JuliaMellor

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Let’s Talk About Sex…With Seniors

In The Social Fabric, Uncategorized on February 5, 2012 at 1:27 am

It’s not a topic easily broached in Korean social circles, and most people would just rather not.  But recently two articles about the sexual activities of certain age groups have made the rounds in Korean papers.

The first was a hit to the ego of young  Koreans, who were polled to be the least sexually active in their age group worldwide (Full article here).  Even though this article comprehensively did the rounds  on social networking sites, the findings weren’t really that surprising.  Despite what Korean Dramas will have us believe, young Korean people are a lot more sexually active, it’s just not that easy to do it often.  The poll and article gave no insight into the societal restraints of unmarried couples to have sex more than once a week, as they invariably live with their parents.  Paying for love motels or some other suitable location for private time can really rack up a bill.  Factor that in with demanding work schedules, familial commitments and maintaining the odd friend or two…unless you live together who has the time?  Incidentally, Koreans were the only Asian representative of the people polled.

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But that wasn’t the article which got me tilting my head to one side.  About a month later new statistics were making the news rounds, that in fact it is the elderly population of  Korea who are increasingly sexually active.  A poll of the over 60’s age group showed that over 66% are sexually active (Full article).  But it wasn’t just the fact that the oldies are getting more action, it was that they know even less about sex than their kids and grandkids.  Of those polled, 26% never use condoms, 28% occasionally use them, and an alarming 78% had never had an STD test.  With more than half of the sexually active respondents resorting to prostitutes for their sexual outlet, the figures speak for themselves.  (For a good read on the social stigma of older people and sex check out The Grand Narrative’s take on its representation in film.)

But what puzzled me is the selective importance placed on sex education.  The government is being prompted to concentrate on sex education for seniors, as opposed to improving programs for the younger generation.  Elderly community centers are providing advice and support for the sexually active in attempts to raise awareness of STD’s and the practices of safe sex.  We’ve established that the older generation are in need of this support, and that the young adult population don’t really have sex that often anyways, but what about the forgotten youth? For me, coming from a culture of reality programs like ’16 and Pregnant’ and personally having regular sex education classes in school from 8th grade, it’s usually the older generation that don’t talk about sex and the younger generation who can’t shut up about it.

So what is available for kids these days?  My sister once asked me why a show like ’16 and Pregnant’ would never take off in Korea, and it’s probably because it’s more likely to be ’16 and Studying’.  The pressures of school, studying and tests definitely take a lot of time out from getting frisky with the opposite sex, but that certainly doesn’t account for everyone.  Korean teenagers are becoming sexually active at a younger age every year with 17% of high school students being sexually experienced.  Problem is, the youth are barely that much more informed about sex than their grandparents.  A survey in 2008 found that 60% of sexually active teens engage in unprotected sex, which was a total of 75,238 kids.  Following a rabbit hole of statistics, 9% of those females got pregnant, 88% of which whom obtained abortions.  Approximately one third of all abortions are performed on teenagers.

Above: The Korean version of teen pregnancy film ‘Juno’ wasn’t a patch on the original, and despite a lack of any sex or nudity was rated 19. Image Source

There is sex education in schools, it’s just dismally inadequate.  Legally schools are required to provide 10 hours a year of sex education classes, but most have only 5 hours  offered in health classes, which are often elective.  Ignoring the fact that this is just simply nowhere near enough, the content is also not practical.  Classes focus on maintaining virginity, sexual violence, prostitution and harassment prevention, rather than how to practice safe sex and the health risks of reckless sexual behavior.  It’s partly due to the stigma surrounding talking about sex.  Teachers are embarrassed to conduct the classes and opt for showing a poorly produced sex education video akin to what was available in the early 80’s.  One girl described her sex education as a video of ‘A man and a woman who were very in love, got into bed with their clothes on and the screen went black.  The next scene she had a big stomach.’

Just as Western parents use ‘The Stork’ as an escape from that inevitable question, Korean mums and dads will tell their children they were found under a bridge.  The difference is that Western kids have more chance of being subjected to comprehensive and frank discussions of sex at school, whilst Korean kids rely on each other, the underground, and the trusty old internet.  Yet while the over 60’s get the information they need to protect themselves, the next generation are still in dire need of direction and awareness.  The naivety that the youth of today will follow the traditional trends of abstinence will eventually cost the social fabric dearly.  As K-Pop stars get sexier and and stars set examples of sexual freedom, we can expect the masses to copy and repeat.

