I know that it's common for men in Korean corporate life to visit so-called hostess bars. I think it's fair to say that these venues offer more than just a couple of nice drinks to those who seek it. Moreover, I also noticed that wives basically KNOW their husbands go to these bars and they seem to ACCEPT it. What makes men go to these kinds of places and is it really something that is firmly embedded in the Korean culture? *blushing*
Curious K Noob
Why is Korea so conservative about sex? Women go to great lengths to remain (or pretend to remain) virgins or thereabouts until marriage or Very Serious Long-Term Relationship With Certain Future Husband. But there is a Love Motel down every alley, filled with sexual activity all hours of the day. So what's the big secret?
Dear CKN and Lauren,
How exciting – we get to talk about birds and bees!
Sex in Korea is a difficult thing to figure out – it is everywhere and nowhere. Korean media, having come a long way from the first on-screen kiss in 1954, is as saturated with sexually suggestive images as any other country’s. Love motels are everywhere, and red light districts are as easy to find as any discount store. Yet public discussion about sex is nearly nonexistent, and – as many men in Korea can attest – it is relatively difficult to convince the womenfolk to have sex.
As the Korean discussed before, the traditional attitude for sex in Korea was extremely conservative. The word “Victorian” does not even capture it properly, because Korean attitude toward sex has been far more restrictive than any Victorian English standards. Such attitude, while somewhat softened, survives to this day. But as some of the commenters of the post suggested, there is plenty of sexual gossip and artwork in Korea even in its most conservative era. How is this contradiction explained?
The best way of understanding this is through the framework of mainstream culture and counter-culture. That is, even if the mainstream culture frowns upon the phenomenon X, phenomenon X may thrive as a counter-culture, often barely disguised.
The most available example of this dichotomy in the United States is the drug culture. Illegal drugs – especially certain types of drugs such as marijuana – are very accessible in the U.S. Its use is commonly depicted in movies and songs. However, no one in polite company discusses fine drugs like that they would discuss fine wine.
Sex in Korea is like drug in the U.S. It is everywhere and nowhere. Everyone (to different degrees) wants it, but no one wants to talk about it publicly. Like any heavily restricted activity – restricted either by law or by custom – the practitioners of the activity are driven underground, although the underground hideout may be located as deep as Paris Hilton’s understanding of chastity.
So we have a dichotomy between the mainstream and the counter-culture. In Korea, the mainstream culture frowns upon anything concerning sex. But sex is widely available as the counter-culture. Interesting thing, however, are the different degrees of latitude given to different participants of this divide. In simple English: men can cross the divide freely; women cannot. This is obviously sexist, but not terribly surprising. Traditional culture everywhere in the world, save a handful of exceptions, seldom encourages promiscuity of women compared to men.
Korean men, therefore, are free to dabble in the counter-culture of sex with little repercussion. How little? During the last presidential election, Chungcheongbuk-do Governor Jeong Wu-Taek told the visiting candidate (and now the president) Lee Myeong-Bak: “Did you spend the long night well? If I were a governor of the old days I would have sent a girl over.” Lee replied, “I thought the one that came last night came from you.”
Obviously it was a joke, but a pretty despicable one as far as jokes go. The opposition jumped all over the statements, denouncing them as debasing women and endorsing prostitution. But at the end of the day, it made zero impact on Lee’s political career. It is a stark contrast to the U.S., where hiring a prostitute ended Elliot Spitzer’s career, having an extramarital affair ended John Edwards’ career, and receiving a blowjob from a fat chick caused Bill Clinton to be impeached.
Even within the context of Korean politics, it is still a stark contrast to an issue other than sex (for men) in Korea. In 2004, Jeong Dong-Yeong who later became the presidential candidate opposing Lee, said “People in their 60s and 70s do not have to vote. They are about to make their exits at any rate.” This statement, made because Jeong’s party was not popular among older Koreans, caused a massive backlash that forced Jeong out of his National Assemblyman candidacy and cost his party over 10 percent in support.
