Contraception still in shadows
By Jung Min-ho, Bahk Eun-ji, Kim Bo-eun
A couple of weeks ago, Park So-yoen, a 27-year-old department store sales manager, visited Jeju Island for a summer holiday, together with her boyfriend.
After a fantastic day sightseeing around the beautiful resort island, the couple ― as many others do ― went to bed together that night.
“Of course I thought my boyfriend had a condom, but he just came without saying anything to me,” Park says. “I was taken aback initially, and then I became really upset.”
It was the first time she slept with her boyfriend. Before they had sexual intercourse, they had never discussed the subject.
After the intense romantic fire waned, they stayed up all night talking about their thoughts on their relationship, marriage, the possibility of having babies and other related matters.
“At that point, my boyfriend and I realized sex is not a simple issue and it requires a lot of effort from both partners to prevent possible outcomes that haven’t been planned for,” Park said.
In still conservative Korean society, young couples are not as straightforward or frank as they are supposed to be toward contraception, an issue that warrants greater public attention but is largely ignored or overlooked.
Until about 10 years ago, there was a pervasive social attitude that women had to take responsibility for the matter in order to protect their bodies. However, as time passed, people began thinking differently about the issue, realizing that it goes beyond ensuring that women don’t have unexpected babies, although, of course, this is the most serious matter that unprepared couples face.
In fact, if an unwanted pregnancy occurs, couples have options. Either prepare for a baby or arrange for an abortion illegally. Either way, the couples should go through the experience they do not want to have.
Why do we need sex education?
The number of abortions per 1,000 women between 15 and 44 stood at 15.8 in 2011, down from 29.8 in 2005, with the total number of abortions falling to about 170,000 from 340,000, according to statistics from the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
However, the actual number of abortions is likely much higher given that abortions are still illegal here, with some exceptions, so many of them are not reported, analysts said. If a woman’s life is threatened by infectious disease, or if a woman has been raped, abortions are legal.
Abortion is a serious social issue. Moreover, sometimes unexpected pregnancies produce babies born into unhappy and unstable families that are financially unable to provide essential needs. Such babies are sometimes relinquished.
“What I’m concerned with the most is, of course, is the possibility of getting my girlfriend pregnant before I am ready for it. Some part of my mind has always been concerned about this possibility for a long time,” said Kim Jung-min, a 29-year-old insurance company manager. “And I am opposed to those people who think contraception is only the women’s job. When couples make love, they share the moment together. However, only women wind up suffering if things turn bad.”
Many young adults also believe they need to talk about contraception more openly in order to avoid unwanted consequences.
“Contraception is an issue that should be discussed by both men and women to make wise decisions and to prevent anything they don’t want. It is a responsibility for both of them who are supposed to take care of and respect each other no matter how long the relationship will last,” said Kim Sang-min, a consulting firm accountant.
He said education and influence from abortion policies in foreign nations have been playing a significant role in changing perception about contraception nowadays.
“At the same time, in popular culture there are numerous references to birth control, particularly in comedies and dramas, I think it helped make it a bit easier for people to discuss the issue.”
He thinks that the general public should talk about the issue more openly since it is a really important issue that young people barely understand, even though they are regularly exposed to it. “Contraception is also beneficial in terms of preventing being infected through a sexually transmitted disease,” he said.
Key to safe sex
Despite the changes that are occurring, Korean society is still conservative when it comes to issues such as sex. So sex education at schools usually does not address practical issues such as contraception in fear that it might encourage students to engage in sexual activities.
“Although we too are cautious not to plant the wrong idea in young students, we do try to offer practical advice so that we can be of help them,” said Hong Hye-kyoung at Purun Ausung, a sex education organization which dispatches professional instructors to schools.
“Because young people nowadays tend to reach puberty at an earlier age than before, their interest in sex also develops earlier. And in an environment where people are easily able to access pornography, practical education about contraception is actually needed,” Hong said.
Hong said that she and other instructors teach students that premature sex can cause many problems, but if the students feel they can be responsible, that they should have protected sex.
“It is absurd how little students know about sex and contraception,” Hong said. “Many of them see pornography before they learn properly about sex, so they end up viewing it from a distorted perspective.”
Shim Sang-duk, head of Ion Obstetrics and a member of GYNOB, an organization of obstetricians and gynecologists who oppose abortion, said that although the public seems to have become more aware and have a greater interest in contraception, more education is needed in order for people to enjoy a healthy sex life.
As the risks of abortion have become well-known, more and more people are turning to various methods of contraception. "For women, aside from morning-after pills, the options like tubal sterilization or having an intrauterine device fitted are also available."
“The former is not covered by insurance so costs are high as well as the chances of side effects, so more women come to the clinic for surgery for the latter,” Shim said.
For men, the easiest and most widespread method is using condoms. A permanent surgical method that prevents sperm from entering through the seminal stream, known as a vasectomy, is another option.
“Because a vasectomy is irreversible, however, it usually is a choice for married men who do not want more children. So using a condom would be the easiest way for most men to practice contraception,” said Shim. “However, you would be amazed at how many people don’t even know how to use one properly. The correct use of condoms needs to be promoted.”
Shim also emphasized the importance of couples discussing methods of contraception in order to ensure safe sex. But he also pointed out that conservative Korean society tends to stigmatize women who openly discuss contraception as having loose morals or being promiscuous.
“Even so, women should request that their male partners use condoms and men should also take responsibility and take an active role,” he said.
When asked a question about double-standards in society regarding premarital sex and the stigma which usually targets women, Aquira Foster, an exchange student from the University of Missouri-St. Louis at Korea University, said,”If society frowns on premarital sex, then it would be a negative thing for unmarried people to have access to any contraception because it enables them to go against the society’s moral code in the first place.”
“If not, however, I think it is a responsible way to manage sexually transmitted infections as well as inhibit unplanned pregnancies. As for within the confines of marriage, I believe it is not only acceptable, but also very useful,” Foster said. “There is nothing morally wrong with using contraceptives to plan the appropriate time to have a family.”