The Pressure to ‘Be Pure’ in Korean Dramas

How many dramas have you seen that stars a woman in her 20s (often her late 20s) who has never been kissed and has never fallen in love? This happens frequently in dramas and I am sure I am not the only one that it strikes as odd. Let’s be honest, that is not a scenario that mirrors the vast majority of people’s lives, but it seems to be the case for many drama leads. What makes it more interesting, or perhaps disturbing, is that the same is not true for male leads.

Boys Over Flowers

Goo Joon-Pyo doesn’t acknowledge the girls vying for his attention in “Boys Over Flowers.”

Male leads often contrast with female leads in every way, including sexuality. While the women are highly chaste the men are womanizers. They flirt, drink with women at clubs, and “go to hotels” with women on a regular basis. These women they “meet” with are barely characters, usually going without a name. They melt away almost as soon as they appear. Never are they the one you root for.


There is a clear and disturbing dichotomy here. Sexually-active men are attractive and they are subjects. They have feelings, development, conflict, and a strong voice in the drama. The audience cheers for them and feels their pain. Sexually-active women are background objects. They are there to decorate a scene in order to show the male lead’s womanizing ways. At best they are obstacles, trying to prevent the leads from getting together. This means men are allowed to be sexually-active and likable while women are not.

The idea of “man who has sex = good, woman who has sex = bad” is an essential sign of a patriarchal society, or one in which men have the vast majority of power. The media idealizes very chaste women. They are the ones who get to be with attractive male leads. The message is simple: chastity is a necessary characteristic for a woman, counted along kindness and a strong work ethic. Being sexually active is to lack an essential part of what makes a woman attractive. While Korean society tends to be more sexually conservative than Western ones, it is by no mean to the extent television would have you believe. The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality’s entry on South Korea notes that in 1996 almost half of Korean girls reported having been in a relationship by the time they graduated high school, a percentage which has only increased with time. In the same year 16.7% of teens were sexually active. Although this should be read along with another part of the study which found that 61.1% of single adult women reported never experiencing sexual urges.

Coffee Prince

Han Yoo-Joo is unable to have a family and feels empty in “Coffee Prince”

The erasure of sexual activity comes from its prohibition. Korean society is changing. People are marrying later and increasingly marrying for love. They are having more sex outside of marriage. However traditional values dictate that sexual activity before marriage is wrong. This has led to a great tension in Korean society. As the study demonstrates:

Around 80 percent [of individuals responding to the study] were concerned about what they viewed as the current open and uncontrolled sexual culture. On the other hand, 61 percent agreed that Korea’s sexual culture is repressed. The usual double moral standard, which is more permissive for males than for females, is more complicated in modern Korea, where premarital sexual experiences and sexual liberation are increasingly accepted, while at the same time, the traditional value of female virginity and sexual passivity is expected in a very patriarchal society. The result, obviously, is psychological stress more for women than for men.

City Hunter

Lee Yoon-Sung ignores the sexually-active woman he is using, whose face is not seen.

Because of this ambivalence and television censorship it is easier for dramas to maintain the status quo of uneven treatment of sexuality between the sexes. While there is nothing wrong with abstaining from sexual activity until marriage, that shouldn’t be the only option people have. When dramas show that sexually-active women have no happy endings they are sending a very strong message and propagating unreal expectations. Unlike what you see in dramas, not every woman wants to wait until she gets married and not every woman wants to be a wife. Korea is known for blocking women from job promotions and even firing women once they get married. This puts many women in an untenable position. Women are told they can’t have intimate relationships without marriage and they can’t have the career they want if they are married. That is an incredibly difficult position to be put in. The fact the media lauds men who are sexuality active adds another layer of difficulty. Men are allowed freedom in both the personal and public spheres that women are not. That is a sexist double standard.

His attention is on the chaste, and disgusted, Kim Na-Na

His attention is on the chaste, and disgusted, Kim Na-Na

Dramas are a business. They will always show whatever is in demand. However I doubt very much that there is no room for a greater variation in what romantic relationships are shown. 2012’s diverse set of dramas made it clear that there is room for innovation without sacrificing financial success. Also, many successful Korean films have strong sexual themes such as “The King and the Clown” (2005), and “The Housemaid” (2010).

