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)

Why Korean Girls Don’t Say No: Contraception Commercials, Condom Use, and Double Standards in South Korea

(Updated, January 2014)

Western journalists don’t often write about sex in South Korea. But when they do, they just love to mention how “conservative” it is. As if sexuality wasn’t really the immense concept it is. And, as if Korea, just like the journalists’ own societies, couldn’t actually be progressive in some aspects of it despite being conservative in others.

It frankly annoys then, that the advertising of contraception here does fit the stereotypes. As does what it reveals about attitudes towards its users, especially if they’re women.

The first frustration is that contraceptive commercials were banned from television until as late as January 2006. What’s more, it wouldn’t be until July 2013 that condoms actually graced Korean screens. This was especially ironic considering exceptions had already been made for the sake of HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns that played in October 2004.

The delay is interesting, and deserves further investigation; possibly, some de-facto restrictions against condom commercials remained. Either way, contraceptive pill manufacturers at least soon took advantage of the lifting of the ban, starting with this commercial by Mercilon four months later, and now nobody bats an eye seeing the pill on television or at the cinema. (Opening image source: The Hankyoreh.)

Originally, the first half of this post was devoted to that commercial, as public statements by the actress, 22 year-old SNU student Kim So-mi (김소미), appeared to indicate a false ignorance of the pill, as well as making sure to distance herself from the sexually-active women the commercial was aimed at:

하지만 정작 김씨는 광고를 찍으면서 피임약에 대해 처음으로 알게 됐다고 털어놨다

However, Kim said that she only learned about the pill for the first time while shooting the commercial.

피임약 광고로 자신의 얼굴이 알려지더라도 이중적 시각으로 자신을 보지 말기를 당부하는 것도 잊지 않았다. 어디까지나 광고모델일 뿐이라는 것이다.

Even if her face was known from the pill ad, she did not forget to ask her not to see herself in a double perspective. It’s just an advertising model.

Being slut-shamed by from someone actually endorsing contraceptives will always feel bizarre. Yet it spoke to my own anecdotal experience that all too many Korean women feigned ignorance of contraception for the sake of their reputations, the corollary of which was not insisting on condom use and relying wholly on their male partners to “take care of things.” Which, to many readers of the original post, sounded even more bizarre and outrageous than Kim So-mi did, not least because they were hearing it from a non-Korean man rather than from a Korean woman. But later I would confirm those uncomfortable truths through numerous Korean sources.

korean-unmarried-couple-thinking-about-sexSource, all screenshots: 여자도 모르는 여자이야기

In hindsight however, her statements may be open to interpretation, and only came from one source. Add that the commercial itself is unfortunately no longer available (alas, I didn’t know how to save videos in 2008) then I didn’t need to think twice about removing that commentary, and consequently the comments (sorry). But the second half of the post was my summary of this survey on “condom-related behaviors and attitudes among Korean youths”, at the time one of the most rigorous and recent available (albeit based on data collected in 2003), and as the PDF is again no longer publicly available then I’m happy to keep that summary below for the benefit of readers.

Here goes (with only a little editing of the original post):

  • 27% of men 7.8% of women had sex before the age of 18
  • “Contrary to the reported Korean situation, there are no significant gender differences in the rate of premarital sex and age at first intercourse compared to that in many other liberal, developed societies.”
  • “Compared to other [developed] societies, although there are fewer sexually experienced youths under 18 in Korea, there has nevertheless been an increase in premarital sex and a substantial lowering of the age at first sexual intercourse….the rate for females has risen more rapidly than that for males.”

For an excellent discussion of public attitudes to teenage sexuality in the 1990s that provide a backdrop to those results, I highly recommend reading this post at Gusts of Popular Feeling, and it’s clear that little has changed over a decade later. Moreover, it’s just a thought, but in the almost complete absence of any information or adults talking to them about sex (although I admit there have been some improvements since this post was first written), then I invite readers to speculate about just whom exactly might be providing young Koreans with most of their sexual role models instead:

Source: Textcube
  • In December 2005, there had been 3,829 cumulative reported cases of HIV/AIDS, of which males accounted for 90.7%. Of the new HIV infections among Korean women in 2004, all were attributed to heterosexual contact.

By August this year, the total had risen to 5717, with almost exactly the same proportions of men to women. The survey notes that with such relatively low numbers, if women “were able to ensure that their partners use condoms consistently and properly, [then] HIV/AIDS would be prevented effectively.” They’re not, as we shall see, but on the positive side it should be noted that the majority of Koreans no longer see HIV/AIDS as a mere foreign, gay disease that doesn’t affect them.

  • According to previous research, mostly conducted in the five years before this survey, “the percentage of consistent condom use among young people as well as in the general population was relatively lower than in other countries. It was found that only 18.6% of never married, sexually active young people aged 18-29 used condoms consistently…[and]…the reported condom use at first sexual intercourse was 18.7% for men and 13.4% for women. The reported condom use of high school students was much lower at 10%.”

