Sexualisation and Kpop – The Elephant in the Room
It seems that nary a week goes by where a new op-ed piece about sexualisation in Kpop occurs and this isn’t just because it makes for a juicy opinion piece, although that clearly plays a part, but because news stories that bring the issue to the forefront of our minds happen just as frequently.
I am aware, of course, of the irony inherent in the fact that I am writing a piece on why sexualisation and Kpop can be so salacious and that I am also buying into the same exploitation of titillation of readers. In a way, though, I think it illustrates my thoughts in a wonderfully poetic way and hopefully, you will agree once you’ve finished reading this!
For me, the main issue with the “Sexualisation in Kpop” discussion is that, actually, it isn’t just one issue. There are multiple, very different, issues that (because they are raised under the same umbrella so often) become conflated with each other.
Kpop IS Sexy, sometimes.
The first issue is the simplest. Is Kpop getting too sexy? There is no doubt that Kpop can be sexy… very sexy.
The idea that Kpop being sexy is new, however, is not quite fair. If we look back only one generation we can see that, yes, it seems that mainstream Kpop is more accepting of sexiness in general. However, if we look back past the second generation idols to first gen and before, you will see that, just like pop the world over, the overriding sexuality of the time shapes the fashion, style, music, lyrics and dance just as much as it does today.
We do perhaps also see pop music full stop as more sexual today and this is partly because it is and partly because it’s what’s happening now. People felt very similarly about Elvis’ pelvis once upon a time. While some international fans oppose the over-sexualisation of pop music, it comes nowhere near the hot topic that it is in Kpop. This may, in part, be because with the advent of idol music in Korea and the proliferation of the Hallyu Wave, many of the current generation of Kpop fans were initially attracted by the ‘purity’ they perceived in Kpop for one reason or another and so this is jarring against what those fans look for from Kpop.
Another aspect may well be the relatively conservative culture of Kpop – leaving fans seeing sexually charged content against a more austere, cultural backdrop. The response is a feeling that the sexiness is more extreme than it is, due to the contrast to society. Think of it as culture shock for a culture within a culture.
The question as to why this continues despite it being such a constant discussion point is a complicated one. Firstly, most people are not actually complaining about this one (outside of Korea) so there remains a Hallyu Market. The arts have always pushed cultural boundaries and, as such, get somewhat more of a free reign. Oddly enough, this one is somewhat of an issue in Korea itself and we see the evidence of attempts to curb it all the time – such as when we see choreography being adjusted in order to be on music shows.
An ever-connected world means that despite broadcast regulations there will now be an ever present market for this and, just like in the evolution of our popular culture, we can expect to see an ever-moving forward game of cat and mouse between the established boundaries and those who will push it.
Distorting The Youth
This actually leads us onto the second sexualisation issue in Kpop. We are accepting that Kpop is getting sexier overall (rather than just recently) and is possibly getting sexier faster than society in general. (Even if we aren’t accepting that, let’s pretend we do). The question we then have to ask ourselves is, “who is the music targeted at?”. Again, this issue doesn’t seem as prevalent in the international fan community and that might be due to the fact that the international fan community are quite a rag tag bunch – including many older fans for whom this is appropriate and younger fans who are exposed to worse within their own cultures anyway.
In Korea however, this is a far more discussed issue. Idol groups have a major element that is targeted at younger teenage girls, in a culture which is often jokingly described as “morally 1950, technologically 2050”. As such, there are all sorts of government and media rules designed to make it difficult to target at that market without staying within the rules.
Inkigayo doesn’t count 19+ rated video views in their chart and the broadcasting stations all restrict lyrics, costumes and dancing based on the rating of their shows (admittedly some more strictly than others).
So this issue, much like the first, will continue to cause discussion simply because the boundaries are always shifting, rather than because no attempt to curb the ‘problem’ is happening.
The previous two issues are, from what I have seen, not usually the ‘hot topic’ for the international fan community, although they are often raised alongside these last three, adding to the confusion.
This particular issue is unique in its universality – the question of consent. The Idol model particularly (but also other Korean pop music models) recruits artists into long, unfavourable contracts and there is an argument that the artists may not always WANT to be sexy, but it is what they are being made to do. The argument is also touted the other way for perma-cute girl groups too, so it is certainly more about consent than sex itself.
We are acutely aware that groups are often given very little freedom to make choices on their own careers, as Hyuna and Stellar in particular have brought to the fore in different ways. Hyuna often feels compelled to explain in interviews that ‘sexy’ Hyuna is a stage image and Stellar have been vocal about the fact that they have ‘chosen’ an overly sexy route as they felt there was little choice.
Unfortunately, in Kpop it is sometimes even more disturbing. There are a never-ending stream of stories about sponsors (people who finance an artist in return for something from the artist, often sexual), sexual assaults within agencies and prostitution. Undoubtedly, some of these are no more than rumours, but some are found to be true and, despite the fact that each one temporarily rocks the KPop world, the return to the status quo is often swift.
So why, if we are so aware of this, does it not change? Those in power gain nothing from this system changing, people who speak out have a lot to lose. To top it off, despite all these cases, the allure of pop stardom is strong the world over and so if worst comes to worst, there is always a new girl or guy to take the spot.
Which brings us to another point? Why are we more indignant about girls than guys. Well part of this comes down to target markets (those pesky teenage girls again) and part of it is that we don’t see that men might NOT want to be sexual…whereas we almost expect girls to not want to be. This double standard is a whole post in itself though.
As well as being a universal issue for fans, this issue is endemic in entertainment industries everywhere. That is not to say record execs are rapists, or all artists are using sex to get ahead by any means. I can say ‘casting couch’ and be understood by most people for a reason. Wherever there is someone willing to abuse power and someone with a dream, there will be someone getting hurt somewhere.
