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)

I’m Ready to Pay for Korean Feminist Films!

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes. Image source: MediaUs

And have started doing so via the newly-launched streaming service Purplay (Twitter, Facebook), which focuses on short films about Korean gender issues and those by and about Korean women.

Alas, you’re going to need considerable Korean skills to enjoy the service. There are no Korean or foreign subtitles available, and just to pay 1500 won (US$1.28) for 72 hours’ access to one film took my long suffering wife and me about 45 minutes of navigating Korea’s kafkaesque internet payment systems, by which stage we were considering simply strapping some coins to a carrier pigeon instead.

Those Korea-wide problems are no fault of the site though. And, now that everything’s installed, a simple password should suffice for future payments.

In the meantime, my first film choice of 은하비디오 below is getting me all nostalgic over the video store I used to visit in my first year in Korea in Jinju in 2000. I’m also especially enjoying the warm buzz that comes with encouraging the creation of content I like by actually paying for it, rather than just complaining about what I don’t like as per usual. I recommend it!

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

Single Korean Women Already Have to Pay Extra to Stay Safe in Their Homes. They Don’t Need to be Infantilized in the Process.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes. Source: Remark Vill.

If I was advertising literally anything to university students, “Don’t Worry Mom!” would probably be the very last headline I’d use. But until recently, this ad for Remark Vill serviced apartments really did tower over the Pukyong and Kyungsung University district, a small but popular nightlife district in Busan.

Its paternalism rankled immediately. In particular, it had the exact opposite message to this campaign by the accomodation-finding app Zigbang, which trumpeted the independence and sexual freedom for women which comes with leaving home. And it just feels odd for any real estate service to target potential customers’ parents, rather than the customers themselves.

Upon further reflection however…it still rankled. Because as can be better seen in the full version, she’s also in one of the numerous, surprisingly awkward and uncomfortable poses almost only ever seen on women in ads. For sure, that’s hardly something to break the pitchforks out for in itself. Yet, as sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out in Gender Advertisements (1979), such nuances do subtly diminish the women involved. As whereas men’s usually more natural poses render them literally much more ready for action, and are thereby more authoritative looking, actor Im Se-mi above would have to uncross her legs in order to be able to do, well, anything. Or in Goffman’s own words about the similar ‘bashful knee bend,’ her pose “can be read as a foregoing of full effort to be prepared and on the ready in the current social situation, [as] the position adds a moment to any effort to flight or flee. Once again one finds a posture that seems to presuppose the goodwill of anyone in the surround who could offer harm.”

Pose like Lee Min-jung on the left, and it’s difficult even just to keep your balance. Stand more naturally like Gong Yoo instead, and you’re much quicker to spring into action.

But one should pause after somehow arriving at phrases like “flight or flee” after pondering a sweet, innocuous-looking ad. Also, Korean mothers (and fathers) have good reason to be concerned about their daughters’ safety when living alone. The 2016 Gangnam murder case, in which a 23 year-old woman was stabbed to death in a public toilet for simply being a woman, is still very fresh in people’s minds. Korea’s spycam epidemic continues unabated, which is a big concern for women when using motels and public toilets. In May 2019, a security video shows a woman literally only just avoiding a stalker forcing himself into her apartment as she closed the door behind her. Moreover, before the video went viral, he was originally only going to be charged with trespassing, characteristic of a justice system widely considered to be very dismissive of women’s sexual harassment and violence claims.

Source: @koryodynasty

Naturally, daughters themselves are worried about the safety of their accommodation too. According to a recent study by the Seoul Metropolitan Government that surveyed 3,000 single-person households, 11.2 percent of female respondents cited safety as the number one difficulty living alone, against 0.8 percent of men. Also, according to a research paper by Kang Ji-hyun, a professor of criminology at the University of Ulsan, young women living alone are more than 11 times more likely to suffer from home invasion than men. Consequently, according to D. M. Park at The Korea Bizwire, they “have to pay relatively high housing costs [compared to men] as they prefer houses in safe locations and with security facilities, as well as additional money for anti-crime goods.” This difference is ignored in Korean social welfare and housing policies, as is the reality that women also make less money than men to pay those extra costs. One woman interviewed for the article described it as yet another ‘pink tax’ for women, being an example of the extra money women sometimes have to pay for a swathe of services and consumer items that men don’t, including what they have to put into grooming for their jobs.

