“Secret Love Affair”: The Bit with Spoilers (Pt. 2 of 2)

In one of the best scenes in Secret Love Affair, piano prodigy Lee Seon-Jae delivers a musical message to his older teacher and lover Oh Hye-Won that is equal parts rebellion and lament. It’s the third act and Hye-Won is trying to hold onto power by acting like a loyal wife to Professor Kang. Seon-Jae and Hye-Won are struggling to keep up the illusion of being teacher and student rather than lovers.

At an evening cocktail party, Professor Kang demands that Seon-Jae “show everyone” how good he is. The professor has never seemed so petty or foolish.

But Seon-Jae does show everyone, with an improvisation on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” that transforms Mozart’s effervescent variations into something darker and more passionate. Hye-Won breaks down weeping as she listens from another room.

Seon-Jae’s performance reflects how nuanced this student-teacher love story is. When fellow piano student Min-Woo plays the Mozart piece, it’s simple and easy to listen to. When Seon-Jae takes his place at the piano, the lullaby takes on new meanings. Like the twenty-year old Seon-Jae, it’s left childhood behind. This is a deliberately scandalous story of a love affair with a 20-year age gap, but it pushes us to question why we find the age gap so shocking.

secret love affair yoo ah in teacher 4web

This is also a story about a student-teacher relationship. It doesn’t minimize the ethical problems involved, like many K-dramas about “cradle-robbing teachers.” Secret Love Affair is more like Seon-Jae’s dark salvo, a piece that won’t allow easy generalizations.

It’s hard to overlook the initial power disparities between hero and heroine. It’s also hard to hate Seon-Jae and Hye-Won’s relationship, even as it breaks a common taboo (a taboo that exists in Korea too).

Educators consider student-teacher relationships unethical because they’re inherently imbalanced. The most obvious imbalance is that teachers give students grades. But even in the music and arts, where students aren’t graded, teachers have other kinds of power—the power to write recommendation letters, or give life advice.

Thus, the thinking goes that students—even cheeky young adults like Seon-Jae who seek out a relationship with a teacher—are unable to protect their own interests. In a student-teacher romance, one person will always unfairly have the upper hand.

secret love affair episode 5 back hug 4web

I’m a teacher—of high school and college age students—and I like the taboo on student-teacher relationships. It protects teachers as well as students from difficult situations.

But my experiences as a boarding school teacher taught me that difficult situations have a way of arising anyway. Several years ago, a former student of mine became a high school teacher himself, then took his own life after a rumor spread that he was involved with a student. He was a principled, generous kid—one of my favorite students when I first started teaching—which made his pointless death in his mid-twenties all the more upsetting to everyone who knew him.

My community holds the student/teacher taboo sacred, but it isn’t worth sacrificing lives for. It’s a culturally constructed taboo, unlike the universal taboo on incest. Following it takes not just good intentions, but also a lot of self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Even good people can screw up on this one. So I come to this topic with a conflicted mind. Student-teacher relationships horrify me, but they aren’t unforgivable.

secret love affair episode 1 yoo ah in watching 4web

When the student is twenty years old, the ethical issues are even murkier, and Secret Love Affair takes place in that murky gray area.

But first, are Seon-Jae and Hye-Won really teacher and student? K-dramas often finesse this matter. For instance Flower Boy Ramyun Shop makes the heroine a trainee teacher and the hero a young heir. There the teenage hero actually has the power of hire and fire over his teacher/crush—a power imbalance of a different kind.

In Secret Love Affair, however, it’s unequivocal: Hye-Won has the official forms of power on her side. She’s Seon-Jae’s social and economic superior. She’s older than him by twenty years. Though she doesn’t really consider herself a teacher, her work with Seon-Jae is an official work assignment (thanks to Professor Kang’s initial obliviousness and Madame Han’s cunning).

To make it more problematic, the only thing Seon-Jae knows about Hye-Won the first time he sees her is that she is a teacher. He overhears Min-Woo calling her “teacher,” and Seon-Jae’s fascination with Hye-Won is closely tied to his desire to learn from her. His awe when he first meets Hye-Won in person is the awe of a young disciple, mixed with a schoolboy crush on an inaccessible “goddess.”

secret love affair episode 1 kim hee ae glimpse from afar 4web

Writer Jung Sung-Joo captures how emotionally charged the interactions between student and teacher can be. That Fantasia that Hye-Won and Seon-Jae when they first meet? Schubert composed it for a female student he had a crush on. Not to judge Schubert too harshly—it was the nineteenth century—but what could be a more flirtatious gift? This duet requires teacher and student to sit side by side on the piano bench, paying attention to each other’s every move—a seductive exercise. No wonder Seon-Jae and Hye-Won feel intensely connected as they perform it.

There is no doubt that before they were lovers, Seon-Jae and Hye-Won were teacher and student. So how does Secret Love Affair make the evolution in their relationship not only credible, but so perversely beautiful?

One possible answer would be to blame it on the music. The nineteenth century, which Secret Love Affair alludes to musically and thematically, gave us the idea that artists break the rules, and put individual self-expression before social conventions. Dean Min mentions composer Frederic Chopin, for instance, who lived with pseudonymous writer George Sand without marrying her—and although she was (scandal!) six years older than him.

secret love affair episode 7 yoo ah in piano 4web

Secret Love Affair encourages us to see Seon-Jae as a modern version of the Romantic artist. He chafes at Professor Kang’s career advice and tells Hye-Won he wants to enjoy music for its own sake. He’s even willing to walk away from a scholarship to keep his artistic independence. He’s eager to have an audience, but his audience doesn’t have to be the rich donors at the Seohan Center.

The idea that artists are “different” disarms us. It makes it harder to judge Hye-Won when she falls for Seon-Jae. Surely by serving as his muse, she’s serving the noble cause of music, right?

The music is a big factor in making the characters’ emotions credible. But if we take education seriously, music can’t excuse Hye-Won from a teacher’s responsibility to look out for her student. So we have to look beyond the Power of Music.

secret love affair episode 2 fantasy 4web

Is it possible this series works because the central romance is at least more ethical than the other relationships in the story?

One smart bit of plotting occurs in the last twenty minute of episode 3, when Hye-Won’s visit to the host club is followed by her encounter with Seon-Jae in her garage. The commodification of the young men at the club—including Seon-Jae’s friend “Justin”—is painfully crass. It highlights how lonely Young-Woo must be, and it kicks off the sub-plot in which Justin tries trading his innocent looks for upward mobility.

By contrast, when Seon-Jae finds Hye-Won in the garage, they’re encountering each other as human beings. Compared to the commercial exchange of love at the club, their connection appears relatively untainted by power disparities.

It’s not just Young-Woo’s affair that looks distasteful. Some of the secondary couples in Secret Love Affair are outright lying to each other. Chairman Seo and Madame Han don’t trust each other, for good reason. Young-Woo’s husband barely speaks to her, and Justin is impersonating a member of the upper class to get dates with Madame Baek’s daughter. Worst of all, Chairman Han pursues the beef restaurant waitress so relentlessly she has to quit her job and change her address.

secret love affair episode 3 club line up 4web

We’re also seduced into supporting Seon-Jae and Hye-Won because they’re in unsatisfying relationships at the beginning of the story. Ostensibly, both have partners, but romantically they’re alone. Seon-Jae knows his girlfriend Da-Mi is a gem of a friend, but he isn’t sexually attracted to her. And Hye-Won feels contempt for her needy, social-climbing husband, who in turn would rather hang out with his ex-girlfriend Young-Woo.

Seon-Jae’s innocent relationship with Da-Mi raises a question most of us have agonized over at some point: why does attraction have to be such a fickle, mysterious thing? Seon-Jae says he thinks Da-Mi has always been pretty. Why can’t he have a crush on her, then? This is the unfairness of human emotions.

And Hye-Won’s relationship with Professor Kang raises ethical questions about marriage. If you subscribe to romantic ideals, their relationship is creepy in its own way. How can you have sex with someone you don’t love—or even like? (The show skirts this question by not putting Hye-Won and her husband in the same bed. But presumably they’ve slept together even though the professor calls his wife “an empty husk.”)

secret love affair episode 15 young woo and boyfriend 4web

Next to these relationships, Seon-Jae and Hye-Won look uniquely good together. They enjoy each other’s company in simple ways—listening to music together, playing the piano. They’re attracted to each other, but they have an emotional connection that is equally strong. And Seon-Jae has talents and strength of character equal to Hye-Won’s, unlike her husband.

Perhaps even more seductively, Seon-Jae does house work. (Never underestimate the power of washing the dishes, gentlemen.)

Does the fact that they look good together excuse them from ethical questions? It does make me less inclined to roast them over the fire.

But that’s not everything. The key to the taboo-breaking romance is how carefully the script acknowledges and handles the taboos. Writer Jung Sung-Joo doesn’t rush to romanticize the relationship, and the characters themselves don’t rush to get involved.

secret love affair episode 5 piano playing 4web

Instead, Seon-Jae and Hye-Won continually negotiate and renegotiate their relationship, complicating any simple moral judgments we could make. They’re as aware as we are that they’re breaking taboos. We see the taboos through their eyes as they struggle with forbidden emotions.

At first, neither wants to cross the boundaries between them—boundaries that include age, status and Hye-Won’s marriage vows. Early on, Hye-Won is moved by Seon-Jae’s piano playing, but the pinch on the cheek she gives him is a motherly gesture. And Seon-Jae’s initial crush on Hye-Won is of the distant, worshipful kind that doesn’t seem to require an answer from her.

But even in these early meetings, some mysterious spark of sexual and emotional connection keeps getting in the way. They don’t have to give in to it, but they can’t wish it away either.

secret love affair episode 2 special compliment 4web

If you can’t wish it away, you have to deal with it. And Hye-Won doesn’t deal well at first. Her discomfort with Seon-Jae’s crush leads her to treat him harshly in the episode 3 piano lesson. Seon-Jae’s humiliation here leads indirectly to the tragedy that follows, and which almost drives him away from music.

Episode 3 is like a cautionary tale for how a teacher’s emotions can damage a student. This is arguably the most unethical moment in Hye-Won’s teaching career, and it occurs without the two being in a relationship—in fact, she’s trying to avoid a relationship. But she embarrasses Seon-Jae in front of Professor Kang, a bad blow to the young man’s ego.

Seon-Jae tries to reject her in turn, chiefly because she’s married. When he receives the Richter book in the mail, he drives to Seoul to ask her not to contact him again. (Clearly a bad idea, in light of what happens next, but his intention were good.) And when he finds himself in trouble with the law, he begs his friends not to contact Professor Kang. Even after Professor Kang bails him out of jail, he tries to refuse his help.

secret love affair episode 4 prof kang and his protege 4web

No one can accuse Seon-Jae or Hye-Won of rushing into this thing. It’s a cruel irony that circumstances keep bringing them together. Professor Kang’s ambition to have a talented student is a force neither of them can argue with. And Seon-Jae’s musical talent keeps bringing him back to Hye-Won.

Now here’s the discussion question for professional teachers who watch this show: As the older of the two, and the teacher, could Hye-Won have stopped things from progressing?

My answer is an emphatic “maybe.” Instead of sending the Richter book to Seon-Jae herself, she could have suggested that Professor Kang send it. Sending the book is one of her first small acts of unprofessionalism. So is caressing Seon-Jae’s cheek in the garage at the end of episode 3.

Yet most of us can understand why she sends the book to Seon-Jae. Her encouragement will make a difference to him, whereas a gift from Professor Kang won’t do it. And Seon-Jae badly needs encouragement after his mother’s death.

secret love affair episode 3 garage kim hee ae 4web

In the garage, too, her gesture has a certain innocence. It starts as a spontaneous attempt at comfort, which at first looks motherly.