This issue is an issue for international fans but is certainly not exclusive to Kpop.
I wasn’t originally going to include this one, but decided that it probably should be addressed. The PD of Produce 101 found himself in the heart of an online storm after he referred to I.O.I as ‘Healthy Porn’. This debate really ignited people’s fire as those on either side of the debate are inherently unable to accept the other side. They are mutually exclusive positions.
Things to consider though are the ‘climate’ of porn in Korea. Porn is illegal in Korea, it is not heavily enforced though. Online porn is blocked by ISPs but, like with most efforts to curb the internet, this has not stopped some young people (and probably many more adults if we are honest) accessing this material.
Porn is however still massively taboo to talk about and for may Koreans (in public at least) describing a Stellar video as porn, for example, does not feel as far off the mark as it might to you or I. With porn illegal it opens everything up to porn on the scale to being viewed as degenerate. Now I am not saying everyone thinks that way, in fact it is a minority who probably do, but they are not a crazy extreme minority, just perhaps a bit firmer in their beliefs.
When you think of it like this, it is entirely reasonable to see pop music as having exploited a gap in the market to fulfil a desire in society. It’s up to you whether you think they are monopolising on that, but that would be ‘healthy porn’ to me. As for the issue of the young image of the group (and biological ages in many cases), once you are thinking of the porn market as an analogue… ‘Teeny bopper’ and ‘barely legal’ porn has been around forever and only seem more and more willing to push the boundaries, so why would ‘healthy porn’ not do the same?
Regardless of how you feel about this, this is a universal social issue, just framed in an unusual social climate.
Sexualisation of children.
So by now we have stripped away the conflating issues and I think we get down the issue that really causes people internationally unease. The issue of sexualisation of children in Kpop is not a new one and yet it does not seem to be going away. Why, if we know something bad is happening, are we not dealing with it?
After teenage girls, ‘uncle fans’ might be the most important group to Kpop fans. The first issue to address is that not all these fans see something sexual. It is genuinely a ‘loving uncle’ relationship for many of them. There is no denying though that, for many of them, there is an element of sexuality to the relationship – however abstract that might be.
Part of the problem for international fans is that we see paedophilia (I’ll use the one word and include attraction for teenagers, as in much of the west the legal term is paedophile even when it involves teenagers) as synonymous with ‘sex offender’. This is because we only hear about paedophilia in the west when someone has committed a crime. There is a growing body of evidence that, whilst many men may find children and teenagers sexy, they may also find adults sexy and may be repulsed by the idea of acting on it and harming a child.
Distasteful though many find this, there is more and more evidence for this spectrum and a strong, scientifically-backed argument for viewing paedophilia differently. If people got help for these feelings, the argument is that we could stop abuse happening. People can’t preemptively get help in a country where merely the thought is treated as a crime.
The other argument, of course, is that if you have these feelings, there’s nothing to stop you acting on them one day and don’t we have a responsibility to not put any young people at risk through inaction?
This conflict is ever prevalent in international fans. Some will argue the former and some the latter and the fact is we have no way of collecting solid 100% evidence either way without taking a risk. Even if we could decide one way or another, there will always be a ‘moral compass’ issue where we see one attitude or the other as morally right, regardless of evidence.
So why doesn’t the Korean audience have the same vitriolic response? The first thing to say is that the general public in Korea do generally feel the same way. However, as Kpop is not targeted at them, they are not the over-riding voices the international community hears.
The second issue is cultural. Think back to the 70’s (too young? I’ll do it for you). In the UK “PIE” were a thing, a legitimate thing. They were fighting for legitimacy of paedophilia as a sexuality and wanted legal protection. The crazy thing? They were being listened to! Not just here, but in America and Europe too. They were aligning with gay rights groups as ‘the other sexuality’. You know what, it isn’t that crazy. I mean, it would have been if we’d announced a free for all, but we didn’t. We listened, we established the protection of children as the priority and we moved forward with the idea that it should not be accepted.
I want to be CLEAR here – I agree this was the right decision. What we didn’t do was address the fact that these people exist and that is our next issue.
The difference is that in Korea, they haven’t gone through all this yet. They have never confronted it in this manner and so it remains a dirty secret, in many ways unspoken about. People argue about whether it IS sexual, rather than to what extent that matters.
There is no doubt in my eyes that many idol groups present a sexualised fantasy of youth at its extremes. I also have no doubt that some groups with innocent intentions get swept up in this. This isn’t a socially unacceptable way to make money in such a clear, public way in Korea yet, so many companies are able to operate openly with limited questions.
Personally? I find these concepts terribly distasteful. The question is, are they more or less distasteful than ‘barely legal’ porn? Can we blame the male audience for something we now think they might have no biological control over? If not who do we blame? No one? The companies profiting on this? The parents who are letting their kids do it?
I think here we have the crux of the issue for the majority of Ifans, so why hasn’t it changed from all the fuss? Well, for all the reasons listed above. While there is still a cultural acceptability there is still a big market for this. Even when there isn’t the market doesn’t go away, just becomes less acceptable for the mainstream to tap into. There is of course also the element of the truly innocent, some of these concepts ARE innocent and just being viewed by people with different cultural sensibilities. In other words, you see what you are socially programmed to see.
When we wonder why “Sexualisation in Kpop” issues keep coming up, we forget that Korea is a very different socio-economic and cultural backdrop. They have rapid technological advancement and connectivity, coupled with much slower changes to morality in culture. The journey and relationship they have with sex isn’t shaped by the same historical events, the same religious stand points or the same socio-economic pressures.
The issues regarding sexuality in Korea VS for international fans are shaped by the culture the fans live in and the issues that mean most to them may be affected by their own cultural morality.