When I first began to venture out into the "old city" and began meeting some of the local boys, I was immediately awash in all sorts of culture shock and language barrier on two completely separate dimensions- first, there was still my foreignness and the difference between my white skin and local culture, and second, there was moving into the minority realm of homosexual culture in Korea (and therefore Korean language, too).
While of crossing both of those hills, I was introduced to two terms that I mentioned in my previous post - 마짜 [ma.jja] and 때짜 [ddae.jja]. They, respectively, mean 'bottom' and 'top', as we call the sexual positions between gay men engaging in anal intercourse in English. 'Top' typically refers to the man on top and therefore the one who penetrates, and 'bottom' to the man on bottom and who is penetrated.
Now, even in English, the names represent their own bias. Tops are typically viewed as more of a 'man' and bottoms as more feminine. Many people call the top 'the man' in the relationship, relegating a weaker position to the penetrated partner. This is a direct reflection of power discrepancies between men and women in sex and society- again, the penetrated partner is viewed as weaker and less important. Frankly, it all seems silly- in order to f*** at all, you need both people and I wish the best of luck to any top who desires sex without a man willing to bottom.
As is common in general Korean language, they often adopt English words in slang and pop culture, and 'top' (탑) and 'bottom' (바텀) are no different. However, there still arose native Korean words to describe the two sexual positions (or 성향, 'tendency', as described in an earlier post). Their derivation, though, is a little worrisome, because instead of just implying a power difference between the two roles, but they actually contain significant violence.
때짜 is derived from the Korean verb 때리다, or 'to hit'. 마짜 is derived from 맞다 , or 'to be hit'. That's right- a top, simply by his name in Korean, is described as 'hitting' or 'striking' his partner who, by his very name, receives the strike or beating. They are both, by nature, violent words, and the implications for violence in sex is worrisome.
Note: There is a direct reflection of similar naming in Japanese in which the top is called seme and bottom uke, terms derived from martial arts meaning "to attack" and "to be attacked".
To provide one more comparison, looking at Spanish, the words for top and bottom are actually activio and passivo, phrases that are remnants of old views on the sexual relations between men and women.
If I speak honestly, there's a certain wry humor that can be taken from the terms. It is a bit funny that sexual partners are described as hitting and being hit in sex- frankly, there's a certain truth in it. We are humans, after all, and sex in real life (IRL) is rarely as neat and clean as it is on TV or in the movies. Perhaps it is just the puritanical upbringing from my American background that causes me to balk at such an honest admission, and maybe Korea is actually more progressive for being open about it- maybe it's just a sign of frank sexual positivity.
While that may be a possible explanation, every fiber in my being is leaning pretty far away from it. A conversation with a former sexual partner comes to mind and forgive me for the frankness, but hey- welcome to the queer corner.
나 (Me): 내가 버텀할땐 너무 아프면 바로 그만해주라고 하는거야. 고통이 싫다. "If I bottom and it hurts, I tell him to stop right away. I don't like pain."
이놈: 여기 한국이잖아. 마짜가 버텨야겠다. 아파도 때짜를 따라해야지뭐. “Hey this is Korea. You have to bear it. Even if it hurts, it is the bottom’s role."
나 (Me): 웅? 씨발. 둘이함께 즐거워야지, 안그러면 재미없어. “"What? Bullshit. We should enjoy it together, if not then it's boring."
이놈: 글쎄. 문화차이. "Meh. It's a cultural difference."
While I agree that not everyone may feel that way or be quite so frank about the situation, I have found over the course of my time here that that truly is the prevailing attitude. It's the bottoms job to just take it, regardless of how they feel, and the top's enjoyment is all that really matters. That disparity is coded into the very names of the two positions, something I find very troubling.
Even describing the positions in Korean can be difficult. In my previous post, my lovely cowriters here struggled with a translation- and I'll include a bit of the thinking behind them:
"I tried to come up with a definition but it was really odd sounding to Korean friends, I used words that translate like 'inserter' or 'receiver' so you may have noticed in the post that they were explained as 남성성형 (male position) or 여성성형 (female position) by Jenderole/젠더롤 when he edited (for the sake of clarity in Korean)... which on reflection actually really bothered me bc it seems we reaffirm binary thinking (meaning: even though sexuality is diverse, our thinking and description conforms to man/woman reflecting a heteronormative attitude), if that makes sense?" – Chelle B. Mille
Personally, when I find myself discussing the finer points of gay sex, in Korean, to people outside of the loop, I go with 받는사람 for bottom ('person that receives') and 해주는사람 for top ('person that gives'). While perhaps not perfectly, I do believe them to be respectful and honest to men of both types. Also, notice how I used verbs- that describes the role in terms of an action, not a description of personhood. I find it important to recognize topping and bottom as an act, an event- just like sex itself is. After all, there are plenty of people who are versatile and enjoy both- a rising popularity in Korea known as the 올, or 'all.'
What do you think, community? Is Korean language more sexually positive in its nomenclature than English? Do you agree with my concern that the Korean words used to describe sexual roles between gay men reflect violence? Or do you have another idea?
Note: Apparently, there are also tops and bottoms in relationships between two women in Korea, I learned after speaking with a local lesbian. I don't know much about how that works- any one able to elaborate on that?