For Seon-Jae, it’s anything but a mother’s touch. The camera focuses on Hye-Won’s face as she realizes what she’s done. Her expression turns to fear as Seon-Jae moves in to kiss her. Seon-Jae looks equally horrified a few moments later, when he realizes what he’s done. This scene is powerful because it plays out more as horror than as typical romance. (The director even uses a fast zoom when Seon-Jae kisses Hye-Won, giving us a shot that belongs more in a horror film.)

secret love affair episode 3 garage touch 4web

secret love affair episode 3 garage kim hee ae 2 4web

secret love affair episode 4 kiss 4web

secret love affair episode 3 garage kiss 4web

secret love affair episode 3 garage yoo ah in 4web

By the end of this scene, both of them have crossed a boundary they shouldn’t have crossed, but I can’t put all the blame on Hye-Won. Isn’t some of the blame Seon-Jae’s, for driving to see her in the middle of the night?

Or maybe we shouldn’t blame him because he went there intending to say goodbye to her. Hmm.

Then what about blaming Seon-Jae for kissing Hye-Won? The standard ethical answer might be that we shouldn’t hold the student—even an adult student—responsible, because he’s in a position of relative weakness. Hye-Won shouldn’t have let the conversation reach that point. But Seon-Jae acts on his own. He may be Hye-Won’s inferior in status, but he isn’t a powerless victim—in fact, the kiss is filmed more as an act of violence than of love.

The entire series plays out like this, each interaction nuanced and complicated. Whose “fault” is it that they’re drawn together? Often it seems like Seon-Jae is the one pushing for a relationship. Even while Hye-Won’s telling him to stay professional, he’s saying he loves her. (In the real world, this is how some student-teacher relationships start. One of the challenges for a young boarding school teacher is that students will inevitably try to flirt with you.)

secret love affair episode 2 yoo ah in kim hee ah meeting 4web

On a simple level, Seon-Jae is a quintessential love-struck kid with no idea what he’s doing. Hye-Won should protect him from himself.

On another level, though, the twenty-year old is pushing his own complicated ideas about what a “teacher” is. From the beginning, Seon-Jae sees Hye-Won simultaneously as his teacher and as a beautiful woman. He chooses to call her teacher despite her protests. And because the Korean language rarely allows the word “you” in formal speech, this means Seon-Jae calls Hye-Won “teacher” in almost every sentence he utters, for much of the series.

“Teacher” sounds like a constant reminder of their social distance, but this is tricky. It’s arguably more intimate than the other option in Korean, which would be to call her “director.” “Teacher” is actually less distancing (which might be why Min-Woo wants to call her “teacher”). Note that the Korean language doesn’t permit Seon-Jae to call Hye-Won by name; he tries it out flirtatiously only after they’ve slept together.

For Hye-Won, though, the title of teacher is a refuge from sexuality. She hides behind the title when she rejects Seon-Jae abruptly and somewhat cruelly at the beginning of episode 4.

secret love affair episode 4 another man's woman 4web

secret love affair episode 4 it's teacher 4web

(Aside: Language is a fascinating issue in noona romances. Koreans use formal language with their elders and social superiors, and informal language with those below them in age or status. The lower social status of women used to coincide with women being younger than their husbands. That made it easy: men always spoke informally to their wives, while women spoke formally, respectfully, to men.

New generations of Koreans are having more egalitarian relationships, with partners speaking to each other in the same register. But the age difference between Seon-Jae and Hye-Won requires them to use different forms of speech. She always “talks down” to him. And it’s only after they sleep together that Seon-Jae dares to occasionally cross the line into informal speech when he’s teasing Hye-Won or wants to make a point.)

But even if Seon-Jae has his own ideas about what a “teacher” should be, Hye-Won is the older one. She’s the one the ethicists should scrutinize. Are we sure she isn’t taking advantage of Seon-Jae?

