So I was reading the news the other day and found a fascinating article in the New York Times. South Korea’s Constitutional Court (their equivalent of our Supreme Court) had just ruled that adultery was no longer a criminal offense.
This surprised me for a couple reasons:
1) This was an actual law (with fines and up to two years in prison, no less!)
2) A surprising chunk of the South Korean adult male population should probably be in jail.
Before I really dig into this, I should explain that this post isn’t trying to make any moral judgements about anyone else’s culture. That’s just not cool, and I’m really not qualified. But living here, I’ve noticed a few general observations that add up to a contradictory and evolving atmosphere on the subject of sex.
Korea has an odd disconnect when it comes to intimate relations. On the one hand, this society is very traditionally conservative. Clothing styles are formal and reserved. Conversational topics and TV shows stay well clear of anything dirty, to the point they sometimes project a child-like innocence. Culturally, you’d be forgiven for wondering if these people were even having sex.
But then there’s the flipside to all that prudishness…
One morning, early in our time here, I went for a walk down a quiet residential street. I wasn’t going anywhere particular, just out enjoying the air. A motor scooter passed me, going slow. Every few yards, the driver would toss little laminated cards onto a doorstep, or an apartment complex entryway, or the welcome mat to some business. I was curious so I stopped to read one. I figured I’d find an ad for a local delivery restaurant. Instead, I found the number for a local prostitute.
At the time, this floored me. I wasn’t in an unsavory part of town (to be fair, most Korean cities don’t have unsavory parts). Nor was I anywhere near the “lonely businessmens’ motel district.” This was an average, everyday street, the kind where families lived, kids played, and grannies went for a stroll. And it was littered with little pinup cards.
I should note at this point that prostitution is technically illegal in this country. But those laws (unlike the adultery laws) aren’t really enforced. Literal redlight districts (with actual red lights shining in the windows) can be found boldly advertising themselves right down the road from police stations. It’s a common enough part of the culture that 40% of Korean men say their first sexual encounter was paid and 20% admit to visiting such ladies regularly. As that Eat your Kimchi post puts it, if these services had stamp cards, there’d be guys here with boxes of the things.
And this weird double standard creates a society that on the one hand despises extramarital hanky-panky enough to throw people in jail for it, and on the other hand makes it ludicrously easy for the average husband to find a temporary girlfriend. Businesses such as Kiss Bangs or Kiss Rooms allow customers to rent a private suite for a little necking (and yes, the girl is provided by the establishment). If it’s late and you don’t feel like going out, some even offer delivery service. As cover, an attractive young woman brings a rush order of coffee, right to the customer’s door. After which, I would imagine, the coffee gets quite cold before anyone remembers it.
Alternatively, Hostess Clubs are places men can can go and get a private table, complete with a friend for the evening. These establishments are not ostensibly about sex so much as companionship; a place a lonely man can have a nice time with an attractive woman. Who happens to be employed by the house. And from what I’ve heard… well… okay, it is about the sex, just no one wants to admit it.
Adultery laws arise from the more repressed side of the Korean sexual yin-yang. They were conceived in the 1950’s as a way to encourage family values. And up until the ruling by the Constitutional Court, prosecutors still made regular use of them. 100,000 people have been convicted since the law was put in place, 5,500 just in the last six years. The number actually sent to jail has been steadily declining, however, as attitudes change and monetary settlements become more in vogue.
But as I find out more and more about the prevalence of Korea’s underground sex industry, I wonder if South Korea struck down it’s infidelity laws because of simple statistics. As recently as this year, surveys have shown that 36% of the adult male population has admitted to cheating on their wives. In some surveys of men aged 30-40, the number climbs as high as 80%.
Now I’m not saying that permissive attitudes toward prostitution have caused South Korea’s adultery epidemic. In fact, I would guess that redlight districts here are a symptom of a larger cultural issue. While women carry a harsh social stigma if they’re caught cheating, men generally get off light, a “boys will be boys” type attitude. In this environment, paid female sex workers would probably be a natural consequence of the culture, rather than the cause.
Either way, I’m guessing someone, somewhere must have actually done the math. Leaving aside questions of right or wrong, South Korea just doesn’t have enough jail cells.