ZOOM TALK: “Missing Voices that Matter: a history of Japanese women law professorial pioneers, considering the social impact of their scarcity,” Tue 11 October 6pm (PDT)/ Wed 12 October 10am (KST)

Pervasive sexual inequality can feel like death from a thousand cuts. No one source of pain or minor irritation isn’t possible to dismiss or play down in favor of other, more visceral struggles against the patriarchy. But as it turns out, women’s relative absence from the legal profession has cascading effects across all society.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Photo by cottonbro at Pexels.

When young Korean men return to university after doing their military service, they’re generally two to three years older than their female classmates. In a society where age really, really matters, this gap can grant those men a great deal of privilege. For example, by being able to avoid various mundane tasks periodically required of students by the university, as these get foisted onto the young(er) women instead. Like during this coming December after the university entrance exams, when some of my female students will be expected to “volunteer” to waste a precious day before their tests by bowing in the freezing cold to visiting high-schoolers as they arrive on the bus, while my male students study from the warmth comfort of the library.

Damn right, do I see a direct link to why so many talented and highly educated women are wasted answering the phones and making the coffee at Korean workplaces.

All of which may feel like an odd introduction to announce an upcoming hybrid talk (register) by Mark A. Levin and Tomomi Yamaguchi at the David Lam Centre of Simon Fraser University, which is not actually about Korea at all. But, based on its description below, it still feels intimately useful and relevant nonetheless. Specifically, I’m wagering it will reveal many more instances of how something seemingly innocuous like a slight age gap can have surprisingly wide implications for sexual equality, offering many similar possibilities to explore—and combat—in the Korean context:

“While the U.S. and Japan’s earliest generation of female legal scholars showed roughly similar numbers, their paths soon diverged dramatically. The number of women in the two legal academies in the 1950s to about 1960 were not all that different. Both nations counted phenomenally low numbers similarly. The U.S. took an early lead, but not by all that much. One report counted five women in tenure track positions in the U.S. in 1950 and another counted fourteen women before 1960. Japan could count five women by 1956 and eight women by 1958. Neither fifteen women in the U.S. nor eight women in Japan represent even token counts among individuals who made up the two countries’ legal academy professoriate in those times.”

“The difference then is in what followed. In the U.S., we crossed a count of 100 women around 1970 and then accelerated to 516 women by 1979, while Japan’s count essentially flatlined. From 1958 in Japan, there were no new women entrants for about ten years and then the next uptick in Japan was just five women entering the field in the late 1960s through 1974. After a second near hiatus of about eight years, Japan then saw some modest growth to have a total of twenty-two women who had entered law teaching by 1988. Our next found data point is 402 women in 2004.”

“The profound scarcity of voices of women academics as leaders, teachers, and scholars in Japanʻs legal academy for several decades remains significantly detrimental for Japanʻs gender circumstances today. The story demonstrates how crucial womenʻs and other feminist voices are in addressing gender gaps and dismantling patriarchy in a society. In particular, having women and feminist allies in the legal academy is essential for feminism to advance in a society. Conversely, deficits regarding women and feminist allies in the legal academy will invariably impact the overall society’s gender circumstances for the worse. And so, just as feminist legal theorists would suggest, it seems essential to assess those circumstances in Japan with the idea that gender gap deficits in Japan’s legal academy must be at least a contributing factor to the nation’s profound and distressing gender gap situation more generally that continue to the present day.”

“This talk aims to explore not only how, but why the two paths diverged so significantly. With time allowing, some effort will be made to draw upon Canada’s circumstances to add another historical sequence into the telling here.”

Truthfully though, it was not those possibilities that first convinced me to sign up. Rather, it was the disjuncture the blurb noted between Japan’s postwar democratic, egalitarian ideals and the actual practice in Japanese women’s personal and professional lives. For it all sounded very familiar (as it probably did to many of you too), having already read much the same in a chapter from a classic Korean studies book: “The Concept of Female Sexuality in Korean Popular Culture” by So-hee Lee (pp. 141-164) in Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class and Consumption in the Republic of Korea (ed. by Laruel Kendell, 2002). To refresh your memories from page 144, with my emphases:

“[Korean women in their early-30s {now early-60s}]…were the first female generation to go to school en masse, side by side with their brothers. As Wonmo Dong (1988) argues, they learned democracy and its fundamental principles of liberty and equality as an academic subject, not as something to practice in everyday life. From the beginning of their university days, around 1980, they were pushed into the whirl of extremely violent demonstrations to demand national political democratization. Although political protests had long been a part of Korean student life, there was something about the culture of protest that emerged in the 1980s that was different from what had gone before; student activism became an all-pervasive and all-defining experience. In those days, various slogans and ideologies relating to the struggle for democracy were strongly imprinted on the consciousness of this generation as a metadiscourse. However, the students of the 1980s never examined these democratic values in the context of their own everyday lives.”

“Go Alone Like the Rhinoceros’s Horn (Source, left: Whitedevil) illustrates the bifurcation between theory and practice. Looking at their mothers’ lives, Korean women in their early thirties believed that their marriages would be different. Because the Korean standard of living and patterns of material life changed very quickly, they believed that Korean ways of thinking had been transformed with the same speed. This is where their tragedy begins. As Hye-Wan in the novel says, mothers “teach daughters to live differently from themselves but teach sons to live like their fathers” (Kong 1993, 83–84). As a result, the daughters’ generation experiences an enormous conflict between the real and the ideal. During sixteen years of schooling, they have learned that equality is an important democratic value, but nowhere have they been taught that women experience the institution of marriage as a condition of inequality. Many married women of this generation have experienced a process of self-awakening similar to that of Yông- Sôn, who early in the novel tries to kill herself. She says,“Where have I been during the last eight years of my marriage?” and concludes,“Though I don’t want to accept it, I’ve been a sincere and faithful maid who must carry out his every request” (109). Korean wives in their thirties cannot envisage a real-life alternative to the self-sacrifices of their mothers’ generation.”

See “Women Getting on Top: Korean Sexuality in Flux in the 1990s” for a further discussion of Lee’s chapter. And, please feel free to say hi in the private chat if you are able to attend the talk! ;)

(But if you can’t make it, hopefully the talk will be made available on the Centre’s YouTube channel later.)

Update—Indeed it was. There seem to be technical difficulties embedding it here however, so if the video below doesn’t work please watch it on YouTube:

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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)

When “How to Own the Room” is Really Just a Lesson in Male Privilege

‘People skills’ advice which ignores backgrounds only exposes the lie that what works for white cishet men automatically works for everyone else too

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes. Image source (cropped): Cottonbro @Pexels.

I have a confession to make: I sometimes watch a YouTube channel called Charisma on Command. But please don’t be fazed by the name—“The Game” it is not, and its videos on topics like networking and public speaking can benefit anyone. So selective is my viewing though, that I often forget just how centered on cishet men the channel really is. Which, to be clear, is absolutely not a bad thing. But it does indicate a strong potential for biased perspectives, as recently became evident to me through their May 2022 video “How to Command Respect If You’re Short” below:

I realize it may seem unfair to bring a critical feminist lens to a video that was likely only intended for men. But most of its tips still appear to apply regardless of sex, leaving viewers with the reasonable assumption that women are just as free to use them. Whereas in reality, there are a number of sexist obstacles in their way, to the extent it may actually be more prudent for many women not to use the tips at all.

