Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Matters of Ornithoids and Apis Mellifera

Dear Korean,

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

Dear Korean,

Why is Korea so c
onservative 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?

Lauren C.

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


  1. Thanks for the explanation... it's nice to have someone, um, "lay" out what I've seen in observation for a while. Well played, too, offering up a little "sexy time" at the end; you should check out how well James Turnbull integrates TNA and Beefcake into his posts at The Grand Narrative, to see a true master at work.

  2. I caught the Ok Sori story in the news the other day and I was appalled - being indicted for adultery was one of those things I'd heard since coming here that i thought was an urban myth or an exaggeration by ungenerous foreigners. I would love to know if a single man ever has been indicted for adultery.. or if the adultery law even applies to men. I hope for Ok's sake she doesn't turn out like Choi Jin Sil, which was tragic enough..

  3. As for Honey: no way those are a real... are they? Might they be? Is it possible?

  4. My cousin, who has done his share of teaching English in Korea tells me that a significant number of married women in Korea have affairs with single men. He describe it as if it is a fad. I don't know if his anecdotal conclusions are accurate but since my cousin is doing graduate studies in cultural anthropology, I tend to trust his super duper powers of observation. Which leads me to say, what the hell am I doing in the United States if all the milf action is in Korea?!
    Honestly I wouldn't be surprised if it were true. If you tell a person that you can't do a certain act, it makes doing the certain act that much more exciting.

    Btw, This Borat-style sham performance... is priceless!

  5. great post!

    many aspects you wrote about are very similar here in Japan.
    nowadays, there are also hostess bars for women (a growing market), i wonder whether one can find this type of entertainment in Korea.

  6. Umakk69,
    In a vein attempt at self-flattery, was your comment, great post!, directed at me or the Korean? Either way, I agree.

  7. Korean,

    This was very helpful. I still think the lengths which Korean women will go to preserve the APPEARANCE of propriety is ridiculous. However, I am often disgusted by the prevalence of these "clubs" in such a civilized country.

    There are however, a large number of younger folks with more open minds, more willing to discuss sex without judgment for both sexes and to hold men just as responsible for their "indulgences" as they do women. I hope this number increases over time.

    Then again, as a Westerner, I value honesty above honor, so perhaps I'm just biased. ;-)

  8. Diana,
    I agree with you that the lengths to which Korean women will go to preserve the appearance of propriety is ridiculous - as the Korean so wonderfully illustrated with the "Borat-style sham performance". But I don't know where you are going with the "civilized" thingy. I mean, every civilized country I have been in, has its own form of female prostitution. I don't know if civilized = the absence of female prostitution. Just sayin.

  9. really nice post!whenevere I find a similar article,a lot of questions come into my mind,like why anyone needs something like those hostess a civilized contry,but at the end,I guess,that's just important,to dare to talk about sex,because only that can help people to understand each I don't know,if I'm right,or no,but maybe that's the bigger problem in Korea.and one more totally different thing:Korean girls walking on the streets of my town,in their mini skirts,and long boots,and so pretty-pretty everytime,often get insulted,and they sometimes doesn't even realize the fact of being insulted(can be because of language barriers though),but anyway...that is the same in USA,too?I can't understand their behaviour...but I'm worry about them sometimes,it can be dangerous to be so naive or I dunno...I think.

  10. Hello The Korean,thank you for your post.But I really would like to read a post from Yeochin.

  11. I mean,about this subject.

  12. @ Diana and Alex,

    I'll go out on a limb here and call "civilized" the act of acknowledging the imperfections of human relationships and accommodating basic desires with the law while exercising restraint on the part of individuals. I don't see any reason that prostitution shouldn't be legal and regulated, and certainly no reason that adulterous spouses might not be dealt with either personal forgiveness or divorce. To act as though acts so common throughout the world are criminal and worthy of imprisonment is ludicrous, just as debtors were once imprisoned in the West for simply being poor.

    I just don't get the culture of shame which is shared between the East and West. On that count, I think our cultures are not so different, at the root of the thing.

  13. Nice post.

    What's a "stand bar." My Korean students in L.A. would titter whenever one was mentioned. Here in Korea I just saw a sign for one in the basement of the medical clinic that I go to. It's certainly not a swank place, judging by the location.