The Daeyeon Remark Vill apartments advertised are symbolic of this: while the buildings won a special prize for their security features upon completion in 2017, nowhere on the Remark Vill website are the rental prices of any of their apartments in Korea listed—suggesting that they’re very expensive indeed (and, despite the area, unlikely to be actually aimed at university students). Moreover, given the dire job circumstances of Koreans in the late-20s and early-30s at the moment, even 32 year-olds like Im Se-mi might require parental assistance to live there. Who could possibly gripe about an ad then, that appeals to both potential female tenants and their parents?

A couple of subway stops from the Daeyeon Remark Vill apartment buildings, an alleyway for “women to go home safely” that is “specially patrolled by police.” It’s the first I’ve ever encountered in Korea, but likely only because I have the male privilege of never needing to look for them. How common are they?

But I was reluctant to let this one go. I would have loved to have deferred to what Korean women thought of the ad, if only I could have found any opinions they’d offered. In their absence, I had to rely on my gut. And that told me that if something instantly rankles, there’s usually a good reason for it.

After all, recall how odd “Don’t Worry Mom!” sounded?

Just because daughters would share parents’ concerns about their safety, doesn’t necessarily mean the ad should be targeted towards the latter. Someone—a single copywriter perhaps, or maybe a whole creative team—made a conscious decision to do so. And, sure enough, even if this particular ad is relatively harmless, just a cursory investigation shows the campaign as a whole is rife with traditional gender stereotypes.

The smoking gun comes from the Remark Vill homepage itself. On it, there are four themed commercials available to watch. Two of them—about the gym facilities and various safety measures, conveniences, and business services available to tenants respectively—you don’t need my translations for. The “Mom’s Relief” one below however, is simultaneously sweet and cringey, for you sense that you would never have a 32 year-old man portrayed in the same manner. And under that, the “Teasing” one, which—spoilers!—suggests that the formerly virginal daughter is now free to invite male guests for casual sex.

Yes, really.

Unless you’re targeting parents like myself, who is very cool with that, it’s probably wise not to run a campaign tugging at parents’ heartstrings, only to present those parents who do visit your website with a reminder of how much wild sex your daughter will soon be having in your absence. Indeed, at your expense too.

Maybe, just maybe, the “Don’t Worry Mom!” campaign was ill-conceived in more ways than one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the “Mom’s Relief” commercial:

And my translation of the captions:

Mom, you’re bringing that up again?

I’m taking care of things myself now!

I can get lightbulbs changed if I need to, and the toilet unblocked too.

I don’t need to call Dad!

In fairness, of course there are many young people in any country who have to rely on others for simple household tasks; even back in 2009, when the single-household rate was much lower, there was already a plethora of such services available in Korea. My experience of the reporting on the trend, however, is that it tends to stress the alleged lack of adulting by female customers. And as for advertising, if the fact that a 32 year-old not knowing how to change a lightbulb or unblock a toilet doesn’t strike you as embarrassing enough—and who still doesn’t know after leaving home, the Remark Vill staff replacing the role of her long-suffering father—I invite you to consider how unlikely and unnatural-seeming it would be to have a male actor in Im Se-mi’s place.

The next screenshots reveal she gets her laundry and cleaning done by others too. Nothing wrong with that, and great if you can afford it, but—if she can’t even change a lightbulb, could she do those herself either? You really have to wonder.

(Ironically, earlier posts from the Remark Vill Facebook page actually include tips for such things as unblocking toilets by yourself—which just goes to show how much of a step backward this particular campaign is.)

There are copying and fax services available on the first floor.

I don’t need to go out at night.

If I want, there’s even cleaning or laundry services.

I can even borrow an umbrella when it’s raining.

Don’t worry!

But still, please come over often.

They don’t make kimchi for me here…

[You’ll come] Right?

I’ve got to admit, that’s pretty damn cute. Then I remember…

SHE’S THIRTY-TWO.