Though television has to contend with some serious censorship that films do not, there is still a tendency whitewash out sexuality. However, the surprise hit “Reply 1997” frankly portrayed a couple who cohabitates and conceives before getting married. So who’s to say there isn’t room for a wider variety of relationships in TV dramas?


Should K-Dramas show more diversity in their portrayal of female leads and romatic relationships? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

This is part of a series of articles about gender in Korean entertainment and society.



  • Orion

    My opinion as I wrote it in a comment on my blog, on a piece of mine.

    “I think dramas should be pushing people and culture forward, not
    trying to hold it back to the standards of their own generation. I am
    not Korean, true, but I am at least sure Koreans have relationships like
    everyone else does. Real life, normal Koreans. The ones I’ve met do
    seem like that and also find dramas a bit too on the fantasy side. I
    also think big institutions and industries (entertainment is one) need
    to acknowledge different people and show more of life than just the same
    plot over and over again. Not just for educating and maturing their
    audiences, but for the sake of variety as works of entertainment too.

    Humans kiss, they have sex, they divorce without being evil, marry
    again etc. They have different types of relationships, emotional
    involvement, come from different types of families, live different
    lives. There are straight, gay, bi etc people out there too. I can’t see
    how censoring, ignoring or not including all these things in dramas is
    helping society or enriching the medium.

    Diversity is fair. Promoting freedom of choice and respect for different
    mindsets and decisions is fair. I think art and entertainment are great
    as a moral compass to people, be it in form of advice or showing what
    to avoid to be a good person. I think it’s the duty of something with
    such influence on people’s lives to promote the future and support all
    people who deserve its support. Trying to limit the medium to fit said
    outdated standards and not allowing anything different to at least get a
    chance is broadcasting dictatorship.

    So, both from a humanist point of view and of rich entertainment point
    of view, Korean dramas mostly not breaking that tiny little mold that
    brings in the money (although quite a few do, nowadays) and serves such
    people-restraining purposes is sad to see as a viewer.”

    • nobody nobody

      Korean dramas would lose their charm if they turned into “who is sleeping with whom”. I could just watch American TV shows if I wanted that. It makes me feel cynical.

      The first two dramas I saw were Kim Sam Soon and Secret Garden. I thought “if this is a Korean woman’s idea of an ideal man then they have embarrassingly low standards”. However after seeing many more dramas I see this is not the case. In fact American women have low standards if they think a guy is ‘classy’ if he makes breakfast for her after sleeping with her.

      Women lower the bar too much for guys in this country. That’s why too many guys think of women as entertainment leading to the dystopian ‘hookup culture’ we have today. What ever happened to true love?

      As a guy it’s nice to see an ideal of female attractiveness that is not focused on sexuality. A woman’s aegyo and elegance are more attractive than looking ‘easy’.

      I agree with you though that there shouldn’t be a double standard. Men should be as chaste as the women. It’s something that should be respected in men, not ridiculed. I’d like to think I’m a man not a dog.

      • Orion

        I think both extremes are bad. Treating people as sex objects happens a lot in kdrama, with women too, all behind a veil or prudishness. Falling for a hot abusive guy because he gave you a piggy-back ride is actually being more ‘easy’ than doing it consciously and because you want sex. Also, not all women are pure wonderful never-kissed-by-a-guy-on-the-cheek creatures and they shouldn’t feel they have to be. Yes, the ‘pure’ type is more attractive, but that still leaves out all the women not on either extreme.

        Just as it’s sad promoting only promiscuity and morally “loose” women as what’s wanted, modern and in (in the case of the West), it’s just as bad to only promote one stereotype of women who are unrealistically “pure”. Balance and diversity is the issue here. Different types of people out there and they should all be represented in pop culture, especially when it comes to relationships.

        One can still keep a story interesting and even keep those cliches that sell and still create richer characters. Humans are complicated beings, we can be many things at the same time. I realize some silly teen-oriented rom-com cannot exactly go for deep characterization, but small details make the difference between promoting a disrespectful to women and limiting stereotype and showing a more human character. Which is especially important for works seen by young adults.

