Grand Valley Journal of History
Volume 1 | Issue 1
Korean Perceptions of Chastity, Gender Roles, and
Libido; From Kisaengs to the Twenty First Century
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Maynes, Katrina (2012) "Korean Perceptions of Chastity, Gender Roles, and Libido; From Kisaengs to the Twenty First Century," Grand Valley Journal of History: Vol. 1: Iss. 1, Article 2.
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Maynes: Korean Perceptions of Chastity, Gender Roles, and Libido; From Ki
Throughout Korean history, a woman’s self-worth and honor were measured by her chastity and adherence to men. Females have consistently been expected to be obedient, fertile, impalpable, and above all, sexually abstinent. The kisaengs, however, contradicted Korean expectations for women; for hundreds of years, they served as sexually promiscuous performing artists who offered intelligent and charming company to wealthy and influential men. Due to the influx of foreigners in the twentieth century, kisaengs, whose colorful personalities and beauty set them apart for centuries, were reduced to the same status as common prostitutes. Unprecedented demand for sexual services caused the South Korean prostitution industry to expand, and despite the emphasis placed on sexual abstinence and chastity, millions of men frequented red-light districts while thousands of women found employment in sexually oriented establishments. Due to this, the role of kisaengs greatly decreased but the Korean fixation with sexual abstinence remained. Although the kisaengs contradicted traditional Korean expectations concerning females and chastity, their existence is indicative of the emotional and sexual oppression that has pervaded throughout Korean history, one of the ramifications of which has been a thriving contemporary prostitution industry.
Development of Women’s History in Pre-Choson Korea
The Kingdom of Silla (57 BC – 935 AD) granted women considerable rights. 1 Females were not solely viewed as secondary citizens, and many women made considerable political and domestic contributions. Unlike later periods, Silla women were not confined to their homes; they largely contributed to the tax and labor force, and lower and middle class women, regardless of marital status, often worked in agriculture and assisted their male relatives in learning trades. As vital members of the workforce, both men and women were expected to pay taxes until aged sixty, and males and females shared the responsibility of financially supporting their families. Lower and middle class men were subject to military conscription, and the wife would serve as head of the household in her husband’s absence, exerting considerable control over finances and the daily activities within the household.2 Families subsequently traced both male and female lineage, and women could not be divorced for failing to produce a male heir.3 Silla noblewomen also enjoyed considerable influence. Their education and intelligence enabled them to be important members of court, and some gained
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Grand Valley Journal of History, Vol. 1...
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