South Korea’s anti-feminist movement conveys how pervasive sexism is

South Korea’s anti-feminist movement conveys how pervasive sexism is

South Korea

Across South Korea an undercurrent of panic brews within the usually restive population of 51 million. 

At the same time as the nation’s women call time on a long history of sexism and misogyny with mass protests and rallies, a ‘deprivation mindset’ has set in amongst a large cohort of predominantly young men, who were raised into unquestioned status and privilege.

In the last few years, these men have shown up whenever women rallied against sexual violence and gender discrimination in South Korea, ridiculing protesters and chanting, “Thud! Thud!”

“Out with man haters! Feminism is a mental illness!”

“The anti-feminist sentiments are being amplified online, finding a vast audience that is increasingly imposing its agenda on South Korean society and politics,” Choe Sang-Hun explained in the New York Times recently.

“These male activists have targeted anything that smacks of feminism, forcing a university to cancel a lecture by a woman they accused of spreading misandry.”

During the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, three-time gold medalist archer An San was criticised ferociously on social media for having short hair.

A suicide-prevention platform set up exclusively for young women, whose suicide rates increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, temporarily went offline because of cyberattacks by online anti-feminists who complained it disregarded men’s lives.

This, in the tenth largest economy and the country with the highest gender wage gap among the world’s richest nations. 

A 2019 survey published by Sisain, a South Korean current affairs magazine found that men in their 20s believed discrimination was more “severe” against men (68 percent) than women (33 percent).

In their book ‘Men in 20s’ journalist Cheon Gwan-yul and Jeong Han-wool, a data scientist, found that 58.6 percent of Korean men in their twenties strongly opposed feminism. 

And yet the reality is that women are living under suffocating patriarchal expectations.

In South Korea, women contend with entrenched discrimination in the workplace, rigid gender roles in the home, and widespread sexual violence.

Everyday Violence of Spy-Cams

Everyday in South Korea, women are secretly being filmed in public toilets, change rooms, motel rooms, universities and schools.

On public transport, an innocuous lighter clutched in the palms of a man might be a camera attempting to capture the view underneath a woman’s skirt. Women are being consumed as porn without their knowledge.

Molka, or spy-cam porn, is not a new practice. In the West, categories of porn dedicated to such fetishes cater to those who say they prefer ‘natural’ sex. This insidious endemic is so pervasive it has its own economy. It’s an economy based on the blackmail, gaslighting, abuse and hatred of women.

South Korea’s rising digital advancement has coincided with a growing epidemic of revenge porn, and incidences have spiked in the last five years.

Everyday, hundreds of videos are uploaded from secretly installed cameras in public spaces, videos that are receiving thousands of clicks.

The government’s compliance, monetising the violation of half the population, shows an economy based on the exploitation of women’s privacy and speaks to the larger issue of how men see women. 

Cameras can be purchased embedded inside innocuous objects like phone chargers, keyrings, baseball caps and water bottles.

How does a seemingly progressive, advanced society become a place where half the population live in a perpetual state of paranoia about seeing their faces and bodies making the rounds across the digital ether and distributed across illegal porn sites?

What is the psychological and psychic consequence for women?

Seoul-based journalist Minji Lee told the BBC that women have learned ways to avoid becoming a victim; covering their face with long hair while they’re in the bathroom or change-room, wearing a scarf to cover up their face or carrying small stickers to cover up random holes in public bathrooms.

The country which has one of the highest percentage of 5G users, and where half of its population are video gamers, is also a country where porn and prostitution are illegal. It is frequently branded as dangerous as North Korean propaganda.

“Some men watch because they want to be in control of women. Seeing women in a vulnerable state, unknowing that they’re being filmed, makes them feel empowered,” Minji Lee said.

In the past few years, numerous rallies and campaigns have called on the government for harsher penalties for perpetrators of sexual violence and digital terrorism. For six months in 2018, tens of thousands of women marched through the streets of Seoul, calling for action against molka, holding #mylifeisnotyourporn placards. 

A huge billboard at the rally read: “This is not a country. It is a vicious pimp. We can’t live like this anymore. We will overthrow this country.” Sadly, mass demonstrations, which drew out almost 400,000 people, have done little to change laws.

Yet we know that imposing harsher penalises is no panacea for the structural problems that bubble underneath the surface.

The issue here isn’t the lack of harsh penalties, or even the spy cameras themselves. It is what the practice of filming women without their knowledge indicates — a deep and unexamined culture of misogyny. And it’s been modelled by the most celebrated icons in the country. 

In March 2019, scandals from the K-pop industry attracted breathless media coverage with the arrest of K-pop artists Jung Joon-young and Choi Jong-hoon.

Jung, who was sentenced to six years prison for raping an unconscious woman, admitted in a statement that he’d filmed women without consent and distributed it over social media and on group chats with his friends. A Korean broadcaster published text exchanges from him that included, after seeing a video of one unconscious woman “You raped her, LOL.”

Men laughing at the exploitation of women is an insidious yet familiar power dynamics we see in other parts of the world, where the disregard for women’s rights and bodies is unfortunately not a rare thing.

In her piece about male bonding at the expense of women in The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino explains that “sex and sexual assault is something that men do for other men.” In Slate, Lili Loofbourow described the shocking “extent to which the woman being mistreated exists in a room where the men are performing for each other—using the woman to firm up their own bond.” 

The private online chat rooms were a space where men like Choi and Jung shared sexually explicit videos of women filmed without their knowledge or consent. As Tolentino expressed in her piece, “Women’s bodies become the tools with which men perform intimacy and solidarity with one another; at least at first glance, women are not potential partners so much as potential means for upholding male self-interest.”

