Dating in Korea has become common. With love always in the air, young couples indulge in more casual and liberal love relationships. It has not been long since singles could choose who to date, but like most young Koreans, more and more UOS students are already embracing free love.
What was dating like when we had no cell phones, Internet, or social networking? Back in the old days when none of these mediums existed, people really had to work to get to know someone. For university students in the late 1960s, a typical first date might require hours of talking while sipping coffee at a quiet bakery or at a music cafe where folk music could be heard live. Throughout history, and in many societies, there have been times when women were not allowed to choose their love partners. In Korea, as well, only since modernization and the arrival of foreign influences have women been able to express their opinions and desires for love in public or to their families. What we now call free love is a new concept in Korean culture.
The term free love has manifested itself in a variety of movements throughout history, as well, but with various implications. In the 19th century, it came to indicate freedom to choose a monogamous partner and to end a relationship at one’s will. With a growing interest in the rights of women and sexual minorities in the early 1900s, the concept of free love began to signify equality in love relationships. In the decades that followed, the concept evolved again to indicate a casual sex lifestyle for both men and women. As we can see from these interpretations of free love, the adjective free carries two meanings: liberal and equal. The term free love can be defined, on the one hand, as love that embodies personal liberty, and on the other hand, as love that acknowledges an equality between both sexes in a relationship.
▲ A student couple is too shy to get closer to each other - from the movie C’est Si Bon
How have People Defined Love throughout History?
Classical Greek culture, which is often referred to as the cradle of western civilization, provides a range of words and definitions for love, many of which have influenced our values today. To the ancient Greeks, love was not a single concept, but six different concepts: eros, philia, ludus, agape, pragma, and philautia. Eros is translated as sexual passion, philia as deep friendship, ludus as affection between lovers, agape as selfless love, pragma as mature love, and philautia as self-love. In the east, commonly represented by classical Chinese culture and Confucianism, there is an emphasis on duty and circumstances in a relationship. Pronounced [ai], the Chinese character for love, 愛, consists of two different characters, one meaning “heart” and the other meaning “acceptance.” When combined into one pictogram, the two characters signify love. Such broad cultural difference in defining love leads us to another question: what is the Korean dating style, if such a style can be defined, especially for a people whose traditions have been so deeply immersed in the Eastern view of love?
As with most aspects of society in Korea, dating is definitely undergoing a change. Young Korean couples, in particular, have adopted a new dating style known as sseom. Imported from the English word, something, sseom refers to the period just before an actual relationship when two people have “something” going on. Although there are various definitions for the condition of sseom, it is commonly known as a prelude to a committed relationship in which people determine if dating would be worth their time and money, and possibly a permanent match.
Liberating the Dating Culture
Survey by The UOS Times [ 182 Respondents ]
Q1 These days, there are indications that university students are moving towards free love - in terms of both sexual behavior and gender roles. Alba Cheon-guk, a Korean online job site, recently conducted a survey of 943 university students to find out how young couples were paying for their dating expenses. Splitting the bill in half came in first, with 37.4 percent of respondents stating that they actually practice it. A total of 54.7 percent of students said that splitting the bill would be an ideal way, but that they do not necessarily do it. Not only that, but the percentage of student couples going dutch - or paying for their own expenses rather than splitting the bill - has almost tripled compared to survey results in 2013. Similar results were drawn from this year’s survey of 176 students at the University of Seoul (UOS). To the question, “How should a couple pay for dating expenses,” nearly 71 percent answered “according to a couple’s financial status,” and the second highest number of students chose splitting the bill evenly. Contrary to the general belief that Korean women are financially dependent on men, the majority of UOS students supported autonomy in relationships, indicating that traditional gender roles do not remain strong among young couples.
Q2 In addition, student beliefs about the right time for a sexual relationship support the notion that UOS is moving toward more liberal love values. The vast majority of respondents - 90.9 percent of the 175 UOS students surveyed in writing - approved of having a sexual relationship, with only 4 percent disapproving. Among 159 students who viewed sexual relationships in a positive light, 57 out of 175 said the decision is up to the individuals involved, and that time does not necessarily matter, while 22 answered that time does not matter as long as both parties consent and are responsible for their actions. The remainder offered certain time frames they thought were appropriate. Although a considerable number of students of all age groups and genders replied that three to six months is needed before a couple should have a sexual relationship, more females than males between the ages of 20 and 23 thought that “more than a year is needed.”
