Sexual charades in Seoul

To save face, I had to pretend to rape my Korean girlfriend, and she had to pretend to resist.

By Richard Newman

Published November 19, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Eun Jung backed her mouth away from mine, searched my eyes for an answer to the question that was in her own, and with a whispered "Shiro" -- which means in Korean either "I don't want it" or "I don't like it" -- slipped out from under my arms. She turned her attention back to "Show-Video-Jockey," the half-hour variety program it had become our habit to watch together on Saturday nights.

When I caught her looking at me from the corner of her eye, she let her lips fall into a pout and, with a sigh, moved once more to embrace me. She laid her hand across the back of my neck and pulled me down with her onto the bed. Quickly, she began to undo the buttons of my shirt, but just as we were about to move into greater intimacy, she put her palms flat against my chest, pushed me away from her, and told me again, "Shiro."

I was confused. I asked several times what was wrong, but she kept her face turned to the television and pretended not to hear me. When I fell silent, she came toward me one more time. When she was close enough for me to touch her, she pulled her shirt over her head, silently, with her eyes averted, and let it fall behind her. Then, while I did nothing but watch, she struggled out of the rest of her clothing, repeating over and over again, in the hoarse voice of one possessed and being forced to perform acts against her will, that same word: Shiro!

When she was naked, she fell against me, and her hands left no doubt that she wanted me naked as well, but once my clothes were off, Eun Jung refused even to look at me, lying there motionless as a stone, while I fumbled like a clumsy teenager trying to learn where and how she wanted to be touched. Finally, she hung her arms limply around my shoulders, threw her head back in a posture of helplessness waiting to be taken, said in a whisper I could hardly hear, "Hago shipoyo!" -- "I want to do it" -- and pulled me on top of her.

The sex was awkward and boring. Eun Jung's fists anchored her firmly to the bed, and she kept her head turned to the side, with her eyes and mouth shut, until it was over. There was little or no conversation afterward, and I left her apartment feeling not only unsatisfied, but cheap, as if the sex were something I had paid for, and that Eun Jung had delivered only to honor that payment.

I replayed the evening in my mind over and over again. The first move had definitely been hers; the decision to make love as much hers as mine. Yet no matter how many times I reassured myself of these facts, I could neither escape the sound of coerced submission that had entered her voice as she undressed herself, nor avoid the fact that such submission was obviously what she had thought I wanted.

Eun Jung was my downstairs neighbor the year I taught English at a private language institute in Seoul. She understood more English than she spoke, but she spoke only a little more English than I did Korean, often making it a real struggle for us to understand each other. That struggle, however, was usually part of the fun of our being together, so it was hard for me to imagine why our first night of lovemaking had been so difficult.

I asked my Korean friends, both men and women, about Eun Jung's behavior, and they explained that by going through the motions of resisting my advances, even though I hadn't made any, she had been trying to let me know both that she was a respectable woman and that she thought I was a respectable man. Had I played my part, I would have pretended to force myself on her.

At first I thought they were talking about the Korean version of a woman not wanting a man to think she's easy, but the more I thought about it, the more that interpretation didn't make sense. Not only had Eun Jung clearly made the first move, she'd also undressed herself, suggesting she wasn't at all worried about my knowing that sex was what she wanted. Even more contradictory, it seemed to me, was the idea that putting me in the position of mock-coercing her into sex showed that she thought I was respectable.

Yet that's what my friends insisted was going on, and they explained further that if I wanted my relationship with Eun Jung to continue, I'd have to learn to play the role she expected me to play. I liked Eun Jung a lot, and I didn't want to stop seeing her, so I became a kind of man I'd always promised myself I'd never be, one who wouldn't take no for an answer.

In the beginning, Eun Jung's resistance appeared so obviously token that it was easy to play this role -- pulling her toward me when she pulled away, moving her hands from her shirt buttons or zipper when she pretended not to want me to undress her, even picking her up and putting her on the bed when she mock-threatened to walk out of my apartment or to throw me out of hers.

There was, however, one characteristic of this traditional male role that I was unwilling to adopt. The first few times Eun Jung and I made love, we didn't use a condom, and I had no idea if she was on the pill, had an IUD or had given any thought at all to contraception. I was ashamed of myself for not having asked about it sooner, and I actually apologized when I finally did bring it up, but all Eun Jung would say was, "That's my problem. You don't have to worry about it."

I tried explaining that I really wanted to worry about it, but only when I told her it would be difficult for me to continue making love with her if we didn't discuss it, did she say anything else. "It's my body," she told me. "I'm the one who gets pregnant; if I have to, I can have an abortion. It's not your concern." Then she looked away and asked me to leave, which I did.

I turned once more to my Korean friends, who explained that for a Korean man to ask a woman he's sleeping with about birth control -- unless the woman is his fiancie or well on the way to becoming his fiancie -- is to cause her a tremendous loss of face, an awkward English translation for a Korean concept that includes the totality of a person's humanity.

The use of birth control in Korea, my friends went on, signifies not the sexual responsibility we think of here, but a sexual relationship whose sole purpose is pleasure -- meaning that it is not intended to lead to marriage and children. Since sex-for-pleasure is understood in Korea to be the purpose and province of prostitutes, for a man to ask his partner about birth control is essentially for him to call her a whore. Similarly, for her to bring up the issue would be for her to admit that she was a whore -- a loss of face for the man, too, since she would be suggesting he is nothing more than a customer. What results, in the interests of preserving everybody's face, is a non-discussion, coupled with the assumption that contraception is the woman's responsibility.

Clearly the sexual double standard is at work here, but it's also important to recognize how, in context, the dynamic of keeping face allows each partner to validate the other's integrity and so makes possible the sexual intimacy they desire. Understood in this light, the game of mock coercion that Eun Jung and I played becomes far more comprehensible, for the illusion of physical violence allowed us each to communicate to the other, without having to say so explicitly, that despite its casual nature, our relationship did not at all resemble the relationship between a prostitute and her customer.

But so what? At some point, all this cultural analysis becomes nothing more than a sophisticated rationalization, a way to see my experience with Eun Jung as an artifact of cross-cultural living, a do-as-the-Romans-do encounter with no real relevance outside of its own context. To indulge this rationalization is to avoid confronting the fact that, whatever its motives, the mock sexual violence I used with Eun Jung echoed precisely the very real violence men throughout the world have always used to force themselves on unwilling women.

To recognize this power imbalance in our relationship, however, is neither to deny the desire and affection we felt for each other nor to demonize my willingness to play the role I did. Eun Jung clearly wanted to have sex with me, as I did with her, and it would have been nearly impossible for her to accept my desire in any other form. Nonetheless, playing the role eventually made it impossible for me to believe that we were merely helping each other to keep face.

Once, feeling in the mood for sex, I reached for her and she pushed my hand away. Thinking this was business as usual, I reached for her again, pulling her gently toward me. Again, she resisted and, again, I parried her resistance, but this time when I reached for her, I saw her eyes harden, and I knew she was not in the mood -- but then, almost immediately, she crawled into my arms, smiling and giggling, as if the previous moment had been a figment of my imagination. At that moment I realized she was going to have sex with me that night no matter how much she didn't want to -- simply because I did.

I felt manipulated and I was furious. How many times, I wondered, had this happened before? How many times had I pushed, however culturally appropriate, past a no that really meant no? Suddenly I wanted neither the responsibility nor the accountability for having to figure out when no meant yes and when no meant no, for it meant that I could never wholly trust Eun Jung's reasons for making love with me.

I started thinking seriously about breaking up with her, but a friend advised me that if I did so, the dynamics of face might force Eun Jung to move away, at least for a while, so she wouldn't have to see me or face the other people in our building who might have known that we had been together. I couldn't bring myself to put her in a position to have to make a decision like that, so I found excuses that made it possible for me to see her less and less, and when we were together I found excuses for not making love with her as often. Eventually, it became clear to both of us that we were only going through the motions of being together.

The last time we made love was a few days before I flew home to the United States. She met me after my classes were over and we went to a hotel not far from the school where I worked. I assumed it would be the last time I would see her.

Two or three days later, however, as I waited for my plane in Kimpo Airport, Eun Jung appeared carrying a gift she wanted me to have as a memento of our time together. It was a doll that she said looked like her, and it did actually: a little Eun Jung dressed up as a woman of Korean royalty, the king's second wife to be precise, complete with the knife such women were supposed to use to commit suicide in the event they were raped. I'm still not sure exactly what symbolic value that doll held for Eun Jung, or what message she meant to convey to me, but I know that when she handed me that doll and all the twists of our relationship flashed through my mind, the detail that caught and held my eyes was that tiny knife.

Richard Newman

Richard Newman is a writer living in New York.

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