Some thoughts on Sexuality in South Korea


In nearly every society in recent years the question, “Are our kids growing up to fast?” is asked. And South Korea is no different in that respect. But, as I’ve learned in the past year+, where there are major similarities, there are also some curious differences. I don’t know, I guess I felt like scratching the surface of a big topic tonight.

In some respects, Korean pop culture treasures innocence more than they do in the US. An incredible amount of popular cable dramas revolve around high schoolers and their first loves. (Think Wonder Years more than Gossip Girl regarding the romance aspect.) First love is often treated as something almost sacred in these contexts. And the first kiss… well, that’s definitely sacred.

And kpop idols often work hard to cultivate an eternal youthfulness. Preferring a cute, childlike image. Most of the talent in Korea also play those aforementioned high school characters well into their twenties (~cough~ Lee Minho ~cough~). But it’s easy to see that behind those baby faced images, the music industry has been producing some incredibly sexual songs lately. Some with provocative English, such as Sistar’s cheeky invitation “Touch my body,” in their recent single.

Even weirder is when your 11-14 year olds come in singing these songs and gyrating like the singers do in the music videos. Weirder still is when you step outside your work and find the streets littered with business cards for “hostess bars” nearby, featuring extremely suggestive photos of women. Because after you live in Korea for while you realize that the culture of innocence is largely a veneer. Though illegal, both low-level and hardcore prostitution is alive and flourishing.


Perhaps it’s a carry over from the depression era (just a few decades behind them) that has left many underground channels for that sort of thing open. Perhaps it’s because for all the appreciation they have for first love, arranged marriages are still very common. I can’t really answer that question. But, I do know that there seem to be plenty of options for ladies as well as men– there are advertisements for host bars featuring pictures of brooding flower boys scattered in the streets too.

The cultural attitude toward nudity and privacy is very different too. And in some ways I appreciate it. Most kids grow up going to the spa with their parents and seeing a variety of bodies (though of the same gender) in their mostly natural state. My male coworker told me that in his training session, they told the male teachers not to be upset or offended if their male students or even coworkers took a peek at them at the urinal. A serious no-no, in the US, it’s not uncommon in Korea. Probably because of the bathhouse culture, everyone’s kind of used to seeing each other’s business.

Even though the plastic surgery rates are off the charts in Korea, it is usually facial surgery, which I think is the opposite in the US. Breast and butt implants are slowly becoming more popular as a curvier figure becomes a little more desired, but on the whole everyone seems to want double eyelids, a narrow chin, and a pert little nose more than they want D-cups. Regardless, the openness toward nudity in Korea at least helps kids to understand that real men and women don’t look like they do in the magazines.

Regarding the urinal situation, one other curious observation has been that boys in Korea get circumcised unusually late. When I worked in a kindergarten with some students as young as three and four, it wasn’t unusual to have some pant-wetting incidents result in a bottomless child running around looking for dry clothes. None of these boys were circumcised. Research (aka delicately asking Koreans about this) has told me that nearly all Korean men get circumcised. They just typically do it when they in about the second grade.

At my new job, most of my students are late elementary to middle school students, even the occasional high schooler in my advance level classes. A few weeks ago one of my sixth grade students was out for a whole week and on the attendance card it said “surgery” was his reason for absence. After conferring with the Korean staff, who described it as “secret boy surgery,” I was slightly shocked. Sixth grade seems way too late to be messing around with that sort of thing. Even second grade seems too late to my western mind. I can’t help but think that doing it that late is slightly traumatic to the boys. How this particular facet effects the cultural mindset toward sexuality, I am really not qualified to evaluate. But man, it must effect something.

So these are just my personal observation. I am painting with a broad brush and I don’t pretend to be a psychologist or anthropologist. I just found these things interesting and thought you discerning readers might too.


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