Korea takes up the lion’s share in manufacturing condoms worldwide but ranks last among OECD countries when it comes to using them.
Condoms are, without argument, a method for having safe sex. The barrier device, commonly made from latex, decreases the chance of pregnancy by around 85 percent. And unlike birth control pills, condoms also protect against sexually transmitted infection such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, hepatitis B -- and HIV/AIDS.
But the last time Korea saw a television advertisement for condoms was in 2013 by the U.K. condom manufacturer Durex. Before 2013, the only television advertisement for condoms was in 2004 when the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ran its AIDS campaign. Even then, the ad portrayed condoms almost as an illegal commodity.
So what’s with the hush-hush around condom advertisements in Korea?
Condoms are, first of all, classified as a medical device in Korea, meaning it is subject to stringent advertisement laws. A company advertising its product needs to gain the approval of the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, Korea Communications Commission, and the Publication Industry Promotion Agency of Korea before airing its marketing piece.
Meanwhile, condoms are sold as a general product in the market – a discrepancy that has deterred companies from spending on advertising slots.
But the most significant contributor to low latex use is arguably embedded in the country’s lopsided stance toward sex, and more importantly, toward who is responsible for safe sex.
Sex is not openly talked about in Korea, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t doing it. The booming clusters of “love motels” situated virtually in all metropolitan areas say otherwise. Despite the copious amounts of sex enjoyed, condom use is nearly a taboo.
According to local media reports, only 52 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 34 asked their partner to use a condom. The more surprising number is that just one out of three 30-year-old males used it, according to the survey.
The reluctance toward using them is two-fold. First, condoms have been widely perceived as an unwelcome third party during sex. Famous male celebrities have openly (in jest and solemnly) said the latex glove is a “barrier” to intimacy and a signal of distrust. Asking to use a condom may “kill the mood,” they add. That may be why only half of the women ask their partner to use them, and just one-third of men do.
Secondly, the burden of protection has long fallen on women in Korean society. Advertisements for birth control pills (taken daily) are rampant, and abortions, arguably a “contraceptive” in Korea, remain a booming business. Even abortion laws, which recently raised controversy, punish only women.
Changing the societal look toward sex may take a while. In the meantime, it’s high time to advertise condoms and promote protection, for both sexes.