I remember my first HIV/AIDS commercial vividly over 13 years ago. It was on a hot and sticky summer day in Hong Kong and being a typical 11-12-year-old, I was eagerly glued to the TV to watch the latest episode of the cartoon series X-men. The channel resumed to its boring 5-minute commercial run, and suddenly I saw basketball player Yao Ming, one of China's best-known athletes, laughing brightly and playfully shoving Earvin "Magic" Johnson Jr., another basketball player who stunned the world by announcing he was HIV-positive in 1991.
“You can’t get AIDS from a hug, or a handshake, or a meal with your friend,” Ming addressed the camera as he taught Johnson Jr. how to use chopsticks. “Don’t be afraid and don’t discriminate. Get your facts about AIDS.” source (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Y8NmqJE6r0)
Somehow this deeply affected my adolescent brain. What was this “AIDS” that made people quiver in fear to even touch an infected individual? How did they contract the disease in the first place? All these questions running through my head made me immediately turn to the Internet for help.
As six years of my life in Korea zoomed by, it has now occurred to me that I have rarely seen any HIV/AIDS related commercials on TV, subway or bus advertisements. Ironically, standard adverts ooze sex appeal that includes influencing women to wear particular types of makeup, that plastic surgery is the beauty trend, and K-pop idols posing sexually on TV is the norm. But finding advertisements revealing the consequences of unprotected sex is like finding a needle in a sex-drenched haystack.
For most of its history, Korea has been a conservative Confucian country at heart. In a society dominated by conservative views of sex, it wasn’t until late 2004 that Korea encouraged the use of condoms for the first time in the nation’s history, and contraceptive commercials were banned from television until January 2006.
But according to Malaysia’s Digest online newspaper, Korea was ranked second in the top 10 list of countries with the highest number of sex workers. The Chosun Ilbo daily also reported that Korean men ranked among the top clients of prostitutes in Southeast Asia, ahead of Japanese and Chinese travelers. In its 2010 report, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said Korean men were the prime clients of child prostitutes in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
So why does Korean society stigmatize sex itself but indiscreetly go through the back door to have fun? With the lack of awareness of sex-related diseases, it seems the lack of responsibility is also being brought out to light.
HIV/AIDS is often associated with the LGBT community, and it’s no surprise that on July 15, when the 18th Korea Queer Culture Festival was celebrated in City Hall amid rain, the ever boisterous conservative Christians who faithfully protested the festival in recent years would be there as well. The usual chants of “homosexuality are sin” and urging anyone gay to “return to Jesus Christ” did not deter the 80,000 attendees who danced happily in the streets.
In an interview with the Korea Expose, Christians gave reason to their protests. “AIDS is spreading in large scale because of homosexuality,” one middle-aged man stated. “It’s a serious issue.”
But out of all the interviewees, a teenage boy stood out between the old generations in the protest. “I oppose homosexuality,” he said bluntly to the interviewer. When asked why there was a moment of hesitation before he glanced at his parents for help. “Ask your father,” his mother said and immediately, a man jumped into the camera shot before explaining how homosexuality is a disgrace.
With the boy’s uncertainty toward homosexuality, this can be linked to the sex education classes in school, where classes barely scrape the surface with the culture of sex, but not anything specifically about sex itself, while homosexuality is not even mentioned at all.
South Korea’s sex education has long been criticized for being backward and impractical. According to the Korea Herald, a 2007 survey by AHA! Sexuality Education and Counseling Center for Youth in Seoul found that almost 44 percent of teenagers found the sex education they had received at school to be neither practical nor helpful.
The Korea Expose also mentioned that Human Rights Watch (HRW) directly criticized Korea’s sex education in February, stating that Korea has made a curriculum that neglects inclusion of information about sexual orientation that contradicts the government’s human rights obligations, seeing a further backtrack from the Ministry of Education교육부.
It is not the first time HRW has expressed its disappointment with the Korean sex education curriculum. In May 2015, the organization sent a letter to the Ministry of Education교육부, and the Ministry of Health and Welfare보건 복지부 on the same subject.
Many would agree that teaching children with relevant and accurate facts while they’re young will teach them to be responsible in the future. While preparing for the college entrance exams throughout their 12 years of their school life, it’s regretful to see Korean students cannot afford to spare time or even think that sex education is essential. If the Korean society deems education as the most crucial element, one must have to think that sex would be included as well.
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