“When I got there, she was passed out on the sofa. She’s lucky I’m a gentleman and didn’t do anything.”
I knew the man who spoke these words, sitting at the table behind me at a rooftop beer spot in Itaewon, though just barely – the Korean-American friend of one of the many Kevins I knew through a Seoul darts league. He was finishing up a story to his buddies, a bunch of expat men, complaining about how he hadn’t gotten any action the night before. I think his name was Paul.
I turned around. “You know, not raping a woman doesn’t make you a gentleman, just a normal human being.”
The icky meaning of the Korean slang golbaengi
I guess the crude slang term for a woman in this condition – for the woman Paul so magnanimously declined to rape – would be golbaengi, though I just recently learned this term, through this excellent article in Korea Exposé, and I feel disgusting using it to describe someone even as an example.
Golbaengi (골뱅기), pronounced something like “goal-bang-ee,” literally means “sea snail.” However, it is also, as Jieun Choi puts it in her Korea Exposé piece, “a widely-used term for a woman who is unconscious because she is intoxicated or drugged.” (She uses golbaengi-nyeo 골뱅이녀, or “sea snail woman,” but it seems from my internet research that golbaengi is also used alone.)
You might think, okay, not a nice word, but it’s just a word, right? Really, though, it’s more than that. This word seems to be just thrown around everywhere in certain male groups and is intimately linked to a culture of sexual assault. Indeed, Femiwiki defines it more explicitly than Choi, as a slang word that refers to a woman who can be raped at will because she is drunken (“만취하여 맘대로 강간할 수 있는 여성을 가리키는 비속어”), linked to rape culture (“강간 문화”) and commonly part of male homosocial jokes.
Why are drunk women called golbaengi in Korean?
So where does this word come from? I’ve come across two theories, which I unfortunately do not have the time to dig into deeply at the moment – though it’s certainly possible that they could both be right to some extent.
According to namuwiki, golbaengi was originally used by police over police radios when they were dealing with drunk people, men or women, with the phrase, for example, “golbaengi dwaetda” 골뱅이 됐다, meaning someone has become a golbaengi. Having a fair amount of experience with drunk people, I can definitely see this – either because snails are slow and cumbersome like extremely drunk passed out people, or because drunk folks sometimes curl up into the fetal position in public places in Korea, emulating the @ symbol, which is also known as golbaengi in Korean.
According to other sources, this slang term is based on the appearance of the vulva, which I hope you have educated yourself enough to know is the proper name for what you can actually see between a biological woman’s legs. (If this is news to you, read more here.) I guess some people think that area looks a lot like a sea snail, which I am just not going to speculate on because hey, sometimes my father-in-law reads this blog, among other reasons.
Golbaengi and sexual assault in Korea
As mentioned above, also based on appearance, golbaengi is the Korean word for the symbol @, much less interestingly rendered as “at” in English. The @ symbol is apparently used for drunk women, including in establishments where drunk (sometimes drugged?) women are apparently steered toward male customers, who possibly are charged for the staff’s
help getting them laid abetting them in the crime of rape. At least, that appears to be behind why this woman found a @ on her husband’s receipt for a hweshik 회식, or work dinner. (This brings an extra shimmer of creepiness to all the actual sea snail golbaengi dishes my Korean university classmates and I shared with our handsy grad school professor, “Stability 5.”)
I actually came across a lot of sites and news stories, like this one, suggesting that it’s a thing for waiters at some nightclubs to intentionally get women drunk and then steer them to certain customers, but I don’t have the temporal resources to dig deeper into that mess at the moment. Perhaps in the future, when I write a long-contemplated post on nightclub 나이트클럽 or one-night 원나잇… But alas, no time today.
To round this off, golbaengi is also a word in the sex industry for – ugh can I really keep writing, I have had enough – no, Sara, you can do it, you’re almost done – for when a male customer puts a finger into a female sex worker’s uh uh Sara come on you’re an adult just write it, um into her sex organ. Apparently this is really hated by women in the sex industry because it can cause infections, and establishments sometimes blacklist men who do it, according to Femiwiki.
Sara, why do you write about such unsavory topics?
Ugh ugh ugh. I need a shower. But first, I guess I want to address this question and a related one. Why do I write about words like golbaengi or baekma or Burberry-man? Why not just stick to cute things like jam-kkureogi, or funny ones like ajae gaegeu, or sweet ones like skinship?
Well, I really think that shoving unpleasant things into dark corners and pretending they’re not there (or politely avoiding inappropriate topics, as some might put it) just helps them thrive, and I think that while most people who don’t talk about unsavory things aren’t trying to help them thrive, that often ends up being the system-wide result. This is a small-time blog I do as a hobby, not the Washington Post, but I take it pretty seriously and I think it’s important to bring these things to light.
I’ve also been asked (to paraphrase) why I’m saying bad things about Korea, particularly when these problems exist everywhere. Well, the short answer is, this is a blog about Korean language (and by extension, Korean culture and society), not about other languages or societies, so I write about these things as they relate to Korea. To elaborate, this is a society I am a part of through family connections and years of life experience, and a language I speak every day. I care deeply about it, and as such, I think its problems should be brought to light. These are, after all, problems that exist everywhere in some form, and I don’t think it’s “embarrassing” for Korea to confront the fact that they exist there.
As my mom always said about lice, there’s no shame in getting them, only in not getting rid of them.
Romanization: Revised romanization, generally.
Doctor W. “A Declaration of War against the Culture of Hidden Rape: Anti-rape campaign #ThatsRape ⑤.” Trans. Marilyn Hook. ILDA South Korean Feminist Journal (English site). Published 2016-03-24; translated 2017-04-23. Internet. Accessed 2017-11-01.