Personally, I’m surprised that that last figure was even as high as 10%, given that vending machines in public toilets and from older friends would be about the only place high school students would obtain them. But of greater note already, albeit not a hugely significant statistical difference in this particular case, is the I think counter-intuitive finding (to Westerners) that more men than women reported using condoms the first time they had sex. Indeed, this disparity continued afterwards:

  • “More men (17.3%) than women (13.6%) reported having consistent condom use with a steady partner…for other partner types, consistent condom use was less reported by women than by men. For experience with condoms, more men than women reported having used condoms.”

Why? Partially it is because Korean men are much more sexually active:

  • 50.4% of the single 19-30 year-old subjects reported having had sexual intercourse, but this disguises huge differences between men and women (67.3% and 30% respectively).
  • “Men reported a higher proportion of sexual experiences with two or more multiple partners during the previous 12 months than women did (57.2% vs 41.0%).”
  • “Single men were four times more likely to be [sexually] experienced than women.”
  • “According to a recent study, the median age at first sexual intercourse for Korean men (21.0 years) was three years lower than that for Korean women, even though men marry, on average, later than women do….This difference may be interpreted as an indication that young men have sex with prostitutes or older experienced women. About 13% of young men age 20-29 reported that their sexual partners were prostitutes.”

And this in turn led to them being much more confident and knowledgeable about using them than Korean women:

  • “Men were more likely to agree somewhat or completely that condoms protected against HIV and other STDs.”
  • “Compared with women…men reported a higher level of self-efficacy in condom use when they were drunken.”

But this is of course only half the story, and somewhat of a chicken (sperm?) before the egg one at that. For if you haven’t guessed already, the survey concludes that:

…these gender differences in sexual initiation and experience can be explained by strong, gender-based, double standards and values in the traditional culture. Single women in Korea are still expected to be passive and virgins at marriage. Although Korean women’s level of education and participation in the labor force has rapidly risen (albeit the latter still at the lowest levels in the OECD – James), the imposed attitudes on their expected social roles have not dramatically changed yet. Korean society still places emphasis on women’s virginity at marriage and women are supposed to be initiated into sex by their husbands.

And thus:

Premarital sex may be a more serious concern to women because of their vulnerability….young sexually experienced females reported that they had been pressured by their boyfriends or other men to have sex as a proof of their love and been forced not to use a condom at first intercourse.

durex-condoms-er-penetrate-the-korean-marketWhich makes Durex’s depiction on the right of its…er…penetration of the Korean market in August this year (source, right: The Korea Times) not a particularly accurate reflection of current Korean sexual mores, and unfortunately the women in it are less likely to be supposed role models as chosen simply because every public event in Korea requires scantily-clad females known as “narrator models.” More seriously though, the survey clears up a great deal of almost instinctive confusion I and I think many readers would have had recently over newspaper headlines such as “Women Inactive in Preventing Unwanted Pregnancy,” and “Korean Women Say Birth Control is Men’s Responsibility“, although I must confess that I never expected to be so, well…true, especially as my female Korean friends have all stated that they have to contend with Korean men often refusing to wear condoms, which unfortunately probably says much more about my choice of Korean female friends than it does of Korean men and women as a whole.

But I’m not merely covering all my bases when I say that it’s not all doom and gloom for Korean men and (especially) women, for I have seen teenage sex education centers, for instance, pop up around Busan since I first moved here, and, just like so many other Korean issues on which Koreans only appear to be unanimous and monolithic in their opinions to non-Korean speakers, the notion that contraception is solely a man’s responsibility is hardly a universally accepted and uncontested notion among young Koreans especially, as this blog post (for one) demonstrates (again, let me know if you’d like a translation). Moreover, and to put this post and myself to bed, while I may occasionally sound like a broken record when I point out this next (but someone has to), I think I’ve more than adequately demonstrated that increasingly sexual images of women in commercials  and advertisements in recent years can and are having an effect on these double-standards also. Combined with knowledge that the English-language media and books on Korea especially tend to have a considerable lag behind trends in Korea then, it’s going to be very interesting to see the results of any similar survey in the future. Watch this space.

korean-unmarried-couple-having-sexor-notKorean women taking responsibility for contraception…only in the movies?

Back to 2014 now, if you’re after more recent surveys, there are many more translated and discussed in the “contraception“, “sexual relationships“, and “teenage sexuality” categories here (all of which come under the voluminous “Korean sexuality” one), but probably the most recent is this one conducted in 2012. Unfortunately though, no mention is made of its methodology, so the results must be taken with a grain of salt. But if any readers would like to help me rectify that by going through the original 260- page Korean report with me, I’d be very grateful!

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