How can students prevent sexual assault while on a trip with their friends?
Don’t go in the first place, said the Ministry of Education’s first standardized sex education curriculum in 2015. And to prevent sexual assault when home alone with a friend of the opposite sex?
Don’t be alone with them at all.
So, when nonprofit organization Diversity Korea started an online petition in May to abolish the curriculum, South Koreans did not shy away: More than 10,000 people signed the petition within two weeks. CEO Kim Ji-hak said with the unexpected level of support, Diversity Korea — dedicated to research, education and campaigns on human rights and diversity — increased its goal to 100,000 signatures. It plans to send the petition to the Ministry of Education sometime in August.
“The guidelines were developed without consulting sex education professionals and stakeholders who have long worked in the field,” the petition says. “It has received continued criticism for perpetuating gendered stereotypes, spreading false information about sexual assault and providing both unrealistic and outdated content.”
Diversity Korea also posted photos of the curriculum, which Kim said were from its initial release in 2015, but taken down from the ministry’s website due to backlash. The guidelines were apparently sent to schools, where teachers can develop their own lessons, but are no longer publicly available online, confirmed a Ministry of Education representative.
South Korea’s sex education has long been criticized for being backward and impractical, but it’s difficult to know exactly what’s inside unless you are a student yourself. Even for interested researchers, digging up the contents is no easy task (as Korea Exposé discovered in the course of writing this article).
So what exactly are children learning in schools?
The Infamous Pyojunan: Sex Education Standards
In one version of the ministry-issued teacher guidelines available on the North Chungcheong Provincial Office of Education’s website, topics are divided according to three different age groups (elementary, middle and high school). Each age group gets a workbook with questions and activities that are meant to reinforce the lessons. The guidelines and workbooks together cover a wide range of issues, but they actually never explain what sex is.
For example, the high school workbook contains six sections: human life and parenthood; relations with the opposite sex and parental roles; how to cope with sexual issues; sexual behavior and responsibility; sexual health; and understanding and preventing “illegal sexual acts.”
While the guidelines do provide some beneficial information — one section defines the differences between biological sex and cultural notions of gender, while another includes illustrations of sexual organs and genitalia — they are largely filled with vaguely sex-related contents about “the culture of sex” but not anything specifically about the sex act itself. This more often than not refers to interactions with members of the opposite sex, or family values and the concept of love.
In one section titled “Techniques in communicating with the opposite sex,” the high school workbook provides a checklist to help students “understand” their own “communication styles.” The next page is a scenario quiz of sorts, providing students with examples of hypothetically frustrating scenarios — including one where your boyfriend/girlfriend is always late, and is trying to use traffic as an excuse.
And in one of the few rare mentions of controversial topics, the curriculum discusses the sex industry and walks a fine line between humanizing sex workers and opposing sex labor. (Buying and selling sex is illegal in South Korea.)
In the guidelines’ introduction is a claim that “proper sexual behavior stems from proper attitudes toward and perceptions of sex.” It then emphasizes the need to inculcate students with a “comprehensive understanding of sex education.”
But the hundreds of pages of illustrations and activities ultimately boil down to a sex education obsessed with everything related or tangential to sex… Except sex itself.
Homosexuality and Invisible Sexual Minorities
Though the representative said the guidelines have changed in response to criticism since 2015, the Ministry of Education still has not made clear what improvements it will make in the curriculum, especially when it comes to the complete absence of information regarding homosexuality and other sexual minorities.
In February, Human Rights Watch charged that “a curriculum that neglects inclusion of information about sexual orientation and identity fails students,” in direct criticism of South Korea’s sex education.
“We have seen only further backsliding from the ministry of education on the issue of inclusive sex education,” HRW researcher Kyle Knight said in an email to Korea Exposé in June. “That the ministry remains entrenched in its position to exclude mention of homosexuality from education is not only contradictory to the government’s human rights obligations, but forebodes a future of stigmatizing school experiences for LGBT youth in South Korea.”
The guidelines indeed make no reference to homosexuality, sexual minorities or any LGBT issues. The closest it gets is a surface-level discussion about HIV and AIDS, but they are mentioned only in relation to sexually transmitted diseases and contraception methods.
A government official later explained that the curriculum is “only a guideline,” and that individual teachers could add to and tweak the guidelines if they so choose. But to HRW, “ad hoc or optional training programs for teachers are not an adequate substitute.”
In fact, 2017 was not the first time HRW expressed disappointment toward South Korea — in May of 2015, it had sent a letter to South Korea’s ministers of education and health and welfare on nearly the same subject.
Religious groups who opposed open teaching about homosexuality early in the curriculum’s development remain unconvinced. For the Korean Association of Church Communication, an organization that “monitors and urges the government, official agencies and NGOs to carry out God’s will,” good sex education is one that emphasizes family values and the preciousness of sex, said Shin Manseok from the organization.
Shin told Korea Exposé that it isn’t right for schools to be teaching openly about homosexuality when law does not explicitly support homosexuality. (For the record, it’s the Evangelical lobby that has blocked the progress of an anti-discrimination legislation that would provide protection for minorities including the LGBT community.)
Dissatisfied South Koreans Seek Alternatives
A 2007 survey conducted by Aha! Sexuality Education and Counseling Center found that 44 percent of South Korean teenagers thought the sex education they received at school was neither practical nor helpful, according to the Korea Herald.
Mindful of student dissatisfaction, the government launched plans and conducted research to improve sex education as part of national policy changes in 2013. The first step toward improvement was creating official guidelines for schools, and the initial set was released to schools in 2015, she said. But still, two years later, some South Koreans remain unsatisfied.
Aha! Center, according to its website, is dedicated to empowering youth and creating a respectful sex culture through gender-sensitive sex education. In 2015, the center responded that the guidelines amounted to an “intolerant curriculum that contained no professional expertise and only conservative opinions.”
Kim, at Diversity Korea, said the problem with the country’s education system — sex education included — is that it does not encourage students to think freely about themselves.
“I think the biggest problem is that (South Korean education) is stuck in a place that tries to protect and control and regulate students,” he said. He later added in a message to Korea Exposé that education should “recognize and respect students’ agency over all aspects of their lives, from bodies and gender and sexuality, to their careers and visions.”
South Koreans, especially young people, are pioneering new approaches to sex education and traditionally taboo topics in the absence of meaningful top-down instruction.
The internet in particular has become a place for dissenting South Koreans to discover and share safe, fun sex education. Media startup Woori, for instance, hopes to destigmatize sex, masturbation, porn and the like.
“Kids are interested but no one tells them anything. So they learn stuff from watching porn,” Woori’s Park Yong-ho told Korea Exposé. “We wanted to stop them going down a bad path because of that. … South Korean society is becoming more open about sex but education is not keeping up.”
Cover image: Middle school students sitting in class. (Credit: Samuel Orchard/Wikipedia Commons)
For more on South Korea’s “education blues,” check out our running series: