Pornography Actors are People too. Greater, not Less Access to Their Work Will Help Remind the Korean Public of That.

In response to a former Korean pornography actor’s shame preventing them from dating, I like to think that if they were monogamous with me, and didn’t behave in real life the ways they’d been required to in their videos, then I wouldn’t mind their past at all. But that’s all very easy to say when an opportunity to meet is so unlikely to ever occur. If it did, would I turn out to be a hypocrite? Would you?

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes. Source left, Namu Wiki. Source right, Joshua Gandara on Unsplash.

In Korea, something pretty big was cut from Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s classic portrait of the 1970s LA porn industry. But it wasn’t what you might think.

Instead, it was the three-minute scene where Julianne Moore, playing pornography actor Maggie/”Amber Waves,” tries and fails to get visitation rights to her son. Not only is it an extraordinary performance by Moore, but it also shows a very human side to the industry, providing a profoundly dark, thoughtful counterpoint to the glamour, sex, drugs, and tension that defines the rest of the movie. It was easily the most memorable scene from when I first watched the movie in New Zealand in 1998, and why I was virtually apoplectic when I suddenly realized it was just not there at all when I watched it again in Korea two years later.

Seeing the headline “Adult actress Seo Ha-hee looks for genuine love through tears” the same day as tributes to 25 years since the release of Boogie Nights then, I felt a duty to highlight her story. Yet it’s not really a news item per se, but rather a few slides from Insight’s Instagram account about her appearance (and lamentation) on a new Disney+ show; as Netizen Buzz has already translated the comments, the least I could do is translate the captions in a moment below.

But if felt insufficient.

Looking ahead then, eventually I’d like to cleave through the mass of (contradictory, hypocritical, patronizing, completely ineffectual) censorship laws in an attempt to determine exactly how South Korea remains one of the few developed countries where pornography is largely illegal. In particular, considering just how simple it is to download pornography from overseas, I’m especially intrigued by how the legal domestic Korean pornography industry continues to exist at all, when even pubic hair may not be shown on it (let alone genitalia) and the sex is so obviously simulated. Is the hospitality industry literally its only consumer, given that even in 2022, Korean hotels, motels, and yogwans still invariably have a few cable Korean pornography channels available on their TVs?

Either way, as Kelsey the Korean points out in her recent video above (from 6:08), while there’s a great deal about mainstream pornography that’s objectionable, it’s not like Korean censorship laws are achieving their stated aim of protecting the sexual morals of Koreans from it. If anything, she alleges, they may in fact be no small factor in their utter corruption and distortion. The lack of healthier homegrown options, I tend to agree, may indeed play no small role in channeling many young men to what (illegal) Korean pornography has become notorious for instead—an ongoing spy-cam epidemic.

Yes, healthy feminist pornography does exist—provided you’re prepared to pay for it, to help ensure the working conditions and salaries which make it such. And, seeing how much damage Korean censorship laws seem to have done in promoting unhealthy alternatives, then why not unblock access to other options?

In that sense of changing hearts and minds about pornography, would you say Seo Ha-ni’s “confession” below is a step in the right direction? Or do you think her shame about her former profession, so great that she hadn’t been prepared to date at all in the last five years, merely perpetuates stereotypes? Please let me know in the comments!

Source, all images: Insight @Instagram.

“I’m looking for a man who can understand what it’s like [/not worry about] to be [dating] a [former] pornography actor.”

A woman sheds tears in her quest to find true love.

[Insight reporter Gwon Gil-yeo]

Many people claim their loved one’s pasts are not important.

But if it were you, to what extent would that be true?

An interesting new dating reality program tests whether you can really fully understand/[not worry about/forgive] your true love’s past.

Released on Disney+ on 5 October, Pink Lie is a show in which one cast member each episode confesses lies they’ve been living under, in order to find true love from people who accept them for who they are.

In the first episode, Seo Ha-ni (36) drew attention for having formerly worked as a pornography actor.

