Less Than 3% of Korean Women Use the Pill. Perhaps These New Commercials That Treat Them Like Adults Might Change That.

Spot the Korean condom! Photo by Min An from Pexels. Estimated reading time: 5 minutes.

Korea has only ever had three condom commercials on TV since a ban was lifted in 2006, and none at all for the last six years. Korean women generally rely on men to purchase and use condoms too, and less than 3% use the monthly contraceptive pill, despite rare over-the-counter access. Women’s access to the prescription-only morning-after pill is very much only in name also.

In the midst of this, last year saw an awesome, much-needed commercial for Common Day condoms produced for social media, which focused on how empowering they are for women. Tellingly however, the notion that women could buy condoms triggered a backlash. Nor did the small company ever actually feature its condoms on its site either, although they are available to buy from online shopping malls.

You’ll appreciate then, why this recent fourth sighting of a condom on Korean screens was so important. And the hints its presence gives about the novel approach of the Senseday contraceptive pill commercial in which it can be found:

Released on June 19, a spokesperson for Yuhan (which produces the Senseday pill) said about the appearance of the condom:

…“피임은 남녀가 함께 하는 것임에도 콘돔 광고는 전무하고, 피임약 광고도 여성들에게만 피임을 권장하는 식으로 흘러가는 것이 아쉬웠다”며 “둘이 함께 책임지는 성숙한 피임 문화에 대해 화두를 던지고 싶었다”고 전했다.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 30 2019.

…[R]egardless of whether it’s men or women using the contraceptives, it is lamentable that there is no condom advertising at all, and that contraceptive pill advertising stresses only women’s responsibility for contraception. With this commercial, we want to raise the notion that contraception is the responsibility of both partners, and encourage the development of a more mature contraceptive culture.

Journalist Kim Jeong-min at the JoongAng Ilbo notes it follows a pill commercial released in March by Mercilon (produced in Korea by Alvogen Korea), which too is a breakaway from the cutesy pill commercials of the past:

비슷한 시기에 공개된 두 광고는 과거의 피임약 광고와는 여러모로 달라 화제를 모으고 있다. ‘어떤 내가 되고 싶은지’ 고민하는 주체적 여성상을 내세운 점, 피임약 광고 최초로 남성용 피임 도구인 콘돔이 등장한 점 등에서다. 기존 피임약 광고가 수줍은 20대 여성의 이미지를 강조(2013년 머시론 광고 ‘스무살의 서툰 사랑’ 등)하거나 피임을 여성의 몫으로 표현한 것과는 다른 문법이다.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 30 2019.

Both commercials…are gaining attention for being very different from the contraceptive pill advertisements of the past. [Mercilon’s] cry of “Whatever I want to be” stressing women asserting themselves and being independent as they think about their future, combined with the first appearance of…condoms [in Senseday’s commercial], present very different messages to that of existing contraceptive pill commercials that feature shy, bashful 20-somethings (such as Mercilon’s “Clumsy 20’s Love” from 2013 below) and/or which perpetuate the notion that contraception is women’s sole responsibility. [James—Alas, generally Korean women believe it is actually men’s sole responsibility, as noted earlier.]

An inaccuracy: the first appearance of a condom on Korean TV was in 2013, not counting a pre-ban HIV/AIDs prevention campaign in 2004. But I share Kim Jeong-min’s optimism about the potential for a sea change in Korean contraceptive advertising. Both because Yuhan and Alvogen are competing more vigorously now, due to various changes made to their licensing agreements as Kim goes on to explain, and because she wasn’t kidding about how twee Korean contraceptive pill commercials used to be. As I noted as recently as 2016, if you didn’t know any better then it was entirely possible to watch them and assume that the pill was actually a medicine, and had nothing whatsoever to do with sex and pregnancy:

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

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

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

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

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

So much so, it may actually be a satire: its title [in the original 2016 video was] “Pill Ads These Days,” and I can’t find any mention of the company. Either way, it stresses that even women who look great in a white one-piece, women on a diet, women with great bodies, and women who do aegyo with their boyfriends…all get mood swings and PMT. And all of which can be solved by rearranging their cycles with the pill.

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

What do you think? How do they compare to contraceptive pill and condom commercials in your own countries? Please let me know in the comments!

