“Once a woman has seen a man’s dick, he has to marry her because either she or her male relatives will beat the man up,” says my program’s in-country coordinator’s husband. Whoa, talk about the extreme end. I know I’m conservative, but I’m not violent.
Here I am, checking in from tropical Indonesia after my stint in Paris. I had a summer internship with a local NGO. There are many interesting aspects of my cultural transition from French to Indonesian culture – and one of them is definitely sex. Since Indonesia and the Philippines are neighboring countries with the same roots, I was fairly certain that there would be plenty of similarities. In the beginning, I was mostly excited to eat tasty food with lots of spices – and good rice, finally. But this was put behind me immediately because of what I learned about sex and sexuality here.
First off, my pocket of Indonesian land called Jogjakarta city was much more conservative than many parts of the Philippines (see comment above) – and it’s supposed to be one of the more liberal areas in the country. Brides, for example, are heavily dolled up during traditional Javanese weddings, and one of their make-up symbols is the series of three Vs on their forehead. Women with black markings are virgins, while women with green markings are not. Though I know that in the Philippines, brides need to wear white when they’re virgins and other colors otherwise in Catholic weddings, nowadays, people don’t really care. In Indonesia, virginity seems to be much more of a necessary public declaration. According to some magazines, there is still a very strong stigma against non-virgins. They are addressed as if they ‘had made a mistake’. This creates an unwelcoming and isolating atmosphere for anybody who has engaged in sexual activity.
Our program also had classes on these topics, and here are a few tidbits. I found out that there are some studies stating that there are sometimes more than two sides to the heterosexual equation – for example, men and women who are married may have homosexual relationships on the side. Muslim students (which is most of the student population) usually live in dormitories called pesantren, where they have very strict rules but which also is a venue for a lot of sexual experimentation among boarders. There are accepted forms of homosexuality (or even just ‘cross-dressing’), such as the waria, or ‘males with women’s souls’. They dress in women’s clothing and perform in weddings and clubs. Despite the more conservative façade, sexuality seems to be fluid – and along with this, there are challenges to reproductive health.
An American friend of mine worked with the PKBI, a Planned Parenthood program here in Jogjakarta. It’s a clinic offering health services, fully equipped with trained volunteers, medicines, and instruments to deal with any situation. During his time there, he found that there is practically no sex education in most schools. The stigma mentioned is debilitating to their cause of providing reproductive healthcare – in the three weeks that he’d interned there, nobody came to the clinic in spite of their posters, social media, volunteer outreach programs, etc. The extent of the youth’s knowledge about sex education and health is probably frighteningly low – much like it is in rural areas in the Philippines. He also said that some Indonesians he met asked about and/or were obsessed with the idea that in the US, people practice ‘free sex’, a term with unknown origins or real meaning.
In terms of dating, my experience was very limited. However, some of my Indonesian girl friends have boyfriends. Some have been dating for a very long time, even as long as seven years. The topic of their sex lives never came up, so I do not have even anecdotal knowledge on this – which I think also speaks to the seemingly more pervasive taboo on sex. In a place where even wearing a tank top that covers your shoulders in public can be considered immodest, I can see how this could create challenges in trying to incorporate sex and reproductive health education into people’s lives.
Coming from Paris and into Jogjakarta (please see my previous blog) showed me the vastly different cultural landscapes of sex. It made me realize how big of an issue reproductive health is, and how much its implementation has to be patterned according to these landscapes.