Intersections: Body, Sexuality and Gender among Contemporary Indonesian Youth: Introduction
Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia nd the Pacific
Issue 18, October 2008

Body, Sexuality and Gender
among Contemporary Indonesian Youth

Lyn Parker and Linda Bennett

  1. This special issue of Intersections examines the lives and identities of Indonesian youth and adolescents, with particular focus on the body, sexuality and gender. Young people in Indonesia are spearheading, and having to cope with, dramatic social change, including democratisation and decentralisation, the globalisation of media and knowledge, economic insecurity and difficult economic times, and continuing Islamic revivalism The papers in this issue explore how young people are experiencing this social transformation, particularly through their bodies. However, these young bodies are not portrayed as the object upon which external forces are projected. Young people are portrayed as active agents, engaging with continuing as well as new discursive constructions of gender and sexuality. This special issue of Intersections grew out of a panel on 'Indonesian Youth Today: Body, Sexuality and Gender' at the 2006 ASAA Conference held in Wollongong. The panel was the first activity of a team Discovery Grant project on 'Ambivalent Adolescents in Indonesia' and was organised by Lyn Parker and Linda Bennett.
  2. The first paper, by Lyn Parker, was purposively written to theorise Indonesian adolescent sexuality. After reference to theorising about sexuality and adolescence in the West and elsewhere in Asia, the paper suggests that in Indonesia, 'something different' (Foucault) happens. Parker posits a sacred triangle of hetero-sexuality, marriage and reproduction as both the ideal and the norm to which adolescents in Indonesia aspire. Sex and gender are inextricably interwoven. Sexuality is almost always bound up with religious morality, though actual behaviours may subvert religious ideals. Assumptions of universal adolescent sexual experimentation and freedom are untenable for Indonesia, though in some circles there is a trend toward more liberal attitudes and behaviours. Despite a moral panic over adolescent sexuality and courting behaviours, public discourse on adolescence generally is warm and positive and adolescents are treasured as a national resource.
  3. In the second essay, Claire Harding critiques popular discourses on youth sexuality in contemporary Indonesia, identifying a critical gap between the knowledge that young Indonesians require of sexuality and reproduction, and popular representations of youth sexuality as deviant and dangerous. Harding offers an in-depth analysis of the moral panic associated with teen sexuality perpetuated in various Indonesian publications including Islamic buku panduan [guide books] and popular teen magazines. Her discussion also reveals how state laws and family planning posters serve to reinforce the notion that teen sexuality, and premarital sex in particular, are derived from the external influences of the 'decadent West' and globalisation. In the post-Soeharto era, media liberalisation has increased the access of Indonesian youth to uncensored media and to pornography in particular. Harding examines how the recent push towards an anti-pornography bill was represented by its supporters as necessary 'to protect the innocence of Indonesian children and teenagers from negative outside, particularly "Western", influences.' She concludes by arguing that the obsession with immorality and danger within dominant discourses on youth sexuality creates a barrier to the fulfilment of young people's rights to sex education and reproductive health services.
  4. Suzie Handajani examines representations of both Indonesian youth and the 'West' within Indonesian popular media. Specifically, Handajani focuses her discussion on images of young women within three teen magazines. She begins her essay by tracing the historical construction of Indonesian youth as a social group and establishes how the contemporary notion of 'remaja' (teenager) is fortified by teen magazines. Her analysis of idealised femininity within these magazines reveals how physical features such as skin (colour), height and eye colour, which mimic a Western appearance, are embodied in representations of young women. At the crux of her argument lie two critical observations. Firstly, the West is represented in a highly contradictory manner in these magazines. It is held up as the attractive hallmark of modernity, while at that same time denounced as the source of non-traditional, undesirable sexual morality. Secondly, Handajani reveals how young Indonesian women are the 'indicators of modernity' in these publications. They are represented as the guardians of 'personal life' invested with the moral ideals that society is unwilling to relinquish.
  5. Tracy Wright Webster picks up on the continuing theme of female identity in her exploration of gender and female same-sex subjectivities in Yogyakarta. Her analysis of same-sex subjectivity draws upon interviews with six women, three of whom have their experiences relayed within the text. As a precursor to her discussion of ethnographic data, Wright Webster provides an overview of hegemonic gender discourses in Java since the end of the New Order regime in 1998. Through her discussion of women's narratives she demonstrates how 'female same-sex subjectivities in Yogyakarta both reflect and resist the hegemonic gender discourse from which they take their meanings and through which sexual and gendered subjectivities are expressed and created.' She posits that the term 'lesbi' is a preferred descriptor among women who tend to see themselves as part of a wider international lesbian network. Her analysis of lesbi subjectivities also examines how gender complementarity is constructed in relation to the butchi/femme identities of her informants. While earlier research into butchi/femme identity in Jakarta suggested that this dichotomy was conceptualised in a more fluid manner than in the West, and implied 'a subversion of norms and playful use of roles and styles,'[1] Webster Wright posits that gender identities assumed by her research participants, particularly the butchi, appear to be relatively fixed. She concludes that the articulation of female same-sex subjectivities 'is predicated on education level, access to print media, and social networks,' as well as the global/ising discourses of sexuality and lesbianism accessed through mass media and increased mobility.
  6. Harriot Beazley writes about young women's participation in the world of dugem, the Indonesian dance party scene. She describes how global social processes have produced a dense, new, nocturnal space of clubs, bars and dance parties in Bali, providing young women with new opportunities for enjoyment and pleasure. Beazley views these clubs and parties as 'sites of liberation' for young women, where they can express new identities through glamorous, sexy dress, uninhibited body language, alcohol and drug consumption, choice of sexual partners and free conversation. They feel 'it is their own space, a place that gives them a feeling of belonging, and where they feel relatively safe.' Nevertheless, because this is still a society where young women are generally not allowed out at night, they have to take care not to jeopardise their reputations and eventual chances for marriage. Beazley argues that young women's behaviour in these new nocturnal spaces can be seen as 'geographies of resistance' to the ideological construction of Indonesian femininity in Indonesia.
  7. The final paper, by Iwu Utomo and Peter McDonald, is about changing sexual attitudes and behaviour among urban, middle class young people aged between 15 and 24 years. The authors find that the more committed a heterosexual relationship is towards marriage, the more intensive is the level of premarital sexual involvement. Attitudes toward premarital sex also appear to become more liberal as a relationship moves closer toward marriage, from dating to being engaged. Utomo and McDonald identify significant explanatory variables associated with premarital sexual attitudes and behaviour. These are values relating to gender roles within marriage, commitment to religious obligations (religiosity) and the degree of Western influence through popular media and entertainment forms.


    [1] Alison Murray, 'Let Them Take Ecstasy: Class and Jakarta Lesbians,' in Female Desires: Same-sex and Transgender Practices Across Cultures, ed. E. Blackwood & S. Wieringa, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 142.

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