For the last five years, she has run a candle manufacturing workshop. She describes herself as a candle artist, never revealing her past as a pornography actor.

She has performed at a high level in the industry, appearing in such movies as The Purpose of Reunion 2 and Private Tutor: Advanced Course (NSFW). [James—Rather confusedly, the former has no sex or nudity, and indeed is even available on YouTube.]

Seo Ha-ni, who cried while talking about her past, said “[Because of my former job], men [constantly] send me photos of their genitals or nude body shots on social media.”

This has meant she’s never been comfortable in romantic relationships.

Source: Insight

“I’m always worried that someone will recognize me in public,’ Seo Ha-ni said. “So, I’ve never held hands with a boyfriend while walking among the cherry blossoms. I’ve never had fun in water with a boyfriend in the summer, never walked together in the Autumn leaves, and never gone skiing with someone in the winter.”

In fact, Seo Ha-ni has [been so nervous she has] avoided men completely, confessing she has not been in a relationship in a whopping six years.

There is a lot of interest in her case, and everyone is anxious for her to find true love with someone without prejudice.

[James: The remaining two slides just explain a little more about the show.]

Meanwhile, three other women and four men appeared in the first episode.

They were: Han Ba-reum (33), a researcher at Samsung Electronics’ Future Technology Research Center; Han Da-on (31), a beauty company marketer; Kang Da-hae (26), an intern at a fashion company; Hong Ha-nu (32), CEO of Hallyu Entertainment; Park Han-gyeol (25), a wedding video company CEO, and Mo Chan-sol (29), an elementary school gym teacher.

Although they disclosed their age and occupation, in fact, just like Seo Ha-ni [at first], they were all lying.

According to the rules of the show, they must not reveal their lies [until their turns in later episodes].

MCs singer Kim Hee-chul, actor Lee Sun-bin, and YotuTuber RalRal all expressed their curiosity about what truths were hidden by the cast.

Episodes 1 and 2 of Pink Lie were released on 5 October, which single episodes to be released once a week on Wednesdays. (END)

Related Posts

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

If You Understand Korean, Please Don’t Miss Out: “After Me Too” (애프터 미투, 2021) is Screening October 6-9!

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

The clincher:

가장 도발적인 작품은 소람 감독의 ‘그레이 섹스’다. 흑백으로 구분할 수 없는 회색지대처럼 성폭력은 아니지만 그렇다고 즐거운 섹스도 아닌 성 경험을 말한다. 여성의 성적 욕망 자체에 조명을 비추는 작품이기도 하다. 내가 무엇을 원하는지 정확히 알아야, 피해 아니면 가해라는 이분법의 언어를 벗어나 자신이 느끼는 혼란과 모호함의 정체를 붙들 수 있다고 말하는 듯 하다. ‘미투’ 운동에 대한 다큐멘터리라기보단 말 그대로 ‘미투 그 이후’, 새로운 장으로 넘어가기 위한 고민이다. 네 작품 중 가장 마지막으로 배치됐지만, 매끈한 결론 대신 오히려 생각할 거리를 안고 극장을 나서게 한다.

“The most provocative [of the four mini-documentaries] is director Soram’s Grey Sex. It refers to sexual experiences that can be considered to be in a grey area—not outright sexual assault, but not exactly pleasurable, enjoyable sex either. It is also a work that shines on a light on the nature of women’s sexual desire itself. It seems to be saying that if you know exactly what you want, you can break free of the binary, dichotomous language of victim and aggressor, thereby taking control of and overcoming any confusion and ambiguity you may feel. Rather than a documentary about the ‘Me Too’ movement per se [like the previous mini-documentaries], it’s literally ‘After #MeToo,’ illuminating a path on how to move on to a new chapter. By being placed last of the four, rather than providing a smooth conclusion to the documentary as a whole, it give viewers something to think about as they leave the theater.”

