Recent Studies Show it’s Hands-On Fathers That Have More Children, NOT Fictitious Alpha Males. The Implications for Raising Birthrates are Clear.

One recent study demonstrates the more of their fair share of housework and childcare fathers do, the more children they’ll probably have; another, the many entrenched workplace and social welfare practices that prevent Korean men from doing so. Loudly challenging the stereotypes and gender norms that discourage them, however, should be a no-brainer for policymakers.

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes. Photo by Annushka Ahuja from Pexels.

A lot of things have to come together, for a successful dating, sex, or family life.

Sadly, those combinations elude most young South Koreans. Which is not to say you won’t still see plenty of couples out on dates in this warm weather, popping into love hotels, or families out for a stroll. But when you do, as @publiusterence points out in this insightful Twitter thread, notice also their expensive haircuts, clothes, smartphones, handbags, watches, strollers, and cars. Then you realize: some of the very best things about being human, which the vast majority of us deeply, instinctively aspire towards, are simply “becoming a privilege for the middle class and above.”

No wonder everyone else is so angry.

There are a host of familiar, intractable reasons for this increasing bifurcation of Korean life. Too familiar, really. Who amongst you hasn’t already read how the economy in Korea is so polarized for instance, that singles say they simply lack the time and money to go on dates or have sex, let alone ever getting married and owning a home? Or how heavily the importance and costs of education (PDF) weigh on the decision to have children? Which only married people can even ponder really, so daunting remain the stigmatization and legal problems suffered by single mothers, as well as the strong taboos against having children if the parents have no intention to marry?

Is it any surprise that on the day of writing, a poll revealed that over half of 20-somethings don’t plan to have children after marriage?

And so depressingly on.

Photo by Alex Green from Pexels

Yet some of those reasons may also feel familiar, and personally and painfully so, because you’re in a similar position yourself—only you’re not in Korea. Which further begs the questions: to what extent are Korea’s own cultural and gender norms responsible for Korea’s world-low birthrate? Or, are they simply due to late-stage capitalism? How to tease the effects of each apart?

Such inquiries slide easily into a longstanding, ongoing sociological debate known as “convergence vs. divergence,” over whether the demands of capitalism force societies to adapt economically inefficient social, cultural, and gender norms as they develop, thereby making advanced capitalist societies resemble each other more over time, or whether some norms will endure regardless. Which is what makes the following graph, spreading rapidly on Korean Twitter, so interesting:

Source: Figure 16, “The Economics of Fertility: A New Era,” p. 32. Note that “Men” should more accurately say “Fathers.”

From the April 2022 “The Economics of Fertility: A New Era” by Matthias Doepke, Anne Hannusch, Fabian Kindermann, and Mich`ele Tertilt, a manuscript in preparation for the upcoming Handbook of Family Economics, unfortunately Korea is little mentioned specifically in the 129 page (but still fascinating) document. However, one of two potential takeaways is the seeming endurance and overwhelming influence of Korean cultural and gender norms. The dominant narrative projected by English-language commentators on Korean society after all, not least by myself, is that Korea remains a fundamentally sexist society. As BBC journalist Simon Maybin puts it in his August 2018 article, “Why I Never Want Babies,” with an iconic quote on this issue which I’ve often said myself (but am relieved to now have a much more reliable source for!):

A culture of hard work, long hours and dedication to one’s job are often credited for South Korea’s remarkable transformation over the last 50 years, from developing country to one of the world’s biggest economies.

But Yun-hwa says the role women played in this transformation often seems to be overlooked.

“The economic success of Korea also very much depended on the low-wage factory workers, which were mostly female,” she says.

“And also the care service that women had to provide in the family in order for men to go out and just focus on work.”

Now women are increasingly doing jobs previously done by men – in management and the professions. But despite these rapid social and economic changes, attitudes to gender have been slow to shift.

“In this country, women are expected to be the cheerleaders of the men,” says Yun-hwa.

Korean Sociological Image #92: Patriotic Marketing Through Sexual Objectification, Part 1

More than that, she says, there’s a tendency for married women to take the role of care-provider in the families they marry into.

“There’s a lot of instances when even if a woman has a job, when she marries and has children, the child-rearing part is almost completely her responsibility,” she says. “And she’s also asked to take care of her in-laws if they get sick.”

The average South Korean man spends 45 minutes a day on unpaid work like childcare, according to figures from the OECD, while women spend five times that.

“My personality isn’t fit for that sort of supportive role,” says Yun-hwa. “I’m busy with my own life.”

