By Jung Min-ho, Kim Bo-eun, Bahk Eun-ji
It isn’t only women who are victimized in this crime-ridden society. Many law-abiding and innocent men often find themselves in embarrassing and uncomfortable situations where they have to endure suspicious eyes from women who fear they might fall victim to harassments or pervert voyeurs.
In these times, where women are often left unprotected, it’s fair that they should take whatever steps they can to protect themselves and should not lower their guards.
However, from men’s the point of view, they cannot but feel that they are often wrongly percieved as harassers or perverts.
Walking up stairs
Recently, freelance writer Violet Kim submitted an interesting article, entitled: “How to be a Seoul local: 10 tips on faking it” on CNN website. According to the eighth tip for assimilating into Seoul culture, foreigners have to learn “How to walk up subway stairs.”
Kim suggests, “To really pull off a skimpy skirt without looking like a floozy, you need to do as Korean girls do when going up stairs and escalators: put a bag on it. Or behind it. Take a handbag or a tote bad and hold it with both hands behind your butt, covering the edge of the skirt,” she said. “As for men, don’t look up when you’re walking up the stairs. It’s all too easy to be mistaken for a pervert.”
A 23-year-old college student, Jung Seung-hoon, paid little attention to the women walking up the stairs with a bag blocking their skirt until he was actually mistaken for a voyeur recently.
“I was just walking up the subway stairs late in the morning and there was a woman walking ahead of me. Before I go on, here’s the question. Where would you look when you were walking up the stairs?” said Jung. “So I was looking up just like everyone else would do. At that moment, she turned her head and looked down on me with eyes of literal disdain.”
Jung said that the worst part of such misunderstandings is he cannot explain the situation as he is concerned it will only aggravate the problem.
“If I ever had the chance to explain, I would say, you know what? I was not looking at your butt.”
He said it’s like he was deprived of the right to look ahead when going up stairs.
Subway jammed with people
Before many men even get to the stairs to leave the subway, they have to clear the first stage to prove themselves not guilty: a packed subway.
“I can’t say it doesn’t bother me at all. I mean, it’s obviously inconvenient, as I always have to stay alert when I’m on the subway,” says Kim Ji-hwan, a 27-year-old office worker who commutes to work by subway.
“I’m careful even when I lower my head to check my smartphone, because sometimes I happen to look at the legs of a woman wearing a short skirt although it isn’t what I intended to do.”
No one wants to be misconstrued. But when it comes to any issues concerning sex, it is men who have to pay extra attention so as not to offend. Otherwise, they have to handle dagger stares or sometimes verbal denunciation for any “suspicious” movement they make.
“So I always keep my hands high, holding onto hand straps and bars on the subway, especially during rush-hour, to avoid any accusations that I might face in the packed subway,” Kim says.
“Yes, it’s inconvenient but I can understand to a certain extent, as there are obviously cases concerning harassment on the subway. With that, women’s overreaction is totally understandable. So, I guess there isn’t much we can do other than blaming the perverts on the subway.”
While many women said they have a right to wear whatever they want in public, guys argue that they also have a right to look at them saying it is natural and sometimes even inevitable for their eyes to gravitate to pretty females.
“I honestly think women who wear short skirts and low-cut tops are fully aware of the fact that men will look at them. Don’t they enjoy the attention?” college student Hong Sang-wook said.
“I don’t look at those women who wear daring clothes after they walk past. If I want to look at them, I look at them fair and square. It is more like glancing at them when they are passing by. When a pretty woman passes in front of me, I look. When a woman wearing a short skirt stands in front of me, yes, I do so. I’m just an innocent man who admires women’s beauty, and I don’t see anything wrong with it,” Hong said.
In dark alleyways at night
Unfortunately, men cannot yet be relieved of women’s false accusation even out of the subway and up the stairs. Here is a tip. When the sun goes down, they’d better walk slowly.
Lee Seung-yoon, a 24-year-old university student, said he takes extra caution not to give women the wrong idea when walking into a narrow alley on his way home at night in Hapjeong-dong, northwestern Seoul,.
“When there is a woman walking about three to four steps ahead of me, I deliberately walk slowly to keep my distance,” said Lee. “As men tend to walk faster than women, it would be more convenient for me to catch up and pass by her, but if I were to do so, she might get the idea that a bad guy is chasing her.”
Lee said that he had not always been aware of the possibility that women might get the impression that men walking behind them are following them with intent to harm them in the dark.
“When I was a high school student, I had no idea. After studying late, I often ran home to catch a TV show or to play games with my friends online, heading down the alley to my house,” Lee said. “There was a case where a woman walking ahead immediately turned around with a terrorized expression and ran away. I was dumbfounded because I had absolutely no idea of what was going on.”
