Sex and the Jakarta Woman
A dialogue about sex in Indonesia.
Words by Whiteboard Journal
There I was, sitting aimlessly at my desk in the office, randomly browsing through Indonesia’s 2012 report for UNAIDS, when I stumbled upon a particular section that caught my eye: the percentage of adults aged 15-49 who have had sexual intercourse with more than one partner in the past 12 months.
According to the data, 3 in 1000 married men had engaged in sexual intercourse with an extramarital, non-cohabitating partner in the past twelve months, meaning that they had sex with more than one person in the past twelve months.
Interesting? Quite, but not exactly the point that stood out. So, what did?
No women were asked about multiple sexual partners within the previous year.
I found this odd; how can I expect reliable data when only men – and married men, at that – were surveyed? Where were all the (sexually active) women?
Browsing quickly through the rest of the data, I found that some women were surveyed about their contraception-use habits; sex workers.
That variable implicitly told me either the surveyors thought that sexually active women who were not sex workers did not exist, or that that it was still extremely taboo to talk about. Not knowing which was ruder, I was fuming over the readiness to brush over data that may help us combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
I myself believe that there is nothing wrong with engaging in responsible premarital sex; sex between two – or more, depending on your preferences – informed parties that are knowledgeable about contraception and the possible risks that come with sexual intercourse.
Does that mean I am against abstinence? Absolutely not, but I do think that we are taking several steps backwards in society by assuming that every Indonesian woman out there is abstinent. We see varying degrees of sex every day and everywhere; on TV, in music, in the way some guy leers at you at a warung and when you see someone place their hand on the small of someone’s back in public. Yet, we are still not discussing sex out in the open; within families, in schools, among friends and in the government.
So let’s get to the nitty gritty of our situation; why do we as a society still insist on putting women’s virginity on a pedestal when we are exposed to sex 24/7?
One factor is religion. Without divulging too deeply into the topic, we live in a country that insists that its citizens indicate their religion – one of the official six, of course – on their identity cards (KTP). Although you are legally allowed to leave it blank nowadays, companies you work for can technically still discriminate against you because it isn’t against the law. So, religion, and religious doctrine, is still an integral part of our society.
Second, our laws are working against us. Many countries have separate laws to define the age of consent – the age someone is legally allowed to have sex – and the marriageable age. In the United Kingdom they have the Sexual Offences Act and also the Ages of Marriage Act. According to these two laws, the age of consent is 16 and the marriageable age is 18.
In Indonesia, we do not have a law that describes the exact age of consent for either women or men. What we do have is a marriage law that dates back to 1974 (UU No. 1/1974) which stipulates that a woman can legally get married at 16 if her parents give consent.
This then brings up two things: one, sex is legally tied to marriage. It is only acknowledged after marriage, and so by law there is no such thing as premarital sex.
Which then brings up the second point: if sex can only happen after marriage, there is no reason for a discourse on sex for adolescents. This gives us a disadvantage because it means that formal sex education in schools is not mandated by law.
From my experiences living abroad, adolescents are given formal sex education to reduce the chances of catching sexually transmitted diseases and to encourage healthy sexual behavior. This is taught regardless of your stance on premarital sex.
To this day, I still get frustrated when I speak to Indonesian peers who do not understand how to use contraception, disregarding whether or not they are sexually active.
So, there are societal pressures put upon us women to neither have sex nor talk about it, but what really is happening out there in Jakarta?
According to a small survey I did, there was still an even number of women who were abstinent, and women who were sexually active.
Reasons for abstaining from sex among young Jakartan women varied. Some cited religious doctrine stipulating sexual intercourse as a sacred act and a marital gift. Others find satisfaction in knowing that the one they marry, and eventually lose their virginities to, will be the first and last person they ever have sex with. Finally, some think that deciding to have sex after marriage means that you will marry someone who you think will be your partner for life, not just a partner to fulfill your physical needs.
On the other hand, the handful of young women who were sexually active were also vocal about their reasons. Sexual gratification through orgasming was important, but to others, so was the bonding experience between partners. In contrast to those who abstained from sex because they wanted to select their partner based on their personality, some of those who were sexually active said that sexual compatibility was an important factor in choosing who your life partner would be.
In the end, sex is a deciding factor for both parties. Neither party, however, said that they talked about sex often, and when they did, it was only with those in their inner circles. This surprised me because I talk about sex. A lot. And I’m really not picky about who I talk to about it; I’m pretty open to speaking to both my male and female friends about it.
Yet, when it is being talked about, it is there to sensationalize. A few months back I went to an art exhibition in Kemang that conveyed the perceptions of female artists on the topic of sex. Although I appreciated the openness of the art, overhearing several conversations around me gave the exhibition an air of pretentiousness. Sex should be seen as a normal part of life – a very human part of life – and not illicit remarks about how cool the exhibition is. And implicitly, how cool they, the visitors, were, because it was so open about the topic.
For an act so important for young women everywhere, it is still being so tightly reigned in, and not for the right reasons. Having or not having sex is a choice – not an obligation – and we need to develop a society that understands that and guides us through our choices, not punishes us for it.
I know that I probably cannot do much to open up more dialogue about it, but you probably won’t find me shutting up about it any time soon.