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Korea’s ‘Semen Terrorism’ Is Happening Here, Too

The trend of men ejaculating onto women has become a hot topic in Korea, where advocates want to see it defined as a sex crime. But these sort of attacks may also be dramatically underreported in the U.S.

In May, a Korean civil servant was sentenced by a court to pay a 3 million won fine — a little more than $2,500 — for damaging the property of his female colleague. 

How did he do that? By ejaculating inside of her coffee tumbler six times over the course of six months. The act was widely condemned as a disgusting, deviant and legitimate assault on the woman. But the way the law and the courts saw it in South Korea, this semen attack wasn’t a sex crime — it simply ruined the utility of the cup. 

“Semen terrorism” is a hot topic in South Korea this year, with a number of feminist activists, victim advocates and legislators debating why and how such a crime can become a trend. There have been 44 cases related to semen attacks filed between 2019 and July 2021, Korean feminist media company The Women’s News noted in a report. But it’s been happening for likely far longer than that, and the stories follow an unfortunate pattern. 

A 2019 instance involved a man who drenched a woman’s shoes with semen, only to go free with a $435 fine for property damage. In another example, a man mixed semen, spit, laxatives and aphrodisiacs into a woman’s coffee dozens of times for rejecting his advances; while he received three years in prison for various charges, including “attempted injury” and theft (of her underwear), none of it was deemed a sexual crime. This year, a teaching assistant at a university woke up to find splotches of semen on her bedspread; security cameras ended up spotting a senior student at her school sneaking into her room.  

“Semen terrorism is, without a doubt, violence directed at women by men. It is not merely a sexual fetish,” the Korean women’s rights group Haeil said in a statement to VICE. “All the perverse acts [we hear of] were driven by toxic masculinity, the need to control and the thinking that women aren’t equal.” 

On one hand, it’s obvious that this is a problem due to poorly defined sexual crime laws and biased (or simply ineffective) application of existing statutes, which is why South Korean legislators like Back Hye-Run are proposing to make “semen terrorism” a unique crime. On the other hand, it’s a matter of social norms: Historically, South Korean courts (as well as the public) have turned a blind eye on litigating sexual assault and domestic violence, due to the social pressure to resolve such matters behind closed doors, says Jo Elfving-Hwang, associate professor and director of the Korea Research Centre at the University of Western Australia. Meanwhile, there’s been a rise in misogynistic attacks, including acid attacks on feminists and a trend dubbed “molka,” in which men plant tiny cameras to film female targets and share them online. 

Having studied the history of Korea’s pre- and post-war development, Elfving-Hwang argues that rampant misogyny isn’t a current phenomenon, but the end result of decades of social and economic turmoil that have shaken the nature of Korean patriarchal society, which has undergone several transformations since the end of the Korean War. The post-war industrial boom was dubbed the “Miracle on the Han River,” and it led to surging prosperity for Korean men trying to rebuild families after a three-year conflict that decimated much of the landscape. By the early 1990s, the archetype of the successful “salaryman,” providing for his stay-at-home wife and kids, was in full force. 

Then the 1997 financial crash consumed Asia. And ever since, Korean men have been gripped by more economic crises, shifting social expectations and new gender roles that go against long-held ideas about the nuclear family and Confucian values, which often champion the man as the mind and center of a family. The turmoil is especially strong for young men, who are disaffected about their prospects for a career and relationships, Elfving-Hwang notes. 

“There is a strong idea of normative masculinity in Korea, intertwined with a militarized masculinity from mandatory service and, by extension, this idea that you’re a warrior for the economy as well. You’re expected to be a good father. You’re definitely not queer, because that subverts too much,” Elfving-Hwang says. “So in a sense, it’s easy to understand why young Korean men are so aggrieved about gender roles. It’s like the expectations haven’t changed, but the world has. It’s not made any easier by the constant repetition of these aggressive tropes in Korean TV dramas and movies: Casual misogyny and violence against women, domineering men, the need to be a hero.”

