Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 26, August 2011

    Marginalisation of 'Immoral Women':
    Experiences of Young Women Street Sex Workers in Surabaya, Indonesia

    Hilary Gorman

  1. Rena is a young woman who earns a living from street sex work in Surabaya, Indonesia.[1] She works out of Wonokromo train station, a place that is described by other sex workers as scary and dangerous. For young women involved in the sex industry in Surabaya, those who work out of Wonokromo train station are at the bottom of the hierarchy; the pay is low and the conditions are poor. Rena waits to meet clients by the train tracks.[2] She has sexual intercourse with clients on top of pieces of newspaper that she has laid down on the ground. She then washes herself at the river and returns to her spot by the train tracks to wait for her next client. Rena is from a rural village where her parents work as farmers. She has never attended school and is illiterate. She lives in a rented room a few feet from the spot along the train tracks where she works. Her sparse room contains the few belongings that she owns. These include some articles of clothing, a mirror, a brush, a bottle of lotion and the thin mat on which she sleeps. The smell of urine drifts in from the dilapidated bathroom down the hall, and when it rains her roof leaks. Rena lives and works in fear. She is afraid that she will not be paid the Rp. 25.000 ($2.50 USD) that she charges her clients, but she is also petrified of being caught by the police. If she is caught she will likely have to pay a bribe of at least Rp. 50.000 ($5 USD) and possibly face police brutality and detention. Rena struggles to make ends meet and to send money home. She has been working at Wonokromo station for three years, and has never used a condom when having sex with a client.
  2. Women like Rena who engage in sex work are socially marginalised at the outset because they defy the socially constructed gender norms of what it means to be a 'good' woman in Indonesian society. In most patriarchal societies there is a strict dichotomy defining the boundaries of what it means to be a 'good' or 'bad' woman. 'Good' women are virgins, chaste and moral. 'Bad' women are whores, licentious and immoral.[3] The image of the 'immoral woman' or the 'whore' disciplines and divides women by 'forcing some to conform to virginity, domesticity, and monogamy and demonizing those who transgress boundaries.'[4] Kamala Kempadoo asserts that 'female sexual acts that serve women's sexual or economic interests are, within the context of masculinist hegemony, dangerous, immoral, perverted