Wednesday, January 11, 2006

groping the issue of sexual harassment

My Smoo Freshman English students-- they're high seniors, you'll recall-- and I have been talking about sexual harassment over the past couple days, and it's been interesting to see how they react to various issues. On the whole, they seem to skew toward almost the same range of opinions as American women regarding what constitutes sexual harassment, but they display some of the same contradictions when the hypothetical male sexual harasser is replaced with a handsome movie star: suddenly, all those suggestive come-ons and lingering stares are OK.

Things that are a no-no to my girls (in an office/school environment):

1. A man's hand on the woman's shoulder for more than a few seconds.
2. Sexual banter in public areas.
3. Sexual rumormongering.
4. Staring.

There seemed to be some disagreement over whether personal questions about being single crossed the line, and I assume this is cultural, insofar as Koreans often ask personal questions in order to determine how best to address each other. Some students were made nervous by questions like "Are you single?" and "Do you have a boyfriend?"; others thought it was harmless.

The students said that staring was a problem. But as soon as I asked them whether it was all right for the Korean heartthrob Weon Bin (pronounced almost like "one bean," but with tighter vowels) to replace me as a teacher and start leering at them, most of the girls found such leering perfectly permissible.

My students felt that Korean women had made progress in society, on the whole, but none of them felt that women in Korea were equal to men-- not by a long shot. Assessments of the situation were neither overly optimistic nor overly pessimistic. Interestingly, the students felt that Confucianism was not a relic of the past, but something that needed to be altered to reflect the changing times. Personally, I agree: Korean society wouldn't be able to withstand a sudden, sweeping democratization at the level of social attitudes and mores.

Metrosexuality was consciously acknowledged. Heterosexual men who wear makeup are just fine with my students, as long as they're not wearing too much. But while the students had no trouble with the idea of a man who cries during a sad movie, they had a lot of trouble with the idea of a young boy who plays with Barbie dolls. Whether this reflects an undercurrent of feminine homophobia, I couldn't say. It's true that Korean women are, on the whole, less comfortable about gay men than American women are. Homosexuality is still a queasy topic in Korea.

I asked my advanced freshman students whether it was even possible to talk about the differences between the sexes, given how careful we apparently need to be with our language and behavior. Of twenty-one students in that class, only one said it was impossible. The other twenty, to their credit, thought we should all take a more relaxed, less uptight attitude toward each other. After all, as one of my advanced students noted, how can workplace romances happen without things like staring and touching, right?

To get a sense of how these classes went, you have to understand two things: first, my teaching style is very extraverted, and I tend to act out what I'm saying to give lower-level students a clearer idea of the content of my speech. Second, Korean girls, when in a group, tend to react en masse. Therefore, when I asked the girls whether it was all right for a man to stare, I gave them my best Kubrick-style, "from under the brow ridge" look (à la Malcolm McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange") to show them what I meant. They recoiled in theatrical revulsion with equally theatrical cries of disgust. That was fun-- as well as being free confirmation that I'm an ugly bastard.

Smoo is a school known for producing a fair number of feminist thinkers. If the current crop of incoming freshmen is any indication, we may have a few more such thinkers graduating in four years. Me-- as I've said before, I'm a Camille Paglia feminist: biological differences matter, but this shouldn't stand in the way of continued female empowerment. I don't yet know whether Korean women have stepped into the post-feminist era (something only tentatively felt even in America, I think), but I imagine they'll be along shortly. That'll be the day: the day the Korean ladies drop all pretense at demureness and crack dick jokes the way we guys crack camel toe jokes.


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