And on that note, on with the “Teasing” commercial:

And the captions:

It’s so good to be home!

What do you think? It’s good, right?

This is the first time I’ve had a man come over.

There is a state of the art security system in this building…

[…So] No unwanted visitors can come in [the building].

The building staff receive everything for me, like mail and deliveries.

If something dangerous happens…

A quick response from the security office is just a phone call away.

From the Remark Vill Facebook page, a highlight of that safe pick-up and delivery system (which can also be seen in the “Features and Services” video, as can real-time monitoring of one’s parking space):

Wireless delivery system. A smart delivery system makes this a very safe place to live alone.

Continuing:

There’s CCTV, and a tight security system overseeing everyone that enters the building.

[So] I don’t need a boyfriend!

Why are you looking like that?

You like me??

Wake up! I’ve never thought of you as more than a friend.

(No caption) Do you want to Netflix and Chill?

Technically, that the male viewer is the first to come to her apartment may only mean precisely that. But the hint of previous inexperience, combined with the desire suddenly awakened by his presence, sounds very familiar:

From Stephen Epstein’s and my chapter “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K-pop” in the Korean Popular Culture Reader (2014), alas, K-pop ages very quickly. Most of the 100 songs we analyzed for it, the young women of 2020 would only have vague memories of hearing as girls.

Perhaps it’s time Remark Vill realized they’ve grown up now too?

Related Posts:

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

Headless Images Dehumanize Obese People. It’s Now a Fact.

Nearly 6 in 10 news articles about obesity are accompanied by headless images of obese people. In the first of its kind, a recent study demonstrates a direct, dehumanizing effect.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes. Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

For most people, focusing on body parts is the very definition of objectification. Remove subjects’ faces in particular, and you remove the individuality and implied consent communicated. But context is everything. You could critique the “real women have curves” philosophy behind this women-only gym’s name for instance, or the slut-shaming that used to compel Korean lingerie models to hide their faces, but it’s difficult to take issue with the ensuing, headless ads themselves. In music videos and art too, viewers are generally reluctant to judge objectification in isolation. And rightly so: anyone (i.e. everyone) who’s ever discretely admired someone’s magnificent legs, breasts, muscular arms, broad shoulders, or six-pack from afar knows it is possible to like whatever body parts do it for you, while still completely respecting their owners.

Such imagery is pervasive however, nor is every viewer of it as woke as you. You sense there are real consequences for the objectified. But evidence is mixed, as a direct causal link is difficult to prove.

A recent study of the effects of common visual depictions of obese people in the news, however, may provide one. But may also be very specific to obesity.

Among major news outlets in the US, as many as nearly 6 out of 10 articles about obesity issues are accompanied by headless images of obese people. To non-obese people especially, this figure may sound high, but not necessarily a problem. To be sure, we’re all aware of fatty jokes and stereotypes in pop-culture, but news stories about obesity would seem to have that objective, factual context that obviated any potential negative effects. Namely, just like a bra ad featuring only a women’s chest in said bra is acceptable and expected, whereas the same shot of a non-consenting spycam victim would be a crime, that news articles about obesity would tend to be accompanied by pictures of obese people seems logical. That their editors, whether for reasons of civility, consideration, and/or privacy laws would choose to hide or cut out their faces, we can assume would almost always be well-intended. Yet the study shows that the ensuing headless images are precisely the ones that are most damaging. Indeed, obese people themselves, frustrated with almost only ever seeing bulging stomach and butt-shots of themselves in articles specifically about them, might be somewhat less surprised to learn that such images now have a proven dehumanizing effect.

Surrealist Composition by Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern, 1965. Source: WikiArt.

But those effects may be very specific to obesity due to the premise of the study, outlined in the opening paragraph (my emphasis, in the first of what I promise will only be two long copy and pastes):

Why would a human feel uncomfortable shaking hands with another human being? The answer from evolutionary psychology would be that the human brain is predisposed to ‘infer’ that a person carries a contagious disease if the person has a bodily cue that is grossly different in form or size from norms (Park, Schaller, & Crandall, 2007). This cognitive bias induces disease-avoidance responses including disgust or avoidance of physical contact with the possessor of unusual bodily cues (Park et al., 2007). An obese human body is one of the visual cues or ‘marks’ triggering such aversive responses (Park et al., 2007; Smith, 2012). Evidence from social neuroscience indicates that disease-avoidance responses inhibit or block cognitive processing of humanly unique traits such as high rationality of a person with the disease-relevant signs (Harris & Fiske, 2007). In this way, the possessor of the disease-relevant signs such as an obese body is perceptually dehumanized. In turn, the heightened dehumanizing perception could lead to exclusionary attitudes toward obese individuals (Buckels & Trapnell, 2013).

In other words, obesity mimics the symptoms of many communicable diseases, and the consequences of assuming a diseased person is healthy and safe to physically interact with are usually greater than shunning an apparently diseased person who is in fact healthy. Therefore, exposure to obesity, prompted and exaggerated by imagery in news articles that highlights obese people’s bodies over all else, provokes an instinctual aversion and disgust to obese people, which viewers rationalize by dehumanizing them:

When the false-negative bias is prompted, people will unfavorably react to individuals who display any of the disease-like signs as if they carry infectious diseases, even when they are completely healthy (Park et al., 2007). Lieberman, Tybur, and Latner (2012) similarly suggested that certain infectious diseases (e.g. elephantiasis) accompany bodily changes such as swelling or fluid buildup that may be visually similar to obesity. Following this disease avoidance account, Park et al. (2007) maintain that the obese body type may be a visual cue that triggers the activation of disease-relevant behavioral reactions (e.g. avoiding physical contact) and emotions (e.g. disgust). And this is in line with Smith’s model (2007). Yet, this account has actually long been supported by a large volume of past research (Kurzban & Leary, 2001; Park et al., 2007; Park et al., 2013; Ryan, Oaten, Stevenson, & Case, 2012). Of those studies, Park et al. (2013) provided more directly relevant evidence for the current study that showed that the photo of an obese man heightened participants’ discomfort level for having physical contact with an obese individual (Park et al., 2013). Likewise, Ryan et al. (2012) found that participants exhibited the same emotional and behavioural responses to confederates with ‘real’ disease signs such as influenza symptoms as with confederates displaying non-disease signs or ‘false alarms’ such as a facial birthmark.

The authors of the study—Yongwoog Andrew Jeon, of University of South Florida; Hyeseung Elizabeth Koh, of the University of Texas at Austin; Jisoo Ahn, of Hallym University, South Korea; and Renita Coleman, of the University of Texas at Austin—then set out to test the following hypotheses:

H1: People who see a news photo of a headless obese person will exhibit a greater level of discomfort with physical contact with an obese person than those who see the whole being of the obese person.

H2: When the head of the obese model in the photo is absent (present), readers’ identification with obese individuals will decrease (increase) in the identity match condition (i.e. BMI or gender matches) compared to when they do not match.

H3a: When the genders of the person in the photo and the reader match, the effect of the absence (presence) of head of the obese model in the photo on disease avoidance responses (indexed by levels of physical avoidance and disgust) will be significantly stronger (weaker) than when their genders do not match.

H3b: When the BMI levels of the person in the photo and the reader match, the effect of the absence (presence) of head of the obese model in the photo on disease avoidance responses (indexed by levels of physical avoidance and disgust) will be significantly stronger (weaker) than when their BMIs do not match.

In the first of what were actually two studies, 332 people (80 percent white, 40 percent male, 40 percent in regular BMI 18.5-24.9 range, and with a mean age of 40.13) read two very typical news articles related to links between obesity and disease, with the accompanying randomly-selected images being of headless (not) models, male (female) models, and obese (overweight) models (crucially, men only saw men, and women women). They were then asked about how comfortable they would be shaking hands with obese people, on a scale of one to ten.

In the second study, 312 people (79 percent white, 45 percent male, 44 percent in a regular BMI range, and with a mean age of 35.2) likewise read two very typical news articles related to links between obesity and disease, with the accompanying images being of either a male or female obese twin, controlled for similar, neutral facial expressions and equal levels of attractiveness and obesity (crucially, participants saw a model of either sex this time.) In addition to being asked about how comfortable they would be shaking hands with obese people, they were also asked about hugging or being in the same elevator as them.

