South Korean Evangelicals’ Anal Obsession

In depth

“They enter into carnal relations with multiple people several times a night, and wipe the semen, shit, blood, and lymphatic fluid from anal sex with discarded towels on the floor. Each morning the whole room is full of such towels and condoms covered in blood and feces. […] They reuse the same towels the next time they return and have sex and sleep in beds and under coverlets thickly stained in fecal matters.”

“They” are homosexuals, and these are the words of Kim Jeong-hyeon, an “ex-gay” anti-LGBT Evangelical activist who has gained notoriety in the past two years by publicizing his hellish interpretation of anal intercourse among gay men through full-page advertisements in daily newspapers and an online comic.

That South Korean Evangelicals envision homosexuality as absolute corruption is not surprising, but what does stand out in their cartoonish imagination of sexual minorities is the centrality of anal sex. After all, what caught people’s attention at the recent LGBT pride parade at Seoul’s City Hall Plaza, on June 28, was less the LGBT people themselves, happily milling about and watching performances on stage like ordinary festival attendees, than militant hanbok-wearing Evangelicals, who drummed and pirouetted away just next to the event site while waving this sign: “Is anal sex a human right?”

Anal sex has long been a loaded sexual act in South Korea, tinged with perceptions of perversion and disease. Still today, those who have it rarely speak about it in public. Those who say they don’t are quick to condemn it. Anal sex began to be mentioned in the domestic media in the 1980s in the same breath as HIV/AIDS and gay men. It took on an added dimension of depravity after the brutal murder of a bar worker, Yun Geum-i, in 1992 by American soldier Kenneth Markel III, who sodomized Yun with an umbrella and stuffed a Coke bottle in her vagina. It didn’t help that the very same year saw the publication of a now-banned novel Sara’s Happiness by Yonsei University professor Ma Gwang-su, who told the story of a young woman’s sexual awakening through graphic — critics said pornographic — descriptions of sex, with references to anal intercourse. (Ma even went on to write a full-blown ode to the act, titled “Memories of First Anal Sex.”)

South Korean Evangelicals have sought to explicitly and exclusively link this controversial sexual practice to homosexuality in their anti-LGBT propaganda, issuing statements such as “Citizens! How can we tolerate homosexuality, when it involves putting a man’s penis in another man’s anus, a practice even beasts refrain from?”

As feminist researcher Son Hee-jeong writes in her widely circulated essay, “Negative and salacious contents about homosexuality command the reader’s attention with their unpleasantness and hatred.” The ability of homophobic Evangelicals to engage readers is directly related to how scandalous they can make their account of homosexuality, and anal sex by extension; negativity and voyeurism sell. In countering what they argue are overly positive, romanticized portrayals of homosexuals — gay men in particular — in the media, Evangelicals have zoomed in on anal sex as the depraved core of the homosexual identity. Activist Kim claims, “You are considered disabled if you don’t have anal sex in the world of homosexuals.”

It’s a useful tactic for demonizing the LGBT community given the prevailing, at least outwardly critical attitude among many South Koreans toward anal sex. Its association with perversion, being outside standard sexual repertoire, and disease — Evangelical literature attributes to anal sex not only HIV/AIDS but also uncontrollable warts, better known as Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), as well as fecal incontinence — offends traditional sensibility.

Also made is an economic argument against anal sex, which allegedly can bankrupt the nation with the cost of medicating AIDS patients and suppress the already low birthrate. Anal sex is fundamentally an ‘unproductive’ sexual act, yielding no children, i.e. additional labor force, and that lack of productiveness serves to alarm even non-Christians who reason that heterosexual marriage and a higher birthrate are the only viable solution to South Korea’s social and economic ills given the aging and shrinking national population.

The anti-anal sex argument particularly resonates among chauvinistic South Korean men who conceptualize their sexual role as always being penetrative, never penetrated, in an enactment of their masculine authority over women. Any possibility that a member from the community of Man might be rendered passive and “feminine” objects of male gaze and penetration frightens them; that scenario opens, in their mind, the backdoor to undermining South Korea’s still formidable patriarchy. Prof. Nami Kim at Spelman College succinctly summarizes how the South Korean Evangelical right, whose traditionalist powerbase thrives on enforcing existing gender hierarchy, is deeply afraid of gay men whose very existence amounts to a challenge to the conventional gender paradigm.

