Last Thursday was the Sex and the City 2 premiere in Daegu and what better excuse for us, expat ladies (thanks Carol Anne!) to have a girl’s night out. The movie (F.Y.I it’s subtitled in Korean) was all about ultra-glam New York culture, gay jokes, Liza Minelli (spoiler alert!), bulging penises and above all, the sexy adventures of our four heroines as they jet-set to the Middle East, where sexual freedom wears a burkha!
As Westerners, were we excited to watch it? Hungry. It wasn’t only the opportunity to indulge in some fun sex-forward fluff, but the freedom to do it in the middle of Korea, where the subject of sex whispers of “taboo”. What’s up with Sex and the Korean, you might ask?…
Enter, the awkward and accidental girl chat with some Koreans:
“Only special women can have orgasms…”
This came from one of my Korean colleagues over a coffee break. “Susan” (let’s just call her that) is a lively, funny and spunky married Korean woman in her late 20’s; but this time, she wasn’t trying to be funny or crack a joke with this line. She was actually very serious.
An inner monologue of questions raced through me. Did I hear her correctly? Oh my. Is there a hidden camera on me- where was Ashton Kutcher? …And what did she mean by “special”?
Instead, all I could reply was…
“Only specific women can have them, ” she stated, determinedly.
Specific? …Like sexual? …Did she mean “genetically different or altered”?…
My EFL thesaurus didn’t recognize the translation. Worse, Susan was definitely not kidding. Either that or she was withholding and feigning ignorance.
A kind of medieval and dark-aged feeling swept around me.
Was it possible Korea’s ideas around sex was still in the developing country stage…
“No, EVERY woman can have orgasms…” I replied.
My response created a bit of confused frenzy among my colleagues.
Was my slut factor now being tested? For God sakes, I hadn’t been with that many men in my life, but this was certainly new news to them and they weren’t sure if they should believe me.
“No, I don’t think so… I don’t have them.” Susan confidently replied.
Some of you may consider it un-American of me for not immediately disclosing girlfriend sex advice, the way we do in the West. But as a traveler, I wanted to be responsible. I didn’t want to up the fragile ecosystem of a foreigner’s life. Besides, I’m an EFL teacher, not Dr. Ruth and it’s not like this is communist China! Koreans are smart bookish and curious people. If they want information, they will research it online!
… Or maybe not.
When Susan married, she was a virgin. In courting, if the touching ever got too sexual, she would cut it off immediately. Before her wedding (and its impending honeymoon) she asked a girlfriend what sex was like. Her girlfriend told her that sex was painful. Out of fear, she put off having sex for over a month after marriage. Feeling pressured to have a baby, she eventually capitulated and fortunately, the couple had a baby soon after. For her, sex was painful but whew, the job was over! No more sex.
Korea is not a sexually open nor liberal country. Susan says she is happy in her marriage, but her story and its naiveté isn’t an uncommon one in Korea. Public displays of affection are frowned upon; and sexual abstinence and chastity, until marriage are highly-regarded virtues, if not unconscious Korean laws.
Furthermore, Korean couples can go long periods without physical intimacy. Susan is just part of that a population of Korean wives turned off to pleasure-less sex and who can escape the obligatory act due to a husband, who works late and/or remotely. But, if husbands aren’t getting their sex at home, it’s also possible they’re getting it from somewhere else. (read Grand Narrative’s article here)
Statistically, every 1 out of 4 Korean men pays for sex; in addition, the nation’s divorce rate is climbing to match the U.S.
What is Skinship in Asia?
It sounds dirty, doesn’t it?
It means the brushing up of against skin or touching of skins.
The term was initially used in Japanese and Korean cultures to acknowledge the intimacy between mother and child. It encompasses a variety of physical misdemeanors from leaning your arm against another, holding hands, kissing, hugging, etc…
It’s a common (and acceptable) form of interaction between same-sex friendships in Korea. It’s even acceptable amongst men as holding hands can be seen as an act of close friendship. But with opposite sexes, Skinship is the Korean equal to foreplay. On the whole, by western standards, skinship amongst dating couples doesn’t seem as audacious as skinship between two men. But that’s where the cultural differences come into play.
Another colleague, “Jane”, is in her 40’s, married with two children. Jane admitted to having much skinship with her husband- they are intimate everyday, in fact! This shocked our group (and could also explain why there’s always a glowing smile on Jane’s face daily). Her bold confession signalled to me, a kind of hope for normal balance in Korean society, in regard to sex for the 30+ something crowd.
Top 5 Obstacles to Keep Koreans from having Sex:
1. Purity doesn’t always allow for pleasure.
Could it have anything to do with a little over half the population practicing serious Christianity? Maybe.
But what about the other half? Are they able to break through the societal stigmas about sex even if God isn’t holding them back?
2. Living with the Family
You don’t need to wear a chastity belt in Korea; you just need to live with your parents.
In Korea, children live with their parents until they get married. Most Korean families feel strongly against letting their children live on her own. To be a “free woman” living alone, strikes negative impressions on the Korean mind.
3. One road, one friend… one experience
While boys boast about sexual conquests, girls have been known to impart advice and confide raw truths of the experience. However, Korean girlfriends don’t chat openly about sex the way Westerners do. When they do, some stories plant seeds of fear, naiveté and reluctance, as Korean girlfriends disclose their awful truth… sex was physically painful.
Susan felt traumatized in middle school, when she thought she was pregnant just for hugging a male friend! In her school sex education class they learned “How babies are made”. The act of sex was explained as a man and a woman lying together, holding each other…
As a society uncomfortable with speaking about sex, teaching “the birds and bees” to youth in an accurate and informed way, is often avoided.
Information is either slightly withheld or altered to sidestep the discomfort of teaching such a topic. Contraception and contraceptive pill ads/commercials are rare and unfortunately, this important aspect of sex education is not openly introduced or spoken about either.
5. A busy and high-pressured schedule overrides a hormonal one.
The average Korean schedule in general, doesn’t seem to allow for much freedom outside of work or study:
• The average teen school schedule is 15 hours/day (and on Saturdays). With the overwhelming pressure to make high marks in school and high-test scores for college, teens really have little time to act on their hormones. School, afterschool hagwons and church are the only places Korean teens can meet and socialize with each other.
• At age 18, Korean males must pay their duty to their country and enlist in military service for 2 years.
• College life appears to be the only window of opportunity.
“Do you know what a clitorus is?” I asked Susan.
Everyone looked baffled. Perhaps there was a Korean translation for clit that I didn’t know about, so I drew it on the board, only to gain reactionary gasps and giggles among my peers.
“Well, no I don’t think I have one of those!” Susan proudly replied, relieved that her answer negated possessing the extra body part.
There you have it… maybe it’s true and some Koreans are born a little special.