dieting by offering them free snacks, and passing on stickers and fans with messages like the one on the left above. It reads, “You’re different because you’re beautiful. Don’t feel bad or uncomfortable about your precious body based on other people’s stereotypes. Because you are you, you are beautiful. The 23rd Soongsil University Female Students’ Association: we are different, and we respect you.”

Those small efforts may seem futile in the face of the barrage of body-shaming messages women receive every day, but with three in five 19-24 year-old Korean women regularly skipping breakfast (nearly one in five, lunch and/or dinner too), then surely the growls in their stomachs at least got some questioning whether it was really worth it. As for the messages, body-image activist Minji Kim pointed out they’re surprisingly effective, and are now used by a number of organizations working on body-image issues:

“These messages create solidarity among people whose issues may have seemed daunting, because they were struggling alone. But when people share their stories and start talking about them? Then immediately they feel less lonely and empowered by knowing that there are other people like them out there and that they do have a support system.”

More specifically, Minji was talking about post-its like the one on the right, which reads “I would hate for you to lose even one gram in this world.” I’m unsure if it was placed there by the Soongsil students, by Korea Womenlink (remember their cool subway posters?), or if it was part of a collaborative effort, but the effect is the same!

You are Beautiful(Source: lunacharsky; used with permission)

Hat tip to the The Rootless Metropolitician, who led me to the group via the above photo.