“ME TOO.” Two simple words adjoined to become a strong unanimous voice standing against sexual harassment and assault. What first started out on one platform—Twitter—has now become a viral hashtag on all forms of social media, with both celebrities and non-celebrities using this phrase to share their stories and spread awareness on the prevalence of sexual violence in societies all over the world.
Awakened by the allegations of sexual misconduct against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, this movement has engulfed the United States since October 2017. Since then, the movement has travelled across the waters and proliferated in South Korea; reports of high-profile figures being accused of sexual violence are being published on a daily basis. It would not be an overstatement to say that the #MeToo movement is the most prevalent and relevant issue in Korea at this moment. The phrase “me too” has embedded itself deep within our culture, and it appears to be not a fad that is going to be here today, and gone tomorrow. Rather, it marks the potential beginning of a cultural revolution, an overthrow of the taboos against victims of sexual violence. The possible consequences of this movement, however, remain to be taken into consideration.
#MeToo: The proliferation of the hashtag
Allegations against the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein triggered the #MeToo campaign on social media, which commenced an unprecedented chain of sexual abuse allegations against powerful figures around the world. The phrase “me too” was first created by social activist and community organizer Tarana Burke as part of a gender equity program in 2007, but was ultimately popularized by actress Alyssa Milano in October, 2017. Following the endless accusations of sexual violence against Weinstein, Milano encouraged the dissemination of the hashtag by tweeting, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write “me too” as a reply to this tweet.” As a response to Milano’s post, #MeToo has been employed to reveal personal experiences of sexual molestation, discuss the culture of harassment, and express empathy and support to the survivors. The hashtag enables victims and supporters of the movement to stand in solidarity, to sympathize with one another by showing that many people have experienced and been through similar atrocities.
The prevalence of this hashtagclearly shows that the movement has powerfully resonated with the public. The latest public statement, published by CBS News, states that Twitter confirmed in Oct. 24, 2017 that over 1.7 million tweets had been posted with the hashtag worldwide. Several months have passed, and the movement is still as strong as ever to the extent that it is indubitable that those numbers are still growing. Other social media platforms such as Facebook also saw a surge in the #MeToo trend. Facebook reported to CBS News that “in the 24 hours after Milano posted her Tweet, 12 million posts and comments went up, and 45% of all U.S. users had friends who had posted #MeToo.” The wide publicity of this hashtag delivers a clear message from the activists of the #MeToo movement: innumerable numbers of people from all over the world experience sexual violence, and it is time that every culture and society do something about it.
#MeToo spreads to Korea
Prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun is considered to be the woman who started the #MeToo movement in Korea. On Jan. 26, Prosecutor Seo posted a lengthy statement on e-Pros, an internal community network for Korean prosecutors, raising allegations of sexual harassment against her former supervisor and delineating her experiences as the victim of sexual assault at her workplace. In a live interview with the JTBC Newsroom, Prosecutor Seo shared stories of the mortifications that she had to endure while working at the Seoul Northern District Prosecutor’s Office in 2010. “I went to a funeral and ended up sitting next to Prosecutor Ahn. He grabbed my waist and stroked my bottom continuously for quite a long time. I think he was drunk. Several authorities, including the Minister of Justice, were there so I could not openly say anything. All I could do was try my best to avoid his hands and silently resist.”
The broadcasted interview greatly stirred up the nation and instigated a wave of public accusation, and by Jan. 20, an official investigation was commenced by the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office of Korea. In addition, female employees from major business corporations such as Hansaem and Hyundai Card came forward to report their experiences as victims of sexual assault. Although the incident of sexual abuse in Hansaem occurred before Prosecutor Seo’s public interview, it has recently regained public attention due to the #MeToo movement and the significant social role played by Seo. The resurgence of the Hansaem incident indicates that Prosecutor Seo and the #MeToo movement has successfully turned the public’s head to finally realize the severity and prevalence of sexual violence in the Korean society.
