Red Lights, Big City Feedback

A reader who came across my site via Andrew Sullivan pushes back against my initial post:

These are dubious generalizations to say the least. The rate of participation in prostitution is actually about the same in every society in the world, give or take – the differences are minor. Women are not engaging in the sex business because they cannot get unionized jobs ( obviously men can’t get them either ) and the economic imbalances between genders are in any case universal and explain nothing at all; and no, Korea actually is nothing like a Middle Eastern “emir” ( whatever that means ) when it comes to the position of women. Korean women are among the wealthiest, best educated and longest-living humans on earth. Men, meanwhile, go to prostitutes everywhere on earth, and at about the same rates and they probably always will. Disallowing photos on job applications is not going to change that one iota. They go to prostitutes in massive numbers in Sweden too but I wouldn’t want to spin a sociology out of that. In all, I have to wonder how well you actually know Korea, or any other Asian country. Your assumptions seem massively orientated towards British and American ones, but I may be wrong. By the way, there is a huge hook-up culture in Korea, actually, as there is in every Asian country – way more than in the West, in my humble experience. Again, that doesn’t mean anything. But I can’t quite see why anyone would think American sexual culture is “normal” and Korea’s is “pathological.”

Hi Lawrence,
Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed response.  This is a valuable opportunity to explore both the issues and my underlying thinking process.

Let’s start with the easy part: there’s no question that everything on my original post that comes under the Conclusion header is pure speculation on my part.  I apply no technical rigor, statistical measurements of correlation, no regression analysis to prove causality.  It certainly wouldn’t pass muster in academia or journalism.

Perhaps conclusion itself is a misleading word choice.  It’s really just a narrative woven to make sense of the data points listed above the conclusion section: plastic surgery, child sex trafficking, girls working abroad, economic gender gap, and marital laws.

I will say in my defense that most of those individual data points are backed by links to other sources.  If your questioning extends as far as that, then this might become a bigger discussion than I suspect.

But I’m guessing that’s not the core issue.  Given that my so-called conclusion is really just a narrative of my own device, stitched together out of individual data points that might be valid but have no particular reason to be interpreted in such a way, what gives me the right to make such brazen, unsubstantiated claims in the first place?

I’ll admit that in a vacuum I would have none.

But I live in Korea right now.

And there does exist here a different, widely accepted narrative with regards to sex and prostitution.  That narrative is that they are a big problem and growing in severity, and that the roots trace back to some combination of the following:

  1. the American military presence
  2. English teachers from abroad corrupting young girls
  3. middle aged men who will never change their ways
  4. the young not knowing the hardship of war

In turn, the only courses of action being pursued in Korea are:

  • a lot of hand-wringing in the newspapers
  • scapegoating of foreigners via arbitrary hiring regulations (e.g. HIV testing)
  • symbolic but ineffectual cracking down of red light districts by the police
  • waiting it out in hopes that factors 1-3 decline faster than 4 rises

What is missing is any recognition that there is any economic or legal component to the problem, and consequently that any concrete actions can be taken right now to ameliorate the situation.

Will banning photos from resumes really do much to shift the ground?  Substantively, not really – even before you take into account the workarounds that LinkedIn and Facebook give.

But the intent is to change the current narrative in Korea that self-righteous indignation, ineffectual gestures, and passivity are the only options available.

Now of course, it’s not fair to expect you, or anyone else who came across my blog via Andrew Sullivan to have known all this background.

So I guess this is a case of my having succumbed to the Illusion of Transparency (I recently started reading and it’s changed my life).  I knew that my conclusion narrative didn’t meet any absolute standards of rigor but were nonetheless better than the existing ones floating about in Korea.  I just should have made that clear up front instead of expecting a reader coming in cold to understand all that subtext.

One last comment on your comments on Asian hook-up culture.  Perhaps it is more rampant than in the west, as you argue – though I’d like to see some data backing this up.  If you’re asking me to simply accept your anecdotes as a Swede who’s perhaps done some backpacking in Asia, I’m not sure why that allows you to discount my anecdotes as a Korea-American who’s done some backpacking and now lives here.

But anyway, in my email to Andrew Sullivan, I never said that there is no hook-up culture, just that it has not been normalized.  In the west, people get laid with their eyes open.  In Korea, girls are expected to live with their parents, who maintain an unrealistic expectation of their daughter’s pristine status.  So if they’re even going to the club just to dance and drink with their friends, they’re already deep across the line of acceptable behavior.  Therefore the taboos against, say unprotected sex in the alley with a random stranger is not as great of a leap.

As an aside, you’re correct that I have a US (born) and UK (naturalized) bias, and I wouldn’t be surprised if sex is healthier in Sweden by comparison.  I’m just saying that the Korean polarization between the sheltered doll waiting at home til marriage and the hard-drinking party girl is one of the most toxic environments I’ve ever seen.

And before you ask, no I’m saying this out of single male cynicism or bitterness: I’m in a healthy relationship with a Korean-American girl who has lived here for 3 years and who has numerous Korean friends who attest to the unhealthy attitudes here about sex.

Be thankful you’re living in the country that you are.

I’m thankful I’ve found the person that I’m with.


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3 Responses to Red Lights, Big City Feedback

  1. susan chung says:

    Congratulations for finding a right Korean American girl you can be together and enjoying each other!

  2. I am somewhat more inclined to agree with the reader’s comments. As a Korean-American living and working a corporate job along side native Koreans, as well as perceptions of my surroundings, I feel that sex is more readily available and accessible to potential “consumers.”

    “Night” or booking clubs are designed for extramarital affairs and one-night stands as well as other obvious prostitution venues e.g., message parlors, karaoke rooms, kiss rooms, etc.

    Korea is not really sex deprived at all, (there’s as many motels as to coffee shops), but rather it is done behind closed doors in a hush hush kind of way and the mindset of Korean men seems to accept/condone/normalize sex outside marriage/relationships..

    I also feel like the younger generation is heavily influenced by the media and seem to think that TV depicts actual life (american shows, movies depicting casual sex culture) and more open about it.

    • Thank you for your comment.

      I think the previous commentator, yourself and I hold views that are not *substantively* that different, it’s just that some confusion arises from how one defines “hook-up culture.”

      I agree Korea’s got a LOT of sex happening outside the confines of traditional monogamous relationships (whether married or simply boyfriend-girlfriend).

      My take, however, is that a disproportionate amount of it occurs in the form of financial transactions: prostitution, hostess bars, karaoke rooms, etc. And I regard such transactions as falling outside the bounds of “hook-up culture.”

      The latter would be, say where you go to a party, chat someone up, snog a bit, go home together, do the walk of shame in the morning, and call it a weekend.

      While the latter might not be something to be proud of in the west (esp for females) it’s not so taboo that women have to be furtive about it.

      More importantly, the relaxed attitude opens the door for a more open dialogue about all aspects of female sexuality, ranging from ensuring the man wears a condom, dealing with pregnancies without reflexively resorting to hush-hush adoption, or simply enjoying themselves without feeling stigmatized by the label “trashy” (e.g. Samantha from SITC – whether you think she’s trashy or not, she doesn’t care).

      In short: yes, Korea’s got just as much sex going on as in the west. But I think its extreme polarization between marriage and paid transactions falls on opposite ends of western-style “hook-up culture” which falls closer to the happy medium.

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