US & World

South Korea's sex ed guidelines suggest victims are to blame for date rape

Last summer, South Koreans left messages of their sexual harassment and assaults on Post-it notes at an exit of Gangnam subway station.
Last summer, South Koreans left messages of their sexual harassment and assaults on Post-it notes at an exit of Gangnam subway station.
Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images

As the #MeToo movement spread across the Internet, with women coming forward sharing tales of sexual assault and harassment, South Korean women were quick to identify.

Overall, violent crime numbers are considered low in South Korea, but in recent years, government statistics have shown a steady uptick in reported cases of sexual violence. And when it comes to gender equality, South Korea ranks poorly — near the bottom of all countries, in fact.

As people look for solutions, understanding how the government treats these issues is a clear way to start.

The public education system might be one obvious place to create greater understanding to prevent sexual assault and harassment. But critics say South Korea's schools are instead disseminating dangerous myths, including the notion of blaming victims.

In March 2015, Korea's Education Ministry released updated sex education curriculum guidelines for public schools. According to the Korea Herald, which saw the full teaching manuals in 2015, they include women not paying for their meals on dates as a possible reason for date rape.

"From the perspective of a man who spends a lot of money on dates, it is natural that he would want a commensurate compensation from the woman. In such conditions, unwanted date rape can occur," the curriculum for high school students reads, according to a screenshot tweeted by a Korean journalist under the words, "The Ministry of Education's 'teacher education materials.' If you think the Ministry is crazy, please press RT."

Tips to respond to sexual harassment, also for the high school-level curriculum, include "step on his foot as if by mistake."

The manual for teachers of elementary-age students includes the statement that "male sexual desire can arise quickly on impulse, regardless of time and place."

In an Aug. 27, 2015, editorial, the Korea Herald called for the guidelines to be withdrawn. "By giving out wrong information and inappropriate advice, the new sex education guidelines will do students a disservice," it said. "In fact, it is the very sexual stereotypes and prejudices shown in the manual that are responsible for the prevalence of sexual violence in our society."

The Korean Sexual Violence Counseling Center argued, too, that the guidelines reinforced gender stereotypes and discrimination and seemed to justify sexual violence.

Complaints about the curriculum guidelines were filed with the Education Ministry, which then pulled down the full curriculum from the Internet.

Yet two years later, despite all the complaints and criticism, the very same guidelines are still in place, NPR has learned.

"There were a lot of complaints about what we had mentioned," a spokesperson for the Education Ministry tells NPR. "For the past two years, we looked through the guidelines to see if there were any improvements to be made, but the result that we reached last September is that there are no particular official changes to be made. We've recommended these guidelines to be followed this school year as well."

The ministry recently shared its sex education guidelines with NPR, in response to a public information request. But these did not include the full 300-page teachers manual, which includes the controversial pointers.

When NPR requested the controversial material, the ministry responded, "We believe it's inappropriate to process your request, sorry."

"What we did learn from the criticism that we received in response to the teacher's reference material is that we should not include things that could be distorted and taken out of context," Min Hye-young, an officer at the Education Ministry's Division of Student Health Policy, told NPR.

"We didn't think it would be seen as us promoting sexism," she continued. "We should have looked through the material more thoroughly and made sure that nothing is offensive to the people that read it. We should have checked little details like that."

But, she said, "Here's the thing: It's not false information that people think that way."

About women risking rape by not paying for a date?

"Well, don't put it in such extreme words," Min said. "I mean, the way Koreans think, people do have a tendency to think like that. But we should have thought more before including it in an Education Ministry guideline, and that bit was just taken out of context to criticize the guidelines."

Min said the ministry's good intentions have been misunderstood.

"We'd like to emphasize that victims of sexual violence could be girl or boy, men or women, or young to old people," she said. "We should have been stricter about our guidelines in covering sexual violence and prevention of it. We just wanted to help prevent offenders and victims. We should have been more thorough, is what I'd like to say."

But for now, the fact remains that even under a new Korean administration that is dubbed as progressive, the notion that women can be held accountable for sexual assault continues to be taught in public schools across the country.

Jihye Lee contributed to this post.

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