The movement has also ultimately extended to the entertainment industry, which is an industry that gains the most media coverage, and thus, the most public attention. Director Lee Yun-taek and several other actors who were a part of his theatrical group, the Yeonhui Street Theatre Troupe, such as Cho Jae-hyun and Oh Dal-soo, have recently been accused of sexually harassing and assaulting various actresses and crewmembers. The majority of the accused actors have admitted their wrongdoings after several denials; however, one actor, Choi Il-hwa, has shocked the country by voluntarily confessing to have sexually harassed several women even before his charges were brought up to the surface. Actor Choi’s avowal attests to the power the #MeToo movement is currently accumulating in the Korean society. Perpetrators who have previously attempted to muffle their molestations are now divulging their own offenses under the influence of the campaign; they have reached a dead-end, where they must choose to either voluntarily admit their crimes before accusations are made or wait indefinitely for the victims to publicize their record of abuse.
The cultural movement has also pervaded another social sector, one that has left many in dismay: the political world. Politician Ahn Hee-jung, the former governor of South Chungcheong province, is perhaps one of the most prominent figures whose reputation has been severely damaged by a shocking disclosure as part of the #MeToo movement. In an interview with JTBC on March 5, Ahn’s secretary Kim Ji-eun accused him of raping her several times. A day after the public broadcast, Ahn admitted his wrongdoing and announced his resignation in a Facebook post, along with an apology to Kim. Afterwards, Kim filed a lawsuit, and an official investigation has commenced on March 13. Ahn was not only the provincial governor but also one of the presidential candidates. The downfall of a promising political figure like Ahn testifies, once more, to the rapidly growing momentum of #MeToo.
#MeToo movement sweeping across universities
The #MeToo movement is further sweeping across universities, with students adding momentum to the cause by actively voicing their own cases of sexual harassment. Within the boundary of a university, sexual violence mainly occurs in two forms: professors sexually harassing the students and students sexually harassing fellow students.
On Feb. 19, an anonymous user claimed in an internet forum, DC Inside, that Cho Min-ki, an actor and former assistant professor of the Department of Theatre in Cheongju University, was disqualified as a professor for having sexually harassed his students. As the press led a series of investigations into the case, Cho opposed the claim and refuted that it was a mere conspiracy. However, the tables turned on Feb. 20, when Song Ha-neul, a graduate of Cheongju University and an actress who has recently made her debut, posted a detailed account of Cho’s record of sexual harassment on her Facebook at 10:58 p.m. She provided a vivid description of his misconduct to bolster her accusation. “One day, Cho called my friend and me, just the two of us, to his officetel, or small apartment, near the campus of the College of Art,” wrote Song. Many students were unable to reject Cho’s invitation because he was “the king of the College of Art,” described Song. No one could complain nor report him to the police since he practiced absolute supremacy over the aspiring students who desperately needed his support and approval for their acting career. “That day, Cho forced us to spend the night at his place and to lay down on his bed, although we refused obstinately. He squeezed himself between my friend and me and stroked our arms forbiddingly,” she explained. Along with her post, several other students charged Cho of sexual assault online. On Feb. 27, Cho finally admitted to his wrongdoings. His former agency, Will Entertainment, forwarded a written apology by him, which stated that “he will have time for self-reflection,” to the public. On March 9, which was three days before his planned police examination, Cho committed suicide in a utility room of an underground parking lot of his apartment complex.
The movement also escalated towards Jeju National University. According to Yonhap News, a professor was alleged for sexually distressing three students who worked part-time in the laboratory for seven months. The professor would ask the students about the size of their breasts and their sexual relationships with their boyfriends. There is also a male victim in this case, who contends that the professor continued to perpetuate inappropriate physical contact to him. Against such wrongdoings, the students sued the professor with charges of sexual molestation on Dec. 15, 2017. Nevertheless, the professor repudiated the allegation, arguing that his behavior was an act of friendliness. Moreover, on Dec. 26, 2017, a professor from the College of Commerce and Economics was remitted to the prosecution for forced indecent act. In response to these accusations, the General Student Council of Jeju National University advised the school to exclude all of the reported professors from their lectures until further notice and to establish preventive measures to avoid such malpractices.
Apart from the cases of student-professor sexual harassment, Ko Ryun-hee, a graduate of the School of Performance of the Seoul Institute of the Arts, reported an incident of sexual violence during their freshmen orientation. On the anonymous Facebook page—named the “Seoul Institute of the Arts Bamboo Forest”—Ko revealed her name and reported the perpetuation of sexual harassment by the upperclassmen to the freshmen. “The female students in our group were asked to wear tights. We were then supposed to place a plastic bottle near our perineal region to symbolize an inflated penis,” described Ko. During the orientation, the upperclassmen also asked the freshmen to mimic the sounds of Japanese pornographic videos and created a rape prank to “surprise” the freshmen. “I’m not expecting any punishment for the upperclassmen or any apologies from them,” she added. Instead, her outcry is dedicated towards fellow students who may have experienced or might be experiencing similar forms of sexual harassment. She wants to prevent further cases of sexual violence towards the underclassmen and accentuate that there is no reason for the victims to remain in the darkness.
These voices raised by the students underscore the prevalence of sexual assaults in universities. The far-reaching influence of this movement can be noted from the allegations roiled in various sectors of our society—from the world of politics, arts and cultures industry to universities. Open conversations about sexual violence are no longer hampered by the society’s conservative ideologies and patriarchal notions. More and more victims have gained the courage to step forward, perhaps because they have noticed the disclosure of inappropriate behaviors in universities.
#MeToo in Yonsei University
Even before the widespread dissemination of the #MeToo movement, there were instances in which Yonseians publicly upbraided cases of sexual assault: student-to-student harassment and professor-student harassment.
On Sept. 5, 2016, a wallposter was posted by a whistle-blower, revealing inappropriate statements made in a group chat of the students of the College of Science. The poster divulged that male students objectified their female counterparts by saying grossly insulting statements, with one example being, “I want to order women, please deliver them.” More recently, on Dec. 28, 2017, Han-bit, the Women’s Student Council of the Department of Theology, received a report on sexual harassment which occurred within its department. The victim was sexually harassed in a bar despite her continuous refusal. The accused touched her breasts and coerced her to stay by grabbing onto her wrist. She wrote a wallposter requesting the Department of Theology to develop a comforting atmosphere for the victims to remain in the community. On Feb. 27, Han-bit pleaded the students to prevent secondary damage and further recommended the members of the student council of the College of Theology to receive education on the prevention and management strategies of sexual harassment.
Previously, accusations regarding cases of sexual assault were made in the form of student-to-student harassment. Recently, however, a fairly new form of reported sexual assault, professor-to-student harassment, also took place on Dec. 14 2017. A wallposter was published on the poles of the Central Library, condemning a professor from the Department of Philosophy for “treating the female students as ‘sex toys.’” “The professor asked the girls to line up in front of the podium and describe their ideal types. Among those girls, the boys were asked to choose the girls whom they would like in their groups,” wrote an anonymous informant. Although such points were recounted by the informant, the professor’s misconduct cannot be confirmed since several students have expressed opposing viewpoints in the online community, Everytime. An anonymous student wrote that the informant may have been overly-sensitive to the group formation method, and that the informant misunderstood some statements made by the professor. To grasp the outcome of this accusation, The Yonsei Annals interviewed the Office of Academic Affairs. Nevertheless, the office refused to provide specific details regarding the professor’s disciplinary actions due to privacy protection reasons.