Perhaps she is. She’s accepting his love and worship to make up for her bad marriage, instead of finding a lover her own age. She’s endangering Seon-Jae’s scholarship and career prospects. And in early episodes, she tries to alienate Seon-Jae in disturbing, sometimes even creepy ways, like this kiss in episode 5.

secret love affair episode 5 don't mess with me 4web

At the same time, we can see that Hye-Won doesn’t want to manipulate Seon-Jae—perhaps doesn’t even know how to. If anything, she feels powerless in her interactions with him. Love is Hye-Won’s blind-spot, the one negotiation she can’t handle. Because she’s powerless over her emotions, she’s unable to step back from this dangerous relationship.

If Hye-Won’s weakness is her difficulty understanding her own emotions, Seon-Jae’s weakness is his unfamiliarity with Hye-Won’s complex and cynical world. He wants answers to precisely the questions Hye-Won can’t answer. He wants to know why she returned his kiss and pretended not to remember. He wants to know why she’s married to Professor Kang. He wants to know why people hurt each other.

Seon-Jae embodies the K-drama ideal of youthful sincerity. His emotions lie close to the surface and he can’t hide what he’s thinking. Hye-Won, on the other hand, calls herself an expert liar.

In their conversations, they pull each other closer simply by being themselves. The dynamic is simple and inexorable. Seon-Jae asks questions. Hye-Won evades. His questions and her evasions slowly erode the boundaries between them in spite of themselves.

secret love affair episode 6 kim hee ae laughing 4web

And at some point in the story, it’s impossible to see Seon-Jae as a kid any more. It’s hard to pin down when it happens—one pleasure of Secret Love Affair is that the story seems slightly different each time you watch. But by the final episode, they appear to be equals, in some indefinable way that defies our paper codes of ethics.

How can they become equals, although Seon-Jae was Hye-Won’s student and is so much younger?

Is it because this is, in some sense, Hye-Won’s first love, making them equally new to this kind of relationship? There’s more to adulthood than romance—and much more to the brilliant, powerful Hye-Won than her love life—but it’s significant that both are new to this kind of overwhelming emotional rush.

Or is it because they show equal respect for each other? Despite the series’ tawdry title, the sex in Secret Love Affair isn’t a tactical move in a relationship game. They care deeply about each other.

secret love affair episode 13 yoo ah in potter's studio 4web

The Korean language gives us one hint about when they become equals, because Seon-Jae’s way of addressing Hye-Won evolves.

In their secret meeting at the pottery studio in episode 13, Seon-Jae addresses Hye-Won as teacher for the last time, with a touch of sarcasm. “Teacher” is an emotionally charged word here. In fact, some smart subtitler at Viki has called our attention to it, by translating the line, “If I kept my eyes closed, Teacher would take care of everything.” (It could just as accurately be translated, “If I kept my eyes closed, you would take care of everything.”)

“Teacher” is tinged with bitterness. He looked up to her enormously. If the worrying thing about student-teacher relationships is the abuse of trust, we should be bothered by how much he trusted her. She betrayed that trust—not by taking advantage of him sexually, but by hiding her white-collar crimes from him.

In the remaining episodes, Seon-Jae finds ways to avoid addressing Hye-Won directly. He barely speaks at the cocktail party in episode 14, communicating through his defiant version of Mozart instead. In the scene that follows, when he refuses a kiss from Hye-Won, he addresses her as “a pitiful woman.” And in episode 15, he teasingly calls her “his girl” (kijibe, scientifically proven to be one of the cutest words in the Korean language).

secret love affair episode 14 i can't kiss a pitiful woman 4web

At the very end of the series, his language becomes yet more intimate. In the final voiceover, Seon-Jae shifts to calling Hye-Won “you” (tangshin). The Viki subtitlers translate it as “dear,” to convey the full emotional impact of this pronoun. This older, wiser Seon-Jae now addresses Hye-Won as an equal, rather than a goddess.

