Lee Chun Yu-ran, a 30-something office worker in Seoul, attended a “menopause party” with her mother organized by Lala School in December, and has also been to one of the group’s Sex Salons at the recommendation of a friend. “[Lala School] helped me get out of the twisted reality that Korean woman cannot enjoy sex as part of a healthy life, and to recognize the need for gender equality,” said Lee Chun. “I learned that there can be 100 different kinds of sex for 100 different people.”

Lala School’s “menopause party.” Lee Chun Yu-ran and her mother are pictured at the front of the photo.
Lala School’s “menopause party.” Lee Chun Yu-ran and her mother are pictured at the front of the photo.
Image: Lala School

The F-word

Yet many sex educators say that despite the flourishing of interest in sex and gender issues in Korea, one thing still remains taboo—feminism.

“Many parents agree on [the importance of] gender equality, but have a negative opinion about the word ‘feminism,'” said Kim Bo-gyeong, 27, who teaches fourth-graders at a school in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi province. “So I just teach the content without using the word ‘feminism’ to avoid complaints.” The school recently held a “gender equality week.”

The aversion to mentioning feminism in conversations about gender in Korean classrooms is reflected more broadly in Korean society, with K-pop stars who profess sympathy for the feminism subjected to bitter criticism from male fans. As in the US, the phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the gaming world, with male gamers monitoring the social media activity of female employees at gaming companies for signs of feminist leanings. Feminists are routinely derided as “femi-nazis” or “gol-femi,” an internet term that roughly translates as “idiot.”

Whether the fight for gender equality in Korea is labeled “feminist” or not, #MeToo seems to have inspired women (and men) to express their anger and demands for change. In recent months, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest against spy cams, the criminalization of abortion, and oppressive beauty standards.

For some, the outpouring of civic participation around women’s rights is reminiscent of the kind of mass movement that transformed Korea first into a democracy, and more recently, brought down a deeply corrupt president. It’s a way they say, to deepen the country’s democracy, by making it more just.

“This society has a lot of injustices when it comes to gender equality,” said Go Young-ju, a 44-year-old English teacher in Iksan, in the southwest of the country. He has been incorporating more feminist material into his classes, such as asking his students to translate Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists from English into Korean. “We all need to find the courage to… take action. My teaching is just the beginning.”

Go said that he sometimes gets calls from other teachers and parents over his feminist curriculum, but he said he’s not fazed. “When we experienced the process of democratization in this country, it was to break down the power structures that were in place,” he said. “It’s worth teaching feminism in order to make Korea a [more] democratic country.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. 

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