Lee said he finally had a moment of epiphany about what happened that night when he was talking with friends in college.
“I have been very careful ever since,” he said. “Although I think guys should be considerate towards women, when I am in a hurry, I become annoyed, thinking that why should I care about my walking tempo? I just want to go home.”
Another college student, Koh Seong-bum, usually stops and waits for the woman to walk out of sight saying, “It is still better than looking at a women’s petrified face in the dark, which makes me scared, too.”
One day, Koh realized his concern that women were afraid of him was actually true when he stepped into an elevator.
“The woman in the elevator was waiting for me to press the button without pressing hers first,” Koh said. “I guess she thought I would follow her, if I knew where she lived. It’s not really pleasant to be with a woman who thinks I’m a criminal. You know what? I don’t even spit on the street.”
대학생 이모씨(24)는 밤 귀가 길에 여성들로부터 오해 받지 않도록 주의를 기울인다. 앞서 가는 여성과 세네 걸음 정도 차이가 나면 앞질러서 가는 것이 더 편하지만, 빠른 걸음으로 간격을 좁혀가면 이상한 남자가 쫓아오고 있다는 생각이 들게 할 수 있기 때문에 일부러 일정한 거리를 유지하기 위해 천천히 걷는다고 했다.
사실 남고를 다니던 고등학생 시절에는 여성들이 그런 생각을 할 수 있다는 것을 전혀 몰랐다. 그래서 야간자율 학습을 마치고 밤 늦게 귀가를 할 때, 봐야 하는 티비 프로그램이 있거나 친구들과 온라인 게임을 하기로 약속했을 때에는 어두컴컴한 골목길을 뛰어가기도 했다고 그는 전했다. 그 당시 여성들이 공포에 휩싸인 표정으로 뒤돌아보고는 달아난 경우가 몇 번 있었다고 했다.
“불편하더라도 여성을 배려하는 것이 맞는 것 같긴 해요”라고 이씨는 말했다. “하지만 급할 때는 좀 짜증이 나기도 하죠”라고 덧붙였다.
매일 지하철을 이용하는 직장인 김지환(27세)씨도 불편함을 호소한다.
“가끔 스마트폰을 보려고 고개를 숙였는데 앞에 앉은 여성의 다리가 눈에 들어올 때도 있죠. 제가 보려고 하진 않았지만 보이는 경우엔 참 난감해요. 그래서 지하철에선 고개도 잘 못내리겠어요”라고 말 했다.
“사람이 많은 만원 지하철에선 손도 못내려요. 그냥 손잡이를 잡고 서 있어요. 아직까지 불필요한 오해를 받은 적은 없지만 이렇게 하지 않으면 분명 오해를 받을 일이 생길 테니까요.”이어 김씨는 말했다.
반면 여성들의 아름다움이 경탄의 대상이 되는 것은 당연하다고 말하는 사람도 있다.
서울에 사는 대학생 홍상욱씨(28세)는 “전 힐끔거리지 않아요. 예쁜 여성이 제 앞에 지나가면 당당하게 쳐다봐요. 짧은 치마나 파인 옷을 입는 여자들도 다른 사람들이 자신을 쳐다볼 수 있다는 것은 충분히 인식하고 있을 거라 생각해요. 아름다운 여자를 보면서 아름다움에 경탄하는 것은 당연한 남자들의 의무 아니겠어요?”
여성들이 계단을 오를 때, 가방으로 엉덩이 부분을 가리는 행위는 외국인의 눈에 특이하게 비춰지기도 한다.
최근 CNN에 올라온 프리랜서 기자 바이올렛 김의 기사, “서울 시민인척 하는 10가지 팁”에서, “한국인 여자처럼 보이기 위해서는 지하철 계단을 올라갈 때 치마 아래를 손가방으로 가리는 것을 잊지 말라”고 조언한다.
이처럼 한국에서만 특이하게 볼 수 있는 현상 중 하나는 바로, 계단을 올라갈 때 뒷사람이 볼까 치마 아래쪽을 가리는 계단 위의 수많은 여자들이다.
대학생인 정승훈 씨는 얼마 전, 억울한 경험을 했다.
“얼마 전에 계단을 올라가려고 위를 쳐다봤죠. 치마를 입고 가시는 여자분이 앞에 계셨는데, 제가 위를 쳐다보는 바로 그 순간 그 분과 눈이 마주쳤습니다. 뭔가를 오해했는지 가방으로 치마 뒤를 가리시고 황급히 계단을 오르시더군요. 억울했습니다. 가장 억울한 것은 아마 상황설명을 할 수 있는 기회마저 없는 것이 아닐까요?”