John CHO

Thesis: Faceless things: South Korean gay men, Internet, and sexual citizenship (2011)


This dissertation is an investigation of the two very different pathways that the Internet was offering Korean gay men, primarily in their 30s and 40s, in terms of exercising their sexual freedom and being gay at a moment of neoliberal reforms in South Korea when an increased emphasis on individual productivity and efficiency, especially through the use of information communication technologies such as the Internet, was competing with the renewed valorization of the ideology of “family as nation” or “heteronormative familism.” While the former was seen as necessary for the country to transition from a state-directed, manufacturing-based, late-developmentalist economy to a global, finance-based one, the latter was seen as necessary to reproduce the nation, particularly after the IMF Crisis, when precipitously low birth rates, declining marriage rates, and rising divorce rates have stoked widespread fears about the social and biological reproduction of the nation.

One pathway, offered by Ivancity, South Korea’s most popular gay portal, seemed to be offering Korean gay men with unlimited individual freedom and consumer choice to fulfill their romantic and sexual desires. Without the broader constraints of either the family or gay community, however, such interactions deteriorate into the “chaos” of uncontrolled individual desire. The other pathway offered by gay groups on Daum, a mainstream portal, on the other hand, seemed to be providing gay men with more limited choice and constrained individual freedom in terms of pursuing their sexual and romantic desires but also with a greater sense of social and emotional stability. Yet, even as these two groups present two very different models of Internet-mediated gay sociality and sexual freedom, neither of them can provide gay men with the kind of economic security that Koreans often derive from their biological families. Indeed, with deepening neoliberal reforms, as the family becomes the primary and often the sole source of economic security for individuals cast adrift on the turbulent waves of capitalism, single gay men from both Ivancity and gay Daum clubs – without the perceived security of their wives and children in their old age – retreat and even retire from the gay community so that they can focus on their careers and secure their economic futures.

In focusing on the so-called “first generation” of Korean gay men who are forestalling marriage to women and using the Internet to lead their gay lives, this dissertation contributes to two main bodies of literature: (queer) globalization and Internet Studies. In terms of the first, it argues that liberal individualism that underpins globalizing notions of Westernised gay identity, movement, and culture is a contradictory phenomenon in South Korea, competing with the valorization of family as nation. In terms of the second, it argues that the Internet, as a space of autonomous individualism, promises new forms of pleasure and erotics while filtering and governing them through disciplinary norms around family, nation, consumption, and body. Together, such contradictions create a hybridized gay culture in South Korea that challenges and reworks the tropes of the “closet” and “coming out” that have traditionally defined Westernised gay culture.