See here for more information about this documentary as a whole, or these two trailers:

Not going to lie, I’m expecting a few curious looks when I attend myself later this week. Will I be the only non-Korean person in the theater? The only man?*

What if that curiosity leads to—horror of horrors—someone actually striking up a conversation afterwards, forcing me to brush off my rusty spoken Korean skills as I explain why I came?

The peculiarities of my glorious visage aside, it would seem odd I was there. After all, my job is actually almost entirely devoid of office politics, because of reasons. True, there’s interacting with my young Korean students, which I admit will indeed always be overshadowed by my privilege of being a middle-aged cishet white man, not to mention the power over them which comes with conferring grades. Yet if you really knew anything my utterly lowly job, you’d laugh at the notion that such power was sufficient to seriously consider abusing it.

(Update—In hindsight, I realize my privilege in being a middle-aged cishet white man may have clouded my judgement about the lack of office politics. Sigh.)

Then there’s dating (etc.), which I’ve recently become painfully aware I haven’t pursued in nearly 22 years. Those few genuine offers I’ve received in all that time, that I like to pretend weren’t entirely just wishful thinking on my part (but do know I always turned down with nothing but grace and respect), don’t provide much of a foundation to navigate the choppy sexual politics of dating in the 2020s.

Gaining one then, is one good enough reason alone to watch this documentary. As is learning about the subject in general. There’s also simply showing financial (and moral) support for a worthy cause, which not everyone who feels the same way has the privilege to bestow. And finally, there’s reading that paragraph at the start of this post, through which I discovered that one of four mini-documentaries contained within speaks so profoundly to what I’ve read recently about #Metoo in these two excellent books, which I’ll be discussing at a later date:

I completely share your frustrations though, that in Busan at least, Korea’s second-biggest city, in CGV cinemas it will only play for a total of 12 times over 4 days, As in, literally only a single theater, let alone having no subtitles available.** Still, for those of you with the Korean ability and time, I do hope you consider supporting it by attending.

Who knows, maybe I’ll see you in Seomyeon? ;)

*(To my surprise, as I type this there’s only a 56%-44% women to men split among people who’ve pre-purchased tickets at CGV. Finally, this feature of Korean cinema websites actually proved interesting!)

**Update—Actually, it screened for much longer than expected, and did include Korean subtitles. Both of which were great of course, but it still seems odd not to mention the subtitles on the movie’s information page.

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

Making Sense of the NewJeans “Cookie” Controversy

A reading list for everything you ever wanted to know about the sexualization of minors in K-pop

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

The best thing you can read to make sense of it, actually, is Haley Yang’s article in Tuesday’s Korea JoongAng Daily, which is an excellent primer—and a model example of how to convey a great deal of information in just a few hundred words.

Also highly recommended is Choi Yoon-ah’s short article in the Hankyoreh, about the sexual exploitation of minors in the industry.

If you do have the luxury of time however, and a feeling that all of this sounds very familiar, then please allow me present some of my own longform posts (and book chapter) on the same topics, going back all the way to 2010:

Source: YouTube.

But why stop there? For even more reading, I’d also like to mention Meenakshi Gigi Durham’s The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It, the 2008 book that inspired the above series. And which, tragically, is clearly more relevant than ever.

Next, for some context on the farce that is ADOR’s denial of any sexual overtones to Cookie whatsoever, check out the collective mania surrounding 4Minutes’ “leg spread dance” in Mirror Mirror when it was released in 2011.

Source: RedandRosy
Finally, my apologies that these links are so old; K-pop no longer being to my taste from about 10 years ago, I could no longer sustain the motivation and hard work required to speak with any sort of authority on it—and have a huge amount of respect and admiration for those that still do. For the same reason, I’m very much behind on my own reading. So, I plan to rectify that, starting with From Factory Girls to K-Pop Idol Girls: Cultural Politics of Developmentalism, Patriarchy, and Neoliberalism in South Korea’s Popular Music Industry by Gooyong Kim (2018). Anyone already read it? What did you think? Any other recommendations? Please let me know in the comments!