        In both cases, women are defined by their view on sexuality, which makes both sexist. It’s either “liberated” women who want to screw every male thing with a pulse around because they’re so “fresh and modern” or women who sit like dead fish when guys kiss them (at the very last possible moment) because they never entertained the possibility couples kiss. Relationships include kissing and sex and those should be shown/hinted in some non-vulgar form, when we’re talking romance genre, but they should not be so obsessed over. They don’t have to be the focus, be it in the form of “pile on the sex scenes” or “thou shalt not touch me”. Both cases are fixating on sex as what defines a woman’s character, both being wrong.

        So that is what I mean. Obsessing with sex or avoidance of it are both obsessing over it when portraying women. And as already mentioned, when said women are then shown in high heels and a pretty dress in the usual “beautification” scene and men get shower scenes all the time, that’s clear objectification too. They just pull the “innocent” card so that the objectification looks even sexier when it’s done, because the lolita type is the one preferred by a male-dominated society like the Korean one.

        Both cases promote stereotypes that are not healthy for young women to have as the only pop culture reference for life. The fixation on these two types of women is not done to enrich the lives of young viewers. They actually promote the stereotypes men in each society want their women to be when they grow up. That is why both are morally wrong.

        • nobody nobody

          What I hear you saying is that fixating on a woman’s sexuality is tantamount to objectifying her as a sex object, since it implies that it is the only thing that justifies her self worth. Is that what you meant?

          If that is so, I agree with you.

          I’m looking at it from a man’s perspective. I think a man should not assume that sex is a given in a non-married/non-committed relationship. He should assume that a romantic relationship is a life long partnership that is based on respect, trust, and communication that takes work. He should see women as potential partners, not as potential entertainment.

          A guy will not see women as sex objects if he doesn’t see them as ‘sexually available’, if he is taught that sex only comes when he’s in a lifelong committed relationship, that he is a dog if he looks at women as entertainment. I don’t see why they couldn’t be taught that.

          Imagine if men thought like this? Imagine how much less pain women would have to go through in life. How much less cheating, rape, abandonment would go on. Men have to get it through their heads that they aren’t entitled to sex. They need to be taught it.

          It’s better for men to think that women “won’t do it” and be surprised when one will than for men to think that “all women do it” and be surprised and outraged when one says no.

          Please let me know if this makes any sense to you.

          • Orion

            That is what I meant, yes.

            As for what you say, I think both are just as bad, because both claim to know what most women want or should want and promote sexual “purity” as what makes a person’s character. Men should be taught that women have value regardless of how fast they sleep with you. If a woman chooses to not have sex early on, it does not make her pure and a good person or even one that really likes the man. Denying your man of something they want and need does not sound pure and loving to me, personally and it’s very good reason for a willing partner to be angry, but it’s not that simple with real human beings either. In the same way, a woman being willing does not mean she is easy or cannot commit long-term etc etc. The way to see women as partners is to stop defining their character and kindness and inner purity based on sex. Which both types of entertainment are doing, as we already talked about.

            Seeing someone as sexually available should not equal to seeing them as a sex object and that is the other issue. People have urges. Maybe not all, but most of them. Any man will want to sleep with a woman he likes (it’s more painful for men to hold back too), the same goes for a woman. No one should put boundaries up for them on when it’s right to do that, as if the timing or amount of waiting is what makes or doesn’t make someone promiscuous.

            “You cannot touch her because she’s pure” does not teach men anything. It shows them seducing a more child-like woman is even more exciting than going for the easier ones and it sometimes also turns women into sadistic creatures who will deny their partner of fulfilling a basic human need. It does not have respect written all over it, either way you see it. For either sex.

            And as I said, showing this to young girls puts pressure to be pure and ignore personal urges (not everyone wants to wait, not everyone wants to dive in), which simply cannot be forced. What it does in the case of Korean entertainment, is tell them to act all pure and childish (hence the aegyo), so that “perfect” men will want them. Works great for a society which wants women to be pretty mindless butterflies whose untainted privates can birth children and who should find romantic giving yourself to one guy regardless of what he does to you.

