Narratives of Agency: Sex Work in Indonesia’s Borderlands

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“Some people do this kind of work because they are forced to, but others do it because they want to live the high life,” said Lia earnestly, responding to a question about the prevalence of trafficking in the sex industry on Karimun, an island on the western edge of the Riau Archipelago in Indonesia.1 An extremely attractive young woman in her mid-twenties, Lia is the image of middle-class Indonesian respectability in her modern, loose-fitting clothes and bright colored jilbab (headscarf) modestly fastened over her head and shoulders. Her comment neatly sums up the dichotomous thinking that dominates both public and scholarly discussions about sex work in Indonesia. 2 According to this logic, sex workers are either forced into prostitution by circumstance (including instances of force or deception), or they freely choose to sell their bodies for financial gain.

Lia has lived in Karimun for more than a decade and is familiar with the circumstances that have given rise to a large sex industry on the island and elsewhere in the archipelago. The Riau Islands form the borderland between Singapore and Indonesia, at the periphery of the Indonesian state. The islands have been part of a growth triangle with Singapore and Malaysia since the early 1990s, resulting in large-scale foreign and joint-venture investment in manufacturing, tourism, transport, and service industries. An influx of migrant workers to the region, combined with the ease of travel from economically powerful Singapore, has created the conditions for the proliferation of vice industries such as sex work and gambling on many of the islands. The sex industry caters predominantly to men from nearby Singapore (and to a lesser extent Malaysia), and is fueled by geographical proximity, comparative cost, and the relative anonymity afforded by travel to a foreign country (Ford and Lyons 2008). Local islanders always say that sex workers come to the Riau Islands from other parts of Indonesia—from Sumatra, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi, but mainly from Java—and this is supported by our research.

While some scholars claim that women are trafficked to the Riau Islands following false promises of good jobs in factories or restaurants (Agustinanto 2003:179), activists from some local NGOs argue that many of the women who end up in the industry have previous experience as sex workers in Jakarta or elsewhere. Trafficked women attract some sympathy from the local community even as they endure continued public stigmatization. However, both groups are equally shunned, marginalized by a discourse that positions them as both victims and “immoral women” (wanita tuna susila, a common term for sex workers). But this does not mean that sex workers conceive of their lives only in oppressed terms. Attention to the local and historical specificities of sex work reveals that normative constructions of sexuality and gender are often partial (cf. Kempadoo 1999).

 Lia’s appearance and demeanor, in fact, belie her own experience. Her carefully crafted middle class persona is part of a deliberate strategy designed to distance herself from the stain of her past life as a sex worker. Even when talking with foreign researchers, she is initially careful about keeping to a socially approved script that positions her as a good wife and mother who was deceived and then trafficked into prostitution, a situation from which she eventually escaped. Reality, however, is much more complex. Later, Lia’s narrative changes to one of decisiveness and initiative, as she describes the personal qualities that have allowed her to shape her life during and after commercial sex. Lia’s story—like the stories of many of her former colleagues—demonstrates the choices and constraints that sex workers face as they actively seek alternative lives. Yet each of these stories is as individual as it is similar. Ani has also experienced life in Karimun’s brothels. Like Lia, she is now also a model of middle-class decorum. She, too, makes careful, strategic decisions about her new life in order to fit the image of a modern housewife. We meet far away from her home in a middle-class residential area of the city, beyond the gaze of prying neighbors.

Ani has consciously adjusted her lifestyle to suit her new neighborhood, copying the way her neighbors dress and talk and avoiding any actions that might draw attention to her past. But unlike Lia, in recalling her previous life as a sex worker, Ani frequently invokes a discourse of victimhood and immorality. Her story is nevertheless also a story of agency. Lia’s and Ani’s narratives raise questions about how we can theorize the “constrained choice to become a sex worker, without moralisingly declaring all sex work to be exploitation or violence against women” (Schotten 2005:230). The latter view is espoused by those writers who, writing from an abolitionist stance, argue that prostitution is the ultimate expression of male dominance and thus the cornerstone of all sexual exploitation (cf. Barry 1996). According to this argument, there is no place for sex workers to claim that their work is not harmful or alienating. Such a totalizing perspective provides little space for alternative accounts of the intersection between structure and agency and overlooks the ways in which women themselves understand and explain their life histories. The stories that Lia and Ani, two women who became labor migrants, then sex workers, and finally the wives of ex-clients, tell about their lives demonstrate these complexities and challenge commonsense understandings about women’s agency.



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