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Sex as Power in the South Korean Military

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( Source: anja_johnson )

“All men are rapists”, I read on the back cover of Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1975) as a student, and determined to impress girls with my intellectual and feminist prowess by debunking that quote, I bought the book and doggedly read all 480 pages trying to find it. Twice.

Yes, I was rather naive about the whole dating game, and you can imagine how I felt when I learned years later that she never actually said that: rather, it was a big misinterpretation of her statement that rape “is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation, by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” (p. 5), albeit an understandable one. Indeed, it’s probably what she’s became best known for, an enduring catch-phrase of pop-feminism that publishers would knowingly exploit to sell the book to me 2 decades later.

Which is a shame, because along with Menachem Amir, she was instrumental in overturning long-held conventions that rape was simply a spontaneous act of lust, instead demonstrating that it is more “a deliberate, hostile, violent act of degradation and possession on the part of a would-be conqueror, designed to intimidate and inspire fear…” (p. 439). Or in short, it’s due to her that surely all reading this are aware that sexual violence is all about power, and not surprised to hear this reaffirmed by the survey “Sexual Violence Among Men in the Military in South Korea” by Insook Kwon et. al., Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 22, No. 8, 1024-1042 (2007), the subject of today’s post.

The first comprehensive survey of its kind, in English or Korean, it was prompted by the suicide of a Korean soldier in July 2003, which received tremendous attention in the media because sexual violence by his superiors seemed to have played a role; after all, with 250,000 men forcibly conscripted each year, any implication that it wasn’t an isolated incident meant that there were far more victims. And in point of fact, with the proviso that the authors’ (undefined) notion of “sexual violence” appears to be much broader than a layperson’s as I’ll explain, they did find that 15.8% of respondents experienced it during their time in the military, either as perpetrators or victims. Before discussing the implications of that however, and especially what it says about the role of the military in the socialization of Korean men, let first provide an overview of the survey so you can make your minds (with a nod to copyright, I won’t upload the survey itself here sorry, but please feel free to email me if you’d like your own copy). And so, without any further ado:

The survey was conducted from November 2003 to February 2004, with researchers meeting 2 groups: 362 postconscripts, then students, at 6 different colleges; and 409 current conscripts, 115 at bus and train stations while they were on leave, and 294 in visits to their barracks with the official cooperation of the Ministry of Defense. From each group, there were 266, 111, and 294 valid samples respectively, giving a total of 671 valid samples out of 771 soldiers surveyed (the bulk excluded being postconscripts, and because more than 3 years had passed since their military service). They also conducted in-depth interviews of 8 perpetrators in army prison, and 3 victims.

Highlights of the results include (all emphases mine):

Of 671 valid respondents who participated in this survey of victimization, perpetration, and observation, a total of 103 people (15.4%) answered that they were directly victimized, 48 people (7.2%) answered that they had direct experience as perpetrators, and 166 people (24.7%) answered that they witnessed sexual violence in the military.

Excluding eyewitnesses, a total of 106 soldiers (15.8%) directly experienced physical sexual violence, either as perpetrators or victims in the military. A very high number of soldiers also indicated they experienced sexual violence as perpetrators and as victims: 59 soldiers (55.7%) were victims only, 39 soldiers (36.8%) were victims and perpetrators, and only 8 soldiers (7.5%) were exclusively perpetrators. Among perpetrators, 83% had experienced sexual violence in the military when they had been lower ranked soldiers. This feature of high number of perpetrators having previously experienced victimization themselves could be seen as the most unique feature of sexual violence among men in the military. (p. 1028)

( Source: anja_johnson )

And:

Victims named higher ranking soldiers (71.1%), junior officers (7%), and officers (3.1%) as their perpetrators, totaling 81.2% of victims who responded that someone of a higher rank forcibly imposed sexual contact….

Also, the eight perpetrators and three victims who agreed to be interviewed, as well as six cases recorded by the Korean Sexual Violence Relief Center and reports by military judiciary officers, confirmed that victims of sexual abuse were in lower ranks than their perpetrators. All victims had been victimized by higher ranking soldiers, and eyewitnesses reported likewise. In sum, sexual violence among men in the military in South Korea was committed primarily by a higher ranking solider against a lower ranking soldier. (p. 1029)

The types of abuse, as reported by victims and witnesses (p. 1031; multiple answers permitted):

As reported by the perpetrators (p. 1033):

Also note that 22.1% of victims (but only 7% of perpetrators) reported that physical violence accompanied the sexual violence, and that 71.8% of victims and 90.7% of perpetrators responded that the acts of sexual violence when others were watching (I’ll return to the latter point shortly).  And in particular, eyewitnesses reported that 22.5% of the sexual violence they saw involved touching genitals, and 5.1% involving anal penetration (or the attempt), nearly 2 and 5 times higher than victims reported respectively.