What can we conclude?

If this was a real-life story, the newspaper headlines would say Hye-Won crossed a line we shouldn’t cross. Most educators would condemn her.

But the detailed account we see is more nuanced. Like Seon-Jae’s version of “Twinkle, Twinkle” that defies its lullaby origins, these characters don’t fit comfortably into roles like “teacher” and “student.” Seon-Jae was looking for a teacher who would change his life in every way, and he found her. His brashness and confidence are part of this story, too. (And Yoo Ah-In’s performance goes a long way towards making this character believable.)

secret love affair episode 12 yoo ah in kim hee ae 4web

Also part of the story is that none of the relationships in this series are between equals. Inequality defines Madame Han’s marriage, Chairman Seo’s affair with the waitress, and Young-Woo’s affairs with young models.

Hye-Won and Seon-Jae start out unequal as well, but finish as something else entirely, and without hurting each other any more than lovers usually do. It’s hard to argue the world would be better off if they’d avoided each other.

That’s what makes this a compelling story. Every interaction between human beings is a “boundary crossing.” Hye-Won and Seon-Jae cross a bigger boundary than most, and perhaps they should have kept their distance. But Secret Love Affair argues that there’s something even more important than keeping our distance, and that’s learning how to be close. ♥

I sound sure of myself here, but from an educator’s viewpoint, I wonder if I should be harder on these characters. Or do I think, there but for the grace of God go I? This show really messes with my mind. Please tell me what you think!

7 thoughts on ““Secret Love Affair”: The Bit with Spoilers (Pt. 2 of 2)

    • Hi Anastasya! Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a way to hide spoilers behind an invisibility shield? The Anime News Network site has an amazing system in their forums for hiding spoilers. I don’t even watch anime much anymore, but I love that site.

      Don’t worry, I’m recovering from TSLAO (total Secret Love Affair obsession) and will post on other things again soon! 🙂

      • haha , don;t mind me.
        I just saw your post on my feed and I want to give some respond before I realize that I had nothing in my mind.
        So I simply said Hello, this post is on my must read list after finishing SLA, so thanks for it, ^^

  1. As always, beautifully said Odessa. Speaking of student-teacher relationships, in SLA it never bothered me that she was his teacher, since legally they were both consenting adults and he wasn’t really officially her student (in the sense that she wasn’t formally assessing him, which would have created a conflict of interest). The imbalance of power was also something that I didn’t feel merited any sense of moral outrage, since he was the one who initiated the pursuit and the choice was never something that was enforced on him—physically and emotionally, he was always fully in control. I think the adultery and the age gap were the bigger issues to surmount. Ultimately, I think that context matters, especially since I actually know two couples that began their relationship in the college classroom as professor and student and both seem to have happy marriages today. I definitely agree, however, that this is a sensitive issue and shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially given the opportunities for abuse of power.

    I just re-watched Flower Boy Ramen Shop (I’m on a Jung Il-woo kick) and upon re-watch I realized that the zippy, campy tone of the rom-com deflects your attention from the fact that he’s still a high school student when they begin having a relationship (though she’s not his teacher at that point). Given the over-the-top, manga-like nature of the drama, It’s not something that’s meant to be taken seriously, and Jung Il-woo definitely doesn’t look like a high school student, but the moral and legal concerns here are legitimate ones. The narrative never gives space for that however, and the issue is never seriously raised by any of the characters, and I wonder about that … is it just a cultural thing? Context is diffused here; worse, it’s glossed over entirely with rom-com varnish, to the point where we’re being cued as viewers to accept the unfolding relationship as a purely fantastical one, and therefore impervious to any moral judgements we might pass on it. That’s not the case with SLA, where context matters, and the student-teacher issue is never foregrounded because, ultimately, it’s a non-issue in all the ways that matter.