The hashtag activism has deeply permeated through numerous universities in South Korea, including Yonsei University. This movement is commendable as its purpose lies in destigmatizing the societal reaction to sexual harassment. Up until this point, there existed a scarlet letter for the victims of sexual abuse, most of whom have refused to directly address their experiences because of the fears of being discredited, ridiculed and ostracized. Now, with the short but powerful phrase #MeToo, they have gained the confidence to disclose their struggles through a society-wide moral support. With people from all over the world continuously outpouring their distress, the victims who have been suppressing their miseries have taken this opportunity to unveil their experiences and emotions. These voices are indeed the driving force that continues to disseminate the movement today.
The fear of secondary damage
It is necessary to focus not only on the movement itself but also the additional harm that both the accusers and accused are subject to. Those survivors of sexual harassment who step up to openly accuse the perpetrators are highly prone to secondary damage inflicted by the mass media, fellow colleagues, friends, and even family. The most general and common form of secondary damage would be verbal: the all-too-familiar repertoires of criticizing the victims with phrases like “you should have been more careful,” “you are responsible for taking care of yourself,” or “why did you not resist harder.” Theater actor Song Ha-neul revealed in her Facebook post that she too had heard similar remarks. Song wrote, “I consulted many people several times but all I heard in response were questions and reproaches of why I went to that gathering and why I did not do anything about it. As time passed, I began to think that it was my fault for not being able to resist harder at that moment.” She continued, “When I was put into similar situations [of sexual harassment] again, I could not say anything.”
Due to cases of false accusations, people question the motives and credibility of those who come forward with their stories of assault and harassment, and such phenomenon blatantly fails to show respect or empathy for the victims. During this questioning process, victims are also frequently called as being a “sellout” or a “gold-digger” because in many instancesthe offenders are affluent, authoritative figures and producing tangible evidence of sexual violence is relatively difficult. According to Prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun in the live interview with JTBC Newsroom, “a female colleague who reported that she was sexually harassed by a fellow prosecutor was called a ‘gold-digger’ who was trying to bring down a successful male prosecutor.”
Although it would be wrong to immediately doubt the reliability of the accuser, the possibility of a false accusation must not be entirely dismissed. Unfortunately, there have been numerous instances of people making false allegations of sexual misconduct to obtain money or damage the accused person’s reputation. In this case, the accused would be unjustly subjected to social criticism and public disgrace until they are proven innocent. The Human Rights Center of Yonsei University recently addressed this issue in a controversial e-mail that was sent out to all students on March 2. The e-mail advised students to “contemplate whether the methods used to raise issues [of sexual offence] could lead to another violation of human rights.” “For example, requesting a public apology based only on the thoughts of some people without a proper investigation could potentially violate the human rights of the accused,” the e-mail stated.
The enduring taboo around discussing sexual violence among both female and male victims also inflicts secondary damage upon the survivors. Especially considering how conservative Korea is in comparison to Western societies, victims have to suffer through rumors, gossips, and social ostracism. In worst cases, they are sometimes branded a scarlet letter. According to Song Ha-neul’s Facebook post, “some of the girls who were frequently called on by Cho Min-ki were treated as gold-diggers. Other victims and I had to shut our mouths because we were scared that people would gossip.” Prosecutor Seo shared similar stories on her initial online post, stating that she had hesitated because as a female prosecutor, she was afraid that her reputation and image might be tarnished.
Male victims are especially prone to this taboo in the Korean society where strict gender roles still persist. Sexual harassments against males are often shrugged off: regarded as naughty, but light and harmless jokes. Relatively few male victims have yet publicly come forward in comparison to female victims, and it can be assumed that this is because the Korean societal atmosphere pressures males to be “manly” and “cool,” even when it comes to their being the victims of sexual abuse.