Reflecting on the discrepancies, Kwon et al. found that:

…people tended to feel more comfortable talking about what might be considered part of a general sexual culture—such as kissing, hugging, and telling sexually explicit jokes—but answers were less forthcoming when concerning sexual violence of a more serious degree. (p. 1032)

Which for a long time I simply didn’t understand: how on Earth was that the “general sexual culture” of the military? Well, first consider that:

When asked, “In the military, have you ever been forced to talk about sexual experiences, even when you did not want to?” almost one third (32.7%) of the 667 respondents answered affirmatively. To the question, “Have you ever experienced negative consequences either because you did not have any sexual experiences or because you refused to discuss your sexual experiences?” a total of 218 soldiers (32.7%) answered that they had been forced to talk about sexual experience. (p. 1028)

And that this mandatory disclosure of sexual experience has long been regarded as “an essential part of sexual culture in the military” is corroborated by numerous references in Korean movies to the practice of virgins visiting a prostitute before starting one’s military service, of which I highly recommend the satirical comedy The First Amendment of Korea below.

( Source )

Next, there is the fact that victims of sexual violence tended to interpret it as:

…intimacy or playfulness, because identification as a victim of sexual violence would imply one’s fragility and vulnerability. This tendency to minimize and trivialize injury was clear in cases where abuse continued for a long time, and in situations where a clear power dynamic between the perpetrator and the victim made resistance much more difficult for the victim. (p. 1033)

Moreover, perpetrators:

…did not force sexual contact on their peers with whom they had even closer relationships [than inferiors]. The intimacy in question was strictly an intimacy from the position of the higher ranking soldier.

Kwon et al. further discuss the natural difficulties victims had in refusing advances by a superior, and crucially, why the third most common form of sexual violence was touching a victim’s genitals. But why, particularly when only 5.4% of victims thought that their perpetrators were genuinely homosexual? Well, as one victim noted:

…unlike in the general society where one could not treat another person with complete disregard for age, educational level, or class, in the military, higher ranking soldiers could treat lower ranking soldiers as one pleased—including touching their genitals. (p. 1035)

And after a discussion of the right to control and abuse the body being a very useful method for militaries to reaffirm its hierarchical order, and of the role of the penis as a symbol of power and authority throughout history, they note that, hence:

…teasing or forceful contact with one’s penis becomes a way to prove the victim’s lack of power.

( Source: Journey to Perplexity )

Needless to say, the effects of this are amplified if done in public settings, and indeed 90.7% of perpetrators responded that people were watching when their sexual violence occurred, with the vast majority of witnesses either actively engaging in it in some way (23.7%), passively consenting by simply watching (57.9%), or pretending not to see (10.5%) rather than attempting to stop it: hence a “general sexual culture.”

But continuing with why:

…violence feminizes victims of sexual violence in two ways. The victim is reduced to a sexual object, like many women typically face in society, and as the powerless victim of violence, he is further feminized. Men who are victimized by sexual violence, then, become someone whose masculinity is lacking or damaged. Hierarchical order reasserts itself amid all this, and men collectively try to be on the offensive to affirm their aggressive masculinity. (pp. 1035-36)

And finally, the testimony of a perpetrator himself on why he did it, who said that he used sexual violence in lieu of physical violence sometimes, forcing sexual contact by “not hitting every time, and not joking around but harassing them”:

[Like harassing them…] Yes, I can’t hit them every time . . . and it’s not just joking around, but harassing them. . . . For instance, making them clean things repeatedly. Stuff like that. . . . If they were from wealthy families . . . or had a lot of education themselves . . . the superiors are ahead only because they came to the military before them . . . honestly . . . when you don’t have much to show for, and if they kiss ass to superiors who intimidate them . . . and if they think you’re not all that . . . well, you can’t beat them and so I kept thinking about ways to give them hell in the military, legal ways . . . and that’s how I ended up. (pp. 1036-37)

( {2-365} Tick Tock by Dee’lite )

But what to make of all this?