            I am not saying Korean society is like that. Far from it. The people are usually mostly the same in any country, in their basics of basics, but I am talking about how these big institutions (politics, entertainment etc) want society to remain like, based entirely on what works for them (conservative mostly-men) and not on what is educating or respectful to the men and women of their country. Same goes for Western entertainment, although there is more pressure for equality there, so it’s not always as extreme how it translates into entertainment.

          • nobody nobody

            I think that the plots and themes in kdramas are driven by what sells. From what I have seen, Korean women yearn for a man who will love only her, for who she is, who will see her as irreplaceable, who will give up anything to be with her, and who will never, ever leave her.

            I am not as familiar with Western romance stories but it seems to me that having the guy be fully, completely committed to the woman for life is the ‘happy ending’. The traditional story ending is “They lived happily ever after” not “They stuck around for 7 years, then they broke up”.

            My point is that if this is what women really want, then why not encourage men to fulfill that role? I can promise you that being that being a stand up loyal person will fulfill a man’s sense of masculinity far better than going from woman to woman.

            I hope I don’t seem like I’m talking past you because I read your last post several times and I believe I understand how you feel. When I think of media messages being a way for men to control women and put them in a cage so to speak it is infuriating. But at the same time I don’t think it’s natural to think that normalizing causal sexual contact will lead to the kind of committed respectful relationship that most women really want. If that were so, then where are all the good guys like in dramas? (and if they were all jerks would you watch dramas?)

          • Orion

            Not normalizing, just not avoiding it. As you said, dating a guy a few times, exchanging some bickering and maybe having a kiss is barely the start of a relationship. Most relationships shown in kdramas could very well end within a few weeks. There is no deeper attachment or confirmed attraction.

            Being a sexually active couple is the only way to really be a couple. It’s nature. I can’t see an adult, physically sound pair as a couple if they have not even done the basics that make a couple. Maybe the finale episode ends and then they realize they can’t stand each other in bed. 😛 It’s something which simply has to be over and done with for a couple to officially be one (by adult standards).

            A steady relationship requires trust, respect, understanding, openness and physical attraction. Being able to live with/be with a person and fulfill their mental, emotional and physical needs.

            When kdrama leads go all furious/jealous, that is not respect and trust. When they choose to go the noble idiot (love martyr) way and keep the girl away for whatever angsty reason they have, instead of working through their problems, that does not show closeness and openness. When they act like they will be with her forever even though they are just starting out and are not in a position to make such promises and act that way, that, to me is not romantic or showing true respect or loyalty at all. It’s the Prince Charming romantic notion young girls have, which is very misplaced and flawed and responsible for many a dysfunctional relationship.

            Given that most dramas are 15+, they should move past that and not just go for what sells, but what is properly educating too. For people of that age, who need to be as aware of human beings and relationships (the real kind) as possible to become healthy adults.

            And yes, we’re having a constructive argument/conversation here. Those are always great. 😉 I’ve had my share of replies to my comments by people whose grand reason behind their single-sentence “reasoning” was “I love oppa and you don’t so I hate you”. So being able to have a chat with non fight-ready, articulate people is always a pleasant thing. Ahaha.

          • nobody nobody

            I agree about it being ridiculous that men push the woman away for some ‘noble’ reason. If they just communicated with each other dramas would be only 5 episodes long instead of 16. :) I think this is due to Koreans not being as able/comfortable to communicate as Westerners do. That’s just my guess as I don’t know any Koreans.

            I see you said “steady relationship”. Do you mean a life long relationship or one with an expiry date? Now if you were to say two people are in a life long relationship then I agree with you 100%. But if you are saying that sex or deep emotional gestures are ok just to ‘kick the tires’ (and I don’t know if you mean this or not! :) ) then I disagree.

            It’s better if I explain my emotional reasons rather than just the intellectual ones.

            I don’t like having someone be part of my life (as a parent or in-law) and then have a breakup and have them erased. At least when someone dies you can keep their pictures around and it’s ok to mention them. It’s worse after a breakup. It’s like in 1984 when they erase the people from pictures as if they never existed.

