Thor's Korea Diary
Teacher, I Saw Two Foreigners Kissing!
[related stories: The Connundrum of Men & Women / The Inside Track on Happiness / Gender Puzzle / Fountain of Youth / Letter to an Imaginary Lady (1999).. ]
@11 June 2005
Teacher, suddenly something has crossed my head. Yeah, I've got something to tell you; listen up please. Yesterday, I went to Haeundae Beach. And I saw two foreigners kissing each other right in front of me. So many times I heard of gays but it was the first time I've ever seen in my whole life. It was a real scene ^^ . I was shocked. How come...they.....Well at that time, I didn't know what to do and I just passed them.Nowadays, there are so many issues about basic human right of gay, same sex, marriage. What do you think? Who should have the right to marry? Gay? Or Straight? I really want to know your opinion about the issue. I will be waiting for your reply. [ e-mail from an ex-student ]
You were shocked to see two foreigners kissing? Oh dear. Was their flying saucer on the beach too? I mean, heck, how many arms and legs did they have, and did they kiss with tentacles ... ?
Sorry Hong Sik, we foreigners have a wierd sense of humour sometimes .... You didn't tell me if they were the same sex. Even a man and woman kissing together is not seen a lot in public anywhere because most people feel it is intimate. On the other hand, TV, films, magazines and newspapers are full of it, including in Korea. Probably same-sex kissing in public will never be common anywhere for the same reasons of intimacy. There are always some people who like to show off a bit though.
How do you interpret sexual display anyway?
In Chungju some of my male students have painted fingernails. The girls often play with other girl's hair in class. Some of the men play with other men's hair. Korean girls often have close physical contact with other girls, and Korean boys/men often have close physical contact with other males. In my culture all of these things would be strong signs of homosexual relationships. I can remember being shocked 30 years ago in Indonesia to see two male policemen walking down the road hand in hand.
Both Indonesians and Koreans deny that their cultures have homosexuals except for a few "freaks". This is complete nonsense, and has always been nonsense. Large numbers of people in all countries have had some homosexual experience (male or female), and a significant number are occasionally bisexual (choosing either a man or a woman partner). Cultural and legal rules influence these patterns, but can't really control them because both men's and women's chemistry is a mix of male/female elements. The balance is different in different people. Personally, men have never attracted me at all in that way, but I can understand that many other people have a slightly different biology. Even heterosexuals vary a lot in their experience of sex. For example, apparently about 10% of women never experience the pleasure of orgasm, while another 10% or so come to orgasm almost every time they have sex (Big Bang Theory, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 2005).
South Asians and Middle Eastern people have fairly extreme prohibitions on public sexual display, especially by women, but my social encounters and teaching experience with these groups is that they are often obsessed by sex, sometimes in a quite immature way. Americans make a lot of noise about sex, but as a cultural group they are actually rather sexually conservative. It may be that they 'do it' less in practice than Koreans. Everywhere I go in Korea I see 'love hotels', not to mention so-called 'video-rooms', massage parlours, bars, spas, and similar places which make a large part of their income out of sex in some form.
My own attitude to other people's sex is that if it doesn't hurt anyone, why worry? If it does hurt someone (like child prostitution), then we should worry a lot.
Much of the reaction to other people's sexual habits worldwide is expressed by violence. Sometimes it is official violence, as in police suppression, and sometimes it is religious violence, or even individual violence. It is not unusual for women to be killed, wounded or beaten for their sexual behaviour, but much less common for this to happen to men. Nearly always, such violence is much worse than the sex it is claiming to "punish".
How about homomosexuality (gays) ? Certain men feel threatened by gays. Maybe they are trying to suppress their own inner feelings. Anyway, the reaction is again sometimes violent. On the other hand, many women like to have gay men around because they can relax with them as human beings without worrying about any sexual games. You will find that in "caring" professions like teaching or male nursing, there are quite a few male homosexuals. This includes both Korean and foreign English teachers. Many of them are very good at their jobs. Some gays behave inappropriately of course, just as some people with 'normal' sexual tastes do.
Hong-sik, you asked about gay marriage. The connection between any kind of sex and marriage is often complicated. "Marriage" is a tricky question because the meaning of marriage is so different, not only between cultures but also within cultures. Up until very recently, marriage was really a social, economic and political contract between families or communities, not between individual men and women. The first duty of a woman was to conceive children (especially male children in patrilineal societies) who could carry on the family line. The ideology behind marriage in this sense was always supported by laws, and very strongly by public religions. This was true in Europe, and in most parts of the world. It is still true in many parts of the world. In such societies, men usually had special permission to find sexual satisfaction outside of marriage. This may have been through taking mistresses or concubines (if they were rich), extra wives, or by visiting prostitutes. All of these things still exist, to varying degrees of legality.
The idea of a 'love marriage' is quite modern. It is less than two hundred years old in European society, and Western society generally. Laws, public cultural ideals, and public religion have gradually changed in the West. However, even in the West, many laws and religious interpretations are still tied to the original economic and breeding meaning of marriage. Therefore there is constant cultural conflict.
