A cup of coffee laced with spit, laxatives, aphrodisiacs, and semen: That was the grisly concoction a male graduate school student served up to his unsuspecting female classmate in South Korea — as revenge for rejecting his advances.
But the harassment didn’t stop there.
Over the course of ten months in 2018, the student committed a total of 54 acts against the young woman. According to court documents seen by VICE World News, he secretly smeared semen over her makeup. Traces of his saliva and mucus were also found on her toothbrush. And while on a group research trip to the island of Jeju, he broke into her hotel room and stole her underwear, which he masturbated to.
In 2019, he was tried in court after a classmate stumbled upon a diary detailing the acts and lodged a police report. “It is the fact that the case included perverted and bizarre crimes at the level of provoking vomit,” the judge said. Prosecutors also noted how the events had traumatized the female victim, making it impossible for her to go about her daily life.
But what came next drew a public wave of shock and anger. The court ruled that the male perpetrator’s actions of mixing his semen into coffee did not count as sex crimes.
He was instead tried for various counts of “theft, housebreaking, malicious wounding, and property damage” and sentenced to three years in prison.
The case falls into a disturbing trend referred to as “semen terrorism” in South Korea, which describes the act of ejaculating (and in some cases, urinating) on women’s possessions. In some accounts, suspects were accused of delivering their semen to women in containers.
Activists, lawmakers and victims want legal changes so acts are classified as sexually criminal behavior instead of less serious violations like property damage. The campaign is also happening at a time when South Korea is witnessing a strong backlash against feminism and gender equality.
In a court case last year, a man was merely fined after he was found to have ejaculated six times into a coffee tumbler belonging to a female colleague. The court ruled that the man’s actions “ruined the tumbler.”
In a televised interview with South Korean broadcaster SBS, a young female victim shared a separate account. The woman, who lived alone at the time and was studying to be a teacher, discovered a “wet” blanket covered with an unidentified substance — which turned out to be semen. She later reported the incident to the police who tracked down the perpetrator using CCTV camera footage. It turned out to be a senior student at her college.
“I was shocked,” the woman said in the interview. “I didn’t know him at all.”
The incident traumatized her and left her feeling “angry and frustrated.” She also began to lose confidence and “doubt everything around her.”
“Semen terrorism is, without a doubt, violence directed at women by men. It is not merely a sexual fetish,” the women’s rights group Haeil said in a statement. “All the perverse acts [we hear of] were driven by toxic masculinity, the need to control and the thinking that women aren’t equal.”
The group added: “The victims were targeted even in public spaces, simply because they were women and unfortunately in Korea, most victims choose to stay silent because they would be the ones enduring humiliation and punishments from people on the internet.”
Luna Yoon, a 31-year-old commercial executive from Seoul, recalled the story of a male college student who was caught smearing his semen onto a female classmate’s sneakers. “A friend linked me to an article about it and I was disgusted,” Yoon told VICE World News.
But what she found even more disturbing was the public reaction towards the case.
Online commentators speculated about the victim’s looks. Some even made jokes about how “healthy” the male student must have been. “There were people making lewd comments about the victim and laughing it off. Someone even said that the victim might have had a shot at a fulfilling sex life if she ‘gave the guy a chance,’” Yoon said.
“I couldn’t believe that anyone would mock another person’s pain and trauma and take it so lightly.”
“Most victims choose to stay silent because they would be the ones enduring humiliation and punishments from people on the internet.”
Because of what she saw online, Yoon became hesitant about speaking up about her own experience some years ago.
She was travelling by bullet train one evening in 2015 when she realized she was being watched by a male passenger in the cabin. Thinking nothing of it, she fell asleep and woke up when the train pulled up to Seoul station — the final stop.
She then got up from her seat and grabbed her backpack, only to find a wet and sticky greyish-white substance staining the front. “It was disgusting,” Yoon said. She couldn’t tell for sure but she was highly paranoid that it might have been semen.
“Whatever it was, it really disgusted me,” Yoon said. She threw the bag away immediately. “It felt like [an act of] molestation,” she said. “I didn’t know if anyone would believe me so I kept it to myself and have tried not to think about it since.”
A variety of factors could influence a person to commit “semen terrorism,” according to Singapore-based British psychotherapist Andrew da Roza, who specializes in treating sex addicts.
For starters, they may be suffering from pre-existing mental health disorders, such as compulsive sexual behaviour or social anxiety disorders, anti-social personality disorder and depression, making it difficult or unrewarding to nurture healthy relationships or even initiate normal interactions with potential partners.
