Constructions of marriage and sexuality in modern Korea

Hyaeweol Choi

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    It has long been taboo in Korea to speak openly about sex, sexuality and divorce, especially for women (Shim 2001: 133). This prohibition is due, in part, to the lasting impact of Confucianprescribed ideals of chastity, purity and womanly propriety that were systematically constructed during the Choso˘n dynasty (1392-1910). Contemporary South Korea, however, has one of the world’s highest divorce rates (Onishi 2003), and the rapidly increasing percentage of ‘international marriages’ since the early 1990s has caused a major shift in perspectives on marriage, family and ethnic identity (Kim 2013). Furthermore, beginning in the late 1980s, a wide range of research and activism challenged and complicated the heteronormative assumptions deeply embedded in the discursive, legal and everyday practices concerning marital dynamics, sexuality and the male and female body. By ‘heteronormative assumptions’, I am referring to the privileged status of the traditional family based on heterosexual marriage and the progeny of that union. In this chapter, I approach marriage, gender roles and sexuality as largely historical, discursiveand legal constructs (Connell 1987: 119-42; Ducille 1990: 106-7; Kendall 1996: 10; Tikhonov 2007: 1029). Historical evidence shows that both women and men have, at various times, complied with, appropriated, or resisted ideal types as a way to survive and create their own space. To illustrate the interplay between discourses and practices of marriage and sexuality, I focus on three major historical junctures that brought about transformations in gender relations in modern Korea. First, I will discuss neo-Confucian gender ideology and practices during the Choso˘n dynasty (1392-1910) and the lasting impact of that era on gender discourse and everyday life even today. In particular, I highlight patrilineal social arrangements and the ideology of chastity as a politically and culturally sanctioned mechanism to regulate and control women’s sexuality. Then, I examine Korea’s experience with modern Japan, Europe and North America from the late nineteenth century to the first half of the twentieth century period during which Korea’s ‘enlightenment’ movements took place and Korea underwent colonisation by Japan (1910-45). This period also saw an influx of new ideas, images and materials from Japan, the US and Europe, and these transnational encounters contributed to the challenging and refashioning of neo-Confucian gender ethics. Finally, I analyse the postcolonial experience in South Korea since 1945 with a central focus on the ways in which rapid industrialisation,urbanisation, militarisation, and gradual democratisation have shifted perspectives on sexuality and gender politics in general (on North Korea, see Kim in this volume).
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationRoutledge Handbook of Sexuality Studies in East Asia
    Editors Mark McLelland and Vera Mackie
    Place of PublicationAbingdon and New York
    ISBN (Print)9780415639484
    Publication statusPublished - 2015


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