The results:

H1: Supported—Headless, dehumanizing imagery of obese people increases feelings of discomfort towards obese people more than full pictures do.

H2: Supported for gender—When people are the same gender as the model, they will identify less with the model if their head is not visible. Headless images, however, do not decrease the likelihood of obese viewers identifying with the obese model.

H3a: Supported—When the genders of the person in the photo and the reader match, feelings of discomfort and disgust are stronger when models are headless

H3b: Not supported—Sharing the BMI of an obese model has no impact on the effect of seeing them headless or not

Source: Vippng

The authors acknowledge that far more testing is required, especially with models and participants of different ages and races, and that overcoming stigmas towards obesity is far more complicated than simply eliminating headless photos in the media. But it’s clear that at present, “the prevalent visual framing of obesity in the news media is [indeed] dehumanizing not just metaphorically.”

In turn, I acknowledge simply sharing the hypotheses and barest outlines of the results doesn’t at all do justice to their article, which would require a far longer post. But I am happy to email the article for those of you that lack access (*cough* Science Direct *ahem*), and I look forward to all your comments and queries.

In particular, do these results have anything to say about sexual objectification? Or are they just too specific to obesity, because of the authors’ premise as discussed?

Happy 2020 everyone!

Update

Thank you for the excellent responses made on Twitter and Facebook:

(Anonymous, used with permission.)

Many other commenters echo the points about legal reasons for the cropping, and possible alternative solutions. So for your interest, let me pass on what the authors have to say about both:

In general, almost half of obesity-related news articles from major news outlets including CNN, ABC, Fox, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, visually depict an obese person in only one of following ways: eating junk food, sedentary, showing a bare abdomen, dressed in inappropriately fitting clothing, and, most commonly, headless (Puhl, Peterson, et al., 2013). [Note, the 6 in 10 is from news articles in general; see Heuer, McClure, & Puhl, 2011—James] A negative visual depiction of obese individuals (e.g. eating unhealthy foods) can increase social distance and anti-fat attitudes toward obese individuals more than positive depictions (e.g. exercising) (Puhl, Luedicke, & Heuer, 2013). Even though this finding provided empirical evidence for visual framing’s role in prompting anti-fat attitudes, the most prevalent feature of the visual depiction of obese individuals, as ‘headless,’ has not yet been fully examined. Headless is a product of cropping – a technique of digitally removing a part of an image. Through cropping, journalists may attempt to convey the implicit message that ‘this is important!’ Likewise, by cropping out the head of the obese person in the photo, the obese person’s stomach is visually emphasized. News media may use cropping for anonymization and privacy (Puhl, Peterson, et al., 2013). However, regardless of journalists’ actual intentions, these photos can effectively capture people’s attention because the humans’ visual system assigns attentional priority to the human body (Peelen & Downing, 2007). Further, the stomach is one of the body regions that is of highest concern among both regular and overweight individuals when judging one’s physical attractiveness and health (Warschburger, Calvano, Richter, & Engbert, 2015)

And one of the practical implications of the findings of the study:

Of course, ‘putting the head back’ in the photo should not be the only way of depicting obese individuals. Researchers and journalists may need to work more on how to improve media portrayal of vulnerable or stigmatized groups of people. Already, the research institute has produced a guideline based on their research on how to use photos of obese individuals (RCFPO, n.d.). For example, all the photos provided by the guidelines show the whole being of obese individuals engaged in healthy activities or others that are counter-stereotypical. In addition, it may be better to develop a strategy that does not necessarily involve the use of the photos of people, but instead has other relevant visual information such as infographics that visualize data on, for example, the relationship between stress level and eating habits. Also, to solve the issue of privacy, instead of using photos, illustrations of obese individuals that are created by artists can be used. Photos that show the whole body of obese people from the back is another solution. All these alternatives await further empirical validations in future research.

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

Finding the Mother Lode

Hi everyone. How’s your December been? Mine’s been full of testing, grading, breaking my toe, acquiring two homeless kittens, and finally doing some last-minute Christmas shopping…for myself. Which means that shortly after this goes up, I’ll have to hobble out of the door and actually start looking for presents for my poor daughters.

