Date Culture

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Physical intimacy: A comparison of expectations held by young Korean and American adults

18th January 2006

In this paper I’m going to summarize what my 18-25 year-old Korean university students have told me about Korean dating culture and compare that with my experiences and experiences that American friends have told me about regarding the high school and college dating scenes. It should be noted that I went to high school in the suburbs of New Jersey and university in Hempstead, Long Island (New York). My friends are from New York and New Jersey. My students were primarily from Seoul or nearby cities like Bucheon. Some were from other cities like Incheon, Daegu, or smaller cities.

I first realized that the culture of physical intimacy might be very different in Korean and America while discussing gestures and expressions with an intermediate English conversation class. The text had a picture of a man kissing a woman on the cheek and I asked students if that’s how close friends might say good bye in Korea. My shocked students told me no. I asked them when such a gesture might be used and was told only between lovers. When I asked them how long a couple had to be dating before a kiss on the cheek the first response was “Two months!”

After some more discussion, I had students with different time frames in mind, ranging from 1 week to 2 months. I even had one female student who had allowed her now-boyfriend to kiss her cheek on the first date. However she qualified this by explaining (several times, presumably so no one would think she was that kind of girl) that it had been very cold outside and that they had spent the evening very close in order to keep warm. In a situation like that, a kiss on the first date was acceptable.

In later classes, while we discussed dating customs, the question of sexual intercourse came up. It seems that Korean men aim to have sex on the 100-day anniversary. Most women were silent or explained that it was proper to wait until marriage. Several women agreed that sex was normal in long-term relationships. I think they meant 1 year or longer.

American men expect sex sooner. Take the story of a high school boy who dumped his first girlfriend for not having sex with him. Every day, he told me, friends were asking him how she was in bed. When he answered that they hadn’t slept together yet, friends kept asking him if he had slept with her, when he was going to sleep with her, why he hadn’t slept with her yet, etc. One friend (a college graduate) told him that he slept with women on or before the third date. If three weeks had gone by with no sex than something was seriously wrong. He would never date a woman 3 months unless he was getting some sex.

After six months (during which the high school boy pressured his girlfriend for sex numerous times), the high school boy in our story told his girlfriend over the phone that he was dumping her. She cried and asked why. He said because he needed to be with someone who would have sex with him. She asked if he could wait. He couldn’t.

He said he earned some respect after telling his male classmates the same story he has shared with me. It seems that there is more pressure on American teens and young adults to have sex and that the pressure comes sooner.

Another difference is the sex-outside-of-relationships that seems to be more common in America than in Korea. “Hooking up” was certainly a part of university culture when I attended school in the late nineties and I’ve read several articles recently which indicate that “hooking up” is becoming more common. While I’ve hear the term “hooking up” used to refer to non-sexual acts of physical intimacy such as making out, my understanding is that university students use this primarily to talk about sex, often one-night stands.

My Korean students said that while it might be possible to pick someone up for a one-night stand in certain nightclubs, this sort of thing was very rare in Korea.

A conversation with one male student revealed that Korean couples don’t generally fool around in movie theaters although going to the movies is a common date. What surprised me more is how this student reacted (while in America) when he found out that the woman he had a crush on was bisexual. First he was shocked that she told him, a virtual stranger. Then he lost all interest in her. He said that Korean men don’t have that fantasy shared by so many American men, being with 2 women at the same time.

This article was written by James Trotta, a teacher trainer in the TESOL program at Sookmyung Woman’s University. He teaches second language acquisition and his research interests include computer mediated communication and intercultural communication. He runs several popular web sites, including ESL and strives to create communities that bring English speakers together.

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