Wednesday, September 8, 2010

When "no" isn't really no

THIS POST is likely offend some people, particularly women of a feminist disposition, but probably many others too. So be it. What I am about to write is not a comment on how Korea should be or what is right or wrong, but simply on what I've observed and what is. OK then. All buckled in? Off we go.

In Korea, when a woman says or indicates "no" to a sexual advance, she may not actually mean no. Yes, I know how that sounds. But bear with me. And, no, I'm not saying there is no such thing as genuine "no" either. Of course there is. What I am saying, however, is that Korean culture encourages many women to turn down the advances of men they desire, in the expectation, and hope, that they will persevere anyway.

In what in some respects is still a deeply conservative country, where Confucian ideals still exert considerable influence, women are generally expected by men to be sexually innocent and pure. One of my language exchange friends went as far to tell me that many Korean men would be jealous to know that their girlfriend had ever kissed anyone before them. To repeat: before them.

But like in many socially conservative societies, there exists a more liberal, not oft-spoken of underbelly. "Love motels", from which young couples can be seen scurrying in and out of day or night, exist on every second big street. Most Koreans have sex before marriage, despite the stigma that still exists around it. The sex industry is vast and lucrative.

What this means is that Korean society is not as sexually conservative as it pretends to be. Appearances, however, are everything. So, in order to maintain the veneer of purity a woman may repel the advances of a man, even where she is willing to kiss or sleep with him and ultimately will. She may not even just repel him once, but several times. This way, she keeps her conscience clear, having not "done" anything, knowing -- and hoping -- that the man will likely try his luck again.

One Korean saying pretty much sums up the attitude that prevails, translated loosely as: "If you knock a tree ten times it will fall". Astounding, I know.

This dynamic of "push and pull" (as it has been to described to me by locals) can be seen played out on Korean television. Women rarely seem happy or aroused in TV love scenes, instead usually appearing shy and even downright reluctant. In fact, to western eyes, many of these scenes are deeply uncomfortable to watch, appearing nothing short of sinister.

One girl -- note girl -- put Korean sexual politics as starkly as this: "If you try and kiss a girl and she slaps you, try again." She told me this not as a critique of Korean attitudes, but as a piece of advice for me as a young man. Another young woman told me, via translation, of how many of her female friends would complain when they rebuffed a guy they liked who didn't push the issue. As a result, this girl now says "yes" when a man she likes tries to kiss her.

As a western man, all of this is rather bizarre, as well as unsettling. I don't particular relish the idea of "forcing" the issue. I would like to think that I generally respect women. More pertinently, this cultural trait is potentially highly problematic. Just when, for instance, is "no" really no? And does it not encourage men to disregard womens' consent, at least in some instances?

Of all the things that have surprised, delighted and dismayed me about Korea, this has been the hardest to get my head around.

But then this is Korea. Where girls go to motels with guys to "study English" and girls who don't kiss on first dates do that and much more in DVD rooms.

Culture shock doesn't even cover it.

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