So, paralleling a now infamous 2013 Quora piece in which the white author believed he was simply giving ‘lifehacking’ advice, but was ultimately providing more of a demonstration of how white privilege operates, let’s highlight three of those obstacles here, taking advantage of the opportunity offered by the video to show how male privilege works.

Image source (cropped): Cottonbro @Pexels.

All three are related to overall advice point “#2: Be a big presence” (3:04), starting with “Option 1: Be the loudest person in the room” (3:10). In the video, comedian Kevin Hart naturally makes that look very easy in his talk with male sports commentators. But for the vast majority of women in more mundane, less public professions who are, say, looking for more of a voice in work meetings? The unfortunate reality is that not only are they usually underrepresented in them, but they’re also generally expected to talk less than the male attendees too. So normal and routine can this feel to men and women alike, even attempts to achieve simple gender parity can raise shackles and accusations of female bias—let alone for a woman deliberately attempting to be “the loudest in the room.” Just see for yourself, through the many excellent points and links raised in a convenient recent Twitter thread posted by regular meghan 나영지 (@ruemcclammyhand):

Source: regular meghan 나영지 (@ruemcclammyhand)
Source: Michael Farrell (@mikefarrell); see here for the linked article at In These Times.
Source: CyberLuddite (@WispyNeckbeard); see here for the linked article at PBS.

As with all of the tips offered in the video, none of this context entirely precludes women from still taking them up. In this particular case for instance, I’m sure there’s much to be said for women “leaning in” and getting the attention they deserve, chauvinistic bosses’ and coworkers’ opinions be damned. (You tell me.) But the point remains that women face difficulties that men may not realize exist. So too with “Option 2: Use expansive hand gestures” (3:37) and—I regard them as the same really—“Option 3: Freely use neutral space” (4:24), which again ignore how strongly we’re all socialized against women doing either. As Niall Richardson sums up very well in Transgressive Bodies: Representations in Film and Popular Culture (2010, page 78):

…the question of “taking up space” is not the same when it transfers across the gender divide. From an early age women are taught to restrict their bodies and retreat while men are encouraged to dominate the space. Consider this vivid description from a Marge Piercy novel in which performers in a drama workshop are instructed by the teacher how to perform gender for the forthcoming play:

She demonstrated how men sat and how women sat on the subway, on benches. Men expanded into available space. They sprawled, or they sat with spread legs. They put their arms on the arms of chairs. They crossed their legs by putting a foot on the other knee. They dominated space expansively.

Women condensed. Women crossed their legs by putting one leg over the other and alongside. Women kept their elbows to their sides, taking up as little space as possible. They behaved as if it were their duty not to rub against, not to touch, not to bump a man. If contact occurred, the woman shrank back. If a woman bumped a man, he might choose to interpret it as a come-on. Women sat protectively, using elbows not to dominate space, not to mark territory, but to protect their soft tissues.

Another confession: actually, I only found Transgressive Bodies while (unsuccessfully) searching for a very similar page from Nancy Henley’s groundbreaking 1977 work, Body Politics: Power, Sex, and Nonverbal Communication, which frankly instantly came to mind when I saw the video title. For your interest, and because this classic deserves to be far better known, let me also include the following photos of pages 38-39:

Let me also pass on the first hit in my search, City Living: How Urban Spaces and Urban Dwellers Make One Another by Quill R. Kukla (2021, pages 261-262), who: shows how such micro-behaviours and norms extend to the macro; makes observations about the similar constraints on various races and classes; and indeed who goes on after the below to discuss that notorious Quora piece on white privilege:

A wide range of factors help determine who can access and participate in a purportedly shared space…. The color of our skin, our perceived gender identity, and our perceived class (regardless of our actual economic situation) all affect how we can move through and use space…. People whose bodies are read as female are trained from a young age to avoid streets at night, to travel in groups, and to adopt defensive and self-isolating bodily positions in order to avoid sexual attention from men (Young 1980). This training not only shapes their bodily movement through space, but prevents many social micro-interactions of the kind that make up city life; women cannot risk minor friendly passing interactions with men for fear that they will escalate.

For more on the macro, or more specifically how our transportation, streets, buildings, rooms, even the very chair you may be sitting on to read this may all be designed, built, or created under the assumption you’re a middle-aged cishet white man, I also highly recommend Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World by Leslie Kern (2020; my brief review here).*

*(Update: Published in 2021, “Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored in an Economy Built for Men” by Nadia Idle also sounds interesting.)
Image source: Yan Krukov @Pexels

Finally, for women to try “Option 4: Use platonic touch” (4:57) on men, they would not confront a sexist obstacle per se. More, a sexual reality: that cishet men, for good reason, are just wired to frequently misinterpret friendliness from women as sexual interest—let alone physical touch. But of course, there are issues with men using platonic touch on women too, which few men are going to start ignoring due to the video (although, confusedly, it does feature 2 male-female encounters among the dozen male-male ones).

And yet again a sexist obstacle emerges anyway. As most workplaces are male-dominated, especially as you move up the hierarchy and encounter figures you most need to impress, simple numbers ensure that men are far more likely to have opportunities to try this tactic on other men than women will on other women.

Or do they? I have a final confession to make: I am not the most ambitious of Charisma on Command subscribers, having very, very limited opportunities to use any of their tips in my own career. I have obvious limits in placing myself in working women’s shoes too. So, if I’ve dropped the ball asking myself what it might be like for women applying this video’s tips, please let me know. But either way, there will always be value in having such conversations about whether ‘universal’ tips genuinely apply to non cishet white men, and I look forward to continuing this one with you in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter!


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

Local Rights Center Only Makes *Recommendations* to Companies that Discriminate; Highlights South Korea’s Urgent Need for Comprehensive Anti-Discrimination Law

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes. Source: MART PRODUCTION from Pexels

Korea, notoriously, lacks a national, all-embracing, intersectional anti-discrimination law. Ten attempts have been made to pass one since 2007, all failing largely due to the political power of conservative religious groups, opposed to the inclusion of protections for LGBTQ individuals; an 11th is currently in limbo due to the imminent presidential election. Adding insult to injury, racial, ethnic and sexual minorities also lack protection in the constitution, which only prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, and social status, and so haven’t been covered by the various laws prohibiting those specific forms of discrimination enacted since.

It’s in this context that I present my translation of the following subway poster for the Busan Human Rights Center for your interest, and their suggestions of typical cases of discrimination and human rights violations. Most, of course, would be depressingly familiar occurrences in any country. But others, much more commonplace in Korea then elsewhere. In particular, Korea’s pervasive hierarchy and elitism is evident in unnecessary questions about which university you went to, as well as absurd enquiries about your parents’ and grandparents’ backgrounds. So too, when blatant discrimination against women remains rampant despite protections, when photographs are required on resumes, and when society remains obsessed with (female) body weight and appearance, can Korean women especially continue to expect hiring decisions based on their appearance.