            Now when someone new comes by I sit across from the table, looking at them thinking “Is this guy/girl just passing through? They probably are”. They might be around for 5 years, 10 years even. But they will eventually leave. They say they love each other but can you really trust anyone when they say that? Maybe we should stage family pictures with the inlaws on the outside of the group so that they can be easily photoshopped out and their replacements photoshopped in. (We have many important family photos wrecked because exes-who-must-not-be-named are right in the middle)

            This is the consequence of a lack of formal commitment in romantic relationships. It makes people unable to really trust. I can’t be the only person who thinks that. That’s why it makes my blood run backwards when I hear people say it’s ok to form deep emotional/physical connections with no commitment or responsibility. By commitment/responsibility I mean holding someone accountable when he fails to stick by his wife/husband for life. There is none in today’s world and people think it’s normal.

            In stories we could either explain how things are, or how they could be. Do you object to stories where two people love each other first for who they are as people, leading to a life long commitment? Since we already have many shows in the US (and at the risk of being parochial I assume you are in North America 😉 ) that show how things are, why not let kdramas show a world that is more uplifting? It has made my life much better.

          • Orion

            A steady relationship is one you go into thinking it might lead to commitment. Life is not a fairytale. People change, priorities do, sometime love fades away, without it being anybody’s fault. Very few find someone they can be with all their life. Many people go into a relationship thinking it will last and that is a steady one, because all the elements for it are there, even if it does not work out.

            Not everyone overthinks or plans the duration of a relationship. It’s impossible to do. Most people go with how they feel, form a connection and just go steady, without obsessing over how life-long or not life-long it may be. And that’s fine. Overthinking cannot be applied to something where feelings are more important.

            People break up, they find others, make new families. This is not bad or wrong or sad. It’s life. Maybe once, people stayed with each other for life, but that was not out of real choice. It was because divorce was not approved by society, because it was more convenient to stay together, because there was this idea you have to forgive everything to your partner etc etc. Commitment is lovely, it just works both ways. If a person disappoints you, cheats or the love simply fades away, breaking it off is best.

            As you say, how about stories where friendship came first and romance followed? Or stories of broken relationships shown a bit more? How about showing a couple who are already a couple and have problems, but work them out? So many ways to do romance, do it in a cute/romantic/uplifting way and still attempt to educate viewers about life and relationships in more realistic standards. Realism does not mean 100% reality, neither does it mean a boring show. It just takes talent and willingness to do. And stepping out of the tiiiny comfort zone Korean channels are happy with and know they can cash in with.

            I am all for escapism, but that too should have a time, place and measure. There is a difference between an uplifting world and a caricature “Deny All the Reality!” world designed and approved by older rich men specifically in an attempt to pass their own views to and blind audiences with to keep making money. Look at sasaeng, antis, girls who demand people break up because they don’t like their “oppa” having a girlfriend. The whole KEntertainment industry runs on creating an imaginary world of unhealthy expectations, rolemodels and obsession and feeding off of what it does to audiences.

            I do believe trying to keep viewers naive and misguided, trying to pass them unhealthy and unrealistic views on life (which is nothing like what dramas show) by using such badly “uplifting” content to cash in is irresponsible from an industry with clearly so much influence over people and their mindsets. And as I said, this goes for both West and East, because they both do the same, just in different form. Attempting to pass wrong morals to kids because it sells and in hope they raise generations of naive idiots, ready to accept more of what is shoveled to them because it’s “romantic”.

            Silly unrealistic shows on prude romance or sex-related romance are fine. They’re just not fine when they are the only thing practically cloned and shown (it also harms the industry creativity and innovation wise) and with such immoral reasons behind why.

          • nobody nobody

            It’s interesting how our experience shapes our worldview.

            As I see it, you see distant and self interested men pushing unfair and unrealistic expectations and standards on women and that bothers you.

