(Still) Empowering Korean Women: Over-the-counter contraceptive pills

Increased access to the pill in the US provides a reminder of how good it’s always been in South Korea.
Korea Contraceptive Pill Commercial(Source: YouTube)

Have you heard? Women in Oregon can get hormonal contraceptives directly from pharmacies now, without having to go to a doctor for a prescription first. And in California, they’ll be able to do so from March, whatever their age.

Which is great news. But with health and reproductive rights being such a quagmire in the US, it will be a long time before that’s the case in the other 48 states. Indeed, some supporters think the new legislation will even slow down that extension of access, due to the lengthy FDA approval process required for converting prescription contraceptives to over-the-counter products.

Whatever happens, I was struck by the stark contrast to Korea, where the monthly contraceptive pill has been available over-the-counter for 48 years. As Jordan McCutcheon explains, in her recent article “12 ways Korea ruined me for the US” for Matador Network (my emphasis):

Before I left to go abroad, I was told my insurance wouldn’t cover a year’s worth of birth control at one time (shocker). In Korea, birth control is over the counter, and it’s cheap. I asked for the active ingredient in the medicine I took at home, and the pharmacist found a similar brand. So, for ₩8,000 ($7) I can buy as much as I want whenever I want because I’m a woman who knows what’s good for my body, and what it doesn’t need is another US male politician regulating my right to not reproduce.

That said, only 2.5 percent of Korean women actually use the pill. Probably, due to a combination of aggressive sterilization programs in the 1970s and ’80s, a knock-on tendency to leave contraception in men’s hands, and because of scaremongering by the Korean Medical Association.

Also, there were alarm bells in mid-2012, when the KFDA announced bizarre plans to make monthly pills require a prescription, but morning-after pills over-the-counter. (Basically, the opposite of the existing situation.) But there was no medical justification provided. Instead, it was a transparent attempt to forge a compromise between the competing financial interests of the Korean Medical Association and the Korean Pharmaceutical Association. And a blunt demonstration that women’s health and sexual freedom were the least of the government’s concerns.

Fortunately though, it backed down in the face of outrage, and because the outgoing Lee Myung-bak Administration resolved it was not worth creating a political headache for Park Geun-hye’s presidential campaign. Also fortunately, Park Geun-hye hasn’t tried again since gaining power. A surprise, frankly, given her continuation of Lee Myung-bak’s equally bizarre and women-unfriendly policy of (re)criminalizing abortion in order to raise the birthrate. (And in practice, only serving to make abortion services much more expensive and difficult to find.)

In the meantime then, Korea remains one of the few developed countries where the monthly pill is over-the-counter. Which makes we wonder: in terms of attitudes towards and use of the pill, in what other ways does Korea stand out?

With that in mind, I was struck by the emphasis on appearance in the following recent commercial.

The voiceover says “My body? ‘A.’ My personality? ‘A.’ My style? ‘A.’ [The reason for?] my success? Alesse contraceptive pills,” followed by the text also mentioning it’s a good treatment for acne.

Should women with “normal” bodies try something else then? What about those with only so-so fashion sense?

That can’t compare with the Koreanness of this next one though, with its mention of “bagel girls” and use of aegyo:

So much so, it may actually be a satire: its title is “Pill Ads These Days,” and I can’t find any mention of the company. Either way, it stresses that even women who look great in a white one-piece, women on a diet, women with great bodies, and women who do aegyo with their boyfriends…all get mood swings and PMT. And all of which can be solved by rearranging their cycles with the pill.

Which I’m sure is indeed empowering. Yet, watching these, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the pill is sometimes used to prevent pregnancy too.