Most notably and depressingly of all however, the Busan Human Rights Center only makes recommendations to offending companies and institutions, not prosecuting them or assisting you in doing so. In fairness, I stress I only know of the Center through its website; prosecution may never have been its intended purpose, which other institutions and services may exist to fulfill, and doesn’t diminish its potential role in education, awareness, and/or the value of gentle pressure and public shaming it can bring to bear on offenders. Still, it also instantly brings to mind the well-known National Human Rights Commission of Korea, launched to much fanfare 10 years ago but rendered toothless since.

My translation, starting from the top:

구직, 채용, 면접, 시험에서 받은 If these ever happen to you while looking for a job, being recruited, during an interview, or while in an exam or test…

인권침해 Human Rights Violations

사소한 것이라도 부산광역시 인권센터에 알려주십시오 No matter how trivial or small it seems, please inform the Busan Human Rights Center

Row by row:

업무와 상관없는 특정종교 선발 Choosing candidates based on religion, with no relation to the job

과도한 사적정보 요구 (아빠직업, 엄마 직업, 할아버지 재산, 이모부 고향) Excessive demands for personal information (e.g., parents’ jobs, size of grandfather’s estate, uncle’s hometown)

장애 (장애인 출입이 불가능한 채용시험장) Disability (Recruitment Test Center has no disabled access)

동성애자 아니죠? You’re gay, aren’t you?

채용여부 묵묵부답 Left hanging about your recruitment status

시험 주에 화장실 가려면 시험포기 각서 쓰라 Having to sign an agreement that you fail a test if you need to leave for a bathroom break

노동조합이 생기면 가입할 겁니까? If there was a union, would you join it?

업무와 상관없는 나이제한 Age restrictions that have nothing to do with the job

나라 출신은 안 됩니다 You’re not from X country

서류반납 거절 Refusal to return documents

압박면접을 빙자한 막말 Unnecessary blunt remarks and rudeness for the sake of a pressure interview

업무와 상관없는 학력차별 Choosing candidates based on educational background, with no relation to the job

이번 선거에서 누굴 지지합니까? Who are you voting for in the election?

출산 후에도 회사 다닐 거예요? Are you going to continue working after giving birth?

외모에 대한 노골적 평가 (모델선발하나?) Blatantly evaluating you based on your appearance (Are you choosing a model?)


취업과정에서 다양한 인권침해가 발생하고 있습니다. 그러나, 구직자들은 부당한 질문들과 불법한 차별에 대해 제대로 대응하자 못하고 있는 현실이기도 합니다. 부산광역시 인권센터는 구직과정의 인권침해 사례들을 수집하고 개선방안을 관련 기관에 권고할 예정입니다.

Various human rights violations [can] occur in the employment process. However, the reality is that job seekers are not always well equipped to properly respond to unfair questions and cases of illegal discrimination. The Busan Human Rights Center will collect such cases and recommend improvement measures to related organizations. (End.)

Have you or anyone you know experienced any of these yourself in Korea? Please let me know in the comments.


A Facebook friend asked for clarification about what exactly my issue with the Busan Human Rights Center was, given that even the National Human Rights Commission of Korea can only make recommendations, as is the case with most national human rights institutes worldwide. Here’s my response:
My issue is that if I was a victim of discrimination in New Zealand say, and encountered a poster for a similar institution, I would fully expect its stress to be on my potential to prosecute, that the center would be geared around my doing so (even if all it could really do was offer lawyers’ contact details), and that possibly even the center itself would be able to advocate for me if I was financially disadvantaged.
That said, I admit have no knowledge or experience of the legal system there, or in Korea. Possibly, my assumptions about rights centers in Western countries are hopelessly naive. But either way, whatever the country, if the best I could hope for from working with one was a sternly worded email to my former employer, then I’m not sure I would bother.
I do still mention in the post the valuable roles such centers can have, even if they don’t/can’t prosecute offenders themselves. But whether human rights centers in Korea can’t help with prosecuting because that was never their purpose, and/or whether it’s because many forms of discrimination aren’t even illegal, then either way the poster served to highlight the latter to me, and why I post it for others. I assume too, that if a comprehensive anti-discrimination *was* passed, then human rights centers would be given the remit and resources to take bolder measures against infractions when notified by the public.
(#95 in the Korean Sociological Images series)

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Why You’re NOT Living in a Feminist City: Two must-reads on living as a single woman in Korea and overseas

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Image (cropped) by Sara Aho on Unsplash.

Daily reports of stalking sharply increase after implementation of anti-stalking law“—The Korea Herald, 18/11/2021.

When I read that, I happened to be in a coffee shop next to Remark VILL, an expensive serviced apartment building in Busan. Last year, I highlighted the owner’s sexist, infantilizing advertising campaign, which featured then 32 year-old actor Im Se-mi enthusing about being able to rely on maintenance staff to change her lightbulbs and unblock her toilet instead of her father, as well as showing us how eager she was to lose her virginity to the male guests she could now invite. (Yes, really. Maybe there’s a good reason those commercials are no longer available.) But while I did have to acknowledge the attraction of and dire need for the security services Remark VILL’s buildings offered their female residents, I also pointed out they represented yet anotherpink tax,” which most single women simply couldn’t afford. And I have to highlight them again today too, for the exquisite coincidence of what I then read next in Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World by Leslie Kern (2020, pp. 164-165), which I’d gone to that coffee shop to finish:

“In my research on gender and condominium development in Toronto, I found that developers and real estate agents enthusiastically marketed condos to women with the idea that the 24-hour concierge and security staff, as well as technical features such as handprint locks, CCTV, and alarm systems, made condos the safest option for women living downtown. These features were highly touted when condos were arriving in ‘up and coming’ neighbourhoods that had previously been stigmatized or seen as abandoned, industrial areas. I argued then that by making condos ‘safe’ for women, developers were smoothing their path to expansion into neighbourhoods that might otherwise have been risky real estate investments. This expansion certainly wasn’t going to make life any safer for the women who would be displaced by this form of gentrification. Nor does it tackle domestic violence in any way. Furthermore, asking women to ‘buy’ their safety through condo ownership contributes to the trend of privatization, where people are held responsible for their own well-being, even their safety from crime. Making safety a private commodity in the city means that it becomes less and less available to those who lack the economic means to secure themselves. This is certainly a long way from an intersectional feminist vision of a safer city for women.”

“We may not know exactly what a safe city looks like, but we know that it won’t involve private safety measures. It won’t rely on the police to prevent or adequately investigate crimes. It won’t throw sex workers, people of colour, youth, or immigrants under the bus to create the appearance of safety. It won’t be centred on the needs and desires of privileged white women. And it won’t expect physical changes to undo patriarchal dominance.”

My apologies for the white lie of the post title: by no means is Kern only or even mainly concerned with single women in her book, with Korea—as in Seoul—only getting a total five lines in it. Critics also tend to agree on two glaring flaws: her focus on the Global North, and her lack of solutions to the many problems she outlines. Yet her narrow focus can also be considered a strength: personally, I enjoyed that her book is so firmly rooted in her own experiences in Canada and the UK as, variously, a girl, university student, mother, divorcee, single-parent, and feminist geographer, for she brings a lot of wit, personal anecdotes, and insights to those experiences that you sense would be lacking about subjects less close to home. In addition, she is at great pains throughout to point out that her cishet, middle-class, and white privilege mean ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities can have very different experiences to her, as well as to expand upon those.