No, really. Ahem.

But back to me. I did discover quite the mother lode in Busan Book Alley yesterday, yes? Yet even I balked at the various readers on Lacan and Gender and Critical Theory available though, and reluctantly put down such tomes as examinations of the works of various Australian woman authors, which I’d be unlikely to ever read myself. So you’re more than welcome to pick those up yourself!

Meanwhile, I’m also happy to say I do finally have various long posts actually written for you. But, curiously, Christmas and New Year’s don’t seem to be the best times to post anything you’d like to actually get read. So, I’ll just keep writing more instead—I shouldn’t be walking much on this toe after all—and will delay posting them until late next week.

Until, I hope you enjoy the holidays. And, given that you’re still reading this probably means that you too get excited about 30+ year-old books, I’d be happy to chat with you about any of my picks above. Probably, I’ll start with Gender Voices by David Graddol and Joan Swann (1989), in which the authors “explore in a clear and comprehensive manner the idea that language shapes individual lives—that through our speech we all help recreate gender divisions in society,” as that’s a subject there’s been many Korean articles about in the last few months. First though, I’m going to finish the classic States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China by Theda Skocpol (1979), which I wish I’d actually read when I studied it in a course on revolutions as an undergraduate. After that, I’ll try to finish Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music by Ann Powers (2017), a rare new book which I bought because I listened to an excellent podcast interview of the author. I had to put it down a third of the way in however, as I just wasn’t enjoying the overly evocative writing style, through which every other humdrum dance-hall meeting and church service described somehow becomes rendered into a hotbed of hidden desires, frustrated lust, secret liaisons, and opportunities for forbidden miscegenation. This “pregnant with possibility” style as I like to call it, prominent in Clive Barker’s fantasy novels which I learnt the term and from especially in The Price of Salt (a.k.a. Carol) by Patricia Highsmith (1952), I usually enjoy immensely. But not in this first encounter in non-fiction. Perhaps after 293 pages of Scokpol’s “structural functionalism sociological paradigm comparative historical analysis” though, I’ll enjoy the contrast, especially more once I begin the post-1950 chapters about music I know?

Happy reading everyone!

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

The Future is Now: Shin Min-a’s Dystopian Dust Mask Commercial Is Straight Out of Robocop 2

Estimated reading (+viewing) time: 3 (+4) minutes. Source: YouTube.

It’s become routine these days, trite even, to point out the many ways we are now living in the dystopias of once only imagined futures. So, when Shin Min-a’s endorsement of ETIQA dust masks came out back in February, reminding consumers there was no reason you couldn’t also look fashionable while trying to survive the climate apocalypse, I bit my tongue at the obvious resemblance to a spoof commercial from the Robocop 2 (1990) movie. Ten months later though? Again there’s much talk of fashionable ETIQA dust masks in the wake of the blinding, choking, toxic dust storms raging across the peninsula, yet a certain cyborg remains notable only for his absence. It seems this aging Generation X-er may in fact have been the only one to have made the connection.

Specifically, it was the Sunblock 5000 commercial that instantly came to mind. Because no need for the loss of the ozone layer to spoil getting that perfect tan, right?

And, with a nostalgic wink to fellow Gen X-ers, here it is in a compilation of some other spoof commercials from the first and second movie to give it some context:

In reality, without the ozone layer we’d all soon be dead; like much about the original movies (e.g., did you know the first was accidentally set in 2043?), with slightly more thought put into the commercial—as in having the voice-over claiming there was still slightly more than none of the ozone layer remaining—it would have been much more plausible. But at least, way back when I was 14, it did instill in me the first inklings of the sense that we were fiddling while Rome burned. And indeed, 30 years later, now we have a very real commercial that is in much in the same spirit.

What impact will this one have?

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

If Slut-shaming Wasn’t a Thing, Why Would Korean Women be too Scared to Even Have Their Names Put Down in an OBGYN’s Appointment Book?

Half of Korean physicians prescribing the morning-after pill report being asked not to record identifying information

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Photo by fotografierende from Pexels (edited).

