Now that the dust is starting to settle after the hyped up debut of the “me too” movement in Korea, it is time to move beyond attention-grabbing incidents and start to lay the foundations for a meaningful discussion of how we can respond to the concerns of ordinary women in Korea about sexual harassment and abuse.
On the bright side, there has been an extremely important shift in the debate. For example, programs that highlight the sexual abuse of immigrant women in Korea have been produced recently. This widespread problem for immigrants, especially the undocumented, was previously practically invisible.
But the full scale of abuse within the marriage introduction industry has yet to be understood by all but a select few Koreans.
I get the sense that many Koreans assume that the sexual abuse of women in Korean society is the result of a traditional Confucian patriarchal thinking and that by becoming more modern, or more Western, we can solve the problem.
There is no doubt that Confucianism, especially the teachings of Mencius, severely limits women’s role in society and that traditional Korean society permitted such evils as concubines and promoted clear class barriers that resulted in the abuse of women of lesser social status. So the social interactions of women were also strictly regulated.
However, the impact of Confucian thinking on women is not a simple question. Confucianism demanded self-control of men and insisted on meticulous adherence to propriety in male/female relations. Although that tradition did contain its share of cruelty, Confucianism also stood against the brutal transformation of women into two-dimensional products for sexual consumption.
When I was a college student, I thought that the prudishness of Confucianism in prohibiting salacious or frivolous images of women was profoundly regressive. Now when I see the impact on men of constant exposure to near-pornographic images of women in advertising on television, in the subway, and in magazines, I wonder whether the Confucian scholars maybe had a point.
That is to say, we cannot address the sexual abuse of women in Korea without first taking on culture itself.
I was shocked when I was invited a few years ago to a show put on by elementary school students in which the girls were heavily made up, wore extremely suggestive dresses, and were asked by their teachers to perform provocative dances.
The parents did not seem to think anything of the event, but for me it suggested that from an early age girls are being trained to think they have to play a sexually suggestive role to gain attention. So boys also are being encouraged to see girls in terms of sexual attractiveness.
Granted the number of women I see in the subway compulsively putting on makeup, I fear that the impact of such norms is pervasive.
This treatment of women as sexual objects for consumption is also encouraged by the proliferation of video games that present women as sexual objects as part of crass marketing. There is no hesitation in exploiting human sexuality in the interest of making money and selling products.
Such grotesque video games are complemented by the proliferation of online pornography, a social ill that everyone knows about but no one discusses.
I am not suggesting that pornography can be completely eliminated from a society, but it certainly should not be so prevalent.
Constant exposure to pornography, or pornographic advertising, encourages men to see women primarily as objects of desire, and such training from a young age can permanently render men incapable of true affection and love. Nothing could be more tragic, or crueler, than such a distortion of men’s thinking.
Then there is the question of plastic surgery. For reasons that I cannot fathom, plastic surgery is treated as a growth industry in Korea, and even made part of tourist packages for foreigners.
But when I walk past the slick advertisements for plastic surgery posted on every wall of the subway stations at Angujeong and Shinsa, I feel nothing but disgust for this celebration of sexual violence against women, in this case represented by a scalpel. The sewers beneath Gangnam run red with the blood of women forced by social pressure to conform to artificial standards of beauty.
Of course, there is a place for reconstructive and cosmetic surgery in society, but women should never be made to feel that they must have it to fit in.
The advertising for plastic surgery should be prohibited.
And then there is the challenging problem of prostitution. There are countless (uncounted) women who engage in prostitution at some level or another in Korea.
I doubt that any of them dreamed of such a career when they were in elementary school. Rather the increasingly harsh competition for jobs, and the near impossibility of finding a stable career for those who do not come from well-educated families, has pushed many women into this dead-end job.
The result? They are sexually abused night after night as part of an institutionalized economic system.
Is the abuse that they face something featured in “MeToo” articles? Not much. The problem is that the humiliation they suffer each night is not the result of a colorful political figure, but rather a product of an increasingly economically polarized society wherein people are treated as disposable objects for consumption and exploitation.
If we demanded that all politicians who had ever abused those invisible women resign, we would see a lot of empty seats in the national assembly.
The time has come to move beyond high-profile sex scandals and to address the disturbing institutional and systemic problems in the culture itself that makes the sexual abuse of women natural and familiar.