Even without the coincidence at the coffee shop that threw my own objectivity out the window, it’s an easy, eye-opening, and thoroughly enjoyable read overall, which would appeal to both newcomers to the dreaded F-word and diehard urban activists alike. It should also be required reading for the (overwhelmingly) male architects, urban planners, and city councilors who generally take their own urban lives as the default norm—and so have no idea how inconvenient, difficult, ill-suited, and even dangerous their policies can be for the very different lives of female residents of their towns and cities.

If you would like something more specifically about single Korean women though, then consider Living on Your Own: Single Women, Rental Housing, and Post-Revolutionary Affect in Contemporary South Korea by Jesook Song (2014), based on interviews of 35 single women in late-20s to late-30s.

Actually, this may be a tough sell once you realize those interviews were conducted in 2005-2007; since then, Korea’s single household rate has skyrocketed, a massive demographic shift that has potentially radically transformed many of the issues that Song describes. The book is also especially frustrating for being, well, just too damn short, with less than a hundred pages of actual chapters. In particular, it lacks one on navigating sex and relationships outside of marriage, which would have been invaluable in an era when, thanks to the stigma and fear of being caught engaging in either, other academic researchers had difficulty finding any interviewees at all. Another valid criticism is that her interviewees are unrepresentative, all of them being self-selecting, all remaining unmarried by choice rather than because they lacked the means, 90 percent of them being former activists, and with a significant minority identifying as lesbian. Hence, when compared to their contemporaries, there’s the uncharacteristic strength of their shared wherewithal and inclination to brave living alone at a time when that often led to being ostracized—which Song herself recognizes.

However, she does cover sex and relationships in passing. In addition, given how “stubbornly” unmarried 30-something women are generally considered “difficult” by their families, society, and policymakers alike, with their wants and needs easy to ignore, that Song has provided material on a group so often rendered voiceless and marginalized is reason alone to order the book in my view. But its main strength is how, by (explicitly) providing such a rare examination of what a hitherto abstract concept like “developmental state” means for ordinary people on the ground, she demonstrates how the Korean state’s goals, filtered through the lenses of familial and societal patriarchy, resulted in pervasive financial discrimination against women. So convincing is she of its huge scale in fact, that actually I’m not at all convinced that aspect of single Korean women’s lives has “radically transformed” at all in the 15 years since Song’s interviewees told her about its impacts on them.

Let me finish with some examples from pages 43-44 of the second chapter, described by one recent reviewer as “discuss[ing] the economic structure that marginalizes single women in trying to finance the lump sum required to secure decent housing. Young single women were excluded not only from official financing measures, driven by neoliberal restructuring, but also conventional informal financing. She also illustrates how cultural gender norms are reflected in loan conditions that only cater for heterosexual married couples, making securing housing even harder for single women”:

Sorry (not sorry) for not having an e-book to copy and paste from, but those are available. Meanwhile, I bought my physical copy from Aladdin in Korea, for about the same price as from publisher Suny Press.

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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 Korean Conscription System Promotes a Servile, Subordinate, Sexually-Objectifying View of Women. Here’s How.

Turning Boys Into Men? Girl-groups and the Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 7

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes. Source, right (cropped): Streetwindy via Pexels.

The contents of Everyday Sexism (2014) by Laura Bates, a UK-focused collection of public submissions and statistics on the myriad of ways women experience sexism on a daily basis, will be depressingly familiar to anyone who already considers themselves a feminist. Having accidentally ordered the book though, I could hardly not read it. Besides, I reasoned, what cishet middle-aged white guy wouldn’t still have a lot to learn about the topic?

So I persevered. And sure enough, there were many things which gave me pause, especially the accounts of sexual harassment experienced by female university students. Partially, because I’d been blissfully unaware of that sort of thing when I was a student myself. Primarily though, because they strongly reminded me of an incident at the “morale-raising” YG Military Festival held in Yanggu County in Gangwon Province on 5 October 2019, at which the female university students hired to be doumi (lit. “help-elegant-beauties”) were forced to wear revealing clothes for the soldiers. From the news reports below, which discuss that in the context of how routine it is to provide sexualized performances by professional performers and/or K-pop girl-groups at such events, it’s easy to see how choices like these can encourage a somewhat objectified, servile view of women among the (usually) very young, impressionable Korean men that go through the male conscription system. Many do overcome that socialization experience, of course. But the consequences for all Koreans of those that don’t would fill many, many chapters in a Korean version of the Everyday Sexism book.

Screenshot, SBS News.

My translated excerpts of various reports about the incident, starting with one from Wikitree:

YG 밀리터리 페스타는 양구군이 장병들 사기 진작을 위해 지난해부터 개최한 것이다. 이벤트 경기, VR 체험, 먹거리 시장, 가수 공연 등이 열린다. 네일 케어, 피부 관리, 타로점 체험 부스도 있다. 이번 축제에는 육군 2사단과 21사단 장병 2300 명이 참가했다.

The festival has been held since [2018] by Yanggu-gun to boost morale among soldiers, featuring competitive games, VR experiences, food stalls, and performances by singers and girl groups. There are also “experience booths” [really stalls/tables] for nail care, skin care, and tarot readings. This year, about 2,300 soldiers from the 2nd and 21st Divisions attended the festival.

논란은 체험 부스에서 일어났다. 머니투데이에 따르면 행사 대행업체 측이 행사장으로 가는 버스 안에서 여자 알바생들에게 흰색 짧은 테니스 치마와 몸에 달라붙고 가슴 부분이 파인 옷을 제공했다. 알바생들은속옷이 비치고 노출이 심한 옷이었다“, “조금만 움직여도 가슴이 훤히 드러났다라고 전했다. 이어행사 담당자는군인들이 쑥스러워하니 직접 데려오라‘, ‘군인들에게 적극적으로 대하라 지시했다라는 말도 덧붙였다. 이들은 피부 관리 부스에서 군인들에게 직접 마스크팩을 붙여주는 일을 했다.

The controversy took place over the experience booths. According to Money Today, on the bus going to the venue the event agency provided the female part-time workers with only short white tennis skirts and tight-fitting, lowcut tops to wear. The women complained, “They were so tight you can see my underwear through them,” and “Even if I moved only a little, my chest would be completely exposed.” They added, “The event manager instructed, ‘As the soldiers will be embarrassed, [especially those wanting you to put [skincare-type] facemasks on them], please approach them proactively and encourage them as you escort them into the booths.”

Some additional information from that report by Money Today:

알바생 A씨는사전에 알려준 의상보다 파이고 조금만 움직여도 배가 드러날 정도로 상의 길이가 짧았다알바생들이 속옷이 비치고 노출이 심해 민소매 티셔츠를 요청했지만 아무 조치가 없었다 주장했다. 일부 알바생은 노출이 부담스러워 따로 챙겨온 외투를 걸쳤다고 한다.