Different Perceptions on Dating
Q3 When asked why they remain single, male students between the ages of 20 and 23 chose personality as their most significant challenge. As students of both sexes grow older, their studies and preparation for employment hinder attempts at starting relationships. However, while 61.9 percent of males over the age of 24 answered that their pursuit of learning and career is what holds them back from dating someone, among 21 to 23 year-old females, the figure was only 33.9 percent. Instead, female respondents exhibit another major concern. Female students aged 21-23 tend to consider appearance a more important factor than male students of the same age group do.
Q4 It is not uncommon to spot young couples expressing physical intimacy in public, what many young people call Public Displays of Affection (PDA). While some are hesitant to do more than hold hands or link arms in public, others display affection for each other in a more outright manner to an extent that older generations may find uncomfortable, or even inappropriate. With a blurred standard of social norms and etiquette, how far couples can cross the boundaries of PDA remains tricky. On this issue, however, there is a difference in perception towards PDA among age groups and genders. Among males at the age of 20, most respondents showed indifference towards PDAs, whereas those aged 21 to 23 expressed jealousy as a reaction to seeing intimacy in public. Female respondents aged 20 to 23, on the other hand, gave a more negative response toward overt sexual expression than men. Their reactions included, “low-level,” “easy to look down on,” and “hateful.” These results confirmed that excessive PDA is not viewed in a positive light by many young students, and the majority of UOS students are still self-conscious and are not entirely open to being affectionate in front of others.
Q5 When UOS students were questioned about the problem of free love among university students, various answers reflecting a broad range of perspectives were given. Except for 78 uncategorized responses which in fact took up the majority, the rest of the responses could be grouped into five categories. The most common opinion ? 36.9 percent of the 103 students who responded ? was that relationships are too “shallow.” These students expressed concern about the “instant love” trend that they observe these days. “Economic problems” were the second most important issue to the respondents. Meanwhile, concerns about an “imprudent attitude towards physical relationships” and “Gossip and rumors after breakups” ranked fourth and fifth, respectively. It may be surprising that 18.4 percent considered the “competitive atmosphere in academics and employment” to be a great concern, coming in third among all concerns expressed. One replied that “society does not let college students fall in love. They are too busy.” In addition to these opinions, there were some criticisms of the common concept of love and dating as a duty. They pointed out that students tend to want to start relationships with anybody so that they meet the expectations of their peers. One respondent wrote that everyone should take responsibility for their own relationships, rather than conforming to societal expectations.
Q6 Students who are currently dating were asked whether they would marry their current dating partners. The results from these respondents were half-and-half. Among 107 respondents, 52 students replied that they would marry their current partners, while 55 said they would not. However, there was an interesting tendency depending on the age group. In both sexes, older respondents were more likely to answer “yes.” 76.2 percent of students over the age of 24 said they would, as well. In comparison, 43.9 percent of 21 to 23 year-olds and only 35 percent of 20-year-old students answered “yes.”
Female students were more reluctant when it came to marriage. Among male students, 55.8 percent replied that they would marry their current partners, while the percentage of female students who answered the same was lower by more than 10 percent: 43.8 percent. These results may reflect how women define the concept of marriage, and there may be several reasons why women are less interested in marrying. Although Korean society is becoming more liberal, Confucianism seems to have a strong influence with its formulation of unequal roles between man and woman; there are still some remnants of this discrimination these days. In Korea, women have often encountered glass ceilings in their careers because of their conflicting roles as homemakers and mothers. In this environment, marriage and pregnancy seem to be obstacles only to female workers.
Q7 About 48 percent of students showed a neutral attitude towards a sexual relationship before marriage. Most of them answered that it is and should be one’s autonomous decision. Among the rest of the respondents, those who sided with the cons in refraining from sexual intercourse before marriage slightly beat the pros by five percent. The cons replied that it is an anachronistic idea to impose the duty to keep “virginity.” The tendency to oppose the idea of saving oneself for marriage was noticeable among male students. Only 9.6 percent of male students answered that they would not have sex until wedded while 40.9 percent responded that they would. The difference between pros and cons among female students was less than two percent, making a very close divide on the issue of pre-marital sex.