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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)

Morning-after Pill Remains Prescription Only

In the continued financial stand-off between doctors and pharmacists, Korean women’s health and sexual freedom remain a low priority.
MV 010 - 2 - SBS Family's Honor (2008-2009) - This I Promise You(Source: withhyunbin; CC BY-NC 2.0)

Remember back in 2012, when the Korean FDA announced the monthly birth-control pill would become prescription only?

In isolation, there are many reasonable arguments for such a change. In the context of the criminalization of abortion though? Plus the slut-shaming that compels many women to rely on their male partners for contraception, combined with Korea’s woefully-inadequate sex education? Then that freedom of access was important.

What’s more, while the monthly pill was to become prescription only, the morning-after pill was to be made over the counter.

That made no sense, whatever one’s feelings about either pill. And indeed, there were no sudden new medical reasons provided to justify the changes. Instead, as I wrote this January:

…it was a transparent attempt to forge a compromise between the competing financial interests of the Korean Medical Association and the Korean Pharmaceutical Association. And a blunt demonstration that women’s health and sexual freedom were the least of the government’s concerns.

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

Four years later, she still hasn’t. And it’s wonderful that the monthly pill remains over the counter.

Alas, that doesn’t mean the government hasn’t been busy. Earlier this week, it decided that the morning-after pill would remain prescription only. As the Korea Bizwire reports:

The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety revealed that after a comprehensive review of contraceptives’ actual usage statistics, side effects, and general public awareness, it would continue to categorize emergency contraceptives as ethical drugs.

Ethical drugs, also referred to in Korea as ETC drugs, are defined as drugs that require a doctor’s prescription for usage, and the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety revealed that the decision to keep emergency contraceptives under the category of ETC drugs was due to serious concern over the possible abuse of these contraceptives by the public.

On the other hand, the ministry will maintain its categorization of regular contraceptive pills, which are to be taken prior to sexual intercourse, as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs.

Recent trends show that the production and imports of emergency contraceptive pills are both increasing – growing from 2.8 billion won to 4.4 billion won in 2014 and then 4.2 billion won in 2015 – according to a study on contraceptives’ actual usage statistics, side effects, and general public awareness conducted between 2013 and 2015 by the Korea Institute of Drug Safety & Risk Management on 6,500 individuals of both genders between 15 and 59 years of age.

And yet, the study also found that only 44 percent of females in the study had accurate knowledge about emergency contraceptive pills, such as their side effects.

[Emergency contraceptive pills have] a high risk of side effects compared to regular OTC contraceptive pills in that the drastic hormonal change could be a considerable burden on the female body.

The Korea Herald adds that only “36 percent of female teenagers were accurately informed about the drug and its possible side effects” (as opposed to the 44% of women mentioned above). Unlike in 2012 though, now it appears that the Ministry has Korean women’s and teenagers’ health very much in mind.

I call bullshit.

This is dubious, retroactive justification of a decision made entirely on ideological grounds.

First, consider the track-record of the Park Geun-hye administration, which is unusually beholden to conservative vested interests. In the absence of (sufficient) political pressure from the Korean Pharmaceutical Association, and/or the ever-dwindling pool of young female voters, it would be extremely unlikely to ever make such a female-friendly, sexually-progressive move as increasing access to the morning-after pill.

Next, recall that under-18s aren’t actually allowed to access information about contraception on the internet, in which case that figure of 36 percent could even considered a positive. (Search on portal sites, and a social security number login will be required.)

(Update: It turns out, that login may only be required for information about condoms.)

Finally, and in particular, the Korean Medical Association has a long history of scaremongering about the pill, which likely plays a big role in why only 2.5% of Korean women actually use it. This makes me very, very wary of the Korean government’s claims about the dangers.

Sure enough, just this week Fusion offered a damming rebuttal of those, via an article on why US universities don’t offer the morning-after pill to students:

…Medication abortion is really, really safe. Since 2000, more than 1.5 million women in the U.S. have used it to terminate early pregnancies. While the pill can cause side effects such as nausea, fever, and cramping, it has an adverse effect rate of only 0.2 percent. That’s way less than adverse effect rate for the asthma inhaler Advair (27 percent), the antidepressant Wellbutrin (22.3 percent), the anti-anxiety drug Xanax (13.9 percent), and the cholesterol medication Lipitor (12.9 percent).

