Veteran K-drama viewers can likely attest to the fact that, as a general rule of thumb, K-drama skinship is family-friendly, and the act of sex is largely skirted around rather than directly addressed. The rigid kisses and innocuous back-hugs found in dramas such as You’re Beautiful and Heartstrings tended to be the status quo for K-drama physical intimacy in earlier years. What’s Up Fox’s shag-and-bag-centric romance was notable as an isolated exception to this rule, but thats beside the point. The majority of dramas that had any mention of sex often made full use of the fade to black transition before we could see any of the risque details. Dramas with implied sex scenes like Coffee Prince, Soulmate, and Fated to Love You only reinforce the fact that K-dramas tend to dance around the idea of sex rather than having open and overt discussions about the topic. Nonetheless, more recent dramas such as My Secret Romance seem to suggest that this status quo is slowly changing.
South Koreas longstanding tradition of sexual conservatism can largely be seen as the reason for the avoidance of on-screen discussions of sex in earlier years. This may be a result of the countrys philosophical roots being in Confucianism, which valued among other things chaste women, patriarchal dominance, and saving your v-card until marriage. After all, if women were expected to be pure and unsoiled, it would be counter-intuitive to have them discussing or openly engaging in onscreen sexual acts with men who are not their husband.
However, over the past decade, dramas have gradually begun to approach the idea of sex more directly. In 2009, City Hall depicted the process of planning out sex between a couple in a committed and monogamous relationship. Then came 2014 with It’s Okay, That’s Love, which openly addressed trauma related to sex and explored the idea of virginity loss. In the same year, I Need Romance 3 featured some racy dialogue between the characters, and the beginning scene of the first episode of Discovery of Romance was dedicated to discussing a couple’s first time having sex. About a year later, Oh My Ghostess similarly dealt with the topic of cherry popping all throughout its sixteen-episode duration. The latest drama to boot with a degree of openness towards sex is My Secret Romance, with its one-night stand tagline.
From the standpoint of the viewer, the implications of this new emergence of more open sexuality in K-dramas is positive. A more overt discussion of sex can lend itself to more interesting, realistic, and mature adult romances. Of course, making two (or more) fictional characters engage in sex does not automatically result in a relatable and well-developed romance. However, addressing sex more openly does allow for more insightful and authentic discussions about subjects such as infidelity, as well as the impact of different views of sex on people and relationships.
For instance, City Hall and Discovery of Romance both portray two adults in a clearly defined relationship who consent to sleeping together. Sex is depicted in these two dramas as presumably enjoyable. In contrast, sex is portrayed in My Secret Romance as having more negative consequences. By placing the characters in a situation where they engage in a drunken one-night stand, the drama explores an interesting circumstance where the lines of consent are considerably blurred.
This unusual context is a pivotal plot point in the romantic storyline, since it brings together the two lead characters who clearly hold different perspectives on the idea of sex and examines the effect it has on them both individually. Lee Yoo-mi (played by Secrets Song Ji-eun) is largely apprehensive to the idea, due to scarring memories of being subject to continual harassment by her high school classmates because of her moms career as an erotic film star. In comparison, Cha Jin-wook (Sung Hoon) has no visible qualms about casual sex and is depicted as a promiscuous character.
Upon waking up, a sober Yoo-mi leaves the sleeping Jin-wook without any explanation. The experience has an apparent adverse effect on Jin-wook, which is made apparent by how he abstains from any kind of relationship following the event, along with his subsequent transformation into a colder and more detached person. His unresolved questions and inability to understand Yoo-mi’s motives are a large part of the reason for the changes in his personality. Yoo-mis state isnt much better than Jin-wooks, as her post-hookup shame and regret was largely the reason for her abrupt departure. Although this scene is largely played for laughs, I thought it was still worth noting due to how it pored over the idea of how different views on sex can make a sexual experience less enjoyable.
Choi Ho’s infidelity is not portrayed as being justified in any way, and Hae-soo is not victim-blamed. Nonetheless, the audience is presented with the idea that the infidelity in the relationship arose as a result of the two individuals having incompatible views on sex and different sexual needs. Thus, the act of cheating is illustrated as more complex than simply one party being unable to control their wandering eyes.
On the subject of different sexual views, it should be noted that there has not been, to my knowledge, a K-drama that explores the idea of how religious beliefs can impact sexual relationships. Say a devout Christian who believes in saving sex until marriage and a frequent practitioner of pre-marital sex fall in love. Would this couple come to an eventual compromise of their perspectives on sex, or is this type of relationship doomed to fail in the first place? And how will the Korean cultural context interact with religion? It would definitely be fascinating to watch a drama tackle this issue in the future.
In the vein of dramas breaching the topic of how different sexual convictions can impact the course of a relationship, Its Okay, That’s Love explores the complexities of sex as a cause for infidelity in a relationship. Ji Hae-soo, played by Gong Hyo-jin, is extremely hesitant to engage in sex with her then-boyfriend, Choi Ho (played by Do Sang-woo) because of an enduring trauma of sex. He was caught cheating on her, with his rationale being that it was extremely difficult to hold off having sex.
