Goodbye Madame Butterfly, Hello Sexless Marriage

As any parent can attest, your sex life is never going to be the same again after having children.

First, because utter sleep deprivation saps the libidos of even the most amorous of parents, while women also have their bodies screaming Focus on this kid! to contend with. Spontaneous acts of passion become even more difficult as curious, wandering children don’t respect closed doors. (Hint: turn on the Disney Channel.) And even at night, once they’re finally – mercifully – asleep, they always seem to wake up at the worst possible moment.

Yeah, I’m thinking of that scene with Miranda from Sex and the City. And I assure you, it’s not quite so funny the 10th time it happens to you.

Yet despite the difficulties, most Western parents want to, expect to and do ultimately get their sex lives back. Many Korean parents, in contrast, do not. Get to know some and you might be surprised at what you hear: one couple in our last apartment building, for instance, recently let slip that they indulged themselves a few times back in the summer of 2010; after all, the World Cup was on. Another friend said she finds once a month with her husband excessive. And so on.

None of them considered this out of the ordinary.

While definitive statistics are hard to come by, a 2006 survey by Bayer Healthcare found that as many as one in five Korean marriages were sexless. What’s more, most of those didn’t involve elderly couples; rather, as author Kim Young-hee writes in her 2009 book Why Me? about her experiences as a marriage counselor, the majority are in their 30s and 40s.

 “One couple in our last apartment building, for instance, recently let slip that they indulged themselves a few times back in the summer of 2010; after all, the World Cup was on.”

Seeking an explanation, but finding little information available in English, I turned to journalist Sumie Kawakami’s 2007 book Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage and the Modern Japanese Woman, as I’d heard that things were very similar there.

You can imagine my frustration then, reading in the introduction that an explanation of this specific topic would have to wait for another book. But, conducted with the aim of investigating then-recently emerging narratives of sex-starved housewives in the Japanese media, I was still compelled by the interviews of wives, divorcees, single parents, single women and even a male sex volunteer.

One reason is their realism. Mirroring the lack of passion in their own lives, interviewees’ stories often meander on with no sense of direction or purpose, nor end with any resolution. This can be exasperating, but it also draws out empathy, as the stories feel very true to life.

Another is how despite the stories’ diversity, you realize they have several common themes. Most striking is the number of interviewees that mention effectively never seeing their husbands for most of the week, and/or sleeping with their children in a separate room. (Later, of course, they can sound very naïve upon discovering that their husbands have found female companionship elsewhere – not just for sex.) Such separate lives are a natural consequence of notoriously long working hours – a relic of the old salaryman system, crucially something both Japan and Korea share.

Also shared is how few females participate in the workforce, especially young mothers (indeed, Korea has the lowest rate in the OECD). The interviewees tend to resolve to lead their own lives, only to quickly realize that their lack of job skills and experience would likely (and, in one case, does) bring financial destitution if they divorced their husbands.

In turn, some of the book’s women stoically decide to remain in a loveless marriage for the sake of their children’s and their own futures, sometimes seeking male companionship for themselves. But it’s not just those contemplating divorce: Japanese women in general, or at least those in this book, seem much more pragmatic than their Western counterparts when it comes to men and marriage. One woman rejected the man she loved as she worried that his weak heart would leave their children without a father; it was only then that she started to realize that love and marriage were two different things. Similarly, once I hit my early-30s, a number of Korean friends my age suddenly decided it was time for them to get married, deemed their loving boyfriends of many years unsuitable, dumped them, joined one of numerous marriage agencies, found a new partner and married him… all in four weeks.

Only now, because of Kawakami’s book, are such attitudes finally beginning to make sense to me.

Yet Goodbye does have its flaws. For instance, in one 17-page interview, a woman meets someone, marries and divorces in fewer than 5 of those, somewhat strange for a book about sex and marriage. Meanwhile, curiously unmentioned are things like Japanese couples’ mistrust of the contraceptive pill and relying on condoms and the withdrawal method instead, not as insignificant as it may sound. Finally, one huge oversight is not explaining that joint-custody of children is rare in Japan (as it is in Korea) and that full custody is often automatically awarded to fathers. The absence of this in the reading makes it difficult for foreign readers to fully appreciate interviewees’ dilemmas about divorce.

And if that was needed, then in turn more information about Japan’s economic context was needed, and so on. Combined with an empty, unsatisfied feeling from many interviews, the book would have done better to raise these in a large expository chapter. But nevertheless, it still stands as an indispensable purchase for anyone interested in modern Japanese or Korean society.

James Turnbull’s popular blog, The Grand Narrative, discusses Korean sociology through gender, advertising, and popular culture, and has become one of the leading Internet sources on those topics, with mentions in Time Magazine, The Washington Post and Jezebel.


Illustration by Matt Ferguson. You can see more of Matt’s work at his website here.

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