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South Korea’s move to criminalise ‘semen terrorism’: A progressive action to tackling sex crimes

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South Korea is considered an economic miracle due to its rapid economic growth after the Korean War (1950-1953). The South Korean economy witnessed a rapid growth from the 1960s to 1980s, followed by the 1990s Asian financial crisis. The country overcame the crisis in 1999 and 2000 and was again affected by the global financial crisis in late 2000s. In 2010, South Korea made a strong economic rebound with a growth rate of 6.1%, signalling a return of the economy to pre-crisis levels and has continued to grow through the present with some minor setbacks in 2019.   

However, South Korea has not achieved a similar level of success in its gender equality index. In the 2021 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap ranking, South Korea ranked 102 out of the 156 countries with the largest gap on economic participation. South Korean society is still embedded with the traditional Confucian patriarchal values. One of the most substantial cultural influences in Korean intellectual history was the introduction of Confucian thought as a part of cultural influence from China. Korean Confucianism emerged and developed in Korea and still remains a fundamental part of the Korean society.  It is an ethical and philosophical system that shapes the moral compass, way of life, and social relations of much of Korean life. It asserts, inter alia, that women’s social status is lower than that of men and emphasizes on maintaining women’s image of ‘sexual purity’.  In a survey of 2000 South Korean men conducted in 2017, revealed that at least 80% of the respondents had perpetrated violence against their intimate partner.  

Crimes involving capturing or sharing intimate images without consent are referred to as “digital sex crimes” in South Korea. However, in these cases, one of the shocking revelations was the extent to which interviewees described the sharing and consumption of non-consensual images as being socially accepted among some men, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report.   

Dahye Chang, a research fellow at the Korean Institute of Criminology, described an online “private male collective culture” and said, “Objectification of women is central to the maintenance of this culture… Women are objectified to strengthen male relationships.” He further added that the sharing of these non-consensual images makes these men feel more masculine and powerful. He also added that what is now recognized as crime was previously part of an entertainment culture and hence many men are hesitant to acknowledge the activity as a sex-crime.   

Semen terrorism is an act of secretly delivering or smearing semen onto someone else. South Korean politicians have made a move to make amendments to existing laws in order to make semen terrorism a punishable sex crime. This comes after a string of controversial court verdicts that have punished men who have secretly ejaculated on women’s belongings for “property damage” and not for sexual offence.  This push by the South Korean government to criminalize ‘semen terrorism’ should be assessed in a similar light to digital sex-crimes that is by taking into consideration the cultural recognition of an activity as a criminal offence.  

The MeToo movement in South Korea began in January 2018 when public prosecutor Seo Ji-Hyeon accused a former South Korean ministry of justice official of groping her. In March 2018, almost 200 women gathered in Seoul to protest their own experiences of sexual assault. In June 2018, more than 20,000 people protested in Seoul against the use of spy-cameras to secretly film women in public places such as restrooms. A positive result of the #MeToo movement was the amendment of South Korea’s Equal Employment Opportunity Laws in 2019 which included stronger and harsher sexual harassment policies. However, what was missing in South Korea’s MeToo movement was a broader discussion on what constitutes harassment and what does not.    

A study conducted by Timothy S. Rich, Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University, in which he surveyed 739 South Koreans, revealed that the difference in perception of direct or physical harassment is smaller between men and women. 17.31% of men viewed complimenting a woman’s appearance as harassment, compared to 50.94% of women. 50.85% of men compared to 82.61% of women viewed criticising appearance as harassment. 

Such difference in perceptions about what constitutes harassment and assault between men and women has led to lenient court rulings and societal attitudes towards sex crimes such as ‘semen terrorism’ in South Korea. Instances of difference in perceptions can be observed in several cases of ‘semen terrorism’ which were tackled very casually without even recognizing it as a ‘sex crime’. In 2019, a man who soaked a woman’s shoes with semen was given a 500,000 won fine ($435). Police said at the time the investigation was carried out on charges of “property damage” because there were no legal provisions to apply sex crime charges.  

According to South Korean Law, a perpetrator must exercise violence of intimidation in order for the offence to be recognised as a sex crime, such as molestation or rape.   

In June 2019, a man was sentenced to four years in prison for “attempted injury” among other charges after spiking a woman’s coffee with laxatives and aphrodisiacs as revenge for rejecting his love advances. Despite also adding his semen and phlegm to the mixand to other items 54 times, the crime was not recognised as a sex crime because no forced sexual assault was established.  

Baek Hye-ryun, a lawmaker of the ruling Democratic party has submitted an amendment bill to the national assembly last month that seeks to expand the scope of punishable sex crimes to include non-physical contact through the delivery of objects or substances that cause sexual shame. A similar bill has been submitted by her fellow parliamentarian, Lee Su-jin in December, 2020, which seeks to expand the scope of what constitutes ‘indecent acts’. Both bills are yet to be discussed at the National Assembly.   

To recognize an activity as a sex crime should be understood from the victim’s point of view.  The victim’s viewpoint which was ignored as we observed in previous cases, has been recognized now as efforts are made to legally recognize the act of ‘semen-terrorism’ as a ‘sex crime’. Cultural and gender-based variation in understanding sex-crimes is a hindrance in recognizing certain acts of sexual violence. But, paying attention to victim’s perspective towards the activity will help in recognizing and thus punishing such sexual offences.   

We can observe progress in South Korea’s handling of sexual violence. It brought about a stricter law against digital sex crimes such as possession of illegal sexual videos and stalking. Now, the country is making an effort to criminalize semen-terrorism. Through these legal efforts, South Korean government is shattering the culturally dominant understandings of sexual violence. It is recognizing the marginalized forms of sexual violence which are non-physical and indirect but equally humiliating. We contend that, cultural recognition of an activity as crime is not always necessary for it to be legally recognized. Legal action can be also followed by cultural acceptance when it comes to defending marginal perceptions. 

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