Hae-soo’s relationship with her new boyfriend later in the series, Jang Jae-yeol (Jo In-sung), is also fraught with the same issue of different perspectives on sex. However, unlike Choi Ho, Jae-yeol openly expresses his opinions about the idea of sex. This is shown by how he points out to Hae-soo on multiple occasions that she has a misconception that physical intimacy must always be planned.
However, Jae-yeols opinions do not force Hae-soo into going against her own moral principles since it is shown that she often openly disputes his opinions. Instead, his ideas seem to slowly change Hae-soos mindset by making her realize that sex doesnt have to be complicated or painful; rather, it can be a gratifying experience. This is made especially apparent in their exchange during a scene where Jae-yeol expresses his disappointment for not being able to have sex with Hae-soo. She then questions why Jae-yeol and other people find sex so enticing. Jae-yeols response is something along the lines of the idea that there is no greater expression of love between a man and a woman than sex.
When they proceed to consummate their relationship soon after, it does not appear as if Hae-soo is being forced into something she doesnt want to do. In contrast, the act was portrayed as being symbolic of her change in attitude towards sex, as a result of her deliberation of Jae-yeols opinion. Her newfound reception to the idea that sex can be an enjoyable, spur of the moment act ultimately rids her of her deeply-rooted trauma towards sex.
This trend of dramas opening up to portrayals and discussions of sex may be a reflection of the more liberal attitudes toward sex that many younger Koreans demonstrate. A 2014 survey revealing that 85% of Korean college students have had sex by their final year in school substantiates this point. This could be an indication that the formerly taboo topic of sex is slowly being destigmatized in South Korea, possibly the result of a longtime exposure to Western media, where a more open sexual culture is portrayed.
Another possible reason for this change is the continual rise of a feminism movement challenging the traditional Confucian values that preach female chastity, as indicated by blogs such as Megalia. This site is meant as an anonymous forum that satirizes another website, Ilbe known for its extreme politically right-leaning humor. The users often parrot phrases meant to demean women and redirect it toward men, in the name of revealing the day-to-day discrimination that women have to face in Korean society. Despite the controversy associated with the site due to its perceived anti-men stance, Megalia has proved itself to be increasingly influential in Korea, shown by the 2015 Maxim Korea magazine cover scandal. This feminist dissent against long-established patriarchal norms goes hand-in-hand with the recent reception of K-dramas to more open discussions of sex, since they can be seen collectively as a revolt against the formerly romanticized and patronizing upholding of the virginal and celibate woman.
Now, we are faced with the question of what this all implies for South Koreans. Studies show that this more liberal attitude towards sex has correlated with higher rates of STD infections in South Korea. It should be noted, nonetheless, that sexual education in Korea leaves a lot to be desired in terms of teaching about safe sex, or the act of sex in general, which may be a key component of the reason for the rising STD rate, conceivably more so than simply the reorientation of sexual attitudes. Perhaps K-dramas can help out in this regard, and step up to the plate where the sex ed curriculum is currently lacking. This may sound like a stretch, but there is proof that it can be done. For instance, the Hulu original, East Los High, is a collaboration between social scientists, health workers, and studio executives in an effort to educate Latina-American adolescents about safe sex through the medium of a drama series.
Even without considering the overarching possible social implications, however, open discussion of sex in K-dramas can provide the benefit of creating more three-dimensional and engaging relationships, granting more enjoyment of and connection to the show. The candid dialogue between Jae-yeol and Hae-soo was refreshing because it presented an ideal situation where a couple communicates well on the often-avoided topic of sex in a manner that lets the audience see the growing pains and struggles that the characters had to go through to keep up their frank and honest conversations. Also, Yoo-mis internal conflict following her drunken hookup was relatable on a personal level, because it reminded me of an experience of a close friend who went through strong cognitive dissonance after acting against her convictions opposing pre-marital sex.
In addition, viewers can take away new lessons about interpersonal relationships that they can apply to their everyday life that couldnt be explored without discussing sex. From Its Okay, Thats Love, we are given the message that although open communication about physical intimacy in relationships can be challenging and uncomfortable, it often yields positive results in the end. At the same time, My Secret Romance teaches us to think carefully about our sexual choices, as they can impact ourselves and others we involve ourselves with.
This progression towards free sexual discourse in K-dramas should be considered a positive thing to viewers. By providing the means to encroach on the complicated topics of adultery and the repercussions of different sexual beliefs on relationships, a more open approach towards sex in dramas allows for the leeway to explore the different nuances of more lifelike love affairs, which often leads to gripping romances that can contribute to an increased sense of enjoyment. Hopefully, this trend persists into the near future.
(Korea Observer, NPR, SFGate, HRW, CSMonitor, QZ. Images via MBC, Dramafever, SBS, tvN, ILDA. )
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