    Speaking of Jung Il-woo, I also recently watched Return of Iljimae, which was fantastic (beautiful, badass, and epic), and not a student-teacher relationship in sight. Highly recommend : )

    • Flower Boy Ramen Shop is a great example of how to disarm the audience with an over-the-top, campy style. With the heroine so young, and Jung Il-Woo’s (attractive) hero in a position of power socio-economically, FBRS has its teacher-student cake and eats it too. Strangely, I never fell for that drama, though. I suspect since I do work in education, I couldn’t relax and go with the fantasy. My teacher brain, honed by a decade of professional development classes on “boundaries,” gets in the way. That’s why I’m so impressed that SLA totally, utterly defeats the teacher part of my brain.

      Just what I need is the temptation to watch Return of Iljimae! I’m a sucker for a good Robin Hood story. 🙂

  2. I’ve been struggling to write clear and concise responses to the two parts of SLA – spoilers posts. I am now officially giving up on that so be warned that this is too long. And unfortuantely the topic is rape. But without outlining what the taboo is for me culturally I can not properly discuss my feelings on the show.

    In reading part 2 I was suddenly struck by how it seems that adult student-teacher relations elicits a fundamentally different set of responses from me and Odessa. After talking to an American friend I have come to my current conclusion (I reserve the right to change my thoughts in 5 minutes) that this is actually a cultural difference between the US and Canada. It was clear in my mind that SK would have very different cultural interpretations fo this situation than me. But I had not considered just how different it might be just here in North America.

    I am not a lawyer and I do not even pretend to know about US law so I could be completely off base but here goes. Canada’s rape laws are federal and I think in the US this is (mostly?) a state level thing. One item that became quickly apparent to me in my discussions is that for me it was not about workplace misbehaviour or conflict of interest but about rape. And that really is a massive thing. Our law is actually about “sexual assault” and this helps make it clear that it does not just include those things one might think of automatically when hearing the scary R word.

    The part that pertains to our SLA discussion is that being an adult is not enough for consent. If one partner is in “a position of trust, power or authority” and the other says yes that might not be a valid consent. And this is not limited to obvious coercion like hinting at lowered grades. It gets murky when the accused was not intending to coerce sexual activity and also truly believed the accuser was consenting, and the accuser truly believed that there was an exercise of authority going on. The accused would need to show that they took certain steps to ensure valid consent. That is not a very happy place for either party to be in.

    A jury would never be as lucky as the viewers fo SLA. We got to see that SJ was the persuer. But there is a pretty violent kiss where HW is telling him that it is a punishment. And this is clearly in her role as teacher. That was the one that made me feel the queasiest. But the power of seeing so much into the darker parts of their relationship is that I also trust that the writer has shown us the worst of it. So I can believe the part that shows the love and not second guess if it was abusive or not. Plus I am viewing it as being from another culture so I give the characters a little more freedom to move. If that had been set in Canada I think I would have not been swept up in their love story at all.

    (FBRS – yuchy relationship. But I have just added Return to Iljimae to my potentials list)

    • Ah! I was looking forward to your comments, Erin, because I knew you would give me a lot to think about. You didn’t let me down! I had to think about this one for a few days, because there’s so much to say! (And considering the topic, your comment goes in the Concision Hall of Fame. Mine will not be so concise, I’m afraid.)

      You’re right that the words we use affect how we think about it. We do have 50 separate legal systems in the United States. We not only have 50 separate definitions of rape and sexual assault, but we also have 50 different definitions of “consent.” When it comes to potentially abusive situations like sex between an adult employer and adult employee (or adult college professor and student), I don’t know if the criminal justice system ever handles them. These ugly workplace situations typically lead to civil lawsuits for harassment–cases which are then settled monetarily out of court, so that the press can’t find out what really happened. In fact, I recently learned (to my shock) that corporations typically carry insurance against such lawsuits, with the expectation that every organization will have to make a “pay-off” occasionally. It sounds like under Canadian law, that would be tantamount to admitting you expect bosses to be rapists. Under American law, it’s more like admitting you expect bosses to be idiots.

