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Rape culture in Korea

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By Vanessa Seungjin Rhee

In late April, Hong Joon-pyo, a presidential candidate of the Liberty Korea Party (LKP), became the center of a controversy because of his possible involvement in an attempted rape. In his memoir published in 2005, "Na DoragagoShipda" (I Want to Go Back), he states that he helped his friend obtain yohimbine, a stimulant used on animals such as pigs, to make them mate by stimulating the peripheral nerves. Hong's friend used yohimbine on a girl to try to make her more sexually receptive. Fortunately, the "aphrodisiac" did not work on the victim as expected and his friend ended up with scratches on his face from the girl's fingernails. Hong said this rape attempt was all in good fun.

This episode triggered a heated debate about his eligibility for public office since Hong has worked as a prosecutor for over 30 years before running for the presidency. Hong emphasized this episode happened a long time ago and he admitted in his memoir what he did was wrong. However, the following reactions from him and his supporters show his apology was meaningless.

Jung Gab-yoon, a lawmaker of the LKP, defended Hong by comparing his case to President Obama. In Obama's memoir, "Dreams from My Father," the former president mentioned his usage of marijuana. Jung argued Korean citizens would vote for a person who shares his guilt frankly as American citizens did. First, a rape attempt is not comparable to marijuana use when we consider the victim. Second, to share his shameful past is not enough to be accepted. Hong's spokesman also said this episode happened during his college years, which is in the heat of youth. Hong and his supporters pretend this is not a big deal, and their attitudes exemplify the pervasiveness of rape culture in Korea.

"Rape culture" means that society normalizes rapes. The term was created to criticize the culture encouraging violence against women in America. However, Koreans also are not free from rape culture. According to a survey by the Korean Women's Development Institute last year, the sex crime rate in Korea has more than doubled in 10 years. One reason for our rape culture is probably the Confucian background that emphasizes the gender roles; women should be submissive and supportive of men, while men are thought to be active and stronger. Moreover, according to Confucianism, men are much more sexual than women.

Our traditional culture assigned sexually submissive roles to women, which resulted in the distorted understanding about women's sexuality. According to Yeong-Ae Yamashita, the author of "Nationalism in Korean Women's Studies," Confucianism demands "sexual purity" for women. Therefore, women who are sexually receptive are often stigmatized. This faulty assignment limits not only women's understanding of their sexual behavior but also that of males. The incorrect perceptions of female sexuality might be the reason why some people like Hong and his friend thought they had to drug someone to have sex.

Hong is often compared to U.S. President Donald Trump in Korea because of his straightforward attitude and stereotyping of males and females. I was surprised when Trump was elected, considering his sexist statements. Hong is more extreme than Trump. In an interview, he stated women and men are supposed to do different kinds of work, and for women the work should be household chores. Even though this offensive statement was criticized and he apologized officially, he and his supporters give the excuse he was trying to seem "strong."

Despite their excuse, it is not strong to stereotype females. They are misusing the word "strong." In rape culture, to control and discriminate against females solidifies a man's status as a strong and "real" man. To define males as masculine and dominant and females as feminine and subordinate is one facet of rape culture. Therefore, Hong's effort to define himself as a man who never goes into the kitchen, is strong only from a sexist view. We should not dismiss his behavior as a cute little boy showing off his arm muscles. That "boys will be boys" attitude will feed rape culture.

If we stay complacent, Korean society will never have equality for both sexes. It is true that Korea has Confucian traditions and traditions that deserve to be respected. However, if traditional views drag society from more essential values, such as sexual equality, we need to turn up our voices against them.


The writer is a junior student at Columbia University, studying psychology. Write to vsr2116@columbia.edu



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