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Real change on campus elusive despite #MeToo movement

Students notice only superficial differences in behavior and attitude after sexual misconduct scandals

April 25, 2018 - 16:59 By Cho Yun-myung
As the #MeToo movement continues to sweep across various industries in South Korea, efforts are under way to address sexual violence on college campuses, but signs for a tangible change remain elusive.

Ewha Womans University recently called on its president to take procedures to expel a professor of arts and design, who is accused of sexually harassing and groping his students from 2005 to 2017. Students at Ewha posted memos on the door of the professor’s office, criticizing his acts and demanding that he leave the school.

In the aftermath of a string of #MeToo incidents, students on campus expressed that they have felt a slight change in how their peers and professors talk, but that universities were still unsatisfactory in dealing with cases of sexual abuse.

A student of liberal arts at Seoul National University said that she has noticed male professors being very cautious when dealing with subjects related to women in general.

“While talking about women and men in ancient Western history, the professor refrained from saying things that could be perceived as degrading toward women in modern society’s standards,” the female student told The Korea Herald, asking not to be named.

Many of her peers, both women and men, seem to be more aware of women’s rights movements and sexual harassment by those in power since the #MeToo movement. She said, “During conversations with my friends, I feel that they have become very sensitive about being ‘politically correct.’”

Some 150 college students are gathered to raise #MeToo awareness at Marronnier Park in Jongno-gu, central Seoul, on March 30. (Yonhap)

Some male college students said they have started to tone down conversations with their friends, particularly on group messenger apps such as KakaoTalk. Numerous cases of verbal sexual harassment in group messages, usually among male colleagues speaking about their female classmates, have been revealed in recent months.

“Even though group messages are part of (people’s) privacy, people are being more careful (not to cross the line) when they make sexual comments,” said an anonymous student at Yonsei University, majoring in Materials Science and Engineering.

“I think this is a very positive phenomenon, in line with today’s social change,” he said.

Some student councils have made a set of internal rules to prevent sexually offensive remarks or acts among students that they represent.

Lee Sung-min, student representative of the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Korea University in Seoul, said that the student council he is heading had made a new set of rules for a class membership training event commonly known as “MT.” Lee currently heads class “A” among the four classes which belong to the School of Interdisciplinary Studies department.

In Korea, MT usually refers to a short trip organized by a college department or class, normally for a one-night stay. Students make reservations for the trip and organize recreational programs. Several games common in MTs involve unwanted physical contact and excessive, often forced, drinking.

The newly established rules explained by Lee include precautions against drinking, hate speech and sexual violence. Regarding sexual violence in particular, the rule states that “sexual violence is determined by the victim, not the perpetrator.”

Lee said this is the first time that rules for class MTs were made in his class. The rules were made by members of the student council and signed by all participants of the MT.

Yonsei University’s Department of Sociology has maintained such rules for several years. At the beginning of this semester, the student council made an online poster to help students better understand the articles of the rules. The articles include precautions against unequal power between freshmen and senior students, forced drinking, sexual harassment and discrimination based on one’s appearance, sexual orientation and religion.

According to Gim Ye-jin, president of the department’s student council, the student body recently held a seminar for sociology major students to discuss the rules.

“Although there is a general acceptance toward these rules within the department, I’ve seen some students who are opposed to them,” said Gim. She said that the seminar was organized to give students an opportunity to discuss the rules together.

Despite such efforts by some departments, not all college students feel that change is happening on campus.

Some students failed to provide any positive feedback.

Gim said that she has heard of professors saying, “You guys aren’t going to turn me in, saying ‘#MeToo,’ are you?” after saying something controversial during class.

Both Lee and Gim said there haven’t been enough changes on campus that could be felt by students in general.

“Although students have come to acknowledge the seriousness of sex crimes in our society thanks to the #MeToo movement, I think (the essential question of) how to prevent such crimes has not been properly addressed yet,” Lee said.

“We could help students acknowledge the importance of efforts to prevent sexual violence through the rules made by student councils,” said Lee. “But more should be done by school authorities to ensure that adequate steps are taken when a case of sexual violence has actually occurred.”

Gim said that school authorities, such as the Human Rights Center, do not seem to be effective in handling sexual violence cases on campus. She cited a case where the center had sent an official email to students and faculty, which seemingly leaned toward the views of the perpetrator of sexual violence rather than the victim.

A member of the Female Student Council of Yonsei University pointed to education as the most important problem to be addressed.

“The percentage of faculty who receive (sexual) violence prevention education is considerably low compared to that of students and staff,” said Lee Su-bin, vice president of the Female Student Council.

“I always feel that there needs to be more personnel in school institutions which deal with gender equality,” Lee added. “Currently (in Yonsei University), there are only two professional consultants who are in charge of all the work, which creates difficulties in both prevention of sexual violence and follow-up measures.”

By Cho Yun-myung (