And just two months ago, the FDA revised its label of the abortion pill mifepristone to match the evidence-based protocols already being utilized by physicians nationwide—a protocol that allows for the drug to be given up to seventy days into a pregnancy, instead of forty-nine days and states that a smaller dose can be given to efficiently terminate a pregnancy.

But I’m clearly biased in favor of over the counter access, for just about every non-invasive/non-surgical contraception really, so please let me know what you think. Also, let me pass on the following video report for Korean speakers, although it doesn’t add much to the English articles already linked sorry (unless readers spot something I missed?):

Update:

Claire Lee at the Korea Herald has just penned a must-read on the angry response of Korean women and Korean women’s-rights groups, and the utter uselessness of visiting doctors for the morning-after pill. Not least, because of the frequent slut-shaming involved.

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

Increased access to the pill in the US provides a reminder of how good it’s always been in South Korea.

Korea Contraceptive Pill CommercialSource: YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update 1: According to Stuff, there’s a strong possibility the pill is going to be made (more) over-the-counter in New Zealand also. Most commenters are supportive of the move, and question just how useful and necessary visits to GPs are. For instance, according to “BenzyY”:

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

Bring on pharmacy visits.

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

*Update 2, August 2019: “Pill Ads These Days” was the title of the original video, which has since been taken down from YouTube. The title of its replacement—매력적인 그녀의 하필 그날! 빵 터지는 이야기!—is (I think)”Attractive women getting THAT day! A story that bursts with a bang!”.

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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)

Korean Gender Reader

(Source)

Some good news and bad news: after announcing earlier this year that monthly birth-control and morning-after pills were to be reclassified as prescription-only and over-the-counter respectively (i.e., the opposite of the current situation), the KDFA has just postponed its decision for 3 years.

Officially, the reason is because “there has to be careful consideration when overturning a classification system that has been retained for decades,” and because the extra time will allow the KDFA to “carefully monitor” the (supposed) side effects of the morning-after pills and also (unnecessarily) better educate the public on the side-effects and correct usage of monthly birth-control ones. But the more likely explanation is that the government was unnerved by the opposition to the reclassification of the month birth-control pill in particular, especially just before the election. In contrast, the opposition to the morning-after pill is mainly by religious conservatives, who would be very unlikely to vote for a different party.

One interpretation of such a long postponement is, of course, that the proposal will be quietly shelved in 3 years, although a negative of that would be a continued lack of access to the morning-after pill. But the realist in me thinks otherwise: as I explain in this Busan Haps article, the curious proposed simultaneous restriction and liberation of access to contraception has nothing to do with any dangers or women’s own needs or concerns, and everything to do with financial pressures within and between the Korean medical and pharmaceutical industries as Korea’s demographic crunch begins to bite. Those are not going to go away any time soon, particularly if the present conservative administration is reelected under Park Geun-hye — recall that her predecessor’s biggest solution to the declining birth rate and women’s inability to combine careers and children was simply to (re)criminalize abortion.

The conservative media’s framing of the contraception debate supports this pessimistic view: this article in the Korean Joongang Daily, for instance, explains that if reelected the government will continue to stress the opposition of “government officials, doctors, experts, women’s rights activists, religious groups and other civic organizations” to making the morning-after pill OTC, while simultaneously downplaying the far greater support for the status quo with the monthly birth-control pill. (And, possibly, support for making the morning-after pill over-the-counter too; I am unsure how much that has sorry.)

In sum, the combination of the (re)criminalization of abortion and now the proposed restriction of the monthly contraceptive-pill points to a “War on Women” every bit as real as the GOP’s one in the US, and which deserves to be far more widely known outside of Korea. Although, admittedly, I don’t know Park Geun-hye’s own personal beliefs on women’s reproductive rights, I do have genuine concerns that the Korean election of 2012 will be a eerie parallel of that of my native UK in 1979, when, to paraphrase my mother, “Millions of women voted for her simply because she was a woman, who then proceeded to crap all over them.” Certainly, her mere nomination as presidential candidate is already being widely described in feminist, empowering, and riding the crest of a wave of “women rising to the top” type terms, whereas I say that remains to be seen.