  14. Holy Mackerel! A post about sex in Korea! I am in complete shock and embarrassed. My parents and teachers taught me to never discuss a thing with strangers!! :-)

    Someone posted a comment about how a civilized country like Korea can have a hostess bar? I may offend some folks with my statement, but for the purpose of proving my point, I will just say it: Guys like to get laid!!!! Its simple as that!!!

    Whether a country is classified as "civilized" or "uncivilized", prositution always has and will have a solid place throughout the world. As long as men are willing to pay for sex, there will be women who are willing supply the service for a nominal fee. Its unfortunate matter of economics. Let me repeat: unfortunate!!!

    As far as Korean girls attempting to maintain an utmost appearance at all times, I am all for it. I would rather them persevering their beauty than to just not care and wear clothes that are utterly plain. Can you imagine if we were to see women who at all time are wearing with hoodies and sweatpants. Heck No! So mini skirts and sexy booty are totally acceptable in my book!! Remember, I am a Man before I am anything else.

  15. Haha. Perhaps civilized was the wrong choice of word. Let me try to explain what I meant. Remember I'm an American woman living in Korea and dating a great Korean guy. I realize my generalizations are horrible generalizations. I will still attempt to clarify. :)

    Lots of people like having sex, including me (god... I hope MOST people like having sex, but I will say that I know from experience this is NOT true... and it's not just the ladies who sometimes shy away from it). What I object to more is the double standard for women (pointed out eloquently in the post). If a woman likes sex, she's a whore. If she has it with someone before she's married, whore. With someone after her husband dies, whore. Wears a low-cut shirt, whore (but not those miniskirts and kneehighs... those are clearly acceptable and asexual). Ludicrous. AND it causes problems with both men and women concerning healthy sexual attitudes. For example, rape law here is a joke.

    Some of my Korean girlfriends, for example, will have sex with their boyfriends (perfectly normal and natural), but feel such shame about doing that, they will lie to everyone about it for fear of being judged. And even if they're doing it, they'll judge everyone else. Western women here are basically just assumed to be whores because of our more liberal attitudes regarding sex. I've never been treated worse by people who WANT TO SLEEP WITH ME than I have by men in this country. This labelling and shame is a HUGE problem.

    Furthermore, the blatant "boys will be boys" attitude about male promiscuity and adultery is a problem in Korea. I know lots of Korean guys out there ARE faithful to their girlfriends or wives, but it's really difficult to trust that in a culture where the odds are so stacked against monogamy. And I've had Korean women laugh at my outrage over cheating or seen people encourage their friend to continue a relationship after the infidelity comes to light because "it's not that big a deal." It is to the person who was cheated on! Sheesh.

    And I wouldn't be shocked at all if some younger women are responding to this by taking lovers or even flaunting them to the public as Ms. Ok did to show the ridiculousness of the double standard. I don't think that's a healthy response, either, but it's certainly understandable.

    And THAT'S what I meant by my frustration with the situation in Korea.

  16. Hello Diana,do all the Korean guys look for a virgin girl when they get married?Or it's not like that for most of the young generation anymore.

  17. Not the ones I'm friends with. :-)

  18. Dude, you need to get back to the homeland and update your paradigm. It's about 5 or 10 years out of date.

    Plenty of Korean women acting like hussies in public these days and even proud of it. There are some serious maneaters prowling the streets of Seoul, and they frighten me!

    Of course, it the Carrie Fuckin' Bradshaw Effect. In Korea there is BSATS (Before Sex and the City) and ASATC.

    You are still stuck in a BSATS frame of reference, I'm afraid!

  19. EDIT: Sorry for the screwed up letters above!

    BTW: "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."

    Apparently they missed all the women with their tits hanging out for all to see in downtown Seoul at exactly the same time!

  20. I'd actually have to agree with scott here, that the TV shows Sex And The City and (to a lesser degree) Friends, have done a great deal to loosen up the binaries and duplicities that used to exist (even when I first came here in 2003) for sexual mores; while I do agree with the commenter who pointed out that the APPEARANCE of virtue is sometimes more important than actual virtue, and behind the mask, it's anybody's guess what the true situation will be (to which a friend of mine once commented, "So, basically, dating Korean girls is kind of like dating catholic girls...")

