Indonesia’s way of embracing sexuality

Ancient teaching: A relief at Sukuh Temple near Surakarta. The 15-century Hindu-Buddhist temple depicts reliefs on life before birth, having sexual education as its main theme. JP/Ani Suswantoro
Ancient teaching: A relief at Sukuh Temple near Surakarta. The 15-century Hindu-Buddhist temple depicts reliefs on life before birth, having sexual education as its main theme. JP/Ani Suswantoro

Sex is a big part of Indonesians’ daily lives. Everyday people laugh at dirty jokes. Open flirting is common, even between work colleagues, which some may view as verging on sexual harassment.

Watching pornographic films has long been an “educational” past time for school children curious about sex.

In the workplace, it’s not rare to see several people with their eyes glued to a computer screen playing pornographic movies. And sex workers never have quiet nights except maybe during fasting months.

However, Indonesians relaxed attitude toward sex is ambiguous. In a way, Indonesian society is permissive in laughing at the jokes, in its knowledge of the steamy stories in the two volumes of the book Jakarta Undercover, open flirting, of having mistresses in unregistered marriages, and living side by side with the many sex brothels across the country.

In another way, its sexuality is repressed, with society quick to condemn anyone who engages in sexual activities outside a heterosexual marriage.

So come the stories of raids on unmarried couples living under the same roof, of transvestites being chased by public order officers and of the hard-line religious groups intimidating the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

The recent love story of Alterina Hofman, who suffers from Klinefelter’s syndrome — a rare case where a male has an extra X chromosome — and Jane Hadipoespito, is another case of sexual repression.

Jane’s parents denounced the couple’s marriage and filed a lawsuit against Alterina for document
fraud because he previously declared he was a woman on his identity cards. Police then took Alterina to prison, ignoring the latest report from a doctor that confirmed he was a man.

People, of course, are still in tune with the sex-video scandal that befell pop band Peterpan vocalist, Nazril “Ariel” Ilham. The 28-year-old divorced father of one, famed for his guttural singing, is now in police custody, charged under the controversial 2008 Pornography Law for allegedly featuring in the sex video with his girlfriend actress Luna Maya and another video with presenter Cut Tari.

In short: You can joke about it. You can even do it. But, if you are not heterosexual and unmarried, do not get caught doing it.

An expert on gender and sexuality from the University of Indonesia, Irwan Martua Hidayana, said  the issue of sexuality in Indonesia was largely influenced by religious and cultural norms. “People see sex in the frame of marriage,” he said at his office on the Depok campus.

“So, when you’re not married, either men or women, ideally, normatively, should not have sex,” he said.

“When there are unmarried people who are sexually active, they will get a social sanction. They will be condemned from a moral point of view as deviant and decadent,” he said.

For Firliana Purwanti, a human rights and gender activist, and author of The “O” Project, a social sanction may be acceptable but criminalization by the state is not.

In light of Ariel’s case, Firli wrote an opinion piece in Koran Tempo daily, stating that instead of arresting Ariel, the police should arrest the person who uploaded the videos on the Internet and the people who were distributing DVDs.

“When I decided to write about Ariel’s case, I was fed up. I’m fed up with all the hypocrisy in this country,” she said.

“This is a matter of human rights. It can happen to any of us. The most relevant area that was touched in this case is the right to privacy,” she said.

“Your privacy is yours, although, the private domain can be political as well. The limitations to your freedom in your private space are three things — violence, discrimination and force,” she said.

Firli said that even the Pornography Law, a controversial piece of  “legislation due to a vague definition on pornography that polarized the nation between moralists and liberals, acknowledged the right to privacy.”

Ariel would be the first celebrity charged under the Pornography Law, passed in 2008 after years of heated debate on whether such a law was needed.

Police say he is also charged for violating another controversial law on electronic information and transactions, which punishes those who spread indecent images, and for violating the Criminal Code.

The pornography law stipulates anyone who produces, makes, copies, circulates, broadcasts, offers, trades, loans or provides porn content can face up to 12 years in prison.

National Police chief detective Comr. Gen. Ito Sumardi said detectives had collected enough evidence to charge him.

According to Irwan, the Pornography Law is a way for the state to control its citizens. “Any country will try to control its citizens. One way is by controlling their sexuality and bodies,” he said.

It is not the first time the state has attempted to control its citizens’ personal lives, Irwan said. “The family planning program for instance; that was an example of how the state controls the bodies of its citizens, especially female bodies,” he said.

Within the state, he says, lay ideologies. “Formally, we have the ideology of Pancasila. But for feminists, they may say a patriarchy ideology exists, which puts men before women,” he said.

As a secular country with millions of religious people, most adhering to Islam, moral standards of those religions feature as well, he said.

These moral standards, associated with sexuality, Irwan says, evolve with changes in society.

At the time Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms in Java ruled, society had a more open attitude toward sexuality, evident in the reliefs at the Sukuh Temple near Surakarta that depict sexuality openly. Irwan also mentioned the Centini scripture that discusses sexuality openly.

“Changes always happen in culture. There used to be acceptance of different genders and sexual activities, such as homosexual acts between warok and gemblak in Ponorogo,” he said.

Warok is the leader in the Reog Ponorogo dance, who was prohibited from having sexual intercourse with women, making them have gemblak, or young boys as sexual partners.

The Bugis people in Makassar, Irwan said,  acknowledge five types of gender: female, male, calalai (masculine female), calabai (feminine male) and bissu (androgyny).

The entering of major world religions such as Islam and Christianity, and modern western views of monogamy, has slowly changed how Indonesians view sexuality. Now, he says, moral control becomes stronger and limited to heterosexuality. With moral control, sexuality becomes a taboo topic because it is viewed in a negative light, Irwan said.

This results in moral panic when cases of sexual activity outside the accepted norm surfaced, Irwan said,  such as Ariel’s case, with media sensationalizing and condemning it simultaneously, and two ministers rejecting the importance of sex education.

Irwan said the sex videos scandal could actually be momentum to develop a sex education program for students.

“Because people see sex in a negative light if it occurs outside the marriage framework, moral panic always results” he said.

“If people have knowledge about sexuality, they can be more responsible in protecting themselves.”

Idy Muzayyad, former Nahdlatul Ulama youth-wing activist and member of the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI), says in their activities people should take into account the norms in the society they live in.

“In France a minister can have a baby without being married, and people would be OK with that. Here, that’s not possible, because we have different values.”

He emphasizes, however, that while society can give social sanctions, the state should not inter-
fere in the private domain of its citizens.

“There’s a way to heaven and the way to hell, and even God gives humans the choice,” he said.

Firli said legislative processes in Indonesia were prone to bias. “We’re used to making policies that are heterosexist and patriarchal,” she said, giving the health law as an example as it regulates access to reproductive health for married couples.

“That’s unrealistic. Because our policies have always been religiously biased, it has never been effective in solving problems in the field. So many people don’t follow religion strictly anyway. And with a secular country, why [is the government] introducing religious values in policies.”

Many studies since the 1980s and 1990s show that the younger generation is sexually active, Irwan said.

“I think our politicians should accept that this is what’s happening in society. They should not be in denial.”

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Feature | Wed, July 07 2010

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