“She Accused Me With Her Eyes”: The Sexual Politics of Skirt Length on Korean Subways

Remember this picture from a Seoul subway escalator, from last year?

치마는 가려 주세요(Source: 허지은@limpidlimpid)

For those of you who can’t read Korean, the text accompanying the center image read “Please cover your skirt.” Which seemed to blame the victims of upskirt photos, rather than those who took them.

What’s more, even covering up can be a problem too. Because, as Hwang So-yeon of OhmyNews explained in March, apparently that can really upset some men’s delicate sensibilities:

…백번 양보해 범죄예방 차원에서 치마를 가린다고 해도 또 다른 문제에 봉착한다. ‘마치 뒤에서 올라가는 사람을 치한·변태·성범죄자 취급한다’는 사회적(?) 압박에서 자유로울 수 없기 때문이다.

…even if for the sake of argument, we allow that women do have cover up their skirts, they still face the constant fear that the men following behind them may be deviants or rapists.

치마를 주로 입는 여성들에게 씌워지는 잣대 역시 문제가 된다. “아니, 저 사람은 치마를 입고도 가리질 않네, 경박해라”와 “아니, 왜 내가 뒤에 있는데 치마를 가려? 나를 치한으로 보는 거야 뭐야?” 등의 시선이 동시에 여성을 옭아맨다. 치마를 입은 사람들이 뒷모습을 가리는 것이 아무렇지 않게 받아들여지는 것은 기대하기 어렵다. 가리지 않는 것도 마찬가지다.

Yet while women who wear short skirts are also pressured by people saying things like “That woman isn’t covering up, how trashy”, at the same time they face accusations like “Why is she looking at me like that, for standing behind her? Does she think I’m a pervert?”. It’s hard for women to live up to such conflicting standards and expectations.

이는 온라인에서 이미 오래된 논란 중 하나다. “나를 치한이나 변태·범죄자로 보는 기분”이라며 불쾌해하는 사람들이 많다. 물론 앞에 가는 사람이 뒷사람을 치한 취급하는 듯한 말을 한다면 기분 나쁜 건 당연하고, 나아가 항의도 할 수 있다. 그러나 정말 치마를 가리는 게 뒷사람을 모욕하는 일일까. 대화도 아닌, 단지 행위만으로 ‘일면식 없는 사람들을 무안주는 일’이라고 판단할 수 있는 근거는 어디에 있는지 의문이다.

This has been a long-standing point of controversy online, as some men feel uncomfortable by women covering themselves up in front of them. Of course, if women do treat the men around them as such, and go so far as to verbally accuse them of being perverts, then the men will be upset and complain. However, is just the act of women covering up really so offensive? You really have to ask why something so innocuous could make some men so angry.

나 역시 이 도식을 보고 치마를 가려야 하는 것 아닌가라고 판단했다. 그러나 곧 내 잘못도 아닌데 왜 치마를 가려야 하며, 더 나아가 ‘치마를 가리든 말든 무슨 상관인가’라고 생각했다. 둘 모두 개인의 선택이며, 모두 누군가에게 피해를 주는 행동이 아니다. 애초에 ‘어그로'(짜증 나는 행위를 하는 상대방에게 위협수준을 높인다는 뜻의 인터넷 용어)가 되지 말아야 할 이야깃거리가 바로 ‘치마 가리기’다.

At first, [when I considered this sign], I thought women should indeed cover up. But then I started thinking, “[People’s problems with it] are not my fault, so why should I?”. And, furthermore, “Who cares if women cover up or not? It’s a personal choice, and, whatever they decide, neither choice harms anyone.” So, really, this shouldn’t be an issue at all.

여성이 경험하는 이런 동시성은 에스컬레이터 벽에 붙은 문구와 다르지 않다. ‘치마 속을 촬영하는 것은 범죄지만, 일단 치마를 입은 사람이 나서서 가려야 한다’는 논리가 그렇다. 치마를 가리는 여성에 대한 왜곡된 시선은 ‘범죄는 스스로 예방해야 하지만 내 기분 나쁘지 않게 치마는 적당히 가려달라’는 어투의 연장선이다. 치마를 가리는 일도 어렵지만, 이 모순된 시각 속에서 행동을 결정해야 하는 과정은 더욱 어렵다.

These conflicting standards women are faced with are no different to those underlying the controversy surrounding this sign. So, while it’s a crime to take upskirt pictures, it’s women who are wearing skirts that should cover up? That’s part of the same view that women who don’t cover up are trashy, yet at the same time should never cover up so as to make a man feel accused as they do so.

Covering up can be certainly be uncomfortable and inconvenient. But it can be even more so just trying to figure out what is right to do! (end)

치마는 가려 주세요 A4(Source: Olive@spinach_olive)

Meanwhile, for those of you who were wondering what happened to them, a couple of months later the Segye Ilbo explained that in most Seoul subway stations the offending image and text had been covered with A4 paper. It also added that:

…이에 대해 안행부 관계자는 “에스컬레이터 안전 홍보물을 제작하면서 불법적인 촬영을 하지 말라는 취지로 만든 것인데 표현이 부적절했다”며 “문구가 잘못됐다는 것을 인지하고 ‘촬영은 안 됩니다’로 수정하기 위해 잘못된 부분만 따로 다시 제작하고 있다. 며칠 내로 수정하겠다”고 해명했다.

…An official from the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs said, “Our intention was to make people aware that it is illegal to take upskirt pictures, but the accompanying text was unwisely chosen. The signs will be changed to ‘No pictures allowed’ in a few days.”

안행부에 따르면 이 홍보물은 지난해 12월 산하기관인 승강기안전관리원이 200장 가량을 제작했다. 이후 지하철을 운행하는 전국 광역도시 지하철공사에 배부해 주요 에스컬레이터 벽면에 부착했다.

According to the Ministry, 200 copies of the sign were made in December 2013 by the Korea Elevator Safety Institute, and distributed to cities with subways all over Korea. (end)

Don't Take Upskirt Photos Busan SubwayAnd which brings me to why I’m suddenly talking about this sign over a year later: I was leaving Seomyeon station in Busan recently (Exit #9, if you’re curious), and noticed the changed version above. It was actually the first time I’d seen the sign in person, which I’d assumed had only been distributed around Seoul.

Don't Take Upskirt Photos Busan Subway -- Close-upHave any readers also noticed the changed signs? Or originals that subway staff didn’t get around to? Please let me know in the comments. I’m also curious if men being offended by women covering up in front of them is really a thing, or if you feel that Hwang So-yeon was exaggerating. Have any of you ever encountered such attitudes in Korea, or elsewhere?

Update: To clarify, I’m not talking about simple misinterpretations of men’s gazes by women, which of course do happen, and which, like me, I’ll assume most guys just shrug off. If (some? many?) Korean women are so worried as to not want to offend men by covering up in front of them however, as Hwang So-yeon claims, then I’m guessing that a vocal minority of Korean men aren’t shy about complaining about false accusations of ogling, nor in exaggerating their frequency.

Either way, note that the sign was still well-motivated, as the numbers of cases in Seoul have been increasing rapidly in recent years, as explained by Hwang So-yeon below; also, subway sex crimes in general, of which these upskirt photos make up about a third. However, the increase may also reflect greater policing, awareness, and willingness for victims to come forward:

…서울지하철이 걱정해야 할 정도로 치마는 위험한 옷차림일까. 계단이나 에스컬레이터 아래에서 카메라로 촬영하는 사람들이 당국의 골칫거리이긴 한가 보다. 지하철 역사 내 ‘도촬’ 범죄는 증가 추세에 놓여 있다. 몰래 카메라 성범죄 발생 건수는 2009년부터 807건(검거 인원 716명)에서 2010년 1134건(1051명), 2011년 1523건(1343명), 2012년 2400건(1816명)으로 꾸준히 증가했다. 지난해 8월 말 기준으로는 2766건(1816명)의 몰래카메라 촬영 성범죄가 발생했다.

…Are short skirts so provocative and dangerous that Seoul subway companies have to worry about? It is true that people taking upskirt pictures on escalators and stairs are an increasing source of concern for authorities. The numbers of people being caught for it have been steadily increasing. In 2009, there were 807 cases perpetrated by 716 people; in 2010, 1134 by 1051; in 2011, 1523 by 1343; in 2012, 2400 by 1816; and; up to August 2013,  2766 by 1816.

(Hat tip to Suzy Chung, whose tweet about the original sign first alerted me to the controversy last year.)

Update: The Economist covers a similar case on the Beijing subway in June 2012.

4 thoughts on ““She Accused Me With Her Eyes”: The Sexual Politics of Skirt Length on Korean Subways

  1. Last year, I (personally) interpreted it more as informing/reminding women to take precaution. Not as whose fault it was. The wording was not great, I admit. Could have been more like “You might want to / It helps if you …” My only personal inconvenience is that I find myself consciously looking down while going up. But, I definitely see the dilemma (for women) you present.

    • Yes I read it and I read that always woman cover because they don’t want men to see, and if men’s eyes go to her legs give them an angry way of looking. That is how I understood the article and why I wrote my comment. Thank you.

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