It is interesting to note that some female students expressed a distaste for the word virginity. They argued that, in Korean, the term virginity is only ascribed to women, and they recommended the use of other words. For comparison, in English, the term may refer to anyone of either gender who has not had sexual intercourse, although it still most commonly refers to women. This new view of virginity may reflect two concepts now gaining acceptance among young Koreans in general. First, it would be an error to define virginity as a biological condition; if applied to both genders, it may carry a more cultural definition, as well. As a biological term, it refers to a condition before the breaking of a woman,s hymen; however, the hymen may be broken in other ways apart from sexual intercourse. This definition leads to another error: the belief that the condition of the hymen reflects a woman,s character. Secondly, females have become more aware that they are being viewed as passive sexual objects and have begun to secure self-determination on sexual issues.
Unequal Reality Uncovered by UOS Students
Although survey results provide evidence that the general trend of dating is moving toward a more liberal approach to love, it is unclear whether the concept of free love also includes the ideal of equality. In responses to some questions, there remains a passivity on the part of women towards gender and sexual expression. On the question of whether to have sex before marriage, some female students told The UOS Times that “it feels like only women are forced to conform to such expectations,” and “forcing and expecting only women to not engage in premarital sex should be avoided.”
▲ Practical sex education at school
Male students were more likely to feel jealous when encountering PDA, while the majority of female students felt an intense uneasiness at the sight of overt sexual expression. Furthermore, female respondents showed higher self-consciousness towards their appearances. What does this tell us? Such a tendency may reflect a widespread social belief that women should maintain a higher standard of beauty. This stricter standard is evident, for example, not only in film and television, but also in social media, where a chart presenting ideal weight for women according to their height has recently been circulating. Korean women are expected to live up to a cultural beauty standard that praises pale-white skin tones, large eyes and endless weight management. However, men also feel subjected to ideals of beauty, with similar charts of ideal height circulating. These standards suggest to young men and women that height and weight determine their value as human beings. In this arms race of beauty, men and women are placed in a competition to look their best, and anyone not willing to take part in the race will feel regarded as less valuable.
A lack of sex education may be a contributing factor to imprudent behaviors in physical relationships. Most UOS students surveyed appear to have received sex education before entering college. Still, 10.9 percent of students answered that they have not received it. Among those who stated that they had taken some sex education courses, a majority indicated that they had received their education from schools or public institutions. Only 11.5 percent cited alternative sources including online research, books, media and home education. The percentage of students who have received sex education is significantly high. However, issues such as unwanted pregnancy or sexual harassment among university students bring the adequacy of sex education into question. Sang-soo Kim, a counselor at the UOS Student Counseling Center, said that sex education in Korea concentrates on basic theories, without a concern for how those theories may be applied in real life. He also mentioned that college students are aware of the necessity of practical sex education, but they lack the opportunity.
▲ Sang-soo Kim, the UOS Couselor at the UOS Student Counseling Center
Insufficient education on gender and sexual relationships, Kim added, may lead to negative results. Such negative outcomes range from sexual violence and dating violence, to stalking and compulsive sexual relationships. A large portion of students tend to be unaware of precautions against unwanted pregnancy, and the percentage of students engaging in one night stands while unprotected is on the rise. Sex education that provides practical knowledge and hands-on experience will lead to healthier sex lives.
As it undertakes an improvement in sex education, UOS can learn from a precedent in 2014. In a bid to increase awareness among students of practical sexual knowledge, the Counseling Center held a “Healthy Sexual Culture Campaign,” which included a booth, where students could gain exposure to devices for sexual protection and pleasure and safely consider the implications of their own sexual activity. Not only through experience, but also through a change in social perception, students will be able to understand sexual relationships better. Korean society needs to shun a social atmosphere that regards sex as a taboo topic and a source of embarrassment.
As members of a rapidly changing society, we are experiencing a more liberal love culture. Things that were impossible in the previous century have become quite natural, and young Koreans have more freedom now to speak up for their thoughts and feelings. However, whether we are genuinely free remains in doubt. People cannot call themselves free when there is only license. Reports of dating violence and sexual harassment are among us and will endanger this free culture of love if they continue. Although society permits a more open mind toward love than ever before, it is also true that this is a more difficult time for university students to fall in love; it is highly competitive and fraught with confusion and uncertainty.
To counter the pressure, perhaps students should adopt an attitude that love is more precious - achieved through considerable effort by both men and women. Both sexes need to treat each other as equal human beings, with their own rights of self-determination. This right will become evident only through mutual respect. It is crucial, especially for women in their own progress, to remember that people are independent beings with active control over their own feelings and behaviors. If university students accept the ideal of autonomy and responsibility between both genders, our free love will not only be liberal, but also equal. As Kim pointed out, “Love is one of the important learning processes in life. Students learn how to form relationships with the other gender through their experiences with love in university.”