Homosexuals as ass-fucking, shit-leaking beasts are repulsive enough a notion to the average South Korean to whom the emergence of the LGBT community in broad daylight is still cause for shock. While the parade on June 28 drew a sizeable number of participants — estimated at 30,000 by the organizers — and took place in the most visible public space in the capital, there was also no small amount of gaping and staring from presumably heterosexual passersby. Comments regarding the event on the two main internet portals, Daum and Naver, followed the ideological leanings of the sites, with the majority of conservative Naver users condemning homosexuals as “deviants” and the majority of progressive Daum users saying they at least preferred homosexuals over Evangelicals, who are viewed contemptuously by the liberal minded as deeply backward, ignorant fanatics. But the dominant sentiment, as observed in these forums, was still that sexual minorities should stay “in the shadow” instead of “parading around” their identities.

But as is the case with most moral crusades in South Korea, there is an element of hypocrisy in the condemnation of anal sex and gay men who might practice it. Singer and entertainment mogul Park Jin-young released his number-one hit song “Who’s Your Mama” only this spring, extolling the virtues of a voluptuous female behind: “The waist is so thin but the hips are too big, it’s too hard to find pants that fit oh yeah / Shake that booty that booty booty.”

 

Fetishizing the ass is not the same as wanting to fuck it, but that male desire for ass is not Park’s invention; through Japanese and American pornography avidly watched by South Koreans — one of the world’s top consumer nations of pornography — anal intercourse has already entered the lexicon of male fantasy and informs mainstream sexual discourse. Sex therapist and columnist Bae Jeong-won told me on the phone, “The greatest influence is porn,” and indeed, “I saw porn and wanted to try anal sex” is a familiar refrain among men in what little textual evidence I find in Korean for the heterosexual practice of anal sex.

Anal sex, once relegated to the deepest recesses of the internet where the most sexually adventurous South Koreans play (like here), might not yet be the most conventional form of sex in South Korea, but it is not a completely taboo subject, either. Cha Medical Center, a major hospital chain, forthrightly dedicates a section of its online health guide to anal sex, detailing mechanics, rationales, and pitfalls of anal penetration not to caution against it but to inform interested parties. Other medical establishments, notably OB/GYN clinics, follow suit with newspaper columns and Q&As, some judgmental but mostly matter-of-fact and encouraging of this ostensibly forbidden pleasure. Bururu, a large online sex toy vendor, not only offers engaging instruction on anal sex but also sells toys for anal penetration. (Adult verification is required for those who wish to explore the selection.)

South Korean Evangelicals’ homosexuality-as-anal-sex rhetoric closely mirrors other arguments made in this country against marginal communities, each of whom suffers from a particular ‘defect’ as imagined by the populace whose ultimately goal is to refute any charge of deviancy for itself. Korean-Chinese workers are cheats and cannibals and criminals. North Korean defectors are lazy beggars. People of Jeolla-do are irrational malcontents. The reasoning is that normative South Korean citizens do not suffer from such flaws. Once these characteristics are attributed to marginal populations, the idealized moral integrity of the majority is made to seem all the more real and admirable in contrast to the seeming moral degeneration of those lesser beings who do not deserve full membership in society. Saying that all gay men have anal sex can help everyone else pretend, at least for a while, that nobody straight is having anal sex and suffering from moral turpitude.

Except it is evident that enough heterosexual South Koreans are happily sodomizing one another, for surely no economy of anal intercourse as I find in South Korea would exist in the absence of desire and practice. Considering the rapidly liberalizing sexual mores and the shifting perception of anal sex in South Korea, a country that sometimes changes so quickly that one can miss a paradigm shift in the blink of an eye, Evangelicals and other homophobes may need to discard their anal obsession and find something else with which to attack homosexuals in the near future. One can hate the gays if one is truly so inclined, but doing so on the grounds of anal sex is becoming more and more preposterous.

Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.