The women of South Korea’s 4B movement aren’t fighting the patriarchy — they’re leaving it behind entirely.
In South Korea, where cases of femicide, revenge porn, and dating violence are widespread, a surge in spy-cam sex crimes, overwhelmingly committed by men, had mostly resulted in fines and suspended jail sentences, if they were prosecuted at all. That was not the case, however, for one 25-year-old woman who had taken a nonconsensual photo of a nude male model at art school and posted it online; she was sentenced to ten months in prison and court-ordered sexual-violence counseling. The demonstrations were a reaction to the blatant hypocrisy.
Many of the women at the protests shaved their heads on-camera. As she began to follow more feminist Twitter accounts, Youngmi understood this was a public act of rejection of those same aesthetic expectations imposed on Korean women that have made the country a leader in grooming products and plastic surgery. She began to realize that “you know, men do not do that — men do not feel the pressure to buy clothes every season or wear makeup.”
Soon, Youngmi shaved her head, too, and stopped wearing makeup, joining the so-called “escape the corset” movement happening among young women in South Korea. The movement, which first gained popularity in 2018, saw Korean women publicly turn away from societally imposed beauty standards by cutting their hair short and going barefaced. (Youngmi was not alone — in 2019, a survey found that 24 percent of women in their 20s reported cutting back their spending on beauty products in the previous year, with many saying they no longer felt they needed to put in the effort.) This eventually led Youngmi to “4B,” a smaller but growing movement among Korean women. 4B is shorthand for four Korean words that all start with bi-, or “no”: The first no, bihon, is the refusal of heterosexual marriage. Bichulsan is the refusal of childbirth, biyeonae is saying no to dating, and bisekseu is the rejection of heterosexual sexual relationships. It is both an ideological stance and a lifestyle, and many women I spoke to extend their boycott to nearly all the men in their lives, including distancing themselves from male friends.
For Youngmi and many others who subscribe to its basic premises, 4B, or “practicing bihon,” is the only path by which a Korean woman today can live autonomously. In their view, Korean men are essentially beyond redemption, and Korean culture, on the whole, is hopelessly patriarchal — often downright misogynistic. A 2016 survey by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family found the incidence of intimate-partner violence at 41.5 percent, significantly higher than the global average of 30 percent. While 4B’s adherents may hope to change society — through demonstrations and online activism, and by modeling an alternative lifestyle to other women — they are not trying to change the men whom they view as their oppressors.
She doesn’t believe in labels for her own sexual orientation and has little interest in dating other women, but she does believe in political lesbianism as a way for women to establish lives separate from men — with an emphasis on the “political” rather than the “lesbian.” “I don’t need to try being a lesbian, because in political lesbianism, I can just be a person, like a normal person — a human being. I can be in a safe place,” she told me as we drank sweet-potato lattes at a campus café. The most important thing, in her view, is the absence of men. “Always, when I use the word ‘safe place,’ it means the place for women.”