      But it also might be that Americans and Canadians have different ways of thinking about the relationship between ethics and the legal system. I tend to think of the two as entirely separate.

      I think we agree that in an assymmetrical relationship, there’s more to consent than just being an adult. But my thinking is also influenced by my experiences with non-adults, when I was teaching and living with 14 to 19 year olds at a boarding school. Boarding schools do everything they can to keep kids apart, but teenagers are always finding ways to get around the rules. Common sense says a 16-year-old may be making their own choice to have sex. But the law says they aren’t qualified to make that decision. And here’s where the American legal system gets really weird: every state defines statutory rape differently. Older teenagers having sex with younger teenagers are potentially committing a felony (statutory rape), but it depends what state they’re in. In some states, anyone having sex with a 17 year old is a rapist, unless they can afford a good lawyer. That includes the 18 or 19 year old with a 17-year-old girlfriend or boyfriend. But a relationship that could be a felony in one state might be a misdemeanor a few miles away in another state. And in another state it might not be a crime at all. And these arbitrary distinctions don’t take into account the things that ideally should matter most to the parents and mentors of teenagers, like, Okay, how is this person treating you? Are you emotionally ready to have sex or not? These laws are important to protect teens from exploitation. At the same time, they’re a blunt instrument, and aren’t always applied well. (Maybe it’s also important to mention that the public defender system in the US is broken, so anyone who can’t afford a lawyer is likely to go to prison whether or not they are guilty. Especially if they aren’t white.)

      So when I think about ethics, I tend not to look at laws or legal definitions. In fact, I tend (like a lot of Americans?) to think of the law as something entirely separate from ethics. The American legal system is only vaguely connected to ethics. After all, a few of my ancestors thought it was okay to keep people enslaved. The fact that it was totally legal didn’t make it right, however. (Tangent: Arguments between the Southerners and Northerners in my family ruined a number of nineteenth-century Thanksgiving dinners. Perhaps this is one reason I’m so fascinated with Korean stories about making peace with the past. We’ve got a lot of past to make peace with here in the States.) Or to take it back to sexual ethics: lots of perfectly legal sex between adults isn’t exactly ethical. We’ve all known someone at some time who has slept with someone for all the wrong reasons. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean no one’s feelings get hurt.

      I’ve never thought about this before. It would make sense that Canada, being founded by Loyalists in the first place, and not having relied on large numbers of unpaid, abused workers for centuries, would lean towards equating the law with ethics. But I’m influenced by the American experience. I’m squeamish about the power dynamics in student-teacher relationships, like in SLA, but I can’t look to the law, or even the language (the definition of rape or assault) for answers. So I look to the scene by scene details of how power works in SLA.

      And in my view of ethics, even the fact that Seon-Jae pursued Hye-Won isn’t enough on its own to prevent it from being unethical. Not by itself. If Hye-Won kept her position of power over him, it would still be unethical, even if he was pushing for the relationship. My thinking here is that the power difference between them is (on paper) too great for him to make the right choice. (Relationships between therapists and their adult patients often start this way, with an emotionally vulnerable patient developing a crush on a therapist.) But Seon-Jae and Hye-Won’s relationship does equalize. He becomes more of an adult after his mother passes away, and she becomes less of a teacher and shows her vulnerabilities to him–after a couple queasiness-inducing scenes. As you say, “The power of seeing so much into the darker parts of their relationship is that I also trust that the writer has shown us the worst of it.”

      That’s a very long answer, but I find the subtle differences between Canada and the States endlessly fascinating. And even more interesting are the questions of how people should treat each other in relationships. And SLA forces me to think deeply about this stuff. Thank you so much for reading and thinking and commenting, Erin! (By the way, can I call you unni? I think you’re older than me. But you don’t have to give anything away if you don’t want to!) Happy Monday! (Couldn’t get into Return of Iljimae. But picked up watching Warrior Baek Dong Soo again.)

It's okay, it's a comment. Leave a note!