One part-time worker complained that, “The clothes were much shorter and tighter than what we were told about, exposing my stomach even if I moved just a little,” and that “Even though we asked for sleeveless t-shirts because our underwear was visible, nothing was done about it.” It is said that some of the workers wore a separate coat over the clothes because of embarrassment.

행사 대행업체 측은요즘 학생들이 많이 입는 테니스 치마일 이라며일부러 노출이 심한 의상을 제공한 것이 아니다라고 해명했다. 행사 스태프는 여성이 25, 남성이 15 정도였는데, 대행업체 측은원래 남자 직원들은 힘쓰는 일을 주로 하고 여자 직원은 차를 따라주는 행사 도우미 역할을 맡는 관행을 따랐을 이라고 설명했다.

A person from the event agency responsible for the clothes said, “It was just a tennis skirt like many students wear these days,” and that “We did not provide any clothes deliberately designed to overexpose the workers’ bodies.” They further explained that 25 women and 15 men were hired, but that “It’s customary that men have to do a lot of hard work, whereas women just have to be helpers and do things like pouring tea.”

Confusingly, in the video of the event above, many doumi can be seen wearing other clothing, which is not addressed by the anchors in the brief SBS News segment below that. Yet why should they? Whether through chance, smarts, and/or previous experience with doumi companies, that some of the women had alternate clothes on hand doesn’t negate the fact that those without had no other options.

Professional entertainment group Waveya (not a K-pop group) performing at a middle school in 2012.

On the other hand, if it’s the norm to hire young women in high-waisted skirts and low-cut tops for just about anything in Korea, including performances at schools, then the comment about no additional exposure being intended may well be true, if somewhat obtuse. That being said, I’m just as confused as you as are as to how men putting up tables and chairs somehow justifies forcing women to wear revealing clothes while serving tea. It’s also frustrating that the reporter didn’t challenge that non-explanation.

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

I see reason for optimism though, in that the issue of consent was the hook that made the incident newsworthy, especially given that this must-read by a professional doumi gives the strong impression that such incidents are routine. Had I been writing a news report myself, I might have continued by comparing students’ own festivals and events, which also regularly create controversy for their sexual overtones, but, crucially, at which the offending clothes are worn by choice. (Or perhaps not necessarily; the ensuing sensationalist reports are hardly deep, and now Everyday Sexism compels me to reconsider them.) However, the main reason for the news reports was more likely the harm caused to the military’s image, Asiae raising in their own report another controversial incident that occurred at a different military festival the year before:

난해 814 유튜브에는피트니스 모델 @군부대 위문공연이라는 제목의 영상이 올라왔다. 영상 피트니스 모델은 각선미를 강조하는 자극적인 동작을 선보였다.

해당 공연 사회자가지금부터 기본포즈 4가지를 보여드리겠다 자세를 요구하자 선수는 뒤돌아서 엉덩이를 자세로 머리를 넘겼다.

나이가 어떻게 되냐 사회자의 질문에 “21살입니다라고 답하자 장병들의 환호가 이어졌다.

On August 14 [2018], a video titled “Fitness Model @ Military Consolation Performance” was posted on YouTube by the military. The model’s dance was quite sexualized, involving showing off body parts like her legs. At one point, she proclaimed “I will show you four basic poses now,” turning around to thrust her buttocks at the audience with her head down, her face visible underneath. To the cheers of the men watching, she answered “I’m 21!” when they loudly asked her age.

해당 영상을 접한 누리꾼들은여성 성상품화가 지나쳤다“, “위문공연을 이런 방법으로만 해야 하냐 분통을 터뜨렸다.

당시 청와대 국민청원 게시판에는성상품화로 가득찬 군대위문공연을 폐지해주세요라는 제목의 글과 함께 해당 영상이 첨부되기도 했다.

Netizens who saw the video on YouTube were angered, commenting that “The sexual objectification of the woman was excessive,” and questioning if such sexualized dances “were really the only way morale boosting performances could be done?”. Later, citing the video, a petition to abolish precisely those was posted on the Blue House’s public petition bulletin board [which the government has to respond to if it receives more than 200,000 signatures].

파문이 커지자 해당 부대는 영상을 삭제 조치했다. 부대는당시 공연은 민간단체에서 주최하고 후원한 것으로 부대 측에서는 공연 인원과 내용에 대해 사전에 없었으나, 이번 공연으로 인해 상품화 논란 일어난 대해 사과의 말씀을 드린다 했다.

그러면서앞으로 외부단체에서 지원하는 공연의 경우에도 상급부대 차원에서 사전에 확인하여 유사한 사례가 재발하지 않도록 하겠다 덧붙였다.

As the controversy grew, the military unit that uploaded it deleted the video. A spokesperson said, “As the performance was organized and provided by a private company, we could not have known what the contents would be. Nonetheless, we apologize for the “controversy over sexual objectification” this performance has caused. They added, “To prevent recurrences in future, we will check the contents of performances provided by external organizations in advance.”

Here’s part of the offending video, a blurred news report about it and other similar performances, and an unblurred compilation:

Given how family-friendly the atmosphere appears in the video of the 2019 YG Military Festival earlier, reporters raising that “fitness” performance may seem unfair, let alone my adding the compilation video in which other performers quite literally spread their legs in soldiers’ faces (I’ll let you find those scenes yourself). Similarly, in light of recent news about how important performing for the military years ago was for the sudden popularity of K-pop girl-group Brave Girls, and how devastating the loss of such opportunities due to the pandemic have been for other girl-groups, then it may seem that only a stereotypical feminist spoilsport could find any fault with that mutually-beneficial system, especially considering how tame most of the K-pop girl-groups’ performances are.

Actually, so long as universal male conscription continues, I’m not at all against performances—which is not to say there aren’t some issues that still need to be addressed with them, as examined in previous posts in this series. And yet, note that the family-friendly video is just one perspective produced by the local county government, which isn’t going to linger on the women’s bodies; unlike, say, the fancam below of New Heart, a professional cheerleading/dance team hired to perform at the 2018 festival. Also, just because this particular festival was relatively tame, that doesn’t mean something that raises more than just eyebrows may feature at the next one, let alone at more private performances on bases.

Indeed, a distinction needs to be made between performances by girl-groups and those by cheerleaders, fitness models, and so on. The former are more likely to perform in larger, more public venues; to be filmed; and to have reputations their management companies have to consider—considerations which don’t apply to private entertainers. Moreover, considering what we’ve seen of private entertainers’ performances so far, you do have to wonder what happens when no-one’s filming.

Ergo, this is no one-off. Engendering a sexually-objectified and servile view of women is fundamental to the Korean universal male conscription system. Don’t believe me? Just take the word of that military spokesperson. Not only does their feigned surprise, patronizing, disingenuous claim of ignorance, and passing of blame feel very, very familiar, but it’s surely revealing—pun intended—that their concern is over the controversy generated. Not the coercion, nor the revealing clothes.


