Kim Joon-hyup recently went on his first date in three years. But the 24-year-old student wasn’t looking for a girlfriend, he was completing a college assignment.
From picking the right partner to coping with breakups, the “Gender and Culture” course at Seoul’s Sejong University teaches students the various aspects of dating, love and sex. The class is particularly popular for its dating assignment, in which students are paired with random partners to go on four-hour-long dates.
“There are a fair number of students who come for the dating assignment,” said instructor Bae Jeong-weon. “There are students who have never dated before, and there are some who want to create opportunities by dating like this.”
Such classes may be necessary. In 2018, a majority of South Koreans aged 20-44 were single and only 26% of the unmarried men and 32% of unmarried women in that age group were in relationships, according to the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHSA). Among those who were not dating, 51% of men and 64% of women said they were choosing to remain single.
A growing number of South Koreans are shunning romantic relationships amid economic hardships and societal problems.
The country’s overall unemployment rate last year rose to its highest level in 17 years, at 3.8%. The youth unemployment rate was far higher, at 10.8% for those aged 15 to 29. In a 2019 survey by recruitment firm JobKorea, only one in 10 students due to graduate this year had found full-time employment.
While they struggle to find jobs, many young South Koreans say they lack the time, money or emotional capacity to go on dates. The likelihood of being in a relationship increases for both employed men (31%) and women (34%) compared to unemployed men (18%) and women (27%), according to the KIHSA data.
Due to the highly-competitive nature of the job market, many young people spend their free time in cram schools to earn extra certificates or professional skills that might give them the edge in interviews with prospective bosses.
Kim Joon-hyup, the Sejong student, is just such a crammer. As well as attending college full time, every weekday evening, he attends a school 30 minutes away from his home to learn game design.
“I don’t have much time,” Kim said. “Even if I meet someone, I’d just feel sorry for not having time to invest in that person.”
Recent graduate Lee Young-seob, 26, fears that dating would be a distraction from his job search. “Career is the most important thing in my life, but if I date someone while I look for a job, I will be anxious and won’t be able to make a commitment to the relationship,” he said.
Dating can also be expensive. Matchmaking company Duo estimated the average cost per date is 63,495 won (around $55). People in minimum-wage jobs earning 8,350 won ($7.22) an hour would have to work 7.6 hours to pay for a single date.
In a survey by market research firm Embrain, 81% of respondents said dating expenses were a source of stress in relationships. Half of the respondents said that even if they meet someone they like, they would not start dating if their economic situation wasn’t good.
“Because it’s hard to get a job, there is no money to spare,” said Kim, who works part time at weekends at a riding stables. “When you have someone you like, you want to invest everything in that person, but at the moment, it’s hard to afford to meet anyone.”
Bae, the Sejong professor, said this is the perception she hopes to change through her dating assignments, in which students are restricted to spending less than 10,000 won ($9) per date.
“Many students think it takes money to date,” she said. “But when they actually do this assignment, they realize that if they think creatively, there are many ways to have a good time without spending too much money.”
Money isn’t the only issue facing students on Bae’s course. They often cite news stories about sex crimes, voyeurism and gender discrimination, all of which have become major societal issues in South Korea.
There were 32,000 cases of sexual violence reported to police in 2017, compared to 16,000 in 2008, according to data from the National Police Agency.
Among these, partner violence has soared sharply. Between 2016 and 2018, the number of cases in which a person was assaulted by a romantic partner or date rose from 9,000 to almost 19,000.
College student Lee Ji-su, 21, said she was deterred from dating when a friend was assaulted by her boyfriend after she broke up with him. Lee said the friend was terrified because the man kept showing up at her home even after their relationship ended.
“After seeing my friend go through such violence, I realized that I have to be more careful in selecting my dating partner, but it’s not easy to find trustworthy men,” Lee said. “It made me wonder whether dating was that important in my life if I have to spend so much time looking for men I could trust.”
Even for those women with non-violent partners, there is another potential problem: Illicit filming. South Korea has a serious problem with voyeur photography, with more than 6,400 cases of illegal recording reported to police in 2017.
According to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, 65% of cases reported to its Digital Sex Crime Support Center last year involved illicit filming by acquaintances or romantic partners.
In recent months, a major scandal involving several high-profile K-Pop stars has shown just how widespread this behavior is. Singer Jung Joon-young was arrested in March over allegations he filmed women during sex without their consent and shared the videos online.
“The K-Pop scandal must have been a huge shock to people, especially to women,” Bae said. “I think there are fears among women who are now questioning ‘Will my boyfriend film me when I’m having sex with him?’”
Kim Ji-yeon, a 23-year-old college student, said she was scared about what her boyfriend could have said or shared behind her back after seeing a disturbing text message he sent to a friend. It read: “I can’t have sex because my girlfriend is on her period. What a bitch.”
“I was so insulted,” Kim said. “I felt so betrayed that someone I thought I could trust said such things behind my back. I felt like I was just an object.”
She broke up with the man, and has not dated anyone since then, saying she doesn’t want to risk another boyfriend behaving even worse.
South Korea has long been plagued by a culture of toxic masculinity, the effects of which are compounded by a lack of sex education for men – apart from watching porn.
“Students learn about sex more through porn than through sex education,” Bae said. “What they (often) learn from porn is that sex is violent and women are just sexual objects. So, often their knowledge about sex is distorted.”
Schools are required to provide at least 15 hours of sex education every year beginning at age six, a Ministry of Education official told CNN.
But many feel this is not enough. In a 2019 survey by the Korean Women’s Development Institute, 67% of respondents said the sex education they received in school was not helpful.
“Many of my friends learned about sex through porn. They watch porn and think ‘That’s how I’m supposed to do it,’ or ‘If I do that, she’ll feel good’,” said Kim Joon-hyup, the male Sejong student. “So when they have their first sexual experience, it leads them to make mistakes.”
To help correct such misconceptions, Bae’s class provides information about sex, such as how to reach orgasm, erogenous zones, and most importantly, the psychology of sex and the gender politics around it.
“The goal (of the class) is to understand differences among people, especially between men and women, and how to form good relationships and become good people by considering and respecting others,” she said “I think understanding each other is crucial as we work together to create a better and happier world.”
Kim agreed. “By taking the class, I was able to think from women’s perspectives and gain an objective understanding about the other gender,” he said, adding that the class made “me want to date again.”
CNN’s Hong Gyu-bin, Kim Sung-joo, Ryan Nam and Eugene Jun contributed reporting.