Also, for your interest, and because far more people need to be aware of Kaku Sechiyama’s excellent book, Patriarchy in East Asia: A Comparative Sociology of Gender (2015), here is his summary (p. 164) of Korean surveys from a decade earlier. As a reviewer noted, “it is in Korea (South and North) where motherhood is most pronounced, as is a household division of labor by gender”:

However, @publiusterence’s example also suggests looking beyond the headlines, as well as our preconceived stereotypes. For in addition to demonstrating that even in the progressive, supposed feminist utopias of Scandinavian countries, fathers still only do a third of the housework and childcare as mothers, a second, slightly contradictory potential takeaway is that regardless of the country, having fathers pull their weight more will invariably increase the fertility rate.

Source: Figure 16, “The Economics of Fertility: A New Era,” p. 32. Note that “Men” should more accurately say “Fathers.”

Does that make it also a potential point of convergence between capitalist societies? Admittedly, to posit it as such may seem misguided, as considering childcare and housework to be primarily mothers’ responsibilities is the very definition of a gender norm in itself. But the alternative, writing off all Korean fathers as simply lazy and sexist, is not exactly fair. Nor does it offer much in the way of solutions.

Instead, surely it is more helpful to point out the many structural factors that prevent Korean fathers from doing more work at home (whether they actually want to or not), as well as to point out practical steps that can overcome those.

Addressing the elephant in room first however, that last—let alone this post’s title—is not meant to imply that Korean policymakers aren’t already well aware of those many structural factors. Also, that they defy easy fixing, simply by virtue of not having already been done so. For an excellent summary of them, I recommend the second recent study, “Revisiting the Gender Revolution: Time on Paid Work, Domestic Work, and Total Work in East Asian and Western Societies 1985–2016” by Man-Yee Kan, Muzhi Zhou, Kamila Kolpashnikova, Ekaterina Hertog, Shohei Yoda, and Jiweon Jun in Gender & Society released just a month before that graph. Some highlights (my emphases):

Since the 2010s, the Korean government has introduced a series of family policies such as paid parental leaves, subsidized childcare services, and flexible working to help women and men to balance work and life. Public and social expenditure in Korea increased from five percent in 1990 to ten percent in 2012, but the figures were lower than the OECD average. Yet some scholars have classified the welfare regimes in Korea and Japan as [our “Conservative” type], given the fact that the governments in these countries work closely with businesses and corporations in providing social insurance and pension schemes; the result is a high degree of stratification among occupations and between the employed and the non-employed.

The reason for this was the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, after which Korea underwent a revolutionary shift from having the most job for life, male breadwinner, “salarymen” in the world to having the most part-time and irregular workers in the OECD, as well as having one of the highest rates of self-employment. The important distinction is that those fortunate enough to secure “regular” jobs in large corporations make much more money and have far more fringe benefits than everyone else (hence all that money spent on children’s education; going to the right schools and universities is a must to secure such jobs). Also, as you can imagine, women make up most of the irregular workers.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels.

Continuing:

Our findings suggest that cultural norms interact with institutional contexts to affect the gender convergence in time use, and gender relations might settle at differing levels of egalitarianism. Furthermore, policies relying on family ties and women’s traditional gender responsibility for care provision, as in the case of Japan, Korea, and Southern European countries, will hinder progress in gender equality.

And today I learned:

In Japan and Korea, the gender gaps in paid and unpaid work time are large but the gap in total work time is relatively small; the gender convergence in paid and unpaid work time has been extremely slow and has even stalled.

Source: @BreeNewsome

Finally:

These findings reveal that policies relying on families as a key source of care provision, including those of Southern European countries, Japan, and Korea, prevent women from increasing labor market work and reducing their share of domestic labor. In addition, the persistently long work hours in Japan and Korea have created barriers for men to committing time in domestic work.

And yet, even if you can’t change the long working hours, the universal male military conscription, the general homosociality of Korean life, and so depressingly on overnight, something that can be put in motion is a clear, explicit, widespread government campaign at raising awareness about that graph, following by loud, well-publicized efforts at removing the outdated gender roles and stereotypes from our daily lives that sustain them.

This may sound somewhat naive, and certainly isn’t a magic bullet. Of course, various initiatives of this nature have already been going on for decades too. However, deepening them and enlarging their scope would be still relatively cheap, and uncontroversial. Moreover, given the direct correlation between fathers’ share of housework and childcare to the birthrate, what’s to lose for governments that have already spent billions on trying to raise the latter, to little effect?

Indeed, if as a selection of books recently reviewed in the Atlantic show, “social and political shifts are usually the result of sustained, unseen work,” then there is still far more that needs to be done before those shifts become visible:

Source: Wikitree via Naver.