Since the offenders are usually more socially powerful than the victims, they tend to manipulate this power to their advantage. In particular, graduate students are severely affected when they voice their experiences of being sexually harassed to the school. Generally, they have to risk their recommendation letters and opportunities for employment due to the power dynamics between professors and students. Universities often fail to protect the victims or, in a worst-case scenario, try to muffle the incident to prevent the obtainment of a tarnished reputation. Cheongju University has allegedly done the latter; in a public Facebook post, the graduates of Cheongju University stated that they had requested the school to protect its students from reporters who were recklessly interviewing them about Cho Min-ki, only to be rejected. Furthermore, the post revealed that this year’s graduates of the Department of Theatre were excluded in the graduation ceremony that took place on Feb. 23. Disadvantages like these do not only act as a secondary harm for the victims, but also discourages future victims from coming forward.
Friends, families, and acquaintances of the victims and perpetrators are also vulnerable to secondary damage. Anyone who is connected to both parties of the issue are often probed and questioned for the purpose of quenching one’s curiosity. That is to say, friends and family members of the perpetrators are sometimes treated as criminals as well. Actor Cho Jae-hyun’s daughter Cho Hye-jung, and Cho Min-ki’s daughter Cho Yun-kyung have recently been suffering this form of secondary damage. Both daughters of the offenders are known to the public because they had previously starred with their fathers on the SBS TV show Look After Dad. Cho Yun-kyung has made her Instagram account private since the incident, but comments such as “you should be ashamed of having a father like that,” “don't ever appear on TV again,” and “I bet she knew but didn’t say anything” are flooding Cho Hye-jung’s Instagram account.
Current regulations and possible methods of progression
Current regulations regarding punishments for sexual harassment in Yonsei University slightly differ from one department to another, but the most commonly used method is the expulsion system. This is a punishment system in which the offender is prohibited from attending any student council-led department activities such as orientations, membership training programs, and any after parties.
In a phone interview with the Annals, Yonsei University’s Women’s General Student Council, Moeum, further expounded the school’s current regulations and trial proceedings regarding sexual violence. Song Sae-bom (Pres., Moeum) stated, “both the accuser and accused provide a written statement, but we place more weight on the accuser’s words. Once the statements are settled, we arrange negotiation sessions between the two parties. If the victim wants to pursue punishments against the perpetrator, the case is passed on to the disciplinary committee.”
Regarding the secondary damage inflicted upon the victims, Song said, “People should change their perceptions towards victims of sexual molestation. In order to do this, education on sexual abuse is imperative. For the past few years, the Women’s General Student Council has been conducting education seminars in freshman orientations to strengthen the awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence. Moeum further hopes to reduce cases of sexual harassment by strictly enforcing these activities in each department.”
The Gender Equity Center of Yonsei University has also addressed the matter by issuing a “Notice on the Prevention of Sexual Violence on Campus” to all students via e-mail on March 7. The notice included a guideline on how to prevent and deal with sexual misconduct, information on consultations with the Center, and a reminder that all Yonsei students are required to complete an annual education session on the prevention of sexual and domestic violence. The Gender Equity Center emphasized that students should help one another in instances of sexual molestation and listen to the victims.
Regulations on false accusations must also be reinforced because they affect numerous parties: the innocent people whose reputation and social life are damaged, the victims of sexual abuse whose credibility also gets questioned, and those who are actually guilty of sexual misconduct because it gives them an option to claim to be victims of false allegations. As of right now, there appears to be no concrete punishment against false accusation in Yonsei University.
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Survivors of sexual assault are stepping into the spotlight to report what they have suffered through. A majority of them say that they were able to gain the courage to speak up by witnessing fellow participants of the #MeToo movement. However, as the campaign is attaining more public recognition in various sectors of the Korean society, several consequences are ensuing this rapidly expanding phenomenon. Real victims are having to suffer secondary damage as a repercussion to their accusations, while false accusations are damaging the credibility of the innocent. This movement started out strongly and with a righteous purpose. For it to not deviate into a witch-hunt, we must become more judicious and unbiased, while being careful to not inflict secondary damage on the victims. It is evident that this movement is a necessary societal revolution. Our society needs to acknowledge the widespread prevalence of sexual violence—of both women and men—and formulate policies to protect and prevent it.