Sexuality in South Korea has been influenced by culture, religion, and westernization. Viewpoints in contemporary society can be viewed as a conflict between the traditional, conservative older generation and the more liberal and 'modern' generation. Due to this conflict, several issues in Korea, including sexual education, homosexuality, and sexual behavior is highly contested.
Women have been marginalized throughout Korean history. Women could not participate in the main social system and were discriminated on the basis of: their roles in marriage, fertility, lack of rights in divorce proceedings, and set roles in society.
Historically, the Korean society was patriarchal, especially due to Confucianism. The position of a woman depended on the position of a male member of her family. Only the women of the ruling class could enjoy the same privileges of the men in the same class. Although men were allowed to have multiple wives, women were expected to have chastity and were compelled to remain unmarried if their husbands have died. The aforementioned societal norms began to be enforced during the Joseon Dynasty. For instance, chastity of widows were enforced by forbidding the sons and grandsons of remarried women from taking the Gwageo. However, women were entitled to inherit property.
In the family, women were expected to take care of the family finances. Women from lower class had jobs such as mudang, or shamans; folk healer; kisaeng. Female shamans outnumbered male shamans, and women were usually only examined by women folk healers. Women were excluded from schools until 1886, when Ewha Hakdang was established.
During the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392), monogamy was supported while divorce and remarriage were common. However, the aristocracy in this period practiced polygamy, and a man was legally allowed to have up to four wives. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897), monogamy was established as the official policy. However, elites were legally allowed to maintain concubines; however, children birthed with concubines were declared illegitimate since the early 15th century, and were banned from gwageo since 1471. During this period, women's remarriage was prohibited from 1447 to 1897. Marriage with those with both the same surname and family origin was forbidden, and is still forbidden today.[note 1]
During this time, early marriages were common. Early marriages were often arranged and can be traced back to the Three Kingdoms of Korea period (57 AD-668). Children about 10 years old could be presented to another family; this was done for both boys and girls. In the Joseon dynasty, the legal age for marriage was 15 for boys and 14 for girls. When a child assumed responsibility for the child's family, the child could marry at the age of 12. The society commonly believed that a higher age for marriage was associated with inappropriate sexual activity. This custom continued unto the 20th century.
Confucianism became important in the 7th century. During the Goryeo Dynasty, Confucianism served as the practical and philosophical structure of the state, and was the official ideology during the Joseon Dynasty. Neo-Confucianism became prominent in the 15th century. In Confucianism, men were considered to be positive (yang) and women negative (yin). As yang was considered more dominant than yin, men were considered to be comparably omnipotent, justifying male dominance and discrimination against female. Furthermore, sex was considered a duty to the family, rather than an act of pleasure. Although only three percent of the population has Confucianism as a belief system today, it remains the basis for sexual ethics and criminal law.
Buddhism was introduced during the Three Kingdoms period. It was the official religion during the Goryeo Dynasty, but lost influence during the Joseon Dynasty. Buddhism was used to instruct people to give up all desires, including those related to sex, and sexual activities were forbidden in many sects.
Catholicism was introduced at the end of the 17th century and began to become popular among the common people at the end of the 18th century. Though Catholicism was outlawed and banned, and the followers executed, it continued to have underground support. Protestantism was introduced on 1884. Both religions were involved in several intellectual movements, and promoted equal rights.
In the Joseon Dynasty, unmarried men and women received a very limited form of sexual education. The education was focused on methods of becoming pregnant and consequent reproduction. Married couples received a calendar that stated information about the best days for fertility; this information was usually given only to the bride, although the groom sometimes received it. As producing children was considered a duty, families sometimes intervened. Prenatal care was considered important and was given even before conception.
The traditional lack of information and education concerning sexual issues is currently conflicting with Western viewpoints of sexuality, and can be seen through the increasing rates of teenage pregnancy and sexual abuse. In 1968, the Planned Parenthood Federation of Korea (PPFK) has started sexual education. Since 1982, counseling centers for adolescents have been provided in schools and industrial parks. However, public education concerning sexuality is inadequate. Sexual education solely focuses on physical development and gender roles such as menstruation, pregnancy, virginity, sexual activities, and Sexually transmitted diseases. In 1996, the Korea Research Institute for Culture and Sexuality was established to develop sexual education programs.
Starting in the early 1990s, Interest in sexual education began to increase. Books, academic interests, and mass media focusing on sexuality began to increase. In 1998, the instructor of a public sexual educational program on television became popular. According to two Korean Research Institute on Sexuality and Culture studies done on 1996 and 1997, 37.1% of male students learned about sex from pornography, while 14% learned it from their peers; for female students, 37% received sexual education from peers while 25.7% received it from school.