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

*Looks Anxiously at Stomach, at Svelte Wife, Then Back at Self*

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

Recently waylaid by a broken toe, my audacious jogging and weight-loss plans in tatters, the following home-truths about the the male gaze, female gaze, and double standards hit painfully close to home this summer. Or am I just projecting?

Those of you who also follow me on social media, may recognize them from back in June. Guilty as charged—I’ve been neglecting this blog due to self-imposed minimum word limits on content I post here, unnecessarily depriving you of interesting content and me of interesting responses. No longer!

So, from Niall Richardson in Transgressive Bodies: Representations in Film and Popular Culture (2010, page 78):

…not ignoring the critical writing which points out that women can gain erotic pleasure from the beautiful, muscular male body (Smith 2007), it does seem that women desire characteristics in men that are very different from the features that men seem to value in women. I constantly see Stepford-esque couples in which the wife is stunningly beautiful, and obviously committed to a regime of diet, exercise and beauty treatments, while the husband is a Homer Simpson. While the wife is still devoted to her husband I always wonder: if the situation were reversed, and the wife were to become fat, would the husband be equally devoted to her? Indeed, one of the recent British films to address this very issue was The Full Monty in which a group of out-of-shape, unemployed men organised an amateur strip show which was a resounding success, obtaining a standing ovation from the female audience. I agree with Susan Bordo who asks, if it were a team of out-of-shape women performing in a strip regime would they be similarly applauded by an audience of men? (Bordo 1999: 174). It does appear to be the case that men do not objectify their bodies to the same extent as women and certainly do not function under the tyranny of slenderness to the same extent. I once met a man who was obese – not moderately fat, but obese – who continually referred to himself as a ‘big guy’ and told me in detail about his job as a security guard at the psychiatric hospital in which he was required to ‘provide the muscle’. I wondered how this muscle was provided given that all I could see was fat and no muscle at all, but this didn’t seem to occur to this particular ‘big guy’. In short, there is a general acceptance in normative, heterosexual culture of male mass, bulk, excess flesh, or indeed anything which exceeds the taught and toned….

It is also not fair to say that men are excused the sin of fatness or bulkiness only in heteronormative culture. Although…

Unfortunately, the book itself is ridiculously expensive; fortunately, all of this particular chapter is available on Google Books, so I encourage interested readers to continue there.

What do you think?

Related Posts:

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

Another Attempted Sexual Assault by a Stalker Caught on CCTV

Estimated reading and viewing time: 6 minutes.

Two years after chilling CCTV footage showed a woman being stalked to her home, only escaping sexual assault by a hair’s breadth as her front door closed behind her on her would-be attacker, another case has just occurred in a different area of Seoul.

To my surprise, I’ve encountered no English-language news about it in the 3 weeks since the news broke. So, to compensate and raise greater awareness, I’ve translated the transcript of a YTN news report about it for you below. Following that, for context I’ve also included a chronological list of related news articles about stalking in Korea and recent law changes in the ‘Related Posts’ section:

[Exclusive] Another targeting of a woman on her way home… “He followed me all all the way to my front door!”

YTN, Wednesday June 15

Anchor:

새벽 시간대 한 남성이 홀로 걷는 여성을 뒤쫓아 집까지 따라 들어가려다 달아난 사건이 일어났습니다.

여성이 수상한 낌새를 눈치채지 못했다면 더 큰 범죄로 이어질 뻔한 상황이었는데요.

YTN이 관련 영상을 확보했습니다. 김혜린 기자의 단독 보도입니다.

During the early morning hours, a man followed after a woman walking home alone, ultimately running after her all the way to her home.

If she hadn’t sensed something suspicious was up, there’s no telling what might have happened.

YTN has gained a copy of the relevant security camera footage. Here is an exclusive report by reporter Kim Hye-rin.

[Reporter]

검은색 티셔츠를 입은 남성이 여성의 뒤를 바짝 쫓습니다.