위문공연의 선정성 문제는 국정감사에서도 제기 있다. 채이배 바른미래당 의원은 지난해 1026 국회 법제사법위원회 군사법원에 대한 국정감사에서군 위문공연의 문제를 지적하고 가이드라인 마련을 요구했다.

The issue of the sexual suggestiveness of morale-raising performances for the military has also been raised at the state administration. On October 26, 2018, the [since dissolved] Barunmirae Party [now former] lawmaker Chae Yi-bae pointed out the problem and demanded that guidelines be prepared during an audit of the military court of the National Assembly Legislative Judicial Committee.

의원은여성을 성상품화하는 위문공연을 폐지하라는 청와대 청원도 올라온 있다. 사과도 하시고 유사사례 방지하겠다고 약속하셨는데, 과연 방지할 있을지는 의문이라면서국방부 훈령 지침을 살펴보니 위문공연관련 가이드라인이나 지침이 없다 지적했다.

Representative Chae said, “There has also been a petition from the Blue House to abolish morale-raising performances that sexually objectify women. I apologize for them and promise to work to prevent similar cases. But it is doubtful if this is possible, as there are no relevant guidelines or procedures in place.”

한편 위문공연의 상품화 논란이 커지자 육군은 올해 1 외부단체 공연을 추진할 부대별 심의위원회를 꾸려 공연 내용을 미리 심의하겠다고 밝혔다.

However, in response to the controversy, the military announced that from January 2019 it would set up a deliberation committee for each unit to ascertain the contents of performances in advance when provided by outside companies and organizations.

If only that had extended to all companies and organizations involved, not just those providing performances. But, to finish with Money Today’s conclusions about the original incident—which may have sounded like hyperbole in isolation, whereas now:

전문가들은 군인 사기 증진을 위해 여성을 성적 대상화하는 인식을 바꿔야 한다고 지적했다.

Experts pointed out that in order to increase military morale, the perception of sexual objectification of women should be changed.

윤김지영 건국대 몸문화연구소 교수는여성을 눈요깃거리, 위안거리로 내세워야만 남성 군인의 사기가 증진된다고 여기는 것은 시대착오적이고 성차별적인 생각이라며행사 도우미의 불편한 의상이 문제가 없다는 주장도 결국 남성주의적 관점이라고 비판했다.

Yoon Kim Ji-young, a professor at Konkuk University’s Institute of Body & Culture, said, “It is an anachronistic and sexist idea to consider that the morale of male soldiers is enhanced only by putting women as an eye-catching and comforting object.” She criticized it as a masculine perspective.

허민숙 국회입법조사처 보건복지여성팀 입법조사관은군장병도 불편하고 내키지 않았을 가능성이 높다최근 젊은 남성은 여성과 동등한 관계에 익숙한 세대인데 진정한 사기 증진 방법을 고민하지 않고 낡은 관행을 답습한 점이 아쉽다 지적했다.

Heo Min-sook, a legislative investigator of the Health and Welfare Women’s Team at the National Assembly Legislative Investigation Department, said, “It is highly likely that military soldiers are also uncomfortable and reluctant.” I am sorry for that,” he pointed out.

Sources: left, right.

For further reading, I highly recommend Sex Among Allies: Military Prositution in U.S.-Korea Relations (1997) by Katherine Moon and Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea (2005) by Seungsook Moon. The former, for the obvious links to the long history of girl-groups entertaining foreign and then Korean troops; and the latter, on how the gender roles and rigid hierarchy learned during military service utterly pervade Korean institutions from schools to workplaces, frequently reducing well-educated and capable women in the latter to making coffee and cleaning tables.

That doumi exist at all I’d argue, and in such great numbers, are a partial cause and effect of that last. So for the sake of completeness, in my next post, I’ll provide a full translation of an article about their origins (from 2006, I don’t think anybody will be worried about the copyright!).

Meanwhile, pondering what a Korean version of Everyday Sexism would look like is what led me to writing this post. For the sake of more like it, what other issues specific to Korea do think should be covered, which wouldn’t be in the original UK version? Please let me know in the comments!

Turning Boys Into Men? Girl-groups and the Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts:

Related Links:

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

Why Women Pay More to Join Korean Marriage Agencies

Women dominate the clientele at Korean marriage agencies, which is often used to justify extra costs for joining. But this differential pricing goes well beyond just sex, both reflecting and shaping consumers’ notions of the “perfect” wife too. And it seems she’s neither highly-educated, highly-earning, nor even over 32.

Estimated reading tme: 12 Minutes. Image source: Duo.

Korea’s largest matchmaking-agency Duo, on the rebound after experiencing massive reductions in sales in recent years, claims to be voicing “the inner minds and concerns of young Koreans” in its latest series of ads. With this particular one though, its “Am I just being too picky?” subhead seems hilariously out of touch. As if young Koreans did have the financial resources to marry, but were just too stuck-up to consider looking for a spouse on the internet. Because damn millennials ruin everything, right?

It’s so awkward, it immediately reminded me of this ham-fisted, Singaporean government birthrate campaign ad that came out in the 1980s, which Asian Studies students have been laughing at ever since:

But my source didn’t find Duo’s ad so funny, accusing them of gaslighting:

“What amazing gaslighting. Those marriage agencies don’t have many female customers, so they resort to harmful gaslighting tactics.”

Actually, it was difficult to avoid the male version of the ad with the same caption. Yet the wider accusation about marriage agencies begged investigation. Surely there was something much more substantial behind the barbed tweet, I sensed, than merely snapping at one single ad?

My first searches did little to support that gut feeling. In fact, it turned out that until a few years ago, Duo used to have more women than men. Then in the early-2010s the numbers of men signing up starting rising, and by 2014 there were more men than women in both Duo and second-place rival Gayeon. These shifts can be seen quite clearly below in the table for Duo and Gayeon and graph for Duo respectively:

Sources: Yonhap, Chosun.

At the time, Bae Joon-yong at the Chosun Ilbo accounted for the shift by the (alleged) rise of “herbivore men,” whom he defined as men rejecting dating in their 20s, but still open to marriage once they hit their 30s. Statistics speak louder than buzzwords however, and its difficult to argue with Namuwiki’s contention that the increasingly high numbers of female fetuses aborted in the late-1980s were responsible, with the ensuing lonely men coming of marriage age. Especially when those numbers are presented in graphical form:

See here for my examination of the likely effects on Korea’s “gender wars.” Source: Cinnamon Ginger Tea; reprinted with permission. Note that the WHO considers a natural birth sex ratio to be 105 boys for every 100 girls.

Unfortunately, very little information exists for the 2016 to 2019 period. But we are just talking about statistics from three years ago. It would only be natural to assume that the trend for more men continued.

So imagine my surprise at learning that it appears to have completely reversed. In fact, the sex ratios have already returned to their female-dominated 2006 levels.

First, consider this December 2018 interview of an anonymous former matchmaker by Na Jin-hee at the Segye Ilbo (my emphasis):

—결혼정보업체 회원의 성비는 어떤가?

“예전에 비하면 많이 나아졌다지만 여전히 여성 회원이 남성보다 훨씬 많다. 메이저 회사는 여성 대 남성 비율이 6:4에서 5.5:4.5 정도로 추정된다. 영세 회사는 훨씬 더 차이가 크다. 8:2에서 9:1까지 가기도 한다.

