▲ Curator Yoo Song Ah says Seogwipo’s Sex and Health Museum is different from tourist attraction Loveland, also on Jeju Island. Photo courtesy Sex and Health Museum
In the entrance of Seogwipo’s Sex and Health Museum (past the outside parade of veiny penises and sagging, concrete breasts; past the reception desk; past Marilyn Monroe with the grate-blown dress and the overly pointy features) sits two-thirds of a traditional Korean house. The sliding door is made of paper with holes poked in it. A peek through the holes reveals a semi-comprehensible montage of a very bad porno. Music swells, recedes to a woman gasping. Nipples, pale flesh, springs of pubic hair; fade to black and the music returns.
“It's for traditional Korean villages,” translator Byun Ik Su tells me. “The ... sex was like this. Very shut away. People learned about the sex by ... Yeah, poking holes. Looking in. No one talks about it. Lots of ...” he summons the word. “Yeah. Shame.” I nod. “Lots of shame.”
The museum is the brainchild of Kim Ywan Bae, a man whose museum-mantra is, “Healthy sex for a healthy person. Healthy people for a healthy world.” Kim works for Se Bee Corp., a precious stone transportation company, and in the late 90’s his work had him traveling all over the world. Inspired by sex museums in other countries, he resolved to found his own on Jeju. In 2000, Kim amassed exhibits from all over the world. An astounding effort of trans-Pacific coordination went into finding and securing the pieces. And in 2001, when he shipped them to Korea to begin his museum, they were nearly all stopped at the dock and returned.
The police believed them to be the imported personal effects of an extremely prolific sex-fiend. This ran afoul of Korea’s strict decency laws. (Believing a set of rubber vaginas to be for personal use — okay. But a concrete diamond sporting four breasts? A chrome horse with normal-sized horse penis?)
The horse was sent back to America, where it was neutered and shipped back (it now stands at the front of the museum, a penisless testament to censorship vs. sexual expression). But the other elements, the ones impossible to censor, sat in their respective countries while Kim began his five-year legal odyssey, fighting his own government to be allowed the museum’s statues, paintings, and sex toys. Eventually he won the right to open the museum not through a change in the laws, but rather through a special exemption for his museum.
“The Sex and Health Museum is for education,” Yoo Song Ah, the curator, insisted this several times throughout our interview. She’s equally insistent that it is different from Loveland. Loveland is classified by the government as a tourist attraction. The Sex and Health Museum is a museum. It opened in March, 2006.
This is a legitimate distinction, as sex education in Korea is generally agreed to be sorely lacking. In 1983, the Ministry of Education decided that some sex ed in public schools is necessary, but its implementation has been inconsistent and minimal. Ten hours each year is all that is required of schools. Some schools begin the curriculum in 4th grade, but many students don’t start until high school. For a student whose sexual education begins in high school, those 30 hours are divided among basic anatomy, anatomical development, psychological effects of sexual growth, pregnancy, abortion, masturbation, sexual equality, human rights, sexual violence, the social effects of prostitution, STDs, birth control, and gender roles. The course work is commonly described as outdated, unrealistic, and highly euphemistic.
Then again, the education that one will find at the Sex and Health Museum has its limits. The only mention of homosexuality is one half of a poster that essentially says “don’t judge people who are gay,” and lists pseudo-facts about sexual orientation factors — it’s a nod, presented in the most noncontroversial terms. The other half of the same poster is dedicated to transgendered people and says much the same: Don’t judge, be cool.
While one might ask what the educational value of 2-meter-tall phalli or a pornified Gulliver’s Travels diorama (where the Lilliputians slice the garments from a roped and inexplicably female Gulliver), it’s hard to begrudge the museum its spectacle. The conversation that begins “Hey do you want to check out the Museum of Nothing But Dry, Sex-Related Statistics,” is likely a very short one.
Like any museum, there are many exhibits being cycled over time. Currently, ‘The Five Senses’ is one of the first exhibits you encounter and gives you a gamut of semi-interactive pieces. Another winding hall of the museum is simply lined with statistics about sexual habits, courtesy the UN and Durex condoms. One exhibit is dedicated to pregnancy health, another to senior sex, another to types of birth control. Lots of legitimate, good information there. More-so, I assume, if you can actually read Korean.
In corners throughout all of this, you can find little alcoves packed with kinks and sex toys. Here, a diorama with gimp-masked mannequin lunging on a demure female mannequin; there a silicone vagina cleverly disguised as a Budweiser can.
A large part of the museum is “Sex Around the World.” Comparing erotic paintings from Japan, China, and Korea is interesting. The Japanese ones on display are more violent, the actual genitalia taking up more real estate than their Korean or Chinese counterparts. The Chinese portraits are comically polite in their setting and posture. The Korean paintings occupy the middle ground between grossly-sexed and de-sexed. Saw-bladed chastity belts from England display the sexually closed history of Western cultures as well. Beside them, the illustrated pages of the Kama Sutra, a cheerful counterpoint.
Upstairs (and through the gift shop) is an art exhibit with the winners of the annual Korea Eroticism Fine Arts competition. Some are very nice renderings of tired comparisons; “vaginas look like flowers,” yes, we know. One piece shows a grieving woman in front of two mushroom-penis hybrids.
The Sex and Health Museum is a reaction, the very beginning of a pendulum backswing; from hiding sex behind paper walls and shame to embracing it as a legitimate part of human life. And if it feels somewhat disjointed—silly dioramas and hard statistics and historical documents and a mishmash of photorealist and modern art—that is only because of its ambition.
The Sex and Health Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. Tickets are 9,000 won for adults (you must be 19 years old to enter.) Address: 1736 Gamsan-li, Andeok-myeon, Seogwipo City, Tel: 064-792-5700
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