Men Who Yearn to Be Erect, and the Women Who Bear Them

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He leans in and caresses her face. He plants his lips on hers. She opens her eyes wide, looking utterly surprised. Then she gives in, chastely closing her eyes as she keeps herself perfectly still.

When I get around to watching a South Korean drama, this is more or less how most kiss scenes unfold. And that was the image in my head a few weeks ago as an American friend living in Seoul confessed to me that he could no longer bring himself to date a South Korean woman because, as he put it, “Whenever I try to initiate sex, she will say no even as she acts like she also wants it. What am I supposed to do, just pretend that no actually means yes?”

It seems some South Korean men do precisely that. A popular sex columnist and author Bae Jeong-won warns on her website that a common misconception among men in this country is that “a woman’s ‘no’ actually means ‘yes’”. A 28-year-old South Korean male acquaintance alarms me by admitting to sharing that view: “When I feel like it, I just go right in whether she says yes or not”.

South Korea is well-known for having a long way to go when it comes to gender equality. Men who think no means yes, and women who say no in vain. They are both unfortunate products of a culture that does not allow women agency, even in the intimate act of sex. The bedroom may be the most unequal yet overlooked place in South Korean gender relations, the sacred heart of the nation where patriarchy truly lives on.

South Korean women appear to have a great deal of sexual freedom because they can be ‘sexy’ to their hearts’ content. Telling a woman she is sexy is considered a big compliment. And it is routine for female cultural icons who populate the entertainment industry to bare almost all so they can grab headlines as ‘sexy icons’.

But it does not mean women are sexually liberated. The much-touted ideal of South Korean female beauty, the so-called beigeul-nyeo or ‘bagel girl’, is none other than a woman who has a ‘baby’ face and a ‘glamorous’ body, combining the innocence of a child and the allure of a porn star to represent the ultimate object of male desire: a virgin-whore who will seduce but harbour not a shred of her own will. She is that girl who will give in even as she stays still, saying no yet carrying out her expected duty.

The flipside of that misogynistic outlook toward women’s sexual agency is the curiously extensive discussion of male sexuality, notably jeongnyeok, which is commonly translated as energy, stamina, or virility, but most often equated to an ability to keep a dick stiff for a long time.

South Korea abounds in literature on improving this private faculty. Reading internet newspaper articles means having to confront promises of eternal tumescence in adverts, linked to websites for various urology clinics and quasi-pharmaceutical products. Going to take a piss in a public restroom is also no peaceful experience, what with all the boldly typed business cards scattered above the urinal and trumpeting “powerfully effective” and “exceptionally long-lasting” Viagra and Cialis, as well as “stimulants” that can be administered to women in case they are not excited enough by men’s overtures alone.

I Googled this subject in Korean and easily found dozens of YouTube clips excerpted from South Korean television shows, which share secrets of jeongnyeok with more than a few winks and nods. It appears there are even hagwon — private educational institutions — that help desperate men cultivate jeongnyeok by offering everything from dietary advice to advanced techniques in intercourse to outlandish exercises that supposedly develop muscles in the nether region.

Then there is the thriving trade in all things that are supposed to give men an added dose of staying power. The notorious human flesh capsules that scandalise the public from time to time guarantee, among other things, jolts of energy in that place below the belt. And beyond the more exotic substances like turtles, snakes, centipedes and dog meat that one can find at traditional markets, legitimate firms peddle berries, ginseng, herbs, and even garlic as the ultimate bedroom cure.

I do not suggest that South Korean men are more obsessed with having a large, erect penis than people elsewhere are. My spam folder is full of penile enlargement adverts in English, and erectile dysfunction drugs are best-sellers in many countries around the world. A recent New York Times article titled “Searching for Sex”, for one, showed that one of the most frequently posed queries on Google among American men is “How big is my penis?”

But the very open discussion in South Korea surrounding erections is an intriguing matter, particularly in stark contrast to the near-total absence of public discourse on female desire outside the pages of women’s magazines.