남자 수가 적으니 자연히 남자 회원에게 서비스가 훨씬 많다. 전문직 남성의 경우 가입비를 할인받거나 아예 내지 않는다. 만남 횟수도 훨씬 많이 제공된다.”

—What is the sex ratio of customers at marriage agencies?

“The ratios have greatly improved, but there’s still many more women than men. Larger agencies estimate female to male ratios of 6:4 to 5.5:4.5. But the differences are much greater at smaller agencies. Sometimes they’re as high as 8:2 or even 9:1.

As there are fewer men, they naturally receive preferential service. “Professional” men [e.g., lawyers, doctors, and Samsung employees] receive discounts on membership fees, or may have them waived altogether. They get many more dates arranged [than women do] too.”

And another article by the same author published an hour(!) later:

◆아르바이트 회원에 남녀 성비 불균형… 업체는 ‘쉬쉬’

…애초에 남녀 성비가 맞지 않아 결혼 성사가 어렵다는 비판도 있다. 결혼정보업체의 여성회원 비율이 남성보다 상당히 높은 건 업계의 공공연한 비밀이다. 익명을 요구한 업계 관계자에 따르면 영세 업체일수록 이 같은 현상은 심해져 여성 비율이 90%에 이르기도 한다고 전해진다.

◆Fake, “part-time” customers used because of unequal sex ratios…Agencies say “Shhh!”

…There is also criticism that the very first step to finding a spouse—meeting new people—is difficult because of the unequal sex ratios.

The fact that marriage information agencies have considerably higher numbers of women than men is an open secret. According to industry officials who asked for anonymity, it is even worse at smaller companies, where the proportion of women may be as high as 90 percent.

By all means, this does not constitute proof. The claims of writers who use such cliched devices as “common knowledge” and “anonymous industry sources” should always be taken with a grain of salt, especially those who won’t acknowledge earlier sources that flatly contradict their claims. Be that as it may, in June 2019 Pyo Ju-yeon at Newsis offered slightly more evidence for the new ratio at Gayeon at least, in the form of “[an unspecified disclosure on the 16th by] the Korean marriage agency industry”:

대부분 회사들은 가입 금액에서 남녀 차등을 두고 있다. 차등이 가능한 이유는 성비가 맞지 않기 때문이다. 여성회원이 남성 회원보다 많기 때문이다. 가연의 경우 여성과 남성비중이 55대45정도다. 듀오의 경우에도 비슷한 수준이다. 이 때문에 결혼정보업계에서는 연애할 때는 ‘여성우위’, 결혼할때는 ‘남성우위’라는 말을 하기도 한다.

Most marriage agencies have different signing-up charges for men and women. The difference is possible because the sex ratio of customers is skewed, with far more women than men. In Gayeon, the ratio of women to men is 55 to 45; in Duo, it is similar. For this reason, people in the industy use the term “female advantage” to describe the dating scene, and “male advantage” for when looking for a spouse.

In addition, in a detailed breakdown of Gayeon members’ “specs” provided by a November 2019 article for the Asia Business Daily, Choi Shin-hye noted that the agency claimed a 53 women to 47 men ratio for first-time members in December 2018.

More authoritative NGO and governmental sources would be ideal, but they too prove lacking: their concerns with marriage agencies are overwhelmingly focused on the abuse of overseas brides instead. (As always, my apologies if I’m missing obvious Korean search terms, and my eternal gratitude to any readers who can pass on further sources.) Therefore, until proven otherwise, the claim still stands. Moreover, again the correlation with changes to the birth sex ratio decades earlier—specifically, the dramatic efforts made to curb the imbalance between 1994-1997—begs us to see causation.

But this opens up many more questions.

First, what of other agencies? While Duo and Gayeon are synonymous with the industry in Korea, they’re only the 2 largest of over 1000 agencies registered with the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (as of 2016), and the sex ratios at smaller rivals may be completely different. For instance, two agencies that cater to “VIP” clients—N. Noble and Noblesse Soohyun—explicitly aim for a 50:50 ratio, and both succeeded in doing so in 2017 and 2018. Indeed, the latter prominently displays its ratio on its website, ironically allowing all to see that in fact its streak is now over:

What’s more, click on that “view details” button, and it emerges that the 52-48 male to female ratio is only an average for 2016 to 2019, disguising the fact that the number of female clients dropped precipitously last year:

Why these agencies for one-percenters are bucking the trend, we can only speculate in the absence of any further sources (again, sorry). So too, about the truth of those alleged 8:2 and even 9:1 female to male ratios at all those unnamed smaller agencies. Just like—let’s face it—@bobduryeo’s tweet, these assertions of “common knowledge” may be no more than the thoughtless perpetuation of baseless stereotypes.

Noblesse Soohyun’s exceptional candor, however, is something we can grapple with. Which raises the next question of why any marriage agency would make maintaining a 1:1 ratio a unique selling point.

Why else, if not for problems associated with unequal ratios at other agencies?

The main problem with them is obvious: the more unequal the ratio, the more difficult it is for one sex to find potential partners, as pointed out by Gwak Jong-hyeon’s advertorial for N. Noble in Newsfreezone earlier this month:

결혼정보회사를 가입할 때 확인해야 하는 객관적 지표는 성혼율과 회원수, 회원들의 수준, 남녀회원의 성비 등이다. 어느 하나 빼놓지 않고 중요하지만, 특히 남녀회원 성비가 균등한지, 오랜 기간 유지돼 왔는지를 잘 확인해야 한다. 성별이 한 쪽으로만 치우쳐 있다면, 만남 자체가 어려울 수 있다.

이러한 가운데, 노블레스 결혼정보회사 엔노블이 수년간 50:50의 균형 있는 남녀회원 성비를 유지하며 다채롭고 깊이 있는 만남을 주선해 높은 성혼율을 기록하고 있다.

The crucial things to check when joining a marriage agency are the sex ratio of customers, the number of customers, and the rate of marriages. But while all of these are so important that issues with any one can’t be overlooked, it is the sex ratio that is most crucial, and needs checking for how long it has been maintained too. For if there are problems with this, then getting the desired meetings can be difficult.

In light of this, Noblesse marriage agency N.Noble [JamesI’m suddenly confused too] stands out for maintaining a balanced sex ratio for many years, for arranging a variety of in-depth, meaningful meetings between customers, and for enjoying high success rates.

But that overarching problem spells two big consequences. First, that some agencies simply lie about their ratios, and then they use a variety of subterfuge, tricks, and legal loopholes to avoid compensating (mostly female) customers when their (mostly male) dates’ specs are not what they were told, or when those men fail to show up to arranged meetings at all.

Frankly, I can’t begin to summarize the plethora of articles about those scams and how to avoid them, many of which are sensationalist and provide no sources, like Na Jin-hee’s mentioned earlier (translation). But I can certainly recommend Choi Seo-hee’s comprehensive May 2019 article on the topic at KBS News (it’s the only one I found that mentioned agencies exploiting legal loopholes), and the google translation is more than adequate. Namuwiki’s guide (translation) is also a good starting point, with many further links.

