The Korea Herald


What they don't teach you at school

South Korea’s questionable sex education may have adverse effects on teenagers’ sexual perceptions

By 윤민식

Published : Aug. 12, 2015 - 17:37

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On Monday, local rights groups the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center and Korean Women’s Hotline jointly made a statement condemning the Education Ministry’s guidelines on sexual education, pointing out that the guidelines spread faulty information and reinforce discrimination against sexual minorities.

The groups particularly took issue with a statement that men have sudden spikes of sexual urge anywhere, anytime. The guidelines also completely ignored sexual minorities, saying sexual abuse can lead to “defects” like questioning one’s sexual orientation. It also described women not paying the bill on dates as being one of the reasons behind date rapes, and that women “have to be careful” and “firmly say no” to avoid date rape.

“Not only do the guidelines generalize the misperception about men’s sexual desire, thereby justifying sexual violence, it leads students to have strings of prejudice related to sex,” said an official from the KSVRC.

The ministry explained the following day that it ordered the officials to revise the part about date rape and is planning to consult with experts on the part about men’s sexual urges.

Despite the ministry’s prompt reaction, the guidelines -- distributed earlier this year -- raised questions about sexual education in schools, or lack thereof.

Bae Jeong-weon, a sex education counselor who heads the Center for Sexuality and Harmonious Life, said that lack of proper sexual education is damaging students’ perceptions of sex, making it harder for students to understand what is appropriate and what is not.

She pointed out that sex education in high school is being conducted as one of six categories under the public health classes, which is insufficient to provide adequate information. Law mandates that all elementary, middle and high schools conduct sex education. But important details, such as about safe sex and contraception, are also often glossed over, while the guidelines sternly warn students about the negative side effects of sex, such as unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Talking about teenage sex has been frowned upon in conservative Korean society.

According to a recent survey by seven sex education institutions in Seoul, over half of middle school boys in Seoul do not consult anyone about sex-related problems.

Teenagers say such taboo is driving them further away from understanding the basic concept of sex.

“Teachers just say sex is something that we simply should not do. It is a natural thing between people that love each other, but they don’t talk about that,” said a 16-year-old girl who left home last year and is currently living in a shared home with fellow runaways. 

Students at a Seoul-based high school attend a class in this file photo. (The Korea Herald) Students at a Seoul-based high school attend a class in this file photo. (The Korea Herald)

With the authorities tip-toeing around the issue, students may have the misperception that breaking the taboo is “cool and hip,” Bae said, pointing out that such misperceptions about sex may have fueled sex-related incidents among college students.

Most colleges and universities conduct a “welcoming workshop” for freshmen students, during which freshmen and older students go on a trip to drink, play games and get to learn more about college life.

But such release of the stress accumulated through years of preparing for college while being relatively unaware of sexual boundaries is also blamed as part of the reason for an increase of sexual harassment during these events.

Earlier this year, several male students at Sogang University were slammed for using sexually offensive terms in allocating rooms for first-year students. While the incident sparked nationwide furor, students say this is not uncommon during the events.

A 24-year-old student surnamed Yoo at a Seoul-based university shared an incident that happened during his freshman year, where a 20-year-old sophomore made inappropriate contact with younger female students.

“It wasn’t like he had a reputation for being a pervert or anything. He just didn’t know better. Now that I think about it, it could have happened to me, too,” Yoo said.

Bae said sex education in schools should be more detailed and informative. Instead of just telling students not to have sex until adulthood, the sex classes should help students understand the changes they are going through, she said.

Parents should also be involved, Bae added.

“Parents have trouble talking about it because they think of it as sexual intercourse, but it is more about teaching ways of life. They need to constantly discuss the issue with their children,” she said.

Yoon Hee-sang, a 22-year-old student at Ewha Womans University, said that reoccurring cases of sexual abuse by students had her wondering if Korean education was headed in the right direction.

“Students -- even those who criticize the professors about the incidents -- don’t hesitate to tell sexual jokes among their peers,” she said. “These actions by the so-called elite students, particularly at an official school event, make me wonder if our education system is overly emphasizing the academic achievements and overlooking the character development of students.”

By Yoon Min-sik