On the other hand, women in Korea were clearly divided into two camps along the dichotomy, and it is a one-way street if they do cross the divide. The “proper” women must remain chaste, and the requirements of being chaste are utterly crazy. As a rule, a traditional Korean woman carried a small silver knife. The knife is for self-defense, but not the kind of self-defense that you are thinking. The knife is there to kill yourself with if you are about to be “disgraced”. Realistically, “disgraced” means “raped”. However, technically “disgraced” meant any man other than your husband touching you.
One story during the Joseon Dynasty speaks of a virtuous woman who, because a boatman held her hand while helping her into the boat, either jumped out of the boat and drowned herself or cut off her own hand, depending on the version. It is unlikely that this story is true, but this was the moral code to which traditional Korean women were supposed to aspire. In a similar horrifying vein, rape-marriages – forced marriage to a man who raped you – happened regularly until late 1970s, since living with the rapist as a proper woman is better than living as a fallen woman.
The crazy-strict code means that it was very easy for women to be “fallen”. Any woman who had regular contact with men was automatically considered a prostitute. This not only applied to gisaeng (courtesans who entertained at parties with song and dance, similar to Japanese geisha,) but also to a woman innkeeper, for example. Attention to outward appearance is another way to be labeled as "fallen". Too much makeup? Whore. Top that shows cleavage? Prostitute. (The Korean is not exaggerating. There are records indicating that the Korean envoys to the U.S. in 1887 thought the high-society ladies at a diplomatic party were prostitutes because they were wearing cleavage-bearing tops.)
The stricter was the restriction, the more ingenious – and outlandish – were the ways to get around the restriction. One such example is bo’ssam, a mock kidnapping of a widow. The Korean will let Prof. Andrei Lankov, in his book Dawn of Modern Korea, describe it:
Strangers who wandered into a Korean village in the middle of the night in the early 1900s might have witnessed a rather bizarre scene: a group of young men scurrying away with a large rolled straw mat. The person inside was not resisting the abductors, in spite of being bundled away in such an unceremonious manner.
This Borat-style sham performance was necessary because Korean widows were supposed to remain chaste for their deceased husbands and stay unmarried. But love affairs continued for widows, and bo’ssam was a way to legitimize such affairs: if the woman was “kidnapped” against her will, there is no shame in being with a man and having sex again! This happened all the way into 1930s. While there certainly were cases of true kidnapping, some 70% of the kidnappings were the type that was fully endorsed by all participants according to the count by the colonial government. Initially the colonial Japanese officials tried to save the women, only to discover that the women returned right back to their kidnappers.
Surviving to this day, this dichotomy – hypocrisy, really – is the key to understanding the schizophrenic attitude toward sex in contemporary Korea. Sex is everywhere in Korea old and new, but it is only there for men and the small class of “fallen” women. Thus, men can visit hostess bars and red light districts all they want. But the Korean will note that the situation is changing slowly, with recent crackdown on prostitution coupled with aggressive public campaign to curb sex transactions. The kind of "acceptance" that CKN describes is still common, but becoming rarer.
On the other hand, sex (except one performed with the spouse) is decidedly unavailable for the vast majority of women. A woman’s desire for sex runs the risk of losing her “proper” tag, relegated to the same position as a common prostitute. Thus, even in the relatively liberated modern Korea, in which pre-marital sex is not very difficult to find, women go to great lengths to appear proper.
For example, in Korea today it is common courtesy for ex-boyfriends to deny that they had sex with their ex-girlfriends, so that the ex-girlfriends’ lives may go on normally. Korean dramas that feature an unfaithful wife is watched more than those that feature an unfaithful husband, because the former is considered more salacious. (And perhaps it describes the secret fantasy of Korean married women as well.) Male celebrity cheating on his wife is equivalent to "Dog Bites Man" in Korea; female celebrity cheating on her husband is "Man Bites Dog." (As evidenced from the whole Ok Sori saga.)
So there you have it. But can the post about sex not have a sexy moment? Can it get away with non-titillating pictures of streets filled with love motels, a movie poster about pot, and the two former presidential candidates? The Korean says no.
Thus, the Korean presents the following sexy time. For those of you who prefer gents, the Korean gives you Kwon Sang-Woo.
For those who prefer ladies, the Korean presents Honey Lee, a gayageum musician.
The Korean heard she won some award or something.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.