What #MeToo has done, is doing, and must do for women – a South Korean perspective

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This is a transcript of my talk at FILIA Feminist Conference 2018.

In this session, I’m going to talk about what #MeToo has done, is doing, and must do for women across the globe. In particular, I’ll focus on the high-profile case of a South Korean politician, Ahn Hee Jung, to illustrate what happened when one woman decided to hold a powerful man accountable for his sexual abuse of her.

Historically speaking, #MeToo is women’s collective rage erupting from thousands of years of silence and submission in the face of universal sexual abuse. And I mean universal. It is everywhere. Ranging from rape and sexual harassment to prostitution, pornography, sex murder, and other forms of sexual objectification, sexual abuse is the heart of women’s oppression. Neither equality, nor liberation, nor simple humanity is possible for women so long as men’s sexual abuse of them is allowed to continue.

Feminism, or resistance to women’s oppression, seeks to eradicate men’s sexual abuse of women. #MeToo is one of the most recent and most powerful manifestations of feminism, in that women are coming together to share their experience of sexual abuse, caring about each other’s pain, joining the collective struggle against male dominance, and declaring the end of sexual abuse, once and for all. This is a historical process. Every day, millions of women are waking up and shaking the earth. Our number is so large that society can no longer suppress and ignore us. It is true in many parts of the globe, and it is true in South Korea, too.

On March 5th, 2018, a woman named Kim Ji Eun appeared on television to reveal that Ahn Hee Jung had raped her four times since he hired her as his political aide in June 2017. In a trembling voice, she described how his power meant that she could not refuse his sexual advances and said that there were other victims. She also explained that she had decided to go public because she was afraid that something might happen to her, and asked the audience to protect her.

At this point, 53-year-old Ahn Hee Jung was a governor and star politician, regarded by many as a major contender for the next presidential election in 2022. His political career spanned decades, starting from the time he joined the pro-democracy movement as a young student. He had even given interviews about feminism and women’s rights as part of his campaign to become a presidential candidate, winning the support of quite a few feminists. Ironically, Ahn Hee Jung made a public statement of support for #MeToo on the same day that Kim Ji Eun exposed his sexual abuse of her. Kim Ji Eun’s revelation came against the backdrop of #MeToo and a strong women’s movement in South Korea, which had emboldened many women to come forward with their demands for justice, and to organize mass political support for each other. Along with Seo Ji Hyun, a woman prosecutor who made public another high profile #MeToo story earlier this year, Kim Ji Eun put #MeToo and feminism on national headlines and in South Korean mainstream society. Tens of thousands of women organized to support Kim Ji Eun and to hold Ahn Hee Jung accountable.

I should emphasize the significance of this change, especially in South Korean society. Before the current surge of feminism and #MeToo, this level of mass women’s organizing against sexual abuse had been inconceivable. Certainly, there were dedicated feminists and survivors of abuse carrying on guerilla warfare for decades. But they had not been at visible at all, let alone widely featured and supported in mainstream media. This was especially true for sexual abuse. Until recent years, I had never seen so many women survivors of sexual abuse being able to speak openly about their experience, to organize a mass political movement with other survivors, and to confront their abusers in a public way.

For example, in 2008, when I was an undergraduate student coming to terms with my experience of childhood sexual abuse for the first time, I remember that information about feminism, feminists, and organized resistance against sexual abuse simply was not easy to find anywhere in regular mainstream South Korean society. What I found there instead was a ton of rhetoric about women going mad, women killing themselves, and women’s lives being ruined forever as the consequence of sexual abuse. Never mind women fighting back against men’s sexual abuse of them, women had to worry about being perceived as “damaged goods”, less worthy of dignity and respect, and not completely sane after being sexually abused. To a large extent, we still do, except #MeToo and the global women’s movement have risen to counter this narrative about victims and survivors.

Now, 2008 was only a single decade ago, but things were very different then from now in terms of how we access information and communicate with others. Especially for Korean material on the issue, one had to physically go and rummage through stacks in an actual library for weeks in order to identify good information about surviving sexual abuse and feminist ideas. Smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, none of this was in widespread use. I most definitely could not imagine one day being able to hear from and connect with other survivors from across the globe, with just a few quick searches at my fingertips. No, in 2008, most women were cut off from each other and from our truth about sexual abuse. Not that it didn’t happen to women, it happened all the time to so many women.

I personally knew women who gave up their education and their careers, who had to be hospitalized, and who tried to kill themselves as a result of sexual harassment and sexual assault. However, it just was not thought of as important enough to bring up sexual abuse as a matter of public concern, or even informally amongst ourselves. At this point in time, most South Korean women had never heard of feminism, not really, at least through ordinary, mainstream channels. Most women suffered in silence. For quite a while, I brooded over whether I should end my life and be done with the agony and the isolation. Fortunately, I was able to connect with frontline activists who had been organizing against violence against women for decades, and this was how I survived, but I was an exception for that time, because feminism remained virtually non-existent for most women in South Korea. Only a handful of women appeared at rallies for women’s rights during this period, even when they were for murdered women.

After the surge of feminism in recent years and especially after #MeToo, things could not be more different now in South Korea. Thanks to developments in communication and technology, feminist consciousness-raising has been possible at a mass public level. Men’s sexual abuse of women is recognized as a genuine issue of national concern, featured and discussed in every mainstream media outlet. By now, every woman has heard of feminism. Even my eighty-one year old grandmother and her friends have heard about it. Every major rally for women’s rights is packed with not just thousands, but tens of thousands of women. A real revolution is happening in South Korea today.

At the same time, the backlash against feminism and #MeToo is strong. It is not so easy to tear down male dominance, even with a real revolution. For one, Ahn Hee Jung walked free. He was found not guilty of rape at trial because the court rejected the argument that he had abused his power and authority over Kim Ji Eun to coerce her into sex. The legal system failed to conceptualize rape and sexual abuse in a way that incorporates a true understanding of inequality, domination, and coercion. After Ahn Hee Jung’s acquittal, women went out into the streets bearing fire torches.

So far I’ve talked about the past and the present, what #MeToo has been and is doing for women. Looking to the future, what must it do for women? Put more aptly, what must women do now, now that so many of us have awakened to the realities of our oppression, now that so many of us understand what sexual abuse is and what it does to women? I could talk about this for years, I probably will, but I’ll give you the short version for now. I mentioned that feminism is resistance to women’s oppression that seeks to eradicate men’s sexual abuse of women. I repeat that this is a historical process. #MeToo must prompt women to make and write the new history of how we ended women’s oppression, how we ended men’s sexual abuse of women, how we ended sex inequality, once and for all. Our new history will remember Kim Ji Eun and countless other women who spoke out as freedom fighters, equality seekers, truth tellers, and liberators of women. Thank you.

By: Nayoung Kim at FILIA Feminist Conference in Manchester, UK, on October 20, 2018.

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