Women-Only Spaces & Allegations of Reverse Sexism

The Korea Times ran “'Male-free' zones ignite uproar: Some question the legitimacy of woman-only areas” by Park Jin-hai, Kwon Ji-youn, and Yoon Sung-won.

I have never once seen a space in Korea designated 'male-free.' I have seen a few women-only seats and lounges, but even these are rare. The reason Park, Kwon and Yoon flip the script from (still rarely used) 'woman-only' to 'male-free' is to call attention to their perception of reverse discrimination. The article contains a few half-hearted attempts to say that sometimes maybe possibly spaces reserved for women to prevent sexual harassment could maybe possibly sometimes be sort of important to public safety -- BUT really asks 'what about men's rights?' The purpose of the piece is to assert that men’s rights are being denied and that women-only spaces are reverse discriminatory. Park, Kwon and Yoon even go so far as to try to convince us that by pursuing public safety we are unwittingly putting the status of women in jeopardy[1].

That kind of rhetorical game was probably deployed to mitigate the way that the authors disregard evidence of sexual violence, or to  try to show a paternialistic concern for the status of women, or maybe to presume to understand the needs of women and convince women that such spaces are somehow not in their best interests -- but I'm not buying what you're selling.

The authors claim that
“All people agree to some extent that women including those with children should be provided with special care. But as some of the measures put in place include absurd directives it has triggered “reverse discrimination” against men and thus worsened confrontations between members of the opposite sex.”
I argue that it is not just providing for women-only space that cause conflict, but that the larger issue is a lack of public education explaining why such measures are necessary. More importantly, c'mon, sexual harassment itself is already a huge glaring pattern of 'confrontation between members of the opposite sex' that these spaces are designed to address. From a woman's perspective, let me tell you, if I were to weigh the 'confrontation' of sexual violence and harassment with the 'confrontation' of engaging in a dialog with a man explaining why women-only spaces are important, I KNOW which one is the WORSE 'confrontation.'

Reading closely, in the interviews shared in the article, the most-repeated statement by an interviewee is a variation of "I don't understand..." The authors also seem to either lack an understanding of why some spaces were reserved only for women, or they failed to investigate and report the reason in this article. I do think that campaigns that simply label a space ‘women only’ without providing an explanation could cause confusion and misunderstanding.More importantly, inadequately explained policies or labels are a major missed opportunity for public education about sexual violence, privilege and the importance of measures to promote safety.

The authors go on to cite women’s lounges at schools and law firms,
“there are special pink buses exclusively for female passengers. “The idea of having a safe bus ride is good. But having a bus which men are banned from, is tantamount to criminalizing all men and viewing them as potential sex criminals,” said Kang Hyun-chul. “It reminds me of the old-time black-white segregation of the South Africa. It is very insulting.”
*I am not an artist, but you get the point~
Park, Yoon and Kwon describe the activism of members of Ilbe and Man of Korea/남성연대 who snap pictures of women-only spaces for online discussion and offline complaint. Of course Ilbe and Man of Korea/남성연대 members can rush to claim reverse sexism by snapping a pic of the 'women's seat' at the library, because they don't know about or understand that there have been safety problems at the library. These self-proclaimed ‘men's rightists’ argue that they are excluded via reverse discrimination, and this may be partially attributed to the fact that they are not educated about the extent of their male privilege in this context. While the ‘men’s rights’ group thinks that they are being excluded from learning spaces at schools and library, their outrage is amplified the rapid gains made in women's educational attainment. At the same time, they do not realize that by being men they are not profiled in public spaces as a target for sexual harassment.

The signage could read something like “in accordance with ### law to prevent sexual harassment, this seat is reserved for women only” or “due to reported incidents of sexual harassment, this seat is reserved for women only” rather than simply saying “women only.” Doing so would immediately highlight our consciousness of harassment and possibly promote survivor reporting and bystander intervention.

The authors conclude,
“The hard facts still suggest that the status of Korean women lags behind those of other countries ― the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap report for 2012 ranked Korea 108th out of 135 countries around the world.
Yet, some of the measures that have been introduced without being given much thought as to their implications only jeopardize the status of women.”
The authors never explain the decision-making process behind making these women-only spaces and the critique that these are randomly designated spaces ignores the crime reports that are the actual basis for making safer women-only designated bus seats, train cars, library seats and lounges. Let’s get real; promoting the safety of women is NOT going to ‘jeopardize their status.’ Rather than internalizing, accepting and tolerating sexual harassment, visibility around sexual harassment teaches women and men to stand up for safe spaces for everyone.

Finally attitudes described by Professor Kwak,
“As more women pursue careers and succeed in these, the traditional viewpoint that regarded women as weak members of society has changed,” said Kwak Geum-ju, psychology a professor at Seoul National University. “Consequently, some males now go as far as to perceive women as competitors, exacerbating confrontations between the two sexes.”
demonstrate that we need to fill an education gap. We need to make sure that men and women understand these initiatives in the context of public safety, and do not mislabel them as competitive advantages for women. It isn’t about giving women a leg-up in the workplace; it is about preventing the sometimes debilitating effects of sexual violence so that women can safely access education.

Without appropriate public education campaigns to spread awareness, misunderstanding and backlash grow. Efforts to create safe spaces are overturned and women and social minority voices are effectively being silenced by backlash against human rights campaign progress. So let’s spread the word ourselves and help the public understand the reason that these projects exist. Let’s share information about sex crimes, let’s track where they happen, let’s stand up and intervene when we see sexual harassment, and let’s give public education to those who compare the pink car on a subway train to apartheid in South Africa.

This December a new public education project to promote awareness and reporting of street harassment will launch nationwide in Korea. Korean Gender Café 한국 젠더 카페 will soon post updates for those interested in this evolving project.

We'd like to highlight a few examples of our public awareness promotion around sexual violence, please see:

Sexual Assault and Harassment, Child Self-defense, Domestic Violence Shelter Volunteer
Seoul Rape Medical Treatment and National Police Hospital (Located on Line 3, exit 1)
What is quasi-rape? Is Park Si-hoo charged with rape?
Queer Corner: Imbalance of Power and Rape in the Korean Gay Community
Sexual Violence as a Migrating Woman, Re: India Story You Never Wanted to Hear
Queer Corner: Violence in a Label - 마짜, 때짜, 올
가정폭력 Domestic Violence Awareness : Music & Media

For another discussion on reverse sexism please see So-called "Reverse Sexism" in Korea 소위 ‘역차별’

For background on Ilbe and Man of Korea/남성연대 see our posts
What is "Men’s Korea" (formerly Boslachi)? 맨즈코리아 ('보슬아치' 사이트), 그들은 누구인가?
What is Man of Korea? ‘남성연대’, 그들은 누구인가?
Korean Male Union & Sexual Harassment 남성연대와 성희롱
Dangerous Man of Korea Fundraiser Ends in Death
‘남성연대’, 페미니즘 그리고 여성가족부의 대안 “Korean Male Union”, Feminism and Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family

This is the 70th post on the Korean Gender Café 한국 젠더 카페! *^^*

[1] There are cases where public safety initiatives HAVE put women’s status and safety in jeopardy. For example, I urge Park, Kwon and Yoon to do some reading about refugee camps and peacekeeping operations under investigation where women were segregated and forced to trade sex for resources, were raped by peacekeepers, or were raped while searching for resources due to poor facilities for displaced persons. The pink car on the subway is NOT such an instance.