For instance, when translating foreign language programs and films into Korean subtitles, government-television broadcasters shouldn’t be allowed to depict women usually using honorific speech (존댓말) to men and men usually informal language (반말) to women, an extremely common practice that is done regardless of the status of the characters and despite no such distinctions being made in the original language. (It was even done in The Return of Superman to BBC Dad and his wife here in Busan.) Likewise, private broadcasters who do should also be named and shamed.

In case it’s not immediately clear why, pop culture gatekeepers’ dogged determination in making sure that one sex is always portrayed as higher status than the other, is not exactly a good basis upon which to discuss a more egalitarian division of home responsibilities. A clear commitment by policymakers to do away with this practice then, would surely be helpful. Likewise, and finally, also a commitment to use gender neutral terms concerning childcare and housework standard practice for all government departments’ communications with the public. Because again, what possible harm could it do?

Source: YouTube.

I’ve written about this before, most recently in 2019 about a new term for stroller that removes the notion that it’s a mother that should be pushing it. Sadly however, I’ve yet to encounter that new term personally, as An Hyae-min also laments in their April 24 “Mabu News” column for SBS News. Some excerpts to finish with:

우리나라의 성차별 언어는 얼마나 될까요? 한국어는 독일어와 프랑스어처럼 성별이 박혀있는 언어보다는 상대적으로 성중립적이기 쉬운 언어 구조를 가지고 있습니다. 하지만 그럼에도 불구하고 한국어 곳곳에서 성차별적 언어를 어렵지 않게 발견할 수 있어요. 2018년 여성가족부가 조사한 <일상 속 성차별 언어 표현 현황 연구> 결과를 보면, 성차별 언어 표현을 한 번이라도 접해본 사람의 비율은 응답자의 90%가 넘는 수치를 기록했습니다. 특히 성역할에 관한 차별 표현이 91.1%로 가장 많았어요. 여성을 지칭할 때만 ‘여’ 자를 따로 붙이는 ‘여배우’, ‘여의사’, ‘여경’ 같은 단어들이 그런 예가 되겠죠.

“How sexist is the Korean language? Actually, Korean tends to be relatively gender-neutral compared to gender-studded languages ​​like German and French. Yet despite this, you can easily find many sexist terms in Korean. According to the results of a study conducted by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in 2018 on the status of sexist language expression in daily life, the proportion of people who have encountered sexist language at least once a day was recorded by more than 90% of the respondents. In particular, the expression of discrimination regarding gender roles was the highest at 91.1%. Examples of such words would be ‘actress’, ‘female doctor’, and ‘female police officer’, where the reference to the person’s sex is used only when referring to women who perform those roles [not the ‘default’ of men who do].” (Source, right: Geoffrey Fairchild; CC BY 2.0)

가족 호칭에서도 남편 쪽의 친척에게는 ‘도련님’, ‘아가씨’로 높여 부르지만 아내 쪽은 ‘처남’, ‘처제’로 부르고 있죠. 남성과 여성을 병렬적으로 배치할 경우에 ‘남녀노소’, ‘아들딸’, ‘남녀공학’ 등 남성이 먼저 위치하지만 비하하는 표현을 사용할 땐 ‘연놈’과 같이 여성을 지칭하는 말이 먼저 오기도 하고요. 심지어 여성이 앞에 와 있는 Ladies and Gentlemen을 ‘신사숙녀 여러분’으로 뒤바꿔 번역하기도 하죠.

“Even in family titles, relatives on the husband’s side are called ‘bachelor’ and ‘agassi/unmarried woman‘, but on the wife’s side they are called ‘brother-in-law’ and ‘sister-in-law’. Also, when men and women are placed in parallel in a neutral term, men are mentioned first, such as in ‘man and woman’, ‘son and daughter’, and ‘co-education’—even the English ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ is reversed in Korean. But when using derogatory combined expressions, words referring to the women come first, such as in ‘Yeonnom.'”

● 유모차 → 유아차
: 여성(母)만 포함되어있는 단어로 평등육아 개념과 맞지 않음. 아이가 중심이 되는 유아차가 성중립 언어라고 할 수 있음.

● 스포츠맨십 → 스포츠정신
: 스포츠를 하는 누구나 가져야 하는 스포츠정신에 남성(man)만 포함되어있는 단어는 성평등에 어긋남.

● 자매결연 → 상호결연
: 상호 간의 관계 형성의 사회적 의미를 ‘자매’라는 여성적 관계로 표현. 여성에 대한 인격적 편향성을 높일 수 있다는 점에서 차별적 표현

● Stroller → Baby Car: A word that contains only women (母) does not fit the concept of equal parenting. A child-centered infant car can be said to be a gender-neutral language.

● Sportsmanship → Sports spirit : A word that contains only men in the spirit of sports that everyone who plays sports should have is against gender equality.