“A semen terrorist may be someone who is isolated, lonely, with few social skills. Someone who compulsively uses pornography and other online platforms which perpetuate or even celebrate toxic masculinity and sexual offences,” da Roza told VICE World News.
“A semen terrorist would likely be the sort of person who isolates himself and displays compulsive sexual behaviour disorders. They live in a fantasy world, where they objectify women and do not see them as people.”
In the case of the graduate student who put semen in his classmate’s cup of coffee, he was found to have been “extremely stressed” due to work and other engagements. Court documents also revealed he was motivated in part after feeling rejected by his female classmate.
“They live in a fantasy world, where they objectify women and do not see them as people, and this likely stems from being unable to relate to them due to rejections they might have faced in the past,” de Roza said.
He added that aside from mental health issues, offenders with compulsive sexual behaviour disorders could suffer from physical disorders like erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation and low libido — making healthy sexual relations with another person unrewarding and stressful.
Feminism has become “a dirty word” in South Korea, where the MeToo movement has faced challenges and fierce opposition in a conservative society. Though “semen terrorism” is not limited to South Korea, it is happening as the country struggles to come to terms with changes sweeping other parts of the globe.
Spy cams, cameras secretly installed to film women in public toilets and even their homes, are also a big problem in the country. “This is still largely a society that values men over women, and has long supported that inequality in its social mores as well its laws,” said journalist Jean Lee, a Korea expert at the Wilson Center in Washington. She said there was a “modern-day culture war” playing out in the country, which is seeing local men refusing to accept shifting power dynamics.
“South Korea has been slow to recognize and rectify gender inequality [and] we see it in the numbers: the country has the worst gender wage gap among OECD nations for example, and increasingly, we’re seeing gaps in a legal system that has long failed to adequately protect women,” Lee said.
“But hopefully that will change as more people speak up about the range of inequality women face,” she said, highlighting the scrutiny over spy cams and cases of “semen terrorism.”
“This is still largely a society that values men over women.”
While it is difficult to quantify the problem, a recent police report seen by VICE World News showed 44 cases related to “semen terrorism” filed between 2019 and July 2021, with 37 cases being sent to the prosecutor’s office in South Korea. “[They are] obvious sexual offences but punishment is another matter,” wrote The Women’s News, a pro-feminist media company, in a report. “Semen terrorists use [the law] as a shield to claim they didn’t commit a sex crime. The courts accept this and only impose light fines.”
Lawmakers have homed in on legal loopholes that allowed male perpetrators to escape with “light punishment” instead of being charged for sexually criminal behavior.
Shailey Hingorani, head of research and advocacy at Singapore gender equality group AWARE, said authorities need to understand the broad scope of sex crimes.
“Sexual violence is far more than just the physical. It can be verbal, visual and, in the case of ‘semen terrorism,’ involve physical actions that encompass contact with not just a victim’s body but her belongings: representations of her self and identity,” Hingorani said.
“South Korean law’s requirement that for an act to be recognized as a sex crime, it needs to involve physical assault or intimidation is a fairly rudimentary and outdated way to conceive of sexual violence.”
Renowned forensics crime psychologist and professor Lee Sue-jung from Kyonggi University told VICE World News that recognizing cases of “semen terrorism” as sex crimes was not so straightforward given the complexities of the cases. She said that elements like personal intentions and mental trauma could be tricky to prove in court.
“It’s easy [for police] to track down suspects because there’s clear DNA in semen,” she said. “It’s harder to prove that an act was done intentionally, especially when a suspect can make excuses that they didn’t have the intention.”
Lee has worked on several high-profile crime cases and even helped introduce an anti-stalking bill. She also talked about the role that trauma played in these crimes and acknowledged that there was still a long way to go for victims, even with lawmakers pushing for change. She cited the example of female soldiers who died by suicide after they believed to have suffered from sex crimes and mental health issues. “I don’t think mental trauma has been properly recognized so far in the country,” she said.
“Protecting victims and punishing perpetrators are not always the same. We should approach the amendments carefully.”
But according to the feminist group Haeil, if adequate measures aren’t taken, the problem will get worse, and women won’t come forward or speak up.
“Women are concerned about low levels of punishment by the law and public retaliation, so they have been reluctant and hesitant to report these crimes because their accounts and statements could be passed off as gossip or viewed as porn — all because there are men who are unable to control their sexual desires.”