    I don't think that the change in sexual mores can be blamed on "western culture" in the form (in this case) of TV shows, but I DO think that having models in popular TV shows demonstrating these non-traditional behaviors may have helped some people to feel free to be more open about practices that were already happening anyway.

    in a slightly related topic, it's interesting how in my English classes, I've had a startling increase in the number of female students who take the name "Carrie," but a marked drop in women willing to take the name, "Samantha," because of what those names now represent.

  21. great comments to the super post (thanks Korean). Someone somewhere along the line mentioned the cleavage = whore, but tiny mini-skirts are ok. This anomaly confused me from my first week here - I cannot for the life of me work out how it is more virtuous to hide your cleavage and collar bones (and in some instances even the shoulders) but walk around in a cookie curtain (Saffer slang for a Very Short Skirt)? I have asked many Koreans (guys and girls) about this and mostly they just laugh at my confusion and shrug it off.

  22. "I don't think that the change in sexual mores can be blamed on "western culture" in the form (in this case) of TV shows"

    Perhaps you are partially correct. Korean men's attitudes certainly haven't changed as much, but such shows have certainly had an impact on Korean women's attitudes in this area.

    A bigger factor, however, has been the Internet, which ironically comes from the West as well!

  23. Hello The Korean,about this subject you can write out of date staff like Scott said.That's why I really would like to see a post from Yeochin.

  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

  25. Lauren,

    Mini-skirts are permitted because they are supposedly for showing off your legs. Legs are far less sexual than breasts or butt.

    Obviously, mini-skirts can be(and are) interpreted as cookie-curtains, but the leg-interpretation gives them an excuse to wear it. Afterall, if you call them cookie-curtains, they can just call you a pervert and shrug you off.

    Legs: good > mini-skirt: good
    Breasts: bad > cleavage: bad
    Butt: bad > super tight pants: bad

  26. Calvin and Lauren, I have a different opinion.

    Most Korean women have no tits or butt, so their legs are their most prominent erotic bodily feature.

    Thus, wearing a "cookie-curtain" is a bit like showing your cleavage. Or camel-toe.

    In other words, legs are the tits of Korean women!

  27. Scott,

    Let's not get too excited. Lauren's confusion was regarding the approval on mini-skirts in contrast to cleavage.

    If wearing mini-skirts were seen equivalent to showing camel-toe, it would not be as widely approved as it is today.

  28. Calvin, camel-toe was just a cheeky reference to tight jeans.

    But I do think exposing gams is the equivalent of exposing cleavage in Korea.

    The bared shoulder is a secondary erotic body part that has also been out in the open for the past 5 years or so, and many Korean women also show their bra straps in public quite frequently.

    Women are sex objects in Korea, just like in the West if not more so. Western women have been showing cleavage for a long time, just as Korean women have been showing gam for a long time as well.

    I'm not sure why that's such a controversial statement, except perhaps that when explaining local sexual mores to big-nosed barbarians, many Koreans tends to sugar-coat the truth.

    Just Ask a Korea!

  29. EDIT: Last line = "Just Ask a Korean!"

    This comment box is too small!

  30. Miss Korea looks white...but I guess the Miss Universe contest has a tendency to pick the racially-ambiguous ones

  31. Ratioanalitate,

    I don't know what picture you are looking at, but I don't think I would ever mistake Miss Korea as being ethnically white.

  32. That was very interesting. In Ireland, there was a similar perception of "fallen" women as late as the 1980s. If a woman was perceived to be immoral, she was usually shipped off (with the consent of her family) to what was called a "laundry". These laundries were run by nuns and were de facto prisons for fallen women. The women who were in there were forced to do manual labour for no pay until old age. The film "The Magdalen Laundries" explores this topic in quite a shocking way.

  33. Great post! Like Lauren, I've had the same question about the super short skirts and knee high boots and high socks/tights. If I wore those things during the day at home, I would be considered slutty & trashy. Korean women never look slutty when dressed that way, though. I agree with Scott's reasoning for the short skirts vs. the low cut tops. Korean women do tend to have attractive legs. I still don't understand how short skirts can be considered conservative and non-sexual though. Isn't it universally understood that shorts skirts and high-heeled boots are sexy in nature? Surely the male fantasies can't differ that much between Korea and the U.S.