Alex King for Korea Exposé
Alex King for Korea Exposé

Among women, the closest parallel to the erection mania that I can find is in the rising popularity of vaginoplasty — a surgery for making a woman ‘pretty’ and tighter in her private area, and rendering her better suited to giving the penis the pleasure it allegedly deserves.

The phallus, however, remains supreme in the South Korean imagination of sex, while the vagina is relegated to playing second fiddle, or a receptacle. It is he who performs the penetrative act and provides the crucial ingredient for phallocentric sex. A feeble man who fails to whip up turgidity upon demand is derided as a tokki or ‘rabbit’, named after that animal notorious for its short duration of mating. But the name-calling also implies that only he has the ability to make or break sex. Women cannot be blamed for bad sex because they have no control at all.

It is a terrible predicament for both genders. Given this pressure to skewer their female partners, men who are cursed with flaccid shafts — or God forbid, premature ejaculation — must resort to all measures at disposal. Such is the stress over a healthy erection, for both husband and wife, that women pore over jeongnyeok-fuelling recipes to assist their weak menfolk, clinics offer various treatments including — in the worst-case scenario — severing certain nerves, and drugstores sell condoms laced with local anesthetics, designed to prevent an early climax.

And women, in spite of said efforts, do not always have a good time. A South Korean female colleague in her mid-thirties confides: “I think few women actually achieve orgasm. I am in a fortunate minority. When I talk about this with my friends, they say they don’t have my luck.”

That South Korean men go to such trouble for an erection illustrates how the notion of jeongnyeok stems from a particular cultural conception of masculinity which positions men as superiors who “take charge” of submissive women. A Korea expert in Europe calls this in private the Oppa Syndrome, after the Korean word for “older brother”, because South Korea has long cultivated in men the sense of obligation to be the stronger partner — one who pays for dating, finds the apartment to live in, and, it seems, single-handedly determines the course of sex — while women have been led to long for that someone they can lean on physically, financially, and sexually.

In this scenario, men can view themselves as good lovers — and manly men — only if they succeed in prolonged penetration. And men who suffer from erectile dysfunction are seen not simply as poor bed-mates; they endure accusations of having failed as men, cast as lacking in jeongnyeok in another sense of the word: stamina, energy, the male essence.

South Korean men’s quest for jeongnyeok, as well as the national conversation surrounding the penis, is a collective project to keep men in their ‘rightful’ position on top, physically and metaphorically, as masters of their domain. A typical review of an ostensibly effective jeongnyeok booster goes, “My wife could not get up in the morning [after a night of sex]”, or “She became more loving toward me than she had been in years”. Having demonstrated his superior function over his wife or girlfriend in the bedchamber, man is finally recompensed with affection and respect he is owed.

Unfortunately, the price of that manliness is the submission of women, who are expected to enjoy the aggressive attention without looking eagre, rejecting the hard member even when they give no consent and feel no reward, or expressing what they themselves want. An orgasm perhaps. Intimacy. A man unlike that apathetic 28-year-old male acquaintance of mine who announces, “Even if my girlfriend says she doesn’t want it, my job is to get a reaction out of her”.

South Korea is one of the world’s top consumer nations of pornography, which says something about the pervasive male tendency to treat women as sexbots. Meanwhile, the country’s sex education is woefully inadequate to say the least. When I went to middle school in Seoul in the 1990s, what we got was a grainy VHS tape of a sperm entering an egg; it looks like little has changed since then.

Entrenched misogyny only compounds the problem. The aforementioned colleague laments: “The androcentric ‘macho’ culture demands that men talk about women as sexual conquests. Men go to the military and learn to frequent brothels where they compete to see who has sex the longest with prostitutes. They share this violent fantasy toward women”.

That innocent-looking on-screen kiss between a boy and a girl hides the less savoury reality of South Korean men-women relations founded on the presupposition of male superiority that will take years, if not decades, to eradicate. But it is better late than never to start scissoring away at the unruly penis.

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Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.