A 17-year-old high school student referred to her first-ever attempt at sexual intercourse last year as “disastrous,” as she and her then-boyfriend had no idea what to do other than to take off their clothes.
After searching the internet, the two found a way to give it a go. However, in an interview with The Korea Herald, she said that she still isn’t sure if she did everything right, as nobody has ever told her what a typical sexual relationship entails.
“I think my boyfriend knew a little more than I did from watching all these porn videos, but other than knowing that penetration is one of the steps, he still wasn’t sure what to do during intercourse,” the student said.
“Most of my friends had sex before me, and I never dared to ask them anything. It’s embarrassing, and I was scared of being called out by others for being lewd or accused of doing something wrong.”
The student wished to remain anonymous for fear of humiliation or penalization. She and many others are part of a growing group who introduce sex in their lives without any educational support and thus are exposed to serious danger.
The proportion of teenagers with sexual experience has steadily grown from 5.1 percent in 2009 to 5.7 percent in 2018, according to surveys from the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. The 2018 survey found that the average age of first sexual experience for the respondents who said they have had intercourse was 13.6.
Yet the same survey found that only 59.3 percent of teenagers with sexual experience said they use contraceptives during sexual intercourse.
South Korea allows teenagers to buy condoms without limits, except for textured ones. However, the social stigma surrounding teenage sex may be preventing some younger people from exploring safe sex options.
“I knew condoms existed and that I could buy them at convenience stores or pharmacies, but I never dared to walk in there and get them myself,” a college student based in Seoul told The Korea Herald in recalling his sex life during high school years.
“To walk in wearing a school uniform and pulling out cash to buy condoms - I couldn’t do that. What if somebody I know saw me doing it, and what would the convenience store employees think of me?”
These worries stem from the vastly conservative culture South Korea maintains toward sexuality and relationships and have resulted in many teenage pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, data show.
According to Statistics Korea, the number of women aged 19 or below giving birth reached 918 in 2020. The figure has steadily fallen over the years, from 2,998 births in 2011 to 1,922 in 2016 and 1,106 in 2019.
In the meantime, the number of teenagers with sexually transmitted diseases has steadily risen from 9,622 people in 2014 to 12,753 in 2018, according to Health Insurance Review & Assessment Service.
Experts point out that a lack of adequate sex education in school has exposed teenagers to dangers, saying the public education system must be ready to accept that teenagers will have sex, and denouncing those who do so is not a solution.
The Ministry of Education requires all elementary, middle and high school students to receive 15 hours of sex education yearly. But materials designated to be used for sex education are limited to covering how reproductive organs look and what changes they undergo during puberty.
In these materials, reproduction is only described as the combination of a sperm cell and an egg cell, not mentioning anything about how they come together. Sexual relationships are only vaguely referenced, and schools often face complaints from parents and others for potentially causing sexual behavior by describing the steps in detail.
Ways to prevent sexual violence are also covered. However, experts have frequently stated that the amount of time given to educate students on this topic is not enough, and that teaching must be more in-depth for it to be effective.
Surveys show that students found sex education offered in schools less than insightful.
A 2019 survey of 16,500 elementary, middle and high school students from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family found that 34.1 percent of respondents saw the sex education offered as ineffective as the syllabus has not changed over time.
Interest in better sex education has increased substantially after high-profile sex crime cases came to light. However, many parents are reluctant to trust public schools to protect their children from such crimes.
Some civic groups argue that authorities must prepare to dedicate more hours and resources to providing adequate sex education to youths. Helping them to understand how to have a safe sexual relationship and how to prevent sexual violence is essential to properly introduce children to adulthood, they say.
“The government should be willing to impose modern ideas and increase the emphasis on providing proper and effective sex education for children in school,” said Lee Hyeon-sook, director of Takteen Tomorrow, a local civic group dedicated to improving sex education for teenagers.
“Talking about sexual relationships and what steps should be undertaken to develop a healthy one should not be shunned from public discussion. We should encourage them to be openly discussed so that young people can feel assured about discussing it with others.”
The focus should be on how to prevent children in school from being inadequately introduced to the concept and how to protect them from sex crimes, she added.
“Young people already know about sex from before receiving sex education in schools,” Lee added. “We should be open to discuss how to develop healthy relationships between two people and acknowledge that these can be developed to include sexual encounters.”