South Korea is an extreme example of a culture which has compressed cultural changes which took centuries in the West into one or two generations. We cannot be surprised then that in South Korea (not only in South Korea) when it comes to sex and marriage, there are often big differences between what the government and people say is good, moral, proper etc .... and what they actually do. That is, public culture (which always changes slowly) and private culture have not had time to get back into balance. I am forever being called a foreigner in Korea, but the truth is that if Korea 'belongs' to the Koreans over 30, then most Koreans under thirty are foreigners in their own land;(recall the fate of the erotic writer Ma Kwang-soo, who saw this coming in the 1990s).
The official love-marriage in history will probably not last for very long. We already know that love marriages are naturally unstable. "Being in love" rarely lasts more than about three years, often much less. A more precise name given to this sexual infatuation is limerance. It may be a state in nature designed to keep a man and woman together just long enough to get a human baby on its feet and talking. In reality, love marriages which last longer than limerance have evolved into something else. People stay together for all kinds of reasons. Most folk need intimate, physically close and trustworthy company (different from the sex act). Good friends of either sex can sometimes provide this, but many of us are not lucky enough to have such friends. Economics, career considerations, or even convenience are other reasons to keep a marriage going. A big factor of course is that nowadays it can take thirty years, not three years, to finally get children independent.
When love marriages evolved from economic/extended family marriages in the West, couples in these love marriages mostly stayed together for many years. It is quite clear that the main reasons for this apparent stability were economic. The really revolutionary change which has occurred over the last half century has been the increasing economic independence of women. Everywhere women have become economically independent, they have become sexually and socially independent. They have stopped having many children (or stopped having children altogether).
Above all, the myth of the eternal love marriage has been shown to be a fantasy. The divorce rate has exploded wherever divorce is not severely restricted by law or religion. In my anglo-Australian culture, for every two marriages there is approximately one divorce. But even that is misleading because in 2001 only 39% of anglo-Australians between 15 and 44 were married (Khao & Zhao, Journal of Population Research, May 2001). The marriage figure for Chinese immigrants to Australia was 71% in this age group (I don't have a figure for Korean immigrants). However, very large numbers of "single" Australians actually live in defacto relationships (unofficial marriages). These defacto couples quite often stay together for years, or even a lifetime, and they may have children too. When defacto couples do split, there is no record of a "divorce".
Is "gay marriage" a disaster? Well, pretty obviously gay marriage is just a small, curious footnote to the modern idea of the love marriage. The extreme opposition to gay marriage from established religions and conservative political forces has a lot to do with the fact that their very idea of marriage is not genuinely tied to the love marriage pattern, but to the older traditional idea of marriage as a contract for breeding, and a contract between social groups.
Love marriage as a public ideal really has such intense support (I think) because it is a gift to business. As with Santa Clause, if love marriage hadn't existed, the advertising agencies would have invented it. The emotions involved in love and sex (not always the same thing !) are engines which sell everything from car tyres to apartments. There has never been a more powerful business and economic tool. While our societies are designed to run on consumer-capitalist economics, love marriages and sex generally will be part of big business. Depending upon your point of view, that might or might not be a good thing. Anyway, the advertising industry will continue to make sure that every teenager believes they have to 'fall in love', and that if they marry, it should be 'marriage for love'.
I have pointed out quite factually to classes of university students in both China and South Korea that the success rate of traditional arranged marriages is often much better that the success rate of love marriages. None of them want to know about it. To a man and woman, they are all determined to have "love" marriages. Statistically now, most of them will be out of love by the time they are 35, and very likely out of their love marriage. This might not necessarily be a bad thing, if new social systems evolve in the culture to support the singles habit.
So will the human species exterminate itself with pleasure-seeking driving out the breeding habit ? Politicians from London to Tokyo will tell you nowadays that the world is facing catastrophe because of plunging birth rates. Populations in all of the developed countries are aging rapidly. There are going to be huge numbers of old people with only a few young people to support them. Even China is following the same pattern, especially in the cities where middle class women are rapidly rejecting lifetime marriage and childbearing. Well yes, populations will plunge for a generation or two; (I suspect that babies will come back into fashion somewhere down the track). Is population decline really a disaster? It is surely true that modern economic systems are huge pyramid sales organizations. If they can't produce and sell more and more, they fail. Now what the politicians and their slaves really need to do is invent a different kind of economic system -- one which is sustainable by small, highly skilled human populations.
Let's look at nature. Everywhere, animal populations boom and bust. We have a plague of locusts, lots of them eventually can't find food and the locust population drops for a while. Ergo rats, or anything else. From nature's point of view, human creatures are surely the mother of all plagues. They have stipped the planet bare, poisoned the biosphere and wiped out thousands of other species. They are a menace even to themselves. Now depending upon how it happens, decimating human populations could be very, very upleasant in the transition period. It has certainly been unpleasant in the past, whether through war, famine or plague.
On the other hand, America or China with twenty million people, or Korea with five million people, could be infinitely nicer and richer places to live in than they are now. Hmm, they might even be able to afford the luxury of love marriages.
* Note on personal names: many names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals