“I didn’t have a condom, so I used plastic wrap during sex. Will I get pregnant?”
This horrifying question was posted by a young girl on Naver Knowledge IN, a popular question and answer website, sometime this March. She asked for people’s opinion on whether she might become pregnant, telling them, “The plastic wrap broke several times during intercourse”. It was like déjà vu. I remembered coming across a similar question several years ago, while researching for an article about sex culture among Korean youth. I searched for the question I’d seen posted back then, and after combining several search words I found a similar question from 2008. “I’m in middle school, and I didn’t have a condom, so I used plastic wrap during sex. But then it came off all of a sudden. I probably won’t get pregnant, right?”
Korean teenagers don’t have many opportunities to receive sex education. Back in middle school, my friends confessed that the first time they saw a naked woman was in porn video tapes, hidden in parents’ or relatives’ rooms. And the first time I saw or touched a condom was during a sex-ed class in middle school, when we were taught how to use condoms by putting them on bananas and cucumbers. Even those who’d been exposed to porn weren’t any more knowledgeable about condoms, as porn rarely features condoms.
At least the previous generation had Koo Sung-Ae, a sex educator and activist. Koo received a lot of public attention for her straightforward talk and perspectives about sex on various television shows, including MBC’s Koo Sung-Ae’s Aoosung in 1998 and SBS’s Our Children’s Sex in 1999. Her lectures on sex education made headlines across the country, creating a sensation—”Aoosung syndrome”. In 2001, she launched a sex counseling website—aoosung.com—and still writes books and gives lively lectures on the subject.
But how many of today’s students know who Koo Sung-Ae is? There hasn’t been another popular sex educator in Korean society since her heyday. Teens today don’t have many opportunities to receive any sex education, let alone a good one. And today’s adolescents of course contend with a different world. In the past, kids would borrow porn videotapes from each other; now, they have a world of porn at their fingertips, searchable on streaming sites and other illegal download websites. Children who are exposed to distorted sexual relationships featured in porn obtain simply incorrect information, such as “external ejaculation doesn’t cause pregnancy” and “it feels better to have intercourse without a condom”.
In Korea, about six “young mothers” (aged 13 or under) give birth every year. As this number represents those who have been found in the system, the actual number of “young mothers” is thought to be larger. According to the National Health Insurance Service, 1,891 girls under the age of 19 gave birth between 2011 and 2013, and 338 had abortions. This means that 2,229 girls under the age of 19 were pregnant during that time. The Korean government is making efforts to grapple with a declining birth rate, but the number of involuntary single mothers, especially underage single mothers, is increasing.
The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’s “Comprehensive Survey on Youths’ Contact with Harmful Environment”, conducted in 2014, found that the percentage of youths who engaged in sexual activity rose by 1%, from 4.3% in 2012 to 5.3% in 2014. Also, 39% of middle school and high school students and 36% of at-risk students (adolescents who reside in youth shelters, juvenile detention centers and probation centers) used contraception during sexual intercourse. Among those who have engaged in sexual activities, 9.1% of middle school and high school students and 12.8% of at-risk students have contracted STDs. Among at-risk students, 43.4% answered that they have had intercourse with people of the opposite sex. The largest number of students said they had sexual intercourse for the first time in their first year of middle school (21.9%). About 40% answered that they have never used contraception during intercourse (45% of male students). Only 65.2% said they had received sex education during the past year. Among the girls who had engaged in sexual activity, 21.4% replied that they had been pregnant; of those, 79.1% said they had artificially terminated their pregnancies.
This was the state of affairs in Korean society when condom vending machines appeared for adolescents. The vending machines were installed as part of the “French Letter Project”, which distributes free condoms to teenagers. Instinctus, the social enterprise behind the project, started out by mailing two condoms at the beginning of every month to youths who were too embarrassed or unable to purchase them for themselves. Then, realizing that mail wasn’t the best way to reach adolescents, the company began to produce condom machines.
These machines provide two condoms, each worth 1400 won, for just 100 won. There are normally no age restrictions on purchasing condoms, but people over the age of 19 aren’t allowed to use these condom machines, as they were installed to increase availability to teenagers. All proceeds now go to “I’m Bom”, Seoul’s municipal adolescent health center. As of now, there are two condom machines for adolescents in Seoul, one in Gwangju (South Jeolla Province) and one in Hongseong (South Chungcheong Province).
Some have criticized the vending machines, saying that they “encourage adolescents to engage in sexual activities”. But the general reaction hasn’t been bad. In fact, the vending machine in Hongseong was installed in a comic book store at the request of local residents. Instinctus remarked that they were “receiving requests from business owners who wish to install vending machines where teens can purchase condoms without feeling guilt or shame.”
Providing condoms to adolescents can’t be the ultimate solution. What Korean adolescents need right now is good sex education. Everyone knows this. But how do we go about it? If we institute policies to forbid teenagers from having sex, would they stop? Keeping quiet about sex is just increasing the chances of children growing up with distorted understandings. Even now, Korean youths are having sex using plastic wrap, plastic gloves, plastic bags, and even used condoms—outrageous alternatives that students have admitted to on Naver’s Knowledge IN.
A few hours of mandatory video clips cannot teach children about sex. And graphic and explicit explanations of everything aren’t much better. I’m speaking from my own experience with failed sex ed in the past—such as foreign videotapes on the process of abortion being shown to elementary school students. It’s not easy to find a balance. First, we have to consider whether we’re viewing our children as younger than they actually are. Children know much more than many adults realize. The materials of one youth center are a case in point: “Plan ahead and avoid sexual stimulation when dating a boyfriend or girlfriend”, and “Provocative actions and clothing can give people the wrong idea”. 20th century sex ed materials in 21st century Korea. That’s why people are saying that condom vending machines are in fact a good idea.
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