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.

13 thoughts on “Quick Hit: Harassment Framed as Affection

  1. Something similar is visible in Korean dramas. Abusive and controlling behavior of the male leads is depicted as something benevolent, a form of affection. But I guess when a pretty man does it, it’s not stalking and abuse, it’s a cute romantic gesture. Female leads are being wrist-grabbed and dragged around like they’re oversized dolls. In fact, in a lot of cases, that is exactly the amount of autonomy they are given. Of course, not all dramas are like this but this kind of unhealthy attitude is quite prevalent.


  2. I just wish this article was longer, haha.

    I watch “Hello Counselor” on KBS World on youtube to practice my Korean listening skills, and there have been some concerns that I was reminded of after I read this.

    One is the October 21, 2013 episode with Teen Top and Secret. The brother had a very strange obsession with his younger sister. He wanted to go on her honeymoon with her and her husband, fed her like a baby, made her try on clothes, made up different kissing rituals, and even made her husband sign a premarital contract dictating what he could and couldn’t do with his wife.

    The most relevant to this is from April 21, 2014 with the Olympic Heroes. A little boy in the 6th grade was concerned because his father kept touching his genitals. Even though it made the son clearly uncomfortable, I was surprised to see that people laughed it off and even defend the father. Even before the boy came out, they said how it was just a natural reaction because little boys are just so cute.

    I haven’t read a lot about this topic, but it really makes me wonder if South Korea even recognizes that close family members can sexually assault a child. They seem to recognize that there are pedophiles, but I’ve only seen them portrayed as strangers.


    1. Thanks very much for passing those on. I frankly don’t really have time to watch them myself sorry (and turns out that they’re not even available in Korea sorry; grrrr), but here are those specific episodes for other readers. I’m confident that 99% of Koreans would find that brother a little weird though, and that they do indeed recognize that close family members can sexually assault a child — certainly it’s illegal and is regularly prosecuted, although my strong impression is that sentences tend to be on the lenient side (related, until just the last couple of weeks, fully half of school sex offenders in 2009-2014 were allowed to continue teaching). I agree that most probably would laugh off that 6 year-old boy’s uncomfortableness though.

      Update: Erk! Because they’re not available in Korea, the above links don’t seem to be working properly sorry. But they’re easy enough to find (numbers 43 & 20) if you go to this playlist though.


      1. Thanks! Yes, the audience and hosts were really creeped out by the brother. It was just the first example that came to mind of sort of warped family relations.


  3. Hi – Most of this stuff sounds very creepy and demeaning but I’m curious as to why, in that Samsung commercial, a father who pats his daughter on her back is considered to be at the same level as the rest of this stuff. Maybe I missed something, sorry.


    1. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading the full article and the comments for a fuller explanation.

      But long story short, no-one’s implying that they’re at the same level sorry. Rather, that the commercial made a lot of women uncomfortable because it evoked the “just being affectionate, like with my own daughter” excuse and rationale used by all too many harassers and abusers.


    1. Sure, and I don’t think all Korean men are flower boy chaebols, but sexism of the society is reflected in its media. And of course American TV is also not sexism free. The thing about K-dramas that is refreshing is that they’re about women, written mostly by women. There’s not much of that on American television.


      1. “K-dramas … about women, written mostly by women.” They are the dreams and fantasies of Korean women, what they would like Korean gender relations to be in Korea. It helps distract them from the reality of married Korean life and for the younger women the reality of their expected married life. 80% of Korean marriages are still arranged by matchmakers ,,, after approval by the respective mothers-in-law. Korean couples choose marriage partner that satisfy their parents’ criteria, with the expectation that “jeong” will magically appear to smooth over any differences.

        Romantic love is a western concept predicated on a women’s financial and emotional independence. The reality is summed up in this Chosun Ilbo article from December 2013: How Singles Took Over Seoul.


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