Sexual Self-Determination. A (Universal?) Right.


I nodded awake in the back of a cab, the flashing lights and haze of the previous few hours rang in my ears as I ached to reattach to reality. My face was pressed into a jean-wrapped lap, by now the pattern printed to my cheek, a hand heavy and slightly sweaty rested on the other side of my face, as if it were a gentle gesture 20 minutes earlier when we were both alert, now weight dead as the evening hours. As I struggled to sit up, he stirred, dazed, the both of us squinting at the unintelligible rant of the cab driver. I had no idea where we were; he tried to charade instructions, the architecture of any second-language skills crumbling quickly. Instead we just got out of the cab and swooned along the empty road, two parts of an awake whole, clumsily laughing, binded by our unbridled highs, him towing me until grabbing me from under the knees and cradling arch of my back the rest of the way.

He shouldered the door open and my neck gave into his shoulder, and his fingers cupped my head through my hair, tangled and cascading and kissed by summer. He rolled me out of his arms onto the bed and sat in the crevice where my hips folded forward, running his fingers along the length of my body, urging. His eyes were awake now and sunk into mine, his grin thirsty and familiar. I gripped my shirt to my body as I rolled over and inaudibly mumbled “yeah right.”

He laughed and crawled over me, kissing my forehead tossing a blanket my way before we both drifted off to sleep.

This evening is nothing groundbreaking, at least it shouldn’t be. But as women, we’re still in a centuries-long fight for the final say over our bodies and our actions, for the feeling of safety with a man – whether he is someone we’ve just met, a friend, a boyfriend or a husband.

We gripe and groan about kissing the wrong guys, the illusions we convince ourselves are true, regrets at falling into bed with the wrong person. But we don’t appreciate that so much of this strife is results directly from decisions we are able to make autonomously, by ourselves, for ourselves, for better or worse. At the end of the day, we have won the right to our own sexual self-determination, a luxury we often take for granted.

One night, out for drinks with other ex-pats, between pulls of whisky I mentioned that I felt I was outgrowing this fling, that it would probably fizzle out with this summer-long bender we’d all been on. Everyone mumbled in exhausted agreement, summer soaked heavily into their own skins, mulling at their respective relationships statuses. It occured to me that this is a choice we do have, to sidestep out of a romantic situation without any real, lasting repercussions. Soon we were joined by Yun-seon*, a Korean girl who had been dating a friend of mine. She apologized for being late; she was visiting her friend at the hospital, there receiving care for injuries sustained at the hand of someone she’s involved with.

No one had been talking anyway, but the silence somehow grew intense. We’ve all been here for long enough to not ask follow-up questions. It didn’t really matter what had happened. Yun-seon herself had been put in the hospital for several weeks last year for breaking up with her boyfriend at the time. It could have been anything. It’s not that domestic violence doesn’t exist in relationships worldwide, but here it’s often just shrugged off.

My ears shouldn’t be trained to this sort of news. I should have been more upset.

I’m absolutely not saying that Korean men are violent and misogynistic. No trend in a country ever represents the whole, and to the standards of their own culture, they’re not. But that doesn’t change the fact that Korea is a nation under the global spotlight now, and sexual abuse, domestic violence and behaviors like intimidation are on the rise in this country. Everyone seems to know someone who has suffered injuries at the hand of their significant other. It’s not just about violence; women in countries like Korea are often simply regarded as subordinate. Violence is just an extension of the rooted social problem.

Eastern cultures like Korea’s still maintain an incredibly high patriarchal standard, even as this area of the world explodes into the global economy and political conversation. It’s wrong to assume that gender violence and inequality discriminates based on race, culture or affluence, as unfortunately it exists through all levels of every society. But statistically incidence is higher among the lower-income or impoverished of a society and throughout third-world countries. So why, in a country boasting the world’s 15th strongest GDP, a country with an elected female president, are educated, intelligent women still falling victim to this centuries-old gender gap?