(Source)

Meanwhile apologies for the lack of posts, but my first week of the new semester proved to be much busier than expected. Usually, I try to have at least 2 posts in between each Korean Gender Reader, but I decided I’d rather post (hopefully) much better quality ones next week than rush them this time!

Update: By coincidence, the birth control pill ad I used to open this post with is for the Mercilon brand, which is several readers’ favorite, and which they were stocking up on because it is unavailable in the US. But of course every woman is different, so if Mercilon is not for you then please see The Wanderlust Diary and/or Kimchiowner’s Blog for a list of available brands, and the process of buying them.

Announcements

Care to visit some of Korea’s grandest museums? Help me to get there, get it written, then get it to you! (Kickstarter Project)

The Meet Market: White Party, Saturday September 1 (The Kimchi Queen)

Gay Friends in Seoul Meetup, Sunday September 2: Movie Night & Potluck (The Kimchi Queen)

Body Image/Health:

“Fat for an Asian:” The Pressure to be Naturally Perfect (XoJane)

Fukuoka Girls: Don’t You Wish You Were Cute Like Me? (Japan Realtime)

Doojoon’s Reaction to an Overweight Fan and the Blame Game (Seoulbeats)

Doojoon’s Faux Pas: The result of trainees’ social isolation? (Seoulbeats)

The politics of veils, ‘polleras’ and mini-skirts (Aljazeera)

Female Boxers: From disgust to admiration (The F-word)

Is Korea’s drug policy working? (The Korea Herald)

Censorship:

Production Firm Charged Over R-Rated Eminem Gig (The Chosunilbo)

Ratings board says it was lied to about Eminem show (The Korea Herald)

The Constitutional Court rules on the “real name” law and a controversial abortion law (Korea Law Today)

Crime:

More sex offenders could be castrated; Critics say castration doesn’t address psychological origins of sexual violence (The Hankyoreh)

Push for chemical castration in wake of sexual offenses (Korea Joongang Daily)

Chemical castration to see wider use (The Korea Times)

Is chemical castration effective in preventing sex offenses? (The Korea Times)

Picture of the Day: Korean Self Defense Gadgets (ROK Drop)

Gov’t to toughen measures against potential sex criminals (The Korea Times)

Anklet-wearing murderer of housewife lived alone, having no friend (The Korea Times)

Stupid talk about rape: Not just an American thing (The Marmot’s Hole)

Breaking News: A second ‘Na-young Case’ in the making? (The Marmot’s Hole)

Dating/Relationships/Marriage:

A North Korean love story: Defectors to marry in group ceremony (The Star; Isn’t Moonies style!)

Stressed men drawn to heavy women (BBC)

Shall We Dance? Yes…But Not in Public (Speaking of China)

New Zealand experience suggests “marriage equality” will win where “gay marriage” or “same-sex marriage” will not (Kiwipolitico)

LGBT/Sexuality:

An Expat`s Guide to Going to the Gyno in Korea (Busan Haps)

The Flip-flop over Foreskin (Nursing Clio)

Gayspeak: 끼탑 and 땍마 (The Kimchi Queen)

Campaign aims to kick Korean prostitutes out of Australia (The Korea Times)

China AIDS patients topple gate of gov’t office (The Huffington Post)

Eight things you didn’t know you could do with human sperm (io9)

Film Review: Stateless Things/줄탁동시 (The Kimchi Queen)

Reply 1997 Shin Wonho PD: “The real reason for putting in homosexuality…” (Omona They Didn’t)

Read: Behind the Red Door — Sex in China, by Richard Burger (Shanghaiist)

Miscellaneous:

Can men be feminists? (New Statesmen)

Men Explain Things to Me: The origins of the term “mansplaining” (Guernica)

Politics/Economics/Workplaces:

Young South Koreans face jobless woes with ‘graduate glut’ (My Sinchew)

Joblessness ruining young people’s health (The Hankyoreh)

Japan’s Graduates Face Tough Job Market (Japan Realtime)

Japanese Police Women To Go Up To 10% Of Force….by 2023 (Japanesesubculture)

Pop Culture:

GD’s “One of A Kind”: Musings on Looking For Meaning Kpop (Idle Revelry)

Korean Culture Through K-pop 102: Pass the Soju (Seoulbeats)

Pronunciation Tips: Practicing the aegyo intonation (Hangukdrama and Korean)

Idols Striving for Perfection: It’s a Hard-Knock Life (Seoulbeats)

Pregnancy/Abortion/Childbirth/Demographics/Parenting/Education/Multiculturalism:

Girl Commits Suicide After Being Bullied in KakaoTalk Chatroom (Korea Bang)

One Chinese child too many – 27-year old woman forced to abort 7-month fetus (The East Asia Gazette)

Constitutional Court deems abortion a criminal offense (The Hankyoreh)

Deaths of only children present social challenge in China (Want China Times)

Out-of-wedlock babies on the rise (The Korea Herald)

Breastfeeding flash mob in the heart of Singapore (Channel News Asia)

Chinese Government defends college policy favoring boys (Global Times)

South Koreans Balk at Saturdays Without School (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Teachers’ rights to be better protected (The Korea Times)

(Links are not necessarily endorsements)

Question From a Reader: Contraceptive Pills

( Source )

Rather than have it hidden unanswered on an old post, and ironically one rather critical of the Yaz (야즈) contraceptive pill at that(!), let me post this question from a reader here:

This may seem strange after reading the comments but I am a Yaz user and I really like it and I am new to Korea and next month my last pack of Yaz will finish. Does anyone know where I can find Yaz in Korea? Is it even available in Korea or perhaps does it go by a different name. Any help would be much appreciated.

Hey, whatever works for her, and I’ll take a look at Korean websites for more information if necessary. But can any readers with more practical knowledge help?^^

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“Korean Women are Sexually Conservative”

korean-etude-advertisement-song-hye-gyo(Source: Naver)

As they say, first impressions last, and my own first introduction to Korean sexual politics came with a bang when the scandal over the Baek Ji-young (백지영) sex tape erupted in late-2000. The way she was treated by the Korean media was hypocritical and shocking, and confirmed what I’d learned at university: Korea was a deeply patriarchal and sexually-conservative society.

Or at least, as the “Korean Gender Guy,”™ that’s what I’d like to pretend informed my first year in Korea. The truth is, I barely noticed at the time, being rather more concerned with getting into my Korean girlfriend’s pants. But they also say that the best way to learn a new culture is to sleep with the locals, and what I learned about sexual politics that way was no less important for being so base: the books were simply wrong about how prudish Koreans were. I’ve been poking fun at the huge gap between image and reality ever since.

But with a nod of appreciation to the advice of this regular commenter, it’s high time to move on from that extremely simplistic conception of the subject.

Just like it is misguided to think of, say, all American voters as mere “conservatives” or “liberals,” the reality is that Korean society is both profoundly sexually-liberal in some instances and sexually-conservative in others. For instance: most Koreans have sex before marriage; Korea has one of the largest prostitution industries in the world; Korean teenagers increasingly dance extremely provocatively on television; Korean women are increasingly objectified in advertisements; and, overall, censorship of sexual content in movies is rapidly easing.

And yet that combination by no means implies that Korean men and women are equally able to express and enjoy their sexuality in 2009, let alone that, like almost a decade ago, a female celebrity secretly filmed while having sex with her boyfriend wouldn’t again be ostracized by the Korean media. Indeed, one can argue that to describe Korean society as simply “sexual-conservative” is merely to gloss over its profound double-standards.

One such double-standard is the need for sexually-active women to appear inexperienced and virginal to their partners, and in that vein, this survey of condom use and sexual activity in Korea – probably the most comprehensive of its kind – found that a majority of them did so to the extent that they regarded contraception as entirely men’s responsibility, as I discussed last December. Either they didn’t provide it themselves, they didn’t insist on their partners using condoms, and/or they would even feign complete ignorance of all contraceptive methods.

Again, that’s to be expected from a “sexually-conservative” society. But bear in mind the fact that love hotels are ubiquitous here, and – as that survey demonstrates – are well used. So while this particular double-standard is hardly confined to Korea, it is particularly severe in its effects on Korean women.

In light of that, the fact that rates of oral contraceptive pill usage are extremely low in Korea (3%) shouldn’t have been a surprise to me when I learned it from this recent Korean blog post, which I’ve translated below. But while I was certainly aware of the scare-tactics used – for various reasons – by Japanese medical authorities to dissuade women from using the pill there for instance, and which meant that it was only legalized as late as 1999 (see here, here and here), in hindsight perhaps I was too optimistic about Korean women’s reaction to similar tactics used here in January. So I was taken aback:

피임에 보수적인 여자들 – When it Comes to Contraception, Korean Women Are Conservative

Korean Pill Cartoon 1Mr Kang, reporter: “As women are actively making advances in Korean society, so too are women becoming more open and assertive about sexual matters.”