According to the Korean Research Institute of Sexuality, 70% of female high school students agreed that masturbation was natural, though only 15.2% of the surveyed students reported masturbating, and the biggest group felt guilty about doing so. In contrast, 49.9% of male high school students reported masturbating. For parents, 75.2% were positive about their own masturbation. The attitudes of the parents toward masturbation had a positive correlation with the attitude of the parents toward their children's masturbation.
Production of pornography is illegal, although amateur material known as Yadong exists. Consequently, Koreans mostly consume pornography from overseas, especially Japanese pornography, sometimes using proxy servers to evade Korean Internet censorship. There are also adult videos filmed abroad with Korean actors, and recorded sex cams sessions. Popularity of K-pop resulted with flooding new porn genre Deepfake with manufactured adult videos with K-pop stars.
In one study, 99.5% of male college students reported that they had been exposed to pornography (excluding participants who declined to answer the question), with 99.1% occasionally using it for masturbation. On average, participants masturbated to pornography 1-2 times a week. Women's pornography use was not investigated.
Yaoi fiction and comics are consumed by a subgroup of women. In 2005, there was a pornographic online magazine named Foxylove that catered mainly to Korean women and reportedly had over a hundred thousand subscribers.
While the circumcision rates in Korea were extremely high (90% in age groups 17–19) as of 2002, the rates have declined recently; the circumcision rate for males 14–29 is 75.8%, with the aforementioned group rate down to 74.4%. It has been conjectured that the decline in the rate of circumcision was due to the increased availability of new information.
In a survey given in 1997, 44.4% of female high school students reported that they had had heterosexual relationships and 7.5% of the entire group had had coital experiences. Of the group who had had coital experiences, 38.7% claimed to have been coerced and 32.3% attributed the reason to love. In a group of students who had not performed vaginal intercourse, about half the students were open to the idea of having sex and blamed their lack of experience on the lack of opportunities. However, 44.7% of students accepted light kissing and 31.6% accepted holding hands as permissible behavior in dating. The majority view was that virginity should be kept until marriage, with 88.1% of the group. For the survey of male students, 16.2% admitted to having had coital experiences, mostly with their girlfriends (74.7%). On the other hand, 65.7% of male high school students indicated a positive attitude towards premarital sexual activity, but only 7.5% had had previous sexual experiences. As a whole, the rate of students who had had sexual experiences increased in the late 20th century.
A survey in 1991 indicated that, of surveyed adult males aged from 20 to 40, over 80% had had previous heterosexual relationships. Of the 80%, 44.7% reported their first sexual experience to have been with a prostitute. A study of married couples revealed that about half the people studied thought negatively about premarital relationships; in general, the female partners were more open to premarital and extramarital relationships. The double standard of relationships [note 2] was hypothesized to cause psychological and physical (especially sexual) stress for females. Hymenorrhaphy, or hymen reconstruction surgery, is also popular in Korea, as the hymen is prized as the symbol for virginity.
Homosexuality is not outlawed in Korea, but it is also not expressly permitted. On September 7, 2013, the first gay marriage in Korea took place. However, the marriage was not legally binding; the couple has vowed to legally challenge this in court.
Under the law, rape is punishable with a prison sentence from 7 years to life imprisonment. The definition of rape includes adult males as victims,[note 3] as well as marital rape. As of 2009, the statute of limitations for sexual assault is six months.
As of 2009, reports of sex crimes have been on the rise, especially those involving child victims. In 2012, there were 77,000 reported cases of sexual assault. In 2011, 22,034 rapes were reported. A study in 1997 found that 45.5% of female high school students reported sexual harassment, mostly by their male friends. These statistics are not considered an accurate representation of the true cases; a 2010 survey by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family concluded that only about 10 percent of all sexual assault cases were reported.
Currently, there is a prevalent traditional belief that rape is a man's mistake that should be forgiven, especially for victims who had been drunk or wearing revealing clothes. The Miryang gang rape incident in 2004 provoked controversy due to victim blaming and other mistreatment by police officials. This mistreatment ultimately led to a 2008 judgment against the police by the Supreme Court of South Korea. There are rape crisis centers available, run by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center.
Prostitution in South Korea is illegal, but according to The Korea Women's Development Institute, the sex trade in Korea was estimated to amount to 14 trillion South Korean won ($13 billion) in 2007, roughly 1.6 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.
Currently the circumcision rate for high-school boys is > 90%