At this point, it seems appropriate to point out my own complete lack of experience with the Korean military, as well as not even having any close relationships with any Korean men from whom I could learn about their military service, and so I would be very grateful to hear from those that have either. But then my own inexperience is essentially irrelevant here, as I’m largely passing on the results of renowned experts in the field (scroll down to note #32 here for more information on Kwon for instance); moreover, my own interest in on what is implied for Korean culture and sexuality as a whole, and so let me pass on the following description of military life provided by Ask a Korean, in his own excellent series on military service in Korea:

For some of today’s Korean young men, who have gone soft since the days of their fathers, military experience can be unbearable. Physical exercise is grueling, the superiors can be arbitrary and insulting, and your squad mates could shun you if you are responsible for putting the whole squad in trouble. Given that these guys, just like any other soldiers in Korea, can access guns and grenades, it should be no surprise that recently there has been a string of incidents in which a draftee shoots up his squad or toss a grenade in the squad room, killing many….

….[But there are definitely good life lessons to be learned from the experience, although it may be debatable whether learning those lessons is a good use of 2 to 3 years of young men in their prime. To put it bluntly, the military experience builds Korean men’s tolerance for all the life’s bullshit. As the Korean described so far, there is no shortage of bullshit – some of them perhaps the worst to be encountered in life – in the military. Exhausting physical training, insults and condescension from the superiors, and wasting time on arbitrary and trivial errands are all part of the experience. For young Korean men in the military, there is no choice but to simply grin and bear them. Once they finish bearing it, they know that most difficulties in life would be easier than what they already went through. The combination of such tolerance and insight, some may call it maturity – because, as anyone who has had a regular job can tell you, life as an adult has a lot of crap that we must simply grin and bear.

( Band of Brothers by The U.S. Army Photostream )

And in the next post in that series (my emphasis):

…one can argue that the military culture neatly coincides with traditional Korean culture – in both cultures, seniority automatically commands respect and loyalty. It is not surprising, then, that Korean workplaces are often run just like a squad in the military. You do what your boss tells you to do, and you are supposed to grin and bear it. Your time will come because Korea, like Japan, had automatic advancement by seniority at least until 1990s. Once you are the boss, you can order people around, much like the way you can order people around once you put in the time and became a sergeant.

I happened to work in such a place when I wrote the first post in my own series on gender and militarization in South Korea, and in which I noted that Korean corporate life often requires such a level of personal sacrifice for one’s superiors that, tellingly, even the Samsung Economic Research Institute acknowledges that “many workers…take it for granted that they have to tolerate anything in return for getting paid.” I should note however, that many readers thought my workplace was the exception rather than the rule, but be that as it may, the purpose of many of those things to be tolerated there boiled down to no more than the demonstration (and abuse) of superiors’ authority…and so too does sexual violence clearly emerge as one means – albeit, and I stress, only one, uncommon means – of doing so in the Korean military.

But I will further cover the effects on Korean gender relations and sexuality in great detail as I belatedly continue that series next month. In the meantime, let me leave you with the following passage from Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search For Who We Are (1993) by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan to ponder, a book which had a great effect on my worldview and which frequently came to mind as I was writing this post (via Viraj’s Weblog):

( Source )

We go to great lengths to deny our animal heritage, and not just in scientific and philosophical discourse. You can glimpse the denial in the shaving of men’s faces; in clothing and other adornments; in the great lengths gone to in the preparation of meat to disguise the fact that an animal is being killed, flayed, and eaten. The common primate practice of pseudosexual mounting of males by males to express dominance is not widespread in humans, and some have taken comfort from this fact. But the most potent form of verbal abuse in English and many other languages is “Fuck you,” with the pronoun “I” implicit at the beginning. The speaker is vividly asserting his claim to higher status, and his contempt for those he considers subordinate. Characteristically, humans have converted a postural image into a linguistic one with barely a change in nuance. The phrase is uttered millions of times each day, all over the planet, with hardly anyone stopping to think what it means. Often, it escapes our lips unbidden. It is satisfying to say. It serves its purpose. It is a badge of the primate order, revealing something of our nature despite all our denials and pretensions.

Personal author, compiler, or editor name(s); click on any author to run a new search on that name. Kwon, InsookLee, Dong-OkKim, ElliKim, Hyun-Young


Filed under: Gender Socialization, Korean Sexuality, Prostitution, Rape, Sexual Abuse, Sexual Harassment

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