Korean Pill Cartoon 2a

Mr Kang: “Today, we are going to meet Ms. Kim, a cool, forward-thinking woman with free and open attitudes to love.”

Ms Kim, caption: “I have 900 intimate male-friends…but that’s what happens if you’re as pretty as I. It’s not a crime!”

Korean Pill Cartoon 3Mr Kang: “I will ask about modern women’s opinions on sex and love…Nice to meet you Ms Kim. Ms Kim, I heard that you have very liberal and open attitudes to love. Is that true?”

Ms Kim: ” Yes. I don’t care about men that leave me, and I don’t say no to men that approach me…I’m so cool!”

Korean Pill Cartoon 4Mr Kang: “Since you are old enough, I assume that you have sex with your boyfriends. Do you take the initiative and/or insist on using contraception?”

Ms Kim: “Contraception? Surely that is men’s responsibility, yes?”

Mr Kang (gray text): “I’m surprised that you’re so conservative.”

Ms. Kim (gray text): “It is totally men’s responsibility!”

Granted, a bizarre cartoon, and probably one that detracts from rather than evinces the following points made by the blogger:

이전보다 자유로와진 미혼남녀의 성생활이나 성 담론에 비해 아직도 피임에 대한 인식은 무척 보수적이죠. 게다가 아직까지 수많은 여성들은 ‘피임=남자의 책임’이라는 구시대적 사고방식을 가지고 있는 듯 합니다. 한국 여성 피임 인식 조사에 따르면, 여성의 60%는 성관계 시 피임을 하지 않는 것으로 나타났는데 이는 ‘설마~’와 ‘막연함’ 때문이라고 합니다.

“Compared to the past, people are much more sexually active these days, and talk about sexual matters much more openly. But they are still surprisingly conservative when it comes to using contraception. In particular, many women stick to the traditional line that it is entirely men’s responsibility. According to a survey by the WHO, 60% of Korean women don’t use any contraception at all, maintaining an “it won’t happen to me” attitude.”

International Rates of Pill Usage Korea

물론, 남자에게도 책임은 있겠지만 여성들 역시 능동적일 필요가 있다고 보는데요, 통계에 따르면 남자들의 피임 방식인 “CONDOM”은 피임에 성공할 확률이 85%에 지나지 않는다고 합니다. 반면에 여성들이 준비할 수 있는 ‘먹는 피임약’인 경우, 성공 확률이 무려 99%에 이른다고 하네요.

“Of course men also have a responsibility to use contraception, but it seems that women are not fulfilling theirs. According to statistics, whereas condoms are 85% effective in preventing pregnancy, the use of the oral contraceptive pill is done entirely by women and is as much as 99% effective.”

Korean Pill vs Condom Cartoon

더치페이의 나라 네덜란드에서는 피임에 대해서도 서로를 배려하기 위해 CONDOM과 피임약을 모두 사용하는 이른바 ‘더치피임’이 널리 퍼지고 있다고 합니다. 또한 요즘 나오는 먹는 피임약(야즈)은 피임 뿐만 아니라 여드름 및 월경전불쾌장애(심한 형태의 월경전 증후군)에도 치료 효과를 인정받았다고 하니 여성 스스로를 위해서라도 꼭 한번 고려해볼 수 있길 바랍니다.

“In the Netherlands, when it comes to contraception people combine condoms with the use of the pill in order to be safer, and this is known as “Dutch [Style] Contraception.” In addition, a  new form of the pill called “Yaz” is coming onto the market, which combines a contraceptive function with helping to prevent skin problems and PMT. Women should consider this new product as an option.”