Circulation of these videos among men is the equivalent to men egging each other on in public.

“Violence against women is treated as something trivial, private and insignificant,” explains Jung Choun-Sook, a representative of the Democratic Party. In a country with one of the highest rates of female homicide in the world, and one of the poorest ranked country on the World Economic Forum’s gender equality index (115th out of 149 countries) South Korea’s women are watchful, unquiet, and desperate for a better way of living.

Cultural pressures leading to suicide

Is this what happens to a society that does not permit sex to be openly discussed? South Korea is rooted in a culture of opacity and politeness. Abortion was a crime until 2015. Sexuality and sex remain a taboo. So is mental illness, which continues to be viewed as a failure of moral character.

In November 2019, K-pop star Goo Hara of KARA died by suicide, leaving fans with an ominous message on Instagram that read ‘Goodnight’, accompanied by a selfie of herself lying sideways on white pillow in bed. She suffered from depression after being cyberbullied for years, especially after she took her ex-boyfriend to court in 2018 for assault.

Her ex-boyfriend also threatened to release a video of them having sex which she had no knowledge of. She was subsequently dropped by her agency due to the public flair and attempted to take her own life in May 2019.

Suicides caused by trauma inflicted by men are not exclusive to celebrities. In October that same year, a woman died by suicide after discovering she had been secretly filmed in a hospital change room by a fellow doctor. He had made a hole in the changing room wall to film the woman, who was one of several victims. 

Na-Young Lee, a professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University in Seoul said “even if they make a report to police, the police just dismiss the case and men are soon released,” she said.

“Women insist there are biased investigations and rulings involved.”

Asia has one of the the lowest rates of accountability when it comes to harassment of women. Access to civil and legal remedies is limited, especially for women.

To understand the country, read their books

Books like ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han King and and ‘Kim Ji-young: Born in 1982’, by Cho Nam-joo are shedding light on the reality of being a woman in modern day South Korea and providing nuanced reflections on what’s going on. 

In ‘The Vegetarian’, a woman faces the wrath of her husband and father when she abruptly decides to stop eating meat. Her ‘disobedience’ is suggested through other irreverent behaviour, which sends the husband panicking in fear. She stops wearing a bra. She refuses him sex. She defends herself when he assaults her. Her body changes into something ‘indecently prominent.’

She and her sister, the two central characters in the novel, are both raped by their husbands, and appear to think nothing of it. The author’s descriptions of their ‘uncanny serenity’ post-abuse is disturbingly nauseating to read. In one scene, the woman’s father pries her mouth open in an attempt to force meat into her mouth. It was one of the most distressing and violent scenes I’ve ever read.

It’s clear that in South Korea, women remain causalities of a toxic culture of scrutiny and sexism. Cho Nam-joo’s wildly popular ‘Kim Ji-young: Born in 1982’, was released in 2016, and the book has sold more than 1 million copies since.

The story is rather unremarkable, about a young mother trying to endure the everyday misogyny she experiences in Seoul. In one scene, she overhears a businessman at a park refer to her as a “mum-worm” simply for having the ‘audacity’ to go out in public with her child while her husband “makes all the money.”

But it’s precisely this un-remarkability that makes the portrayal and reception of the book and its story so overwhelming. The film version of the book mostly takes place inside the small apartment where our heroine lives with her wan husband, adhering stylistically to the novel’s “artless” claustrophobia.

When a boy stalks her after a late night class, a stranger comes to the aide, before her father arrives. “Don’t wear your skirt so short,” he commands. In South Korea, the school curriculum often implies that victims are to blame for sexual assault.

In her translation for the NY Review of Books, Tammy Kim extracts from the book; “Nothing was Mother’s choice, but everything was her responsibility,” the narrator observes. “She was sick, in body and soul, but had no one to comfort her.”

“Nowhere to be Found”, Bae Suah’s second novel to be translated into English, also contains scenes that make sex inextricable from violence:

“Burn me. Pour gasoline over me and set my body on fire. Burn me at the stake like a witch,” and later, “When the lighter hovers by my crotch, he asks, “Can I burn you a little?” I nod and shut my eyes. Burn me.”

Women face an unprecedented level of surveillance and scrutiny, and a growing number of books by female authors coming out in translation in the last few years is shedding light on the reality of being a woman in what  American writer Tim Shorrock calls a “youthful, male-dominated society with a strong nationalist streak.”


Plastic surgery

Donned “The plastic surgery capital of the world”, South Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgeries per capita in the world.

It is not uncommon to hear of young teenage females being gifted a plastic surgery procedure to celebrate their high school graduation. 

Some studies have suggested that roughly one in three South Korean women between ages 19 and 29 have had plastic surgery, while others have put that number at 50 percent or higher.

According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery South Korea, the country has the fifth-highest number of plastic surgeons in the world.

“When you’re nineteen, all the girls get plastic surgery, so if you don’t do it, after a few years, your friends will all look better, but you will look like your unimproved you,” a college student told The New Yorker. “We want to have surgeries while we are young so we can have our new faces for a long time.” 

Eunkook Suh, a psychology professor at Yonsei University, in Seoul, told The New Yorker, that “…in contrast to Western cultures, the external aspects of self (your social status, clothes, gestures, and appearance) versus the inner aspects (thoughts and feelings) matter more here.” 

“In Korea, we don’t care what you think about yourself. Other people’s evaluations of you matter more,” he said. 

One college student told the magazine a conversation her father had with her:

“He told me that beauty could be a big advantage for girls. For instance, when you go on a job interview if the interviewer saw two women who had similar abilities, of course he’d go with the better-looking one.”

How to get help: In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org. If you need immediate assistance, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

For further information about depression, contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or www.beyondblue.org.au or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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