  34. Make no mistake: short skirts and showing legs are plenty sexual.

    The post does not say much about how Korean women are supposed to behave right now. (That's probably why Scott thought it was dated.) But the Korean was not set out to describe the contemporary code of conduct for Korean women -- he was only trying to give a framework to understand the double standard with respect to sex in Korea.

    What's going on is simple: Korean women are becoming more sexually liberated. Part of such liberation is to be able to show off one's sexiness without being instantly labeled as a whore. Exposing legs is along this trajectory. Back in the day (around 1970s or so), women wearing jeans was a big deal in Korea, because it showed their legs. Now? Obviously it's no big deal. It's not that showing legs is conservative. It is that in a more sexually liberal Korea (relatively speaking,) showing legs has become more acceptable.

  35. the Korean:yeah but than...what about that,Korean women can wear miniskirts withouth labeled to whore,but women living in far more liberated countries,just can't wear without considered slutty?

  36. simply,this is just a stage of the whole progress,or the whole progress took another direction in Korea?

  37. This comment has been removed by the author.

  38. I just wanted to add that Korea is one of the few countries in the world where adultery is a crime against the state. You would think that in a patriarchical society such laws would be sexist and women would object to it, but I think most Korean women support it. Usually it's the husband that breaks the law.

    Also, one have to always bear in mind the tremendous generation gap in Korea. Korea is a country that has and is changing very quickly. What is true for one strata of the population is not so for another, and what was true just 10 years ago is no longer true today.

    Lastly, I want to talk about the idea of "cheating." Not everyone goes to brothels, but a lot of high end business people do. The wives know what's going on, and often looks the other way.

    This is in many ways holdover from neo-confucian chosun era days. (which really wasn't all that long ago.) Traditional couples did NOT marry for love. Marriage was bond of two clans to produce children and form an economic entity. A traditional wife would be more concerned about her status as the head of the household. (Koreans often refer to the wives as "Person in the house" as opposed to husbands who are "Person outside the house." Reflecting the expected roles of husband and wife.)

    A good confucian husband is not someone who only has one wife. A good confucian husband is someone who brings wealth and status to the family. A rich man could take on concubines, but as long as he did not take away the status and priviledges of the first wife, this wouldn't be seen as immoral.

    Good contraception is "relatively" new to Korea. If a woman had sex in the old days, she WOULD get pregnant. This has dire economic consequences for the woman and the clan. On the otherhand, if a man were to have sex with a woman and she got pregnant, he can deny that he had done the deed. I think it's this which really caused the old world sexual outlook.

    You see the Josun era attitude in modern Korean, but as a newcomer to Korea, what you don't see is exactly how fast the society is changing. Just look at the rate of divorce in Korea---women wouldn't divorce in the past for her own economic survival. Divorce used to be something that a man would do to a woman to spite her.

  39. thanks for the post i came across it gathering more info on n korea attacking south...loll

    nothing to laugh abt...deepest symphathies...

    .but since I watch tremendous amount korean tv..this always bothered me..that women r running naked in korea and all the girl groups moves are like strip dancing and yet they claimed to be chaste and looked down on american pop culture...

    when they are copying the american songs and dance moves hip actions and sex moves...lolllllllll

    i can understand somewhat better but its still frustrating..I am not compalining as to why they are wearing short skirts and air humping around in the music videos...but than don't claim urself to be chaste and all heavenly and look down upon other cultures...

    yeah also the korean adult movies!!!!!...never met such hypocrates...i can't even express my opinion on youtube unless being raped by 100's by their ignorance...i will used one of their fav word to describe the situation...pathetic...

  40. I liked the article, its depth and its accessibility. I thought the 'fat check' specification you made re: Lewinsky was unnecessary and detracted from your credibility however. In an article that ostensibly aims to give insight on the plight of women caught in the sexual contradictions of Korea, its odd that Lewinsky (an intern and obviously astute opportunist) was downgraded to 'fat chick'. Seemed a little try-hard when a hundred other descriptors could have been employed. Anyway - good read overall.


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