It seems @bobduryeo was onto something after all. Just not on the causes of all the gaslighting.

Making much more of an impact, however, is the second consequence: not having enough men to choose from is used to justify higher prices for female customers—another unofficial extra tax for women if you will, like those for maintaining their appearance and wardrobe and for finding safe accommodation. And then, to add insult to injury, the higher prices are usually not just for women in general, but are especially for those who don’t fit very traditional notions of what constitutes a “good” wife.

I’ll let Pyo Ju-yeon explain:

Photo by Ike louie Natividad from Pexels

결혼정보회사의 수익모델은 남녀를 소개해주고, 남녀 모두로부터 서비스비용을 받는 방식이다. 이때 대부분의 업체들은 남성보다 여성에게 약간 더 비싼 금액을 받고 있는 것으로 확인됐다.

16일 결혼정보회사 업계에 따르면 듀오는 150만원에 5회, 가연은 99만원에 5회 소개를 가장 기본적인 서비스로 운영하고 있다. 물론 이 금액은 가장 기본 가입비다. 듀오나 가연 등 다소 대중적인 결혼정보회사들도 1000만원이 넘는 상품을 판매하기도 한다.

…그렇다보니 업계에서 공공연하게 여성의 가입비가 더 비싸게 책정되고 있다. 만약 가입비가 같다면 만남의 횟수가 다르게 제공된다는게 이 업계 ‘불문율’이다. 결혼정보업체들은 계약서 상에는 남녀 같은 금액을 적어도, 무료 소개 횟수를 남성에게 더 부여하는 방식으로 가격에 차등을 두고 있다. 이때 ‘조건’이 좋은 남자는 무료 소개 횟수가 훨씬 더 많아진다.

Marriage agencies’ profits come from the charging of customers for arranging introductions. But most companies charge women more than men.

According to [an unspecified disclosure on 16 June 2019 by] the Korean marriage agency industry, Duo charges 1.5 million won (US$1,268) for arranging 5 meetings, while Gayeon charges 990,000 won (US$837) for the same. But of course, those fees are only for the most basic of services. Most of the larger agencies offer a variety of packages, some of which cost over 10 million won (US$8,451).

…[Because of the unequal sex ratios], it can be more expensive for women to sign up. Or alternatively, if the sign-up fees and number of arranged meetings are the same, men will be rewarded with more free referrals, particularly if they have good specs.

Spotted in a Seoul bookstore: “If I study for ten more minutes, my [future] wife’s face will change”; “If I study for ten more minutes, my [future] husband’s job will change.” Source: Jinvas, left, right; edited.

And here’s how agencies’ traditional gender norms have an impact:

재미있는 점은 여성의 경우 조건이 좋을수록 가격이 비싸진다는 점이다. 남성의 경우 학력이나 소득이 높을수록 횟수가 증가하지만, 여성의 경우 그 반대다.

이렇게 가격이 책정되는 이유는 간단하다. 결혼정보회사들이 자체 기준으로 남성은 자신보다 조건이 약간이라도 낮은 여자를 선호한다고 판단하기 때문이다. 고학력, 고소득 여성의 경우 매칭이 가능한 남성 인력군이 더 적어져, 소개가 쉽지 않다고 보기 때문에 더 비싼 가격을 물린다는 이야기다.

또 여성의 경우에는 나이가 많아질수록 가격이 비싸진다. 역시 계약서 상에는 같은 금액을 내더라도 무료 소개 숫자를 줄이거나 없애는 방식으로 가격을 차등화하고 있다. 예를 들어 28살 여성이 200만원을 내고 소개 받는 횟수 5회를 계약한다면, 32살의 경우에는 4회, 35살이 넘어가면 3회에 계약을 할 수도 있다

Curiously, the better quality of specs for a female customer, the higher her fee and the fewer meetings she will be able to have. Whereas for men, the opposite is true.

The reason is simple: marriage agencies believe men prefer women who have worse specs than themselves. So marriage agencies will struggle to find men willing to meet highly-educated, high-earning women.

In addition, things become more expensive for women the older they get. Once again, one difference is through reducing or eliminating the numbers of free referrals. For example, whereas a 28 year-old woman may pay 2 million won (US$1,689) to get 5 free referrals, a 32 year-old woman may only get 4 for the same price, and 3 for a 35 year-old woman.

Pyo Ju-yeon goes on to mention that female customers often get told they’re “a little old” once they reach 32, are gaslighted about what they can expect for their money at that age, and that costs rise substantially for women once they reach 35. Alternatively, some agencies simply refuse female applicants over that age whatsoever, although they may still be able to signup for the same agencies’ separate services for divorcees. (For the sake of perspective, as of 2017 the average marriage age for Korean women was 30.2, and for men 32.9.)

Ironically for one of the most highly-educated populations in the world, unfortunately that distaste for highly-educated, high-earning women is very much a thing, and is one major reason why so many young Korean women now shun marriage. (Indeed, such women were stigmatized in 2012 too. And even as far back as in 1998 also, as that excellent resource on the right from then discusses in detail.)

It also leads to three further interesting, concluding questions that I’d like to pose to readers.

First, do you think agencies like Duo and Gayeon are merely responding to traditional Korean gender norms, and have little ability or incentive to challenge prejudices against (especially) women who don’t conform to those? Or alternatively, are they actively complicit in perpetuating those gender norms for the sake of profit? Or both?

Whatever your opinion, there’s a surprising parallel in the form of major pornography portal sites, in which the categorizations used and forms of content offered have a big impact on how the public and the media come to think about and frame pornography and sexuality. In other words, rather than, say, feminist porn being the norm, the degradation and exploitation of women is seen as normal and acceptable because that’s supposedly what both men (and women) want.

According to whom? That would be the pornography portals. Why? Because they make more money if consumers think that way.

It really is as simple as that sounds. Sourcing material only from producers that ensure decent pay for actors, their continual consent, and that provide them with safe, hygienic working environments, all of which should be the norm across the entire porn industry, simply costs more. But I digress.

Do marriage agencies then, have similar impacts on their own customers’ feelings about what makes the “perfect” spouse? Do Duo and Gayeon, which like to tout their large customer bases and tens of thousands of successful matches, have any impact on how Koreans as a whole think of marriage and gender roles? Or is their impact strictly limited to only their customers, who arguably are already well aware of the agencies’ very traditionally-gendered categorizations and notions of married life, and who already—by virtue of signing-up with those agencies—largely share their values?

To ultimately judge complicity, it would be interesting to do further research on how and if costs for women decreased in those few short years male customers became the majority. Or, on determining if marriage agencies were so—cough—wedded to traditional gender norms that they still made signing-up for women more expensive nonetheless?

Never to be repeated? A Duo advertisement from 2008. Source: All4MAC.

Finally, something I really wanted to find the answer for you here, but couldn’t sorry. Why do you think Korean marriage agencies “naturally” tend to have more female members, to the extent that that cohort of extra male customers in the 2010s seems to have been no more than the exception the proved the rule? Is the same true in other countries?

Please let me know in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter!

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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)