South Korean lawmakers are seeking to make amendments to the country’s criminal code that would make “semen terrorism” a punishable sex crime.
The move comes after a string of controversial court verdicts that have punished men for “property damage,” not sexually criminal behavior, after secretly ejaculating onto women’s belongings.
Lenient court rulings and societal attitudes toward sex crimes in South Korea have come under increased criticism over the past few years in light of the global #MeToo movement.
The act of secretly delivering or smearing semen onto someone else, known locally as “semen terrorism,” has become a case in point, with local women’s rights advocates highlighting the lack of an adequate legal framework to punish what they consider to be a sex crime.
A man who soaked a woman’s shoes with semen in 2019 was given a 500,000 won (US$430) fine. At the time, police said that the investigation was carried out on charges of “property damage” because there were no legal provisions to apply sex crime charges.
That same year, a man was sentenced to three years in prison for “attempted injury” among other charges after spiking a woman’s coffees with laxatives and aphrodisiacs as revenge for rejecting his love advances. Despite also adding his semen and phlegm to her drinks and other items 54 times, it was not recognized as a sex crime because no forced sexual assault was established.
In May, a male civil servant was sentenced to a fine of 3 million won on charges of “property damage” for ejaculating inside his female colleague’s coffee tumbler six times over the course of six months. The court judged that his actions “ruined” the utility of the container.
Local media continue to report on many more instances of “semen terrorism.”
According to South Korean law, a perpetrator must exercise violence or intimidation for the offense to be recognized as a sex crime, such as molestation or rape. Also punishable are digital or online sex crimes.
“The victim [in the coffee tumbler case] was sexually humiliated, but it was not considered a sex crime because it was not seen as involving direct physical contact,” said South Korean lawmaker Baek Hye-ryun, who is trying to change the law. “By charging the perpetrator with ‘damage of property,’ his act was judged to have infringed on the utility of the tumbler.”
Baek last month submitted a bill to the South Korean National Assembly that seeks to expand the scope of punishable sex crimes to include non-physical contact through the delivery of objects or substances that cause sexual shame.
“Sex crimes need to be interpreted from the victim’s point of view,” she said.
A similar bill was submitted by South Korean lawmaker Lee Su-jin in December last year, which also proposes to expand the definition of “indecent acts” by amending the criminal code. Both bills have yet to be discussed at the legislature.
There have been several instances where judges have acknowledged “semen terrorism” to be acts of molestation in the absence of physical contact, but about 53 percent of recent related court cases have handed perpetrators suspended sentences, an analysis by the weekly Women’s News showed.
Out of 44 recent police cases, 26 led to molestation charges and 17 to property damage charges, suggesting differing interpretations of existing laws that the proposed amendment would clear up.
“Every sex crime is a crime,” said Choi Won-jin, secretary-general of the civic group Korean Womenlink, who believes such acts are also hate crimes against women. “This isn’t a random act of violence in the street, it’s targeting a specific gender.”
South Korea has over the past few years made some progress on improving its legal system. Possession of illegal sexual videos is now punishable by up to three years in prison, and stalkers are soon to face heavier punishments.
“Just like other incidents that brought about legal revisions, it’s a matter of expanding our understanding of the pain that can be caused to a person and making the necessary changes,” Choi said.
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