Sex sells, but society isn’t buying
Yet things have not gone smoothly for its owner, Lee Sung-chan. Mr. Lee acknowledges that, “although Korea has come a long way in its gradual steps toward sexual openness in the last 10 or 20 years, there is a duality. The country tries to promote this image of being involved in sex education for adolescents and so on, but in the end, it’s still a hush-hush topic.”
And though society may be getting less hush-hush about sex, Korea’s laws are not changing. According to the Korea Food and Drug Administration, only contraceptives such as condoms, diaphragms and contraceptive pills are classified as “medical devices,” which are relatively easy to import. All other sex items therefore fall under strict import and production regulations, which makes it very hard for people like Mr. Lee to sell the goods openly.
The first main obstacle for Mr. Lee was trying to open Condomania as a branch of the U.S. chain store under the same name. “When I was thinking about opening Condomania a few years back, I actually wanted it to be part of the chain,” he said, referring to the U.S. franchise (the franchise sells condoms and sex toys; Mr. Lee’s store is registered under a name written in hangul). “But I soon found out that because of Korea’s strict laws on sex toys, it would be easiest to just sell condoms.”
He explained that Korean law prohibits a sex shop from displaying its wares to passersby (for example, in a transparent window display. “Because it was important for me to make the store an open, inviting place, I couldn’t include sex toys,” he said.
Compared with other countries, Korea’s sex goods industry is still in its infancy. In May 2005, an Australian company, Daily Planet Ltd., built a mall advertised as a “sex Disneyland” in Sydney; the mall contained adult theaters and sex shops. In Japan, another store called Condomania, in Harajuku, Tokyo, has become a tourist spot, mentioned by tour guides as a “must-see” store.
Mr. Lee, who resided in Japan for four years, said that he envied the fact that the Condomania there was popular enough to lure tourists. “I don’t think it makes any sense for conservative Koreans to ridicule Japanese culture as being vulgar and sexually promiscuous. As far as I’m concerned, Korea’s illegal sex business has as much, if not more, vulgarity than Japan’s. The problem is that Korea doesn’t try to acknowledge this, whereas in Japan, people face the problem.”
Lee Youn-hee can sympathize. As the operator of the online sex magazine for women, Foxylove.net, she will soon open an online shop selling sex toys and other items, such as lingerie and vibrators, for women. “I decided to open an online shop because it’s still very hard for women in Korea to go out and buy these items offline,” she said. “Although older women who don’t know how to use the Internet mostly use offline shops, the majority of people shop online.”
“Compared with other online shopping items, adult sex toys are not as popular,” said Nam Chang-in, public relations director for Interpark. “However, there has been a steady customer base for these items ever since internet malls opened.” She also said that because there are many restrictions on regular sex shops, it is much easier for online malls and shops to sell sex toys.
Ms. Nam mentioned a case involving another online shopping mall, Lotte.com. “A few years ago, the company was faced with a lawsuit from a customer who complained that the sex toys were not discreetly packaged enough. I heard that the company had to publicly apologize for this incident.” She adds that sex toys sold over Interpark are specially packaged and that the items are unidentifiable until opened.
Condomania has been recieving a great deal of media coverage, though one would never know by talking with Mr. Lee. “Sixty percent of our revenue comes from online sales,” he said. “Many people feel more comfortable shopping discreetly online.”
He also said that there are more female customers than men at this point, although no female contraceptives are sold in the store. “There’s simply not enough demand for them,” Mr. Lee said.
Asked why she bought a condom here (in Condomania), one girl answered that she had bought it as a gift for her boyfriend. However, when asked if her boyfriend liked the gift, she giggled, blushed and said, “No, he said he didn’t like it, because he thought I was being too forward.”
by Cho Jae-eun