Rape in Korea has become a headline topic recently, though this has received little attention in the American press. In late May, a teacher in a remote island village was eating alone at a restaurant. Fathers of her students pressured her into joining them (culturally impossible to refuse), and drinking with them (which she repeatedly but unsuccessfully attempted to decline). When she was too drunk to leave the restaurant on her own, they drove her home and gang-raped her.
Although women are not particularly respected in Korea, teachers are, so there was public outcry over this. Furthermore, this teacher was much younger than the rapists (which made it even more culturally impossible for her to avoid them), who conspired after the fact to destroy evidence. The Ministry of Education was called upon to better protect teachers.
The Ministry’s initial response was to float a policy of not sending female teachers to remote areas. Since 75% of Korean teachers are women, that isn’t practical. More to the point, as Yang Lee Hyun-kyung of the Korean Women’s Association United put it:
How can not sending women to so-called dangerous places be the answer to preventing such crimes against women? What the government is supposed to do is to make a safe environment for women and minorities in society.
Anywhere in Korea can be a “dangerous place” for women and girls. For example, Gyeonggi province. In March, a 14-year-old boy lured a 12-year-old schoolmate to a cheap room where he fed her alcohol, and, along with 5 of his friends, gang-raped her.
And then there was Airdre Mattner, an Australian tourist, whose drink was drugged while she was on a pub crawl in Seoul last year. A group of men then abducted her from her group, took her by taxi to a cheap hotel, and raped her. When police finally acted under international pressure, they only prosecuted her rapists for “sexual harassment,” because “she was unconscious and therefore cannot prove she didn’t consent.” Excuse me??!!! Unconsciousness isn’t proof enough?!!
The Hate That Dares Not Speak its Name
Rape (강간 kahng-gan) is literally unspeakable in Korea. Kyungja Jung is a Korean-Australian professor. In her book, Practicing Feminism in South Korea: The Women’s Movement Against Sexual Violence (Routledge, 2013), she discusses how problematic it was to name a rape crisis center in Korea because of the taboo around even speaking the word rape.
But Korea isn’t the only country with a language problem around rape. All too often in the U.S., we say a woman “got raped.” Like she “got chicken pox,” or she “got struck by lightning.” This bad thing happened, and she was the only one there, so obviously she was the problem – she shouldn’t have visited that sick kid, she shouldn’t have gone out in that field during a thunderstorm. But what a different picture it creates, and what a different perspective on responsibility, when we say “he raped her.”
Compare and Contrast
I wish things were better for women in the U.S. than they are in Korea, but sometimes they’re just as bad. The recent Brock Turner case in California is a scandal in point. After being caught in the act of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, and convicted of three felonies, Turner received a 6-month sentence (of which he will probably only serve 3 months, in “protective custody” within the prison so he won’t be raped by other inmates. How ironic is that?!).
Sentencing Judge Persky defended his slap on the wrist, saying “a prison sentence would have a severe impact” on the student athlete. One would certainly hope so. Rape had “a severe impact” on the victim, after all. The judge now faces multiple campaigns to remove him from the bench, I’m happy to report. You can sign the petition to impeach him or join the recall effort.
What the Turner rape and the Korean teacher rape have in common is that the perpetrators are blaming their actions on alcohol. It reminds me of the slogan used by the U.S. pro-gun lobby: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” But I guess “people” aren’t as culpable where rape is concerned. Around the world, societies that don’t value women assert, “Men don’t rape women, alcohol rapes women.”
As this post by a student columnist at Stanford (where Turner was a student) asks, “Why are rapists justified by their drinking and victims condemned for it?”
Rape is not some irresistible force of nature that will always be with us. It is not “stealing sex.” It’s a volitional act of malice and domination that permanently alters a rape survivor’s life, and decent human beings do not do it. Not even when they’re drunk.
I’d like to end this post on a high note, insofar as that is possible. Brock Turner was caught because two other men bicycling past noticed that the woman he was humping didn’t seem to be moving at all, thought that did not seem right, and took the trouble to investigate. When he ran, they caught him and held him for police. They were not Americans, as it happens. But I’m sure there are many American men who would’ve done the same.