Written by Anastasia Traynin
Interpreted by Cho Namhee
Photographed by Ben Robins
Standing at a Gwangju downtown bus stop on a fall day last year, I saw a promotional sticker for an upcoming new shop. Though this sight in itself is nothing new, I was surprised about the shop’s business, something I thought I would never see in this city: a friendly and open adult products store. Sure, there are plenty of seongin yongpum (성인용품, adult paraphernalia) shops around town, but few, if any of them, give off a welcoming, clean, or pleasant vibe.
The owners of the new shop felt the same way. Kang Min-gyeong, former office worker, and Park Seung-jae, her current boyfriend and then a university student, were just an ordinary couple in their 20s, looking especially for women’s adult products. Not finding anything that suited them in the various local offline stores, they looked online and found a big supply and demand for their needs.
Unlike other such couples, they decided that this high demand warranted the opening of an educational and sex-positive face-to-face business. Calling their shop “Spotlight,” they aim to shine a collective light on sexuality in Gwangju and to help people find their individual “spots” that have remained hidden or confusing. They found their current shop’s location on a side street near the downtown YMCA and have been in business there since October 2016.
“At first, we were hesitant about this shop because of Gwangju’s conservative atmosphere, so we thought we would last three or six months,” Kang says. “But we find that there is a demand here in Gwangju, whether we are here or not.”
Beyond selling a variety of sex toys, clothes, condoms, and lotions, Spotlight runs small informal monthly “sex-minars” about the use of their products. In addition, they provide private counseling sessions for those visitors with intimate questions. Park said that some customers have little knowledge, from the basics of the proper condoms to purchase to more serious issues. Kang recalls a woman in her 50s who came in for a consultation about her husband and their sex life. She left with a much better understanding and no need for extra medical care.
Though the majority of their customers are women, they feel that being a couple gives them the advantage of having expertise about their products and being able to share from both the female and male perspective.
“In the future, we will organize a seminar like this especially for men,” Kang said. “Recently, there have been more women opening businesses in this industry, by being more open about their sexuality.”
With their shop’s central location, the couple have been surprised by the wide range in their customers’ ages, from people in their early 20s, who frequent the area, to those in their late 50s and 60s, who hold the Chungjang-ro area as part of their youthful memories.
Although adult product shops are not open to minors under 19, thanks to the company Instinctus selling green-packaged Eve condoms, Spotlight is able to provide a service to the youngest sexually active citizens of Gwangju. Outside the window of their shop is Instinctus’ pioneer project started earlier this year, an under-19-only condom machine that allows youth to discreetly purchase inexpensive contraceptives without the usual stigma.
“Before opening our business, we thought about social responsibility, along the lines of seminars and workshops,” Kang said. “We were concerned about sex education at school. It is not properly done and can be misleading on some points. We have read and heard about experiences of teenagers misusing contraceptives or maybe not even being able to get condoms from convenience stores because they are looked at in a strange way and maybe scolded. Some of the consequences of misusing or not using condoms are big issues in society. So we found the right place to install the machine.”
When it comes to the legality of their business, the couple explain that while “sex toys” exist as a business category, registering openly may limit their ability to open credit cards and to receive grants as a youth start-up.
“Still, people have very conservative and negative perceptions of these businesses,” Kang continued. “The biggest challenge is that sex toys are yet to be defined by the government, so there is no fully developed legal infrastructure or systems.”
Kang further mentioned that while many women do not openly talk about their sex lives among themselves, her girlfriends were enthusiastic about the opening of the shop. Park said that his male friends regard him as a kind of “hero.” Their families were far more concerned about the couple running an adult products store, but after visiting Spotlight and realizing its open atmosphere, they began to understand.
Despite mostly positive feedback from those around them, Kang lamented that the wider society has yet to become fully accepting of Spotlight’s mission. “We enjoy that there are people who come here and like it, but a lot of the feedback is negative and some people also think that we are in an unethical relationship, which is not true. Those are the difficulties, but the interest and appreciation gives us energy. One day, whether it is five or ten years from now, the awareness and acceptance towards these products will likely change in Korea.”
Contact Person: Jang Hyun-ju 정현주
Address: 101-6 Chungjang-ro, Dong-gu, Gwangju
광주광역시 동구 충장로 101-6 (충장로1가) 1층 1호 스팟라이트
Open Hours: 2:00 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. Tuesdays–Sundays and until 11:00 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.