If all of that sounds familiar, it’s because the tensions in Korean male culture align almost perfectly with the tensions in Western societies, which have been rocked by the violence of lonely, angry men who continue to absorb and spread hateful rhetoric about women and sex on the internet. There is a direct link between internal emotions, online rhetoric and real-world violence — and while “semen terrorism” appears to be having a moment in South Korea, it’s also been happening simultaneously in the U.S. 

Last year, a Maryland man stabbed a woman with a semen-filled needle at a supermarket, with evidence suggesting he had plans to inject others as well. In 2017, a stranger approached a woman in Alaska, offered her a ride down the road, then held her down and ejaculated on her face. (He pleaded guilty to a single count of second-degree assault.) In 2014, a Minnesota man was caught ejaculating into his female coworker’s coffee and desk over six months. (He was sentenced on a single misdemeanor count for “lewd and indecent behavior.”) In 2013, a freshman at the University of Colorado, Boulder was arrested for breaking into a woman’s dorm room and masturbating onto her. In 2005, three college students in Connecticut got minimal punishments for taking turns ejaculating onto a woman who was sleeping in one of their rooms. 

The nature of semen attacks showcase the litany of problems in how the system deals with sexual assaults on women that don’t involve penetration or a physical fight. There is very little case law from any jurisdiction that involves attacks solely with bodily fluids, says Jennifer Long, a former prosecutor and victim advocate who is now CEO of AEquitas, a nonprofit that works to change legal standards and outcomes around gender-based violence. In the rare instances that semen assault fits under existing sexual assault statutes, it often comes with the condition that force was used on the victim.

Given that research shows sexual assault is dramatically underreported in the U.S., it’s a “very fair assumption” to believe that attacks with bodily fluids are also much more prevalent than we know, Long says. The lack of information about it often leaves women bewildered about what happened, who did it and whether they should even feel like a victim about the crime. 

“With sexual assaults, [experts] often say the person to whom a victim first reports can have an impact on whether the victim proceeds with the process. So, if you can imagine telling a friend or family member or loved ones about a semen attack, only for it to be minimized as, ‘Thank God you weren’t raped.’ Or it might be law enforcement saying ‘Well, what do you want us to do? Our laws don’t cover that,’” Long says. 

Long suggests that semen attacks can typically be prosecuted as general assault and battery, which offers some accountability but fails to capture the seriousness of it being a sexual crime. This is especially problematic considering how inaction can lead to escalation. “We know that many perpetrators operate by grooming — testing boundaries and testing their ability to evade accountability by progressively aggravating their crimes. So when we don’t take this seriously, we’re missing those individuals,” Long says. “Someone who is going to masturbate as part of their assaults may really be thoughtfully considering that this isn’t something that they’ll be held criminally accountable for. They may count on that.”

Unfortunately, changing existing statutes or adding new laws on semen attacks is a slow process — AEquitas research suggests that only a handful of states, notably Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado and Delaware, have implemented changes to redefine what counts as a sexual crime. Moreover, Long says, “The main barriers to achieving justice tend not to be the laws but, whether or not the powers that be are implementing them. We call that the gap between the law and the books. That’s not to say laws aren’t imperfect. But people assume a change in the law will make the change, and I don’t think that’s borne out without something more.”

What’s obvious now is that semen terrorism is happening all around the world, with recent cases from Japan, the U.K. and India. And it reflects a disturbing trend in how disaffected, entitled men are attempting to get revenge on women for things that are out of their control, whether it’s through domestic abuse, mass shootings or something as bizarre and gross as ejaculating on a person’s belongings or body. 

“The incredible thing is that there are so many highly educated Korean women now who are growing increasingly vocal. I don’t think this progress can be stopped, and there are a lot of men as well, particularly on the internet, who can see that,” Elfving-Hwang says. “So it’s become, for them, quite literally a gender war.” 

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