Korea is rare among high-income countries for allowing over the counter access to the monthly contraceptive pill. Also, ironically, for its extremely low rate of usage despite that access.

Meanwhile, the morning-after pill requires a prescription. This was reaffirmed by the government in 2016, citing, with incredible hutzpah, precisely that low rate of usage of the monthly pill as evidence that Korean women were simply too ignorant about contraception not to abuse emergency contraception.

Ignorant or not however, in practice OBGYNs were moralizing rather than educating those patients that sought it, as discussed by Claire Lee in the Korea Herald:

Jeong Yu-jin (31) said there was no benefit to her in visiting her gynecologist to obtain the drug, as the doctor gave no explanation on birth control as well as the pills. “It just cost me more time and more money,” she said. “With or without a prescription, it’s very hard for women to access accurate information about the drug and its effects. So why not just make it an OTC drug and at least allow us to access it as soon as possible?”

In order to avoid getting a “scolding” from doctors and unwanted attention from visitors and nurses, she visited different clinics every time she needed the drug, Jeong said.

“I think this notion of ‘unwed women are supposed to be sexually inactive,’ still prevails in Korea,” she said.

The duplicity ran deeper still. Prior to the decision, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety itself admitted that “As the drug is known to be effective up to 72 hours after unprotected sex, the requirement of a doctor’s prescription may deter prompt access to the pills and reduce its effect.” However, it caved in response to pressure from religious groups and the Korean Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the latter of which long arguing that the overuse of morning-after pills can cause “serious side effects” to women—despite the WHO considering them “very safe and posing no risk of overdose.”

One of those reasons a prescription may deter prompt access to pills is because of simple logistics: just imagine a scared teen, with few breaks between busing to cram school after cram school, trying to find a dispensing clinic on a weekend. The other is because of Korean medical staff’s notorious disregard for privacy. As I wrote about in 2012, on her very first visit to a gynecologist in 2000 my then girlfriend-now-wife was asked my name, contact details, occupation, and intentions towards marriage. Likewise, many of you still suffer such indignities as having to loudly explain your intimate medical issues in busy waiting rooms, and/or being complimented on the prettiness of your vagina during examinations.

Add that Korean society does indeed shame sexually-active unmarried women, then the fear of being outed through that unprofessionalism is very real.

But how to provide proof of that concern, beyond the anecdotal?

“The reaction to having a woman in a condom ad is exactly why we need women in condom ads.”

The short article, “The attitudes of Korean physicians toward emergency contraceptive pills: Regarding women’s access and rescheduling” by Eun Sil Lee, Chong A Lee, Jee Hee Lee, Bo Ra Park, and Imsoon Lee (2018), based on a survey conducted in 2014-15, provides a starting point:

In addition to insufficient information, 22.5% of physicians recognized that there was a psychological issue with regards to women visiting clinics or hospitals to obtain ECP prescriptions. The fact that 51% of physicians had been asked to prescribe ECP without recording personal information, underscores the need for a policy to further improve ECP access in Korea. The fact that the survey indicates that 17% of physicians found ECP access difficult, suggests the need for greater and improved access.

There are issues with that statement: what personal information is normally required exactly? The morning-after pill is not covered by the national health insurance system, so the usual social security number wouldn’t be necessary. Also, how did the physicians respond to the request? Could they comply, or do tax-related and/or various other laws prevent it? What are the laws regarding the anonymity of minors (albeit only compromising 5.7 percent of patients)? And so on.

There are broader problems with the article too. One, that the survey respondents were not necessarily representative of all physicians, the authors acknowledge. Another, that physicians have vested financial interests in maintaining prescription-only access to the morning-after pill, they don’t. Nor that physicians themselves are in large part responsible for the “negative and false perception[s] about the safety of emergency contraceptive pills” that they cite as the biggest issue restricting women’s access to it.

The physicians’ honesty about their patients’ privacy concerns is remarkable, considering.

Hopefully, answers to some of those questions raised will be available from Korean-language sources. Until then, let’s end with how we began: if slut-shaming wasn’t a thing, why would Korean women be too scared to even have their names recorded in a OBGYN’s appointment book? Hopefully, this evidence of that will change some minds—or at least shut them up!

Related Posts:

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