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[Herald Interview] S. Korea needs to lift veil on growing number of sex addicts

Sex addiction therapist calls for greater public awareness, education and treatment

A massive global movement was triggered after actresses revealed that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein had sexually harassed them.

Celebrities and ordinary people around the globe are opening up about their experiences of sexual abuse on social media with the hashtag #MeToo.

In South Korea, the issue is no less serious, although the campaign has not really taken off here yet.

Rape against minors, sexual harassment at work and sexually-motivated murder cases are making headlines. Fear and rage against sex offenders have spiked, and more people are calling for harsher punishments. 

Kim Seong, head of Korea Sex Addiction Psychotherapy Association (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Kim Seong, head of Korea Sex Addiction Psychotherapy Association (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

But before talking about increasing punishments for sexual predators, South Korea needs to realize that its systems are failing gravely in preventing sex addicts from turning into abusers, says Kim Seong, the head of the Korea Sex Addiction Psychotherapy Association.

“I am not advocating for sex offenders, but if we do not treat them, it will just lead to repeated offenses,” Kim told The Korea Herald at his office in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province.

He spoke with a sense of urgency about the need for medical treatment and education, citing the testimonies of underage perverts who committed sex crimes knowing that they would not be punished because of their age.

“We are talking about some extreme level of urges here and if we do not treat them, it leads to the crimes we often hear about in society, from the hidden cameras and sexual assault to sexually motivated murders,” Kim said.

According to data from the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service, only 326 people received treatment for sexual perversion last year, when the number of sex crimes also rose to its peak of 29,414.

There are conflicting views about sex addiction and perversion, but Kim believes it is a disorder that requires treatment. Like those addicted to alcohol, drugs and gambling, sex addicts cannot control themselves even if it causes physical or emotional harm to themselves and others.

Sex addiction could take forms of voyeurism, pedophilia, unconsented sadomasochism or addiction to romantic relationships and obsession with a partner, he explained.

Having studied sex addiction and worked as a therapist for over two decades, Kim has met and treated many people, mostly criminals. Often, they think they were just “unlucky” to be caught.

“They are usually not first-time offenders and I say to them they were lucky to be caught only once,” Kim said. “These criminals do not understand that their actions were wrong and showed little sympathy for the victims.”

Kim thinks that the advent of the internet era in the 1990s made access easier to pornography and the world of sexual deviation. Korean society, however, kept pretending as if nothing was happening.

“We now see oppressed desires exploding through the internet, and now even criminal content, such as footage secretly taken without consent, are brazenly shared online,” he said, noting the difficulty of censoring online content without infringing on human rights.

A society that is conservative on the surface keeps people who struggle with sex-related problems from seeking help, Kim said.

The longstanding customs of a male-centered society also played a role in many distorted views of sexual relationships. In men’s world, sexual escort services were offered to secure contracts and build relationships, he noted.

It was around the 1990s when the internet was distributed quickly in Korean society that Kim grew interested in the anonymous sexual desires manifested in random chatting on the internet.

“I was studying the psychology of addiction and was also interested in computers at the time. I saw people regardless of gender and backgrounds openly expressing desires that were hidden deep inside,” he said. “It was online chats in the beginning but I observed it quickly developed into video conversations and exchanging porn, and there were no limits.”

He started to work as a cyber ethics instructor and also volunteered to counsel sex offenders, studying over thousands of them since early 2000. After years of study and consultation, he opened a therapy center in 2006.

Unlike other kinds of addictions, sexual perversion is directly linked to basic human desires, making it more difficult to treat the patients.

“Addiction to alcohol or drugs is affected by the surrounding environment and getting rid of those external factors usually helps. Sex addiction is not like that.”

But it is not hopeless, he said, when they are treated the right way. Treatment involves listening to the patients and also making them understand how their actions have hurt others and themselves.

“Through proper treatment and counseling, sex addicts are given a chance to live a normal life, recover their relationships with their partners and acquaintances. It is not an easy process and not always successful, but it can prevent problems from worsening,” he added.

By Jo He-rim (