Video rooms develop a dual role for studentsKim Ha-na wasn’t paying attention when she opened the door to Room 18 ― or what she thought was 18. “I was chatting with a friend when I turned the handle,” says the freshman at Ewha Womans University. “I stepped inside and I found myself staring at a naked couple.”
Ms. Kim, who asked that her real name not be used, quickly retreated.
Was this a cheap, by-the-hour motel? Think again. This was a video room in Sinchon, the largest university district in Seoul. It’s one of the places where students come to have sex.
Premarital sex has long been taboo in Korea, where traditional Confucian values still retain a strong grip on society. But moral values have been changing in recent years, particularly on college campuses. This puts sexually active university students and 20-something workers in somewhat of a bind, since most live with their parents and siblings before marriage.
One option for students is the video room, which was conceived as a convenient place for people to watch movies with friends and as a retreat for film buffs frustrated with crowded theaters. But the privacy of the individual screening rooms gave young people other ideas.
“On a busy day we get an average of 100 customers,” says Mr. Lee, a part-time worker at an upscale video room in Sinchon. “In the evenings, after classes end, about 70 percent are student couples.”
A peek into the rooms suggests that customers may have interests extending beyond Mr. Lee’s extensive selection of movies. For a rental fee of 10,000 won ($8.40), clients are ushered into rooms with a red stop sign on the door ordering “Do Not Enter.” Inside the dimly lit rooms is a plush sofa that tilts back to become a queen-sized bed. Windows are covered with a black film that blocks out Peeping Toms. A box of tissues and a hair dryer are set in front of a mirror.
There are as many as 20 video rooms like this on practically every block in Sinchon, all within walking distance of Yonsei, Sogang and Ewha Womans universities.
On weekend evenings most video rooms are filled as early as 7 p.m., and only those with reservations are escorted inside. Admission is restricted to people over 18, according to signs posted outside, but not every salon checks visitors’ IDs.
Students say motels near campuses are another option. Motels in Korea aren’t as fancy as hotels, but they are better than the dingier yeogwans or yeo-insuks. There is no shortage of them in Sinchon or other student areas. Rooms rent for as little as 45,000 to 60,000 won a night, and afternoon rates for student couples are 25,000 won at some motels.
“Sinchon and Gangnam station motels are where my girlfriend and I usually go,” says Seo Chul-soo, a 22-year-old Korea University student, who asked that his real name not be used. The couple visits motels about twice a week rather than risk being caught at home, he says.
Rooms range from dingy cubicles to posh suites, depending on the students’ budgets. Some are outfitted with whirlpool tubs. Others have vending machines that sell underwear and sex toys.
Sinchon is hardly alone. Daehangno, Seoul’s second-largest college neighborhood with Sungkyunkwan, Hansung and Sungshin Women’s University just blocks from one another, is packed with video rooms and motels.
The facilities that have sprung up near college campuses appear to be in response to the growing demand by students.
Campus pharmacies are now selling condoms, a practice that was unheard of just a few years ago. Liberal arts courses in gender politics, an area of discussion that also was taboo, are now being offered at some colleges.
An online poll of Yonsei University students last year found that 35 percent said they had previously had sex. Some 47 percent said it didn’t matter whether a person has sex before marriage, and another 12 percent recommended premarital sex.
More surprising was a recent online poll by Baikdu Daegan, the local distributor of “Better than Sex,” a movie about a couple who become emotionally involved after having casual sex. Some 71 percent of young Koreans responding to the survey said they either have had sex after meeting someone briefly or were willing to have a one-night stand.
Even if they haven’t begun to have sex, students are more conscious about it than ever before. “I talk about sex freely with my boyfriend, even though we haven’t had sex and don’t plan to because I just don’t feel it’s right to do it before marriage,” says Ms. Choi, an Ewha Woman’s University student. “I even know what porn sites he frequents.”
While some students are talking about sex or even engaging in it, few say they enjoy the clandestine nature of their activities.
“A very close friend told me that her first experience was in a cheap motel room, and how horrible that made it. She was sad that there was no other place for them to go ― she and her boyfriend both lived with their parents,” recalls Lim Soo-min (not her real name), 23, who’s pursuing her master’s degree in Korean literature at a Sinchon-area university.
She says that some sexually active students are entertaining relatively new notions ― either living alone and bringing people home or cohabiting ― because they don’t like skulking around the video rooms and cheap motels that now are adjacent to college campuses.
A few generations ago, the university neighborhoods were dramatically different. Many schools were established by Christian missionaries advocating the Western style of education. Sogang, Yonsei and Ewha were all founded in Sinchon, which means “a new village” in Korean.
But restoration and expansion projects over the past 35 years have changed the character of the neighborhood, bringing in theaters, book stores, cultural facilities ― as well as innumerable beer halls, Internet cafes, video rooms and motels.
Some long-time residents long for the old days.
“Sinchon has become an epicurean culture,” says Ji Seung-young, a founder of Mindule Yeongdo, a cafe and an alternative concert space. “It’s trendy and full of young people, which makes it interesting. But the place is now so commercialized and lacking in cultural values.”
Gong Jae-woo, the secretary of the Sinchon Cultural Festival, concurs, saying, “It’s sad that an area that once stood as an icon of the romantic campus culture and a mecca of the student democratic movement of the ’80s is turning into a bunch of decadent shops.”
However, others are more optimistic about the university districts ― and about sexuality among young people in Korea.
“I think that Sinchon is a reflection of what society is really like,” says Uhm In-young, who attends a university in the area and believes the social situation will continue to liberalize. “If people become more open about sexuality and learn to bring it into the open, I’m sure it will be better for society as a whole.”
by Park Soo-mee