Men Women Gender 50 50And I’m afraid that that is all, although it attracted a great many commenters, most of whom agree that contraception is also women’s responsibility. But they take issue with the blogger’s description of women that don’t use the pill as “conservative,” citing concerns about side-effects, to which my response would be to direct them to this comment.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already read my earlier post on condom use and rates of sexual activity in Korea then I strongly recommend you do so to place this new information in context, and you may also be interested in the recent appointment of a minor Korean-American celebrity being named “goodwill ambassador for the Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to promote a campaign teaching young Korean women about sex and reduce abortions.” This has many positives of course, but I’d echo Brian in Jeollanam-do’s concerns that this may be “a product of, and will contribute to the perpetuation of, the belief that Americans and Westerners alone can be open about sex,” to which I’d add the stereotype that Westerners and especially Caucasians are overall much “more sexual” than Koreans. Finally, for a very frank discussion from the front-line as it were (an American woman dating Korean men), make sure to check out Doing it Korean Style!

Update: Apologies for not mentioning Dating in Korea also.

Korean Medical Association: Don’t Take the Pill!

All the contraceptive pills are gone...(Source: Surija / “Sray”; CC BY 2.0)

Why not? Well, because Korean women are stupid apparently, unable to do so much as read the instructions and numerous warnings about possible side-effects that come with the product, let alone do their own research and make their own choice about what contraception is best for them personally.

Or at least, that is the more benign reading of this warning from the KMA, and to be fair, given such factors as Koreans’ general reluctance to self-diagnose and be proactive about treating any medical condition that they might have themselves, and many Korean women’s complete reliance on men to use contraception, then at first glance there is nothing to distinguish the top-down, patronizing but also paternalistic tone of the KMA in the warning as any different from any other Korean institution’s relationship with the Korean public. In reality however, in its bias and scare-mongering it demonstrates an explicit and almost sinister vested interest in maintaining the huge abortion industry here.

No, really. That may sound like hyperbole, but then the Korean state already has a long history as an extremely invasive and coercive force in Koreans’ reproductive lives, its population policy in the 1960s and 1970s only slightly less draconian than that of China’s today, at many points having soldiers withdrawn from the DMZ at the height of the Cold War to deliver IUDs and perform abortions in the Korean countryside for instance (see this book for more on that). And such industry-related claims are also widely acknowledged of Japanese health authorities (albeit not so much in Japan itself), which banned the pill for three decades and which Japanese women are still scared of using, so why not of Korea ones too?

But regardless of that background, how else are we to interpret the evidence from just the KMA’s warning alone? Consider that:

  • It provides no information about possible side-effects that I didn’t already know about 10 years ago (and I’m a guy remember), which begs the question of why the Korea Times considered it “news” exactly.
  • It literally doesn’t provide a single positive medical benefit of using them, and naturally the Korea Times fails its most basic of journalistic duties by not providing them either.
  • It implies that somehow there is somehow something unique to contraceptive pills and not, say…amphetamines that makes women’s access to them in much more urgent need of being restricted.
  • And finally, that in a country where double-standards, moralistic pharmacists and medical staff, virtually non-existent sex education, and a lack of access already combine to severely limit women’s sexual confidence and choices of contraception in practice (see here)…surely it is telling that the most senior medical institution in the country is literally scaring women away from using the single safest and most effective contraceptive in human history?

Actually, I do agree that there are some benefits to women of, say, requiring a prescription from a doctor to get the pill, one poster in this forum (which I give a hat tip to for some of the above) pointing out that it means many women will usually get gynecological examinations at the same time, wheres they wouldn’t have bothered otherwise. But, one should always be very careful to acknowledge the different contexts in which they occur, and I dare say that most young British women buying contraceptives, for instance, are not asked by pharmacists if they’re married, or alternatively the same by doctors and nurses rather than a more neutral, non-judgmental inquiry as to if they are sexually active. To require a prescription in those circumstances would surely mean that many women simply wouldn’t go to get them all, which renders quick and easy access to the pill, albeit online if you don’t look 25 or older, one of the very few positives about Korean sexual culture (source, right: NEWSis).

Ending on another positive note, all trends in Korea point to continued increased use of the pill over time, and I’m not merely seeking brownie points among my readers when I say that I do have confidence in Korean women even just considering the pill not to be swayed by “warnings” like this. Given how, as I explained in my last post on the subject, half the battle is getting many Korean women to take an active role in using contraception at all, then merely thinking about all the pros and cons of the options available is an important first step. And of those that have done so, then I dare say that from that point on they will apply a more discerning eye to the ravings of groups like the KMA!

Update: In case anyone wants it, here is the original warning in Korean too.