● Sisterhood relationship → Mutual relationship : Expressing the social meaning of mutual relationship formation as a feminine relationship called ‘sister’. Discriminatory expression in that it can increase personal bias toward women

이러한 성차별적 표현을 바꾸기 위한 노력은 곳곳에서 보입니다. 위에 정리해 둔 건 서울시 여성가족재단에서 2018년부터 진행하고 있는 성평등 언어 사전의 일부 내용들이에요. 서울시에선 시민들과 함께 성중립 언어 개선안을 만들어서 공표하고 있죠. 국립국어원에서는 가족 호칭에 대해서 아내 쪽 친척을 남편 쪽 친척의 호칭처럼 ~님으로 부르는 방식을 권고하기도 했어요.

“Efforts to change these sexist expressions are everywhere. Listed above are some of the contents of the Gender Equality Language Dictionary, which the Seoul Gender Equality and Family Foundation has been running since 2018. The Seoul Metropolitan Government is working with citizens to create and announce a gender-neutral language improvement plan. The National Institute of the Korean Language also recommended that relatives on the wife’s side be called with the honorific ‘nim’, just like relatives on the husband’s side.”

가장 보수적인 언어가 통용되는 법령 용어에서도 성차별적 언어 표현을 성중립 언어로 대체하고 있습니다. 법 조문에는 여전히 ‘미망인’과 같이 성차별적 표현이 있거든요. 이를 바꿔보려고 한국법제연구원이 법률을 전수 조사해서 차별 언어를 검토하기도 했습니다. 지난달엔 법무부 디지털 성범죄 전문위원회에서 ‘성적 수치심’이라는 단어를 성 중립적 용어로 변경하라고 권고한 일도 있었고요.

“Even in statutory terminology, which is used in the most conservative languages, sexist language is being replaced by gender-neutral language. There are still sexist expressions such as ‘widow’ in the law. To change this, the Korea Legislative Research Institute conducted a full investigation of the law to examine the language of discrimination. Last month, the Ministry of Justice’s Digital Sex Crimes Committee recommended that the word ‘sexual shame’ be changed to a gender-neutral term.”

Korean Sociological Image #61: Stereotypical Gender Roles in Pororo

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

How Korean Celebrity, Gender, and Advertising Intersect—Some Quick Key Points

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes.

But first, let me extend my warm thanks to Professor CedarBough Saeji (a.k.a. @TheKpopProf) for her invitation to talk on this topic to her class last week. Next, to her students also for their many interesting questions and observations, given to me both in person and as they live-tweeted the event!

As there were too many tweets to respond to individually afterwards however, and because most were related to some key points I’d ended up having to rush over because I’d wasted far too much time showing videos of time constraints, I decided to clarify them in a long thread instead. Please click to read, and, because the more in the discussion the merrier, please feel free to respond yourself, either on Twitter or in the comments section below.

Finally, seeing as we’re on the subject of talks, let me also remind everyone that if you too would like me to give one to your own class or organization, whether in person or via Zoom, then I’ll probably jump at the chance if our schedules work out. So please get in touch! :)

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

Two Ads With the Same Female Model, for the Same Kind of Product. Spot the Differences in the One Aimed at Men.

Needless objectification, and a power trip from being called Oppa. WHY do advertisers assume cishet men genuinely prefer these?

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes. In case of any lingering doubts that it’s the same model, check out the wisps of hair on her right.

“You’re a man in his 40s, aren’t you?” reads the offending ad’s headline. Ouch. I scroll social media for the dopamine hits thank you very much, not to be reminded of how much my knees hurt.

I also really, really don’t like being pegged as someone who’d prefer to see a woman’s body without her face either. But it’s what the ad says which is more repugnant, so let’s address that first.

The product being advertised is a diet supplement. (Yes, I thought it was for something to help with “men’s stamina” too.) At the top, the text about it extols, “I only took a packet a day and it took care of everything. I levelled up from being called an uncle to an oppa! These days, it’s time for men to take care of their diets too!”. Then, the headline next to the model, “You’re a man in his 40s, aren’t you?” and “We will ensure you’ll never be called ajeossi again!”

I’m not judging the implied huge age gap with the model. One sex being used to sell products to another will always be a thing too, however absurd it feels in this particular case. What I do have a beef with, is encouraging myself and my fellow ajeossis to crave being calling Oppa by women, especially those like her who are much younger than ourselves.

Although we’d like to pretend it really wasn’t all that long ago we were dancing to Wax‘s classic in nightclubs in our 20s, when the word had more innocent and romantic connotations, really we know most women now find the word distasteful at best. We also know they especially resent how all too many older male colleagues, acquaintances, friends, and bosses, taking advantage of their male privilege, will sometimes demand they perform infantilizing aegyo to them at company dinners and so on—which will invariably include demands to call them Oppa.

The men who still ask women to do so regardless then, only to claim it was just harmless fun later, are being completely disingenuous. The only reason any man does so in 2022 is to get his ego boosted, and to put the younger women being asked in their place. Behavior which whoever at Sery Box and/or enigmatic shopping site 형만믿어 responsible for the ad would know full well, and absolutely shouldn’t be encouraging.

Source: Kakao.

To give a recent for instance, in a surreal scene from an episode of the Omniscient Interfering View talkshow in February last year, veteran, internationally acclaimed actor Moon So-ri calmly explained she didn’t call her four year-older husband Oppa because its cute connotations made the woman using it seem childish, whereas she wanted a relationship of equals. One male panelist’s tactless, boorish response to her thoughtful comments? To ask her to call him Oppa instead. When she refused, he demanded a flustered young K-pop star do so in Moon’s place, ultimately forcing Moon to cover for her to save her further embarrassment.

The top tweet: “Actor Moon So-ri explained the gender politics of the word in an easy-to-understand and non-accusatory manner. He was just such a typical sexist han-nam though, with no intention of listening to or trying to understand her whatsoever.”

On top of all that, the model is headless. No pun intended.

While having bodies or their various parts presented in isolation isn’t inherently bad in itself, and is a practice that people rightfully tend to judge in context, the cumulative effect on the people it’s usually done to day in day out—e.g, women overwhelmingly more than men, and obese people in news reports about them—is to dehumanize them in the minds of observers, even if they belong to the group being objectified themselves. It’s also been demonstrated that if my fellow ajeossis and I consider a woman attractive, we’d also be much more likely to respond to her returning our gaze instead. The implied enthusiastic consent to our interest through a wide smile can be a pretty big deal too.

All of which begs the question of why, if Sery Box and/or 형만믿어 clearly had access to the same stock photos of the same model that Centheal and/or 하태핫태 responsible for the left ad had, did they not also select one with her smiling face?

I’m no photographer or graphic designer, but I refuse to believe there’s anything particularly significant in terms of aesthetics or layout that would compel the choice they did make. Even just raising the bottom of the image just enough to show a smile would have made a big difference.

I’m overanalyzing, I know. Numerous surveys have revealed that Korean internet ads in particular have gotten distinctly smuttier over the past decade, and the Oppa ad is really nothing special in that regard. Less a patriarchal conspiracy, than simple laziness.

Yet there’s something to the juxtaposition nonetheless.

But if you could please bear with me a just a moment longer before elaborating, there remains the task of confirming the gender divide in the two ads first. So again, the offending one is indeed explicitly aimed at men, and the link it takes you to only features two images of a woman—Kim Tae-hee—among the many more of main celebrity endorser Lee Jung-jae, as well as numerous images of muscled men. Most of Sery Box‘s products are actually aimed at women however, and feature Kim Tae-hee and various other female celebrities (with absolutely no men) in their advertising on their various webpages for those.

During rush hour, when men are glued to Facebook on their phones, Korean shopping mall target men with ads like these. The logic being, the images on the left will get their attention, even though they’re not interested in actually buying women’s clothes. Then, when they invariably look away, the next things they will see are the ads for products they will be interested in buying on the right. Image source: The PR News.

In contrast, the left ad (now below) is advertising a fortified extract of garcinia cambogia (가르시니아 캄보지아 추출물) sold by Centheal. Although there’s nothing on their website to explicitly indicate they’re targeting it only at women, only female models are featured, and the logo on the packaging has a woman’s waist incorporated into it. There’s also a “WomaNature” mentioned, although I’ve been unable to pin down what that refers to. Meanwhile, the screenshot actually being saved by me in February 2021, just before the Korean New Year, the text at the top reads “With Seollal approaching, let’s enjoy holiday food with worrying about it.” Then, next to the model, “This Seollal, don’t become like one of those people who’s put on weight from staying indoors all day due to Covid. Instead, take care of your body [even] while eating all that [holiday] food. [Take advantage of this] half-price discount event to celebrate the holiday.”

Finally, let me post the other ad again for the sake of that juxtaposition:

I’m writing here today because personally, seeing them together, I was instantly reminded of a surreal experience I had in 2010, when I innocently switched tabs between Elle Korea‘s photoshoot of Lee Hyori, and then MSN Korea’s article about it (which I’ve presented in GIF form below). Someone at the latter, an ostensible news site, had apparently found the body of then Korea’s biggest sex symbol inadequate:

That particular juxtaposition sparked the beginnings of my own learning journey over the next decade about Korea’s many, many problems with female body-image. Whereas writing about this more recent pairing, has forced me to think deeply about, first, the modern connotations of the word Oppa, which frankly I wasn’t originally going to mention at all (I wasn’t joking about my intense dislike of cishet men being pigeonholed as preferring headless women); and second, what other baggage from my formative years in Korea I absolutely need to jettison over the next decade if I want to continue my quest to properly understand Korean misogyny—which “Call me Oppa” ultimately is.

I hope you too find what’s revealed by the juxtaposition featured today, just as telling and motivating to learn more about as I have.

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

If She’s Got Bette Davis Eyes…

…Science says she’d be foolish not to take advantage of them.

“Eyebrows have a huge impact on the impression you make”? Estimated reading and viewing time: 5 minutes

This image is from the back of a beauty parlor’s standee. The front, which I saw first, likewise featured an attractive woman. But that woman? I didn’t give her a second thought as I approached the parlor. There was nothing to make her stand out from the hundred or so other attractive women in ads I’d already seen on my walk that night. Whereas the woman on the back, who seemed to return my interest rather than avert her eyes? Of course that would elevate her above her rivals. But did you know that dopamine was the reason why? Which attractive women will trigger in cishet men’s brains only if they stare back?

All is explained in this one minute video from the Psychology TikToks channel, part of a 2010 lecture on human sexual behavior by Stanford University biology and neurology professor Robert Morris Sapolsky. But I encourage you to click on the video of the full lecture below that instead, which I’ve timed to start at 43:55 to help give you some quick context before that clip begins at 45:10:

Granted, no source is mentioned, maybe because it was in the syllabus (but see here for a student’s extensive notes), and I’ve been unable to find any possible candidates; I’ll keep looking. Another issue is that Sapolsky didn’t immediately follow his point with how cishet women reacted to attractive and ugly men returning their gaze (let alone anyone else on the LGBTQ spectrum), as I’m sure that’s what everyone in his audience was wondering. Or was that actually covered by a later comment about switching the genders?

Also granted, whatever your gender and sexual orientation, you too may prefer the back picture, for reasons that have nothing to do with dopamine. If so, having some additional chemical motivation isn’t mutually exclusive with sharing them. For instance, from an advertiser’s perspective, that picture surely ties in with the parlor’s various eyebrow-related services much better than the essentially random one on the front does. Noteworthy too is how, in discussions about the male gaze, examples of women staring back are frequently praised by women for having agency by “being aware of,” “controlling,” and “challenging” that gaze. In fact, as you can see from the links at the bottom of the post, I’ve written tens of thousands of words doing so myself, and wince at the memory of how much caffeine—not dopamine—was involved.

It’s also in those posts that I’ve expressed my anger and frustration with commentators on the female gaze who take it as a given that myself and all other cishet men actually prefer passive, compliant women we can lord over. Say, because that’s the image of women the male-dominated mainstream pornography industry, well known to be a bastion of feminist representation, overwhelmingly provides us with.

And I’m still angry and frustrated, frankly. Imagine if I likewise gave a one hour talk on what, say, cishet women want in men, without providing any evidence whatsoever that I’d asked a single one of them. It would be classic mansplaining.

It brings a certain satisfaction then, to learn that if some commenters won’t apply the same standards to themselves, there is at least now (potential) scientific proof that cishet men aren’t necessarily the domineering brutes that they describe them as ;)

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

The Hidden Roots of Korea’s Gender Wars

Universal male conscription and rampant discrimination against working mothers will always grab headlines, but a recent ruling against segregated seating in study rooms is a stark reminder of the pervasive homosociality behind the friction

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Photo by cottonbro from Pexels.

After university, Korean men and women have fewer friendships with each other than their counterparts in English-speaking countries do. At least, that’s my own personal experience, and I’d wager good money most of yours too.

Under-30s especially though, will make me want to hold on to my wallet. Koreans that age have known nothing but rapidly declining marriage and birth rates, a staggering rise in the number of single households, and ongoing economic precarity. In their wake, lifestyles and social norms that were centered around marriage and male breadwinner systems are undergoing a paradigm shift.

But change is never easy, nor universally welcomed. In particular, Korea’s ‘gender wars‘ are one troubling symptom of the transistion process. One of their main catalysts, misplaced anger over mandatory military service for men, will continue to buttress homosociality, by disrupting male university student’s relationships with female students who remain, as well as by subtly enabling male, age-based privilege when those men return, and by providing them with old-boy networks they will rely on for the rest of their lives. Not unrelated, long working hours for both sexes and a second shift of domestic and family responsibilities for women reinforce the notion of separate spheres.

17-Year-Old Tzuyu: “A Special Gift for Korean Men [who’ve completed military service].”