“I Do” But Korean Style I Don’t

In The Social Fabric, Uncategorized on November 27, 2011 at 12:18 am

First off, I’ve been receiving some positive feedback lately for Inconseoulable, and I’d like to say a big thanks very muchly for the support.  It’s been a busy few months filled with job interviews and changing directions, but I have renewed commitment for what I started out to do.  Which is make sense of all things Korean.

One of the things taking up my time and mental space these days is the subject of weddings.  As I missed yet another friend’s wedding back home, I found myself attending a Korean wedding in its place.  This certainly wasn’t my first experience, having attended a few ceremonies over the years.  Yet as I took the time to select an appropriate outfit and got a little excited to be a part of a wedding, I was inevitably disappointed.  I should have known better.

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Korean weddings, despite mimicking the hallmarks of western weddings, couldn’t be more different.    For starters, a great majority of modern weddings take place in custom designed Wedding Halls.  These are one-stop-shop buildings which house not only the wedding rooms, but also the buffet hall for the obligatory meal.  If you are expecting to feel special on your big day, these weddings halls are not well equipped to oblige.  There are often numerous weddings occurring simultaneously, with guests milling about in foyers, stairwells, and even peaking in on other weddings. This facilitates the need for a large army of ushers to get you to the right room, sign the right book (name only no message) and put money in the right envelope. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get a seat if you’re not early or close to the family.  And if you’re a guest running late, you won’t be de-friended on facebook as it’s just as common as arriving on time.

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After the ceremony, which lasts usually in the ballpark of 20 to 30 minutes, family and guests take part in the coordinated photos or head straight upstairs with their meal ticket.  These halls are round-the-clock function rooms, and people from all manner of weddings are often jumbled together in the one cafeteria. No dancing, no speeches, no cake, but this is the closest thing to a reception.  The bridal party is usually too busy with traditional photo shoots or other obligations to join their guests, and people may eat and leave as they please.  At this recent wedding I watched as a young woman loaded up her plate and sat at a round table all by herself, and I couldn’t help but feel a little hollow.

As far as ceremonies go, a church wedding will give at least some of the sentimentality one would expect from a wedding.  There is a familiar sense of tradition and reverence that might be lacking in a wedding hall ceremony.  There is a quieter element of romance.  But churches also have electronic queue boards which direct you to the right room, and to their own inbuilt buffets.

At first I thought it was the speed and informality of Korean weddings which unnerved me so.  However I came to realize that it’s much more than that.  As I flicked over and over through the reception photos of my friend’s wedding, I had tears of jealousy at just how much fun they were all having.  Friends and family had come from all over to celebrate not just a couple, but also to be together. It’s a social event and guests get just as excited as the bridal party. We dress up, we buy gifts, we clear schedules. We put so much emphasis on having a unique and unforgettable time to remember with the people close to us.  Friends play an integral role in a western wedding.

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Korean marriages are not just between two people, they are between two families. Family is the central unit of Korean culture, so the focus is as much on the parents as it is on the kids taking the plunge.  It’s a big important day mostly only for the families, and it’s the culmination of months of preparation. The enjoyment and interaction of friends at the reception doesn’t seem to have the same importance, partly because there is no reception.  Friends and guests attend the wedding, but it doesn’t really involve them.  Following the white wedding upstairs, there may be a second traditional ceremony that only family may attend in another room. We all have our wedding styles and traditions, but Korean weddings are more about family and ceremony than friends and parties. There are also unending pre-wedding obligations and traditions which will no doubt be another article, when I have the strength to cover it adequately.  Suffice to say, it’s no easy thing to get hitched Korean style.

And so came my disappointment that I couldn’t feed off other peoples’ friends having the excuse to catch up and enjoy each other’s company.  Instead we arrived at 11:30am and were having coffee down the road by 12:20pm.  Perhaps if I were part of the family I would feel differently.  But the rituals and bonding we might experience at a western wedding had taken place well before the Korean wedding day, and I felt a little empty.

There may be white dresses, tuxedos and elaborate floral arrangements, but an absence of the essence of what I enjoy in a wedding. Intimacy, sociability and unique memories to last a lifetime.