곁눈질로 돌아봐도 아랑곳하지 않고 쫓아가는 남성.

두려움을 느낀 여성이 멈춰 서서 뒤를 돌아보자, 그제야 여성을 뒤쫓던 게 아니라는 듯 인근 건물로 향합니다.

여성이 다시 가던 길을 가자마자 이번엔 여성을 쫓아 전속력으로 달립니다.

여성이 사는 주택 대문까지 남성의 미행은 계속됐습니다.

[피해 여성 :골목길 시작되고 조금 더 걸어갔는데 그 남자가 진짜 저를 너무 바짝 쫓아오는 거예요.]

A man in a black t-shirt follows the women closely.

Even though he only ever seems to give her side-glances, he pursues her relentlessly.

When the woman, feeling scared, stops and turns around, he heads to a nearby building and acts as if he was not following her at all.

But as soon as she starts walking again and turns into another street he starts running after her.

In fact, he didn’t stop following her until she’d made it home.

[Female Victim: Once I walked into the alley I wanted to get away from him by walking a little further head, but he just kept following me closely.]

지난 6일 새벽 6시 반쯤, 남성은 서울 마포구 대흥역 개찰구에서 20대 여성 A 씨의 단독주택까지 도보로 10분 거리를 미행했습니다.

현관문을 열고 들어서는 순간 주택 대문을 넘어서는 남성을 발견한 A 씨.

현관문을 재빨리 닫은 뒤 경찰에 신고했지만, 사건 발생 열흘이 다 되도록 남성을 잡았단 소식은 없었습니다.

개찰구에서 교통카드를 찍은 명의자를 확인하는 데에 며칠이 걸린다는 경찰의 답변만 받았을 뿐입니다.

혹시나 남성이 다시 찾아오진 않을까 공포에 떨어야 했던 A 씨는 결국 정신과 상담까지 받았습니다.

[피해 여성 : 스트레스도 심하고 신경이 계속 곤두서 있고, 계속 긴장이 되어 있고…. 제 사건은 일주일이 넘도록 안 잡히고 있고. (경찰은) 영장을 두 번 받아야 해서 수일이 소요된다 이런 말씀을 하시는데 어제 답변을 받고 답답해서….]

The ordeal began at around 6:30am on Monday the 6th of June, when the man followed the female victim in her 20s for about 10 minutes from the ticket gate of Daeheung Station in Mapo-gu, Seoul to her detached house.

Once she made it to her home, he even climbed over(?)/went through(?) the front gate. The victim quickly closed her front door on him and reported the incident to the police, but there was no news until the man was arrested 10 days later.

Rather, after making the report, all the victim heard was that it would take a few days to check the station’s ticket gate records to determine which transportation card the man used and determine his identity.

(James—I think saying there was “no news” is slightly misleading, because as you’ll see below the victim was very much in communication with the police. Also, by no means would I ever default play Devil’s Advocate for them, but it’s not like they could *ignore* the legal requirement for two warrants before gaining access to those records, and in the screenshot of their texts with the victim below they do say they’ll notify her as soon as possible of any results of the investigation.)

Consequently, the victim, who had to remain in fear in the meantime that the stalker might come again, ultimately had to receive counseling.

[Victim: I’m under a lot of stress, my nerves are constantly on edge, and I’m still nervous. Nothing’s happened in my case in over a week. “Police: We have to get two warrants, which takes days.” Victim: The police told me this yesterday, which left me so frustrated.]

지난 2019년에는 서울 신림동 원룸에 사는 여성을 따라가 집에 침입하려 한 30대 남성이 붙잡히기도 했습니다.

이 남성은 원룸에는 들어가지 못했지만 공동 주택 현관문에 이미 들어온 상황이라 주거 침입죄가 적용됐습니다.

문제는 집에 침입해 강력 범죄가 발생하지 않는다면 범죄 의도만으론 강하게 처벌할 수 없다는 점입니다.

신림동 원룸 사건 역시 재판부조차 성폭력 의도를 의심했지만, 남성은 징역 1년의 처벌을 받는 데에 그쳤습니다.

[이은의 / 성폭력 전문 변호사 : 따라가서 문을 열려고 했던, 사실 의도야 뻔해 보이기는 하지만 그 의도를 단정하거나 입증할 수 없는 상황(이라 의도를 처벌하기는 어렵지만,) 강간을 하기 위해 따라갔는지는 정확히 알 수 없으나 침입을 하기가 쉬운 대상이기 때문에 그 사람을 따라간 거는 확실하잖아요.]

현실적으로 범죄 의도만 놓고 처벌을 강화하긴 어렵지만 최소한 주거 침입죄에 대해선 형량을 높여야 한다는 목소리가 나오고 있습니다.

YTN 김혜린입니다 (khr0809@ytn.co.kr).

In 2019, a man in his 30s was caught on CCTV trying to enter the one-room apartment of a women living in Sillim-dong, Seoul that he had been following.

Although he was unsuccessful, he was charged with trespass as he had already entered the apartment building itself.

(JamesHere, it is curious—well, startling really—that the news report does not mention that the stalker was only prosecuted in response to overwhelming public pressure, nor that it was the catalyst for a recent law change forcing more active responses by police. Either way, given that the most recent victim had to remain in fear of a repeat encounter for so long, and that the stalker will still only be charged with trespass at most, clearly still much more needs to be done.)

A problem with such offenders is that unless an actual break-in or other crime actually occurs, prosecution is difficult when based on suspected criminal intent alone.

Consequently, in the Sillim-dong case, the man was only sentenced to one year in prison despite the judges having strong suspicions that he intended to sexually assault the victim.

[Lee Eun-euo, a lawyer specializing in sexual assault cases: In the Sillim-dong case, the man had clearly determined the inebriated woman walking home alone to be an easy target, so the criminal intention was obvious. But in addition to being difficult to prosecute based on intention alone, it is unclear whether rape or robbery was the goal.]

Realistically, it remains difficult to strengthen punishment based on criminal intent alone. But there are voices that call for at least harsher sentences on trespassing to be made.

YTN Kim Hye-rin reporting (end).

Related Posts:

  • Raped, assaulted, nowhere to find help: Foreign women speak out about their experiences of sexual violence in Korea (14/01/2022, The Korea Times)
  • S. Korea will now immediately detain stalkers who threaten their victims (16/12/2021, The Hankyoreh)
  • Police again draw fire for inadequate response to stalking case (13/12/2021, Yonhap)
  • Stalking in Korea (01/12/2021, r/korea@reddit)
  • Daily reports of stalking sharply increase after implementation of anti-stalking law: police (18/11/2021, The Korea Herald)
  • Stalking perpetrators to face up to 5 years in jail under new law (21/11/2020, The Korea Herald)
  • New law strengthens punishment for stalkers, expands reach (21/10/2021, The Korea Herald)
  • 9 out of 10 stalking suspects go unpunished (24/04/2021, The Korea Herald)
  • Korean law 101 stalking and protective measures (14/10/2020, 안현주 변호사 Hyunjoo Ahn@YouTube)
  • Policeman arrested for housebreaking, attempted rape (18/10/2019, The Korea Times)
  • It’s attempted rape, not just trespassing: K-stalker in viral video gets charge changed as South Korean police bow to public outrage (31/05/2019, South China Morning Post)
  • Court to decide arrest of ‘Sillim-dong CCTV’ rape suspect (31/05/2019, The Korea Herald)
  • Stalking crimes rise with lax punishment (05/11/2018, The Korea Herald)
  • “Another day, another story on South Korean media portraying violence against women as if it’s something romantic or playful” (16/08/2018, Hawon Jung @allyjung)
  • “Cute Lines for Cute Girls”: Street Harassment Framed as Fun (02/02/2013)

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

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)