Yet these are only the broad swathes of the many roots of the phenomenon. Not so headline-grabbing, but no less impactful for all that, is that most Korean schools are single sex, with only a third of high schools in Seoul being coeducational for instance. Indeed, many schools prevent students from dating or even socializing with the opposite sex too.

A task in which they may have long been aided, it turns out, by a law requiring “study rooms” (독서실) to be segregated by sex, under the eye-rolling rationale that mixing them together is more likely to lead to sex crimes. (And a belief which is still taught in sex-education classes today.) As YTN just reported on Valentine’s Day however, this requirement has now been ruled unconstitutional:

I’ll translate the report in a moment below. But first, study rooms, for those unfamiliar, are like libraries where all the bookshelves have been replaced by rows of separate cubicles. Designed to be equally quiet, and with the sole purpose of studying, I’ve also been told by a friend that they were where teenagers especially “told their parents they were going when they were actually going on dates, since you were expected to be incommunicado while you’re there.” They’re also much cheaper and have been around much longer than “study cafes” (스터디카폐), which range much more widely in price and quality but in which you either have tables and desks to work at and/or can hire a separate room where noise is not a problem, and will likely have a range of snacks, coffees, and soft drinks available to purchase. For obvious reasons, both study rooms and cafes are primarily associated with school and university students, but they’re also commonly used by older adults, especially the half a million Koreans studying for civil service exams at any one time—which just goes to show how ubiquitous and common a part of daily life they are in Korea.

Unfortunately and finally, the report is frustratingly vague. Among the many obvious questions it doesn’t provide an answer to are: if the original law (or 1995 amendment?) covered all private educational intuitions, or if it only applied to study rooms and why; if it had been enforced at all before 2017 or if that was in fact the first and last time; why only 16 regional educational boards (out of how many?) incorporated it into their own ordinances; why the Jeonju Office of Education suddenly decided to enforce it; and so on. If any readers can help fill in any these blanks, I would be very grateful!

“This is a study café, which can easily be found in any neighborhood.”

주변에서 쉽게 볼 수 있는 스터디카페입니다.

남녀 자리를 구분하지 않고, 자유로운 착석이 가능합니다.

공공도서관, 공동주택 열람실도 마찬가지입니다.

하지만 독서실은 다릅니다.

남녀가 한 공간에 섞여서 앉아 있을 경우 행정처분을 받습니다.

This is a study café, which can easily be found in any neighborhood.

You’ll notice there is free seating, with no designated areas for men and women.

The same is true for public libraries and community reading rooms in apartment complexes.

But study rooms are different.

If men and women sit together in them, the owners will be subject to administrative sanctions and penalties.

“You’ll notice there is free seating, with no designated areas for men and women.”

근거는 지난 1995년에 개정된 학원법 시행령입니다.

성별에 따라 좌석을 구분해야 한다고 규정했고, 이 조항 등을 기초로 16개 시·도 교육청은 조례에 남녀 좌석구분을 못 박았습니다.

지난 2017년 12월 이 조례를 근거로 전주교육지원청은 한 독서실 업체에 열흘간 운영정지처분을 내렸습니다.

현장점검결과 열람실 내 성별 좌석 구분 배열이 준수돼 있지 않고, 한 공간에 남녀가 섞여 앉아 있었다는 겁니다.

이에 대해 독서실 측은 해당 조례가 직업수행의 자유를 침해하는 위헌적 규정이므로, 행정처분 역시 무효라고 주장하며 소송을 냈습니다.

This is due to the Education Academy Act, which was amended in 1995. [But the broadness of the Act is not given, nor why it was only being enforced in study rooms—James.]

It stipulates that seats should be divided according to sex. Based on this provision, 16 metropolitan and provincial offices of education have incorporated it into their own ordinances.

On this basis, in December 2017 the Jeonju Office of Education ordered a study room to suspend operation for ten days.

As a result of an on-site inspection, it had found that men and women were sitting together.

In response, the study room filed a lawsuit arguing that the sexual segregation requirement was invalid, as it infringed upon the constitutional right to freedom to practice one’s profession.

“[However], if men and women sit together in [study rooms], the owners will be subject to administrative sanctions and penalties.”

1심과 2심이 엇갈리는 치열한 법리 다툼 끝에 대법원은 독서실 혼석 금지 조례는 위헌이라고 결론지었습니다.

재판부는 헌법에서 보장하는 직업수행의 자유와 독서실 이용자의 행동 자유권을 지자체가 조례를 통해 과도하게 침범했다고 지적했습니다.

이어, 혼석을 금지해 성범죄를 예방한다는 입법 목적도 남녀가 한 공간에 있으면 성범죄 발생 가능성이 커진다는 불합리한 인식에 기초한 것이므로 정당성을 인정하기 어렵다고 설명했습니다.