This is a gender gap that has been ranked as 108th worst out of 135 surveyed countries in the world by the World Economic Forum in 2012. While Eastern women are beginning to develop and adopt aspects of Western feminist culture, especially in urban areas like Seoul, rolling over at night and saying “no” to men is not an option for many of these girls.

Women in Eastern Asia are meant to be docile, submissive, obedient and loyal, and the pressure to fit to that standard is insurmountable. In China, an unmarried female over 27 is considered “leftover” women by the state. In Korea, local government can win financial rewards for activities that promote marriage. My coworkers give me looks of concern when I tell them I’m not seeing anyone, my high school students have “be married by age 25” on their bucket lists: Beyoncé has no support from all the single ladies here – it is a failure to be alone.

While we ordered another round of drinks, avoiding eye contact with one another and forcibly overlooking the nonchalant hospital report, Yun-seon’s phone kept buzzing. She looked down at it and sighed, telling us that she had to head to a bar on the other side of town because an upperclassman at her university had seen her photo and was essentially demanding that she come meet him now. I asked her if she wanted to go, and she said of course not. She didn’t even know these people. So I asked her if she’d be in any sort of danger if she declined, and she laughed, repeating, of course not. But as a female underclassman they could put in a bad word about her to her professors or else go about a number of different ways of causing trouble for her. It reminded me of the world’s worst sorority that no one had opted to rush. The more she resisted, the more affronted these guys seemed to become by her “disobedience,” as she called it, until their texts did become almost threatening. We managed to convince her to stay with us, with a lot of persuasion, but she was visibly on edge ignoring the calls. Part of me felt like a misguided missionary to a remote village, praising the beguiled perfection of Western ideals and ways of life, that by adapting our “independent woman” attitude, she could be saved.

A week later, they were harassing her again anyway.

Korea has no law in place to prevent stalking. Until this year, it was not a crime for a man to rape his wife. Just beginning in June 2013 did it become compulsory for the police to investigate a suspect of sexual violence (revision on Article 15 from the 1994 Special Cases Law) – a mandate that will be an uphill climb for a force that largely believes that women who wear revealing clothing or drink alcohol are culpable to any attack on them, according to a survey conducted by the Korea Women’s Development Institute.

Misogyny exists worldwide, as does gender-driven violence against both men and women alike. Of course there are abusive relationships in the US and elsewhere, physical and emotional. There are controlling boyfriends who arouse the concern of friends. The major difference here is that concern. These circumstances, while they exist far more often than they should and have likely touched all of us either directly or indirectly, are overwhelmingly considered abhorrent. A relationship is meant to be built out of a mutual respect.  But even if that’s lacking – no matter how serious or laid-back the relationship –  it comes down to trusting a person if not with your heart, at least with your body. In Western society, misogynistic conduct, while it does happen, is not just tolerated as part of age-old cultural standards.

But when a culture itself is fighting against its own development, in striving to overcome these centuries of societal norms they are actually exacerbated, like an environment when the temperature is adjusted too quickly. So there is backlash. Korea is racing into the global cultural sphere, and awareness of female empowerment and modern gender roles are taking root – so change is happening, but slowly.

I woke up several hours after we’d gone to sleep to the unending buzzing of my phone. Swiping to decline the call, I held the phone inches from my nose, correcting my focus and narrowing my vision to try and read through missed texts, clumsily replying apologies that I’d just woken up. Still dressed from the night before I sat up and shook his shoulders lightly, whispering I had to leave to meet some friends. He smiled and said goodbye, unconcerned that these friends I was meeting were male – an entirely unacceptable move for most Korean girls.

Weeks have passed since then, and we’ve tapered off, as predicted, remaining friends, also as predicted. I’ll go on to make questionable choices in men, as will many of us: kiss the wrong people, get drunk and be unreasonable, accept interest from others when it’s thrown to us or otherwise decline advances as we see fit. But all of these mistakes, the most I’ll probably ever pay for them is with my own frustration. At the end of the day we have our sexual self-determination, and that earns us the right to keep trying, and the independence to keep believing that we’ll get it right.  

*Name has been changed to protect identity.