Or is that just me? Please let me know your own thoughts in the comments, about these commercials, how they compare to pill commercials overseas, and/or about contraceptives in Korea in general. And if I’ve been reading too much into these two examples too—no matter how much fun I’ve had doing so! ;)

Just in case though, I’m happy to point out that Mercilon’s commercials at least, do seem to acknowledge that they can be used for that thing called sex too (which is also fun):

Update 1: Satire or not, the second commercial is very similar to this genuine one for Myvlar:

Update 2: According to Stuff, there’s a strong possibility the pill is going to be made (more) over-the-counter in New Zealand also. Most commenters are supportive of the move, and question just how useful and necessary visits to GPs are. For instance, according to “BenzyY”:

In my experience, doctors tend not to provide any real advice or counselling about the use of the pill anyway. When you first start taking it they tell you to read the information leaflet. That is all. And once you’re on it, all they do is harass you about your weight and medical history, and when asked about spotting, imply that boyfriends/partners/husbands have been cheating and have given you an STI.

Bring on pharmacy visits.

Meanwhile, the author of Vintage Ads was stuck at “how condom ads [in Western countries] have changed from ‘prevent pregnancy’ to ‘prevent disease’ over the years.” I wonder then, if these Korean pill ads are so coy about their pregnancy prevention because of Korean sensibilities, or whether they’re more a reflection of recent, international trends in contraceptive advertising?

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(Review) Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams (2013)

Judy Garland & Lana Turner, Breasts Florence Williams(Source, left: Bombshell Bettie. Source right: unknown)

Many years ago, I was perusing the “Last Word” section of a New Scientist magazine, where readers submit and answer each others’ science questions. If memory serves, that week the questions were about why men are soooo attracted to breasts, and why human females’ are disproportionately large compared to other primates’. Much commentary ensued, in hindsight entirely by men. (And, entirely British men at that—but that’s a subject for another review.) Then, someone who actually had breasts stepped in, and said something along the lines of:

 “It occurs to me that few of the previous commenters have ever suckled a baby. If they had, they’d realize how important the shape is to prevent babies from suffocating while nursing.”

All of a sudden, I realized that much—probably most—of what I’d ever read about the evolution of breasts had been written by men, centered around sexual selection and the all-important male gaze. This lack of women’s voices meant I’d missed out on many obvious observations and insights, which strongly challenged theories I’d long taken for granted.

Much the same experience can be had from the first chapter of Breasts, greatly aided by Florence Williams’ similar, no-nonsense style of writing. For instance, from pages 22-23:

…there are problems with making sweeping statements about evolution based on studies about male behavior in pubs. For one thing, I am still hung up on the nubility hypothesis, which might as well be called the sag hypothesis [that age, gravity, and successive pregnancies take their toll on breasts, signalling to other men that younger women with perkier breasts might be more suitable mates]. But speaking from personal experience, I can report my breasts actually got bigger and fuller after pregnancy. I really can’t say they are sagging, not yet anyway. I am well past the age of what anthropologists call “peak reproductive value.” Does a man really need breasts to tell him a women is getting on in years? Aren’t there more obvious signs that don’t require awkward social glances? And as anyone who’s been to a public shower or springtime college campus can tell you, there is an enormous, and I mean enormous, variety of breast sizes out there. I’m talking 300 to 500 percent differences in volume, and these are in women of roughly the same age. What other body part is so variable, I ask? If breasts were such important communicators, wouldn’t they be more on the same page?

Further complicating the picture, there is also great variety in men’s tastes. [A male scientist interviewed] conceded that male preferences aren’t as universal as he’d hoped…

Nor does she simply critique such theories, but discusses several other equally plausible ones centered around health, fat deposition, and suckling babies. Indeed, “With breasts,” one anthropologist she interviews concludes, “men are just loading culturally a set of symbolizations onto something that really evolved for more direct reasons. We’ve got to be more scientific about it.” That’s a refreshing new perspective, and much-needed imperative, given all the misinformation about breasts out there.

Yet she overcompensates I think, in ending that chapter by rejecting the combined, complimentary roles of natural and sexual selection. Instead, she goes to the opposite extreme, completely dismissing the (literally snowballing) role of breasts’ sexual attraction to men in their greater and greater size over time (pages 34-35):

What if instead of men selecting breasts, the breasts selected the men? It’s possible that…Early Man loved lots of different specimens of Early Woman, some with no breasts, some with small breasts, some with hairy breasts, whatever. Man, for all we know, is sometimes not that picky. Then, for the [physiological] reasons described earlier…the women with the enlarged breasts and their infants gradually outlasted the others…

Consequently, the people who could talk and sing and have the biggest, best-fed brains were the ones born of women with breasts. It makes perfect sense that we would grow up to appreciate and enjoy breasts, eventually putting pictures of them in eye-trackers machines in universities.

Perhaps, all along, the breasts were calling the shots.

It’s just an off-the-cuff conclusion really, but it reminded me that with a breezy, persuasive writing style, tends to come arguments and examples that are often much more debatable than authors make them appear. It also felt alienating, because here she seems less concerned about scientific plausibility than in playing to her likely overwhelmingly female audience, justifiably sick of men lecturing to them about breasts.

To understand what I mean, imagine, say, a male author dismissing women’s preferences for tall men as having had no influence on humans getting taller over time. Rather, tall men just happened to do better in the competition for mates because of physically defeating shorter, weaker rivals for sexual access to passively awaiting women.

As for women’s own sexual preferences, and what they had to say about who they had children with? Or how those sexual preferences arose in the first place? Pfft.

Maybe I’m just making mountains out of molehills. But it helped me realize her book is only a starting point really.

On a first reading though, you’ll be much too busy enjoying it to care.

First, because of the wide variety of topics she covers. I’ve only concentrated on the first chapter here, because of the strong impression it left on me. But, if curves don’t do it for you personally, there’s 13 more topics on various aspects of breasts which may have have a similar impact on you, such as changes during pregnancy, feeding, development in puberty, toxins, cancer, and so on.

Those strongly reflect Williams’ background as a science journalist, so readers hoping for in-depth discussions about fashion, lingerie, and/or cultural attitudes may be disappointed to encounter mentions only in passing (albeit frequent mentions). But I’d still encourage them to buy the book. Because these are breasts we’re talking about. Whatever your sex or sexuality, you do have an interest in and/or some opinion about them, in which case there will be something—probably many things—in this book in for you. (I have so many post-its in my The best moments in reading -- Alan Bennettown copy, it looks like I read it during a ticker-tape parade.)

Also, because however science-focused, it’s so humorous that you won’t want to put it down. For instance, take how she describes undergoing an examination in a cosmetic surgery clinic, to better understand what it’s like for patients (page 60):

The robe came off, and [the surgeon] pulled out a small tape measure, He measured me from collarbone to nipple, from nipple to under-breast fold, and from nipple to nipple, calling out numbers to [the assistant]. He took a step back and mashed my breasts together with his hands, then squeezed each one like a club sandwich. I felt like I was awaiting the word of St. Peter. I was secretly hoping one of the world’s foremost experts on flawed breasts would be so vexed by my nice, very normal breasts that he’d tell me he had nothing to offer.

That also stood out for me because while reading the first sentence, I had a feeling that if I had breasts, I’d like to walk into a cosmetic surgery and be told that mine were different, better somehow. Maybe even exceptional.

Then with the last sentence, Florence Williams literally spoke my mind.

As well as being funny, it gave me a simultaneously eerie and warmly empathetic feeling. One which I hope I’ve sometimes given my own readers in my own writing.

Or, if not, that’s something to aspire to. Helped along, by also providing much more readable—i.e., shorter—and relevant posts for you in 2016. Starting with reviewing only the books I think TGN readers would be interested in, instead of every book I read.

Any thoughts or questions on Breasts? How about on breasts in general? Anything you’ve been meaning to get off your chest? Please let me know in the comments.

Next Review: Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club, by Anne Allison (1994).

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