대법원이 전북도 조례에 대해 위헌 결정을 내린 만큼 지난 2017년 먼저 관련 조례를 삭제한 충청남도를 제외한 나머지 15개 지자체는 조례개정이 불가피할 전망입니다.

YTN 김우준입니다.

After a fierce legal battle that went to a second trial, the Supreme Court agreed that the sexual segregation requirement was unconstitutional.

The Court pointed out that through the ordinance, the local governments excessively violated the freedom of occupation guaranteed by the Constitution and the freedom of action of users of the study room.

The Court further explained that the original purpose of the ordinance, to prevent sex crimes by reducing the opportunities for men and women to mix, was irrational and could not be used as justification to continue it.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling that ruled that sexual segregation was unconstitutional, the remaining 15 metropolitan and provincial offices of education that incorporated the provision will be forced to revise it. One of the original 16 offices, that of Chungcheongnam-do, already removed the relevant ordinance in 2017.

Kim Woo-jun from YTN reporting. (End.)

Update:

An excellent article by Choi Jae-hee from The Korea Herald entitled “From study cafes to ride-sharing, Koreans seem to prefer same-sex environments. Why?” helped fill in some of those blanks. Specifically (but I highly recommend reading it in full):

[The Supreme Court’s] judgement was in favor of a local operator of a private reading room facility who was slapped with a 10-day business suspension from a local educational authority for breaking a gender segregation rule set by the North Jeolla Province’s education office.

The rule in question is the article 3 of the “Ordinance on the Establishment and Operation of Private Educational Institutes,” which stipulates that seats in studying spaces at private educational facilities should be divided by gender. It was introduced in 2009 largely to deter sex crimes and ensure a better study environment, officials said.

Unlike study cafes, which are categorized as a space leasing businesses or a restaurant/rest area business, reading rooms are regarded as private academies and thus are subject to the ordinance.

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

Announcing the First Book of The Grand Narrative Book Club: “If I Had Your Face” by Frances Cha, Thursday 27 January 7:00pm

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

If you wannabe my lover, you gotta get with my books.

Or, if you just want to be my friend (your loss!), I’ll settle for a shared love of books in general.

Just as in a romance though, a relationship on that basis can still entail a bittersweet mix of passion and frustrated longing. Specifically, as my own taste in books has rarely meshed with my friends’, I’ve found there’s only so much I can wax lyrical about my latest conquests when they’re so unlikely to ever read them themselves. And with 52 books read in 2021, plus a goal of 72 in 2022, that’s of lot of pent-up passion not to have an outlet for.

But you already know where it’s going to go now.

As I type this, I’m loving If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, “a fierce social commentary about gender roles, class divisions and, yes, plastic surgery in South Korea.” I’ve been especially struck by how realistically Cha depicts the daily lives and conversations of the four main young(ish) Korean female characters, much more so than in previous Korean or Korea-related fiction I’ve encountered. “Finally,” I said to myself, “I’ve found characters in a book talking just like my Korean friends and I talk!”

Yet we’re not in our 20s or early-30s either. Beyond the swearing and sex talk that I love so much, does Cha indeed portray their lives realistically? It’s been especially difficult for someone with my background to tell, slowing down my reading with so many nagging thoughts and questions.

Then something occurred to me in the shower. It’s a popular book, making Time’s list of 100 must-read books in 2020 for instance, meaning there’s many of you out there with your own opinions, insights, and maybe even your own nagging questions. So why not share them with each other on Zoom?

I’m envisaging something very intimate and informal, cameras on, with a maximum of 12 participants (but in practice probably much fewer than that). To ensure it’s as safe a space as possible, I’ll screen all attendees as much as I’m able, the Zoom link will be invite only, and once it’s started I’ll be very busy behind the scenes to ensure things run smoothly.

Just for that last reason alone, I want to be clear that this will be a discussion, and definitely not any kind of lecture, webinar, or even dominated by me. While in my duties as host I will have prepared many hopefully interesting questions and potential talking points to raise if necessary, I strongly encourage—nay, demand—everyone attending to come up with at least couple of their own (please!).

For those amongst you who are interested but haven’t read the book yet, I’m thinking that by Thursday, January 27 is plenty of time to order, read, and digest it, and that 7pm on that evening (Korean time) is both late enough to drink eat first, and early enough to get a discussion of a decent length in before people get tired. We could also decide the next month’s book then too.

If you’re interested in attending, please leave a comment below (your email address will only be visible to me) or contact me, and I’ll get in touch in a group email closer to the date. Any thoughts, suggestions, and advice for running a book club would also be very welcome.

See you on Zoom!

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