            I see an ideal of intense platonic love leading to life long commitment under threat and that bothers me. :)

            While I don’t agree with you, I certainly do empathize with you. Thanks for bearing with me. :)

          • Orion

            True, people and life experience differ, that is why it’s important for all kinds of views to be expressed. We all gain from that. Thanks for the awesome conversation! 😀

    • anoo

      they shouldn’t lose what makes them characteristic, even as a culture, but should evolve whit the times, Kdrama, is not only korean anymore… 😛

  • lupita three one one

    I read this and still amazes me how people believe that life imitates art and not the other way, for one I don’t really care since I am an American, I care about world news but I don’t want to change what and how others think, if for Americans women are more liberals and have more rights, who is saying that we have to ask others to do the same, if women in Korea wanted to be more free they have to fight themselves for that freedom. But at the end I enjoy watching dramas as an entertainment not to teach me about life because I know that everything that comes from tv even reality tv is fake, it comes from the writing of a writer that created this world for me to watch. Is a window to a fantasy life, because if they start to show only hardships on tv and I am having such a great time I am going to end up crazy. Real life is hard and in this dramas they show me a bit of hope I know it doesn’t exist but for 45 minutes and 20 episodes I forget that everything is messed up and that there is a girl that started really bad and her family is lost and no money and she solved it no matter what at the end. That is the end of my Korean experience, the next day I go to my job and live my life, so why meddle with other countries issues, it is unrealistic well, you live a realistic life so escape with us for a while. At the end of the day you are not going to fix the world’s problems each one of them have to do it, I just like the dramas and I don’t hate American tv, but thank God I can speak, English, Spanish, a bit of Korean, a bit of Italian some Portuguese so I have a choice of what to watch and I really enjoy tv after a hard day of work and depending on my mood I adjust my watching, is that what it is supposed to happen so this discussion on sexual liberation and women and who is better American tv or Korean or women, to me is pointless..

  • luminousmint

    It is true that there are many women in Korea in their late twenties and early thirties that are still virgins and have never been in a relationship. It’s not as odd as you might think.

  • anoo

    they show a sexist and immature behavior, and very futile at times… its fun sometimes but not as a rule, its unrealistic… Single women in late 20’s who don’t kiss and have sex… ahahhahahahahahahah

  • Seti Tesefay

    Probably one of the reasons why i love I need Romance series. They showed the dynamics of strong women and what they wanted in a relationships and in sex. They had careers they were passionate about and they knew what they wanted from their love lives (whether it was marriage, continuing platonic relationship, to find themselves, etc…). These dramas showed you can take multiple course of actions and be happy, it just depends on the person.

  • Jonida Sanço

    The problem is that when there are dramas who are actually realistic, or at least a little bit more realistic such as Worlds Within with Song Hye Kyo and Hyun Bin, where the female lead is sexually active and moves on more easily from one boyfriend to another, and is also pursuing a career, and not thinking about marriage at all, that drama has such low ratings that the cast and crew agree not to get paid to save the production company from bankruptcy. I think the public doesn’t even appreciate realistic dramas, and they’re more interested in the formulaic virgin female lead, incredibly persistent and stubborn second female lead, the chaebol male lead, and the sweet caring second male lead, with a kiss happening by episode 11 or 12, melodrama of some misunderstanding or overbearing family or ex by episode 12 to 15, the leads separating for a year on episode 15, and catching up to be together on episode 16.

  • Minna Maria Mäensivu

    This is an old thread but I have to add something in case other people (like me) are looking for series with more.. hmm.. bold female leads. I just finished watching Twelve men in a year, and although it was silly, it had interesting bohemian woman lead who wasn’t as chaste as typical for kdrama. Also the character of her best friend was definately bold (sexually active) and still a good person. (Although the sexual acivity was toned down in the end of the series and she ended up with someone unsuitable… apparently just to make her character appear more pure and acceptable.) Still it had more openminded view on sexuality than many other dramas I’ve watched.

  • mssn

    it’s because of the messianic story…. if you look closely, the story is similar to most Christian stories….. The man represents St. Paul or St. Peter… they started out as sinners and bad persons…. and then a pure and holy person comes in and tries to change and convert the sinners….. Women like those stories… Women want it when they are kind and pure and then they will enter the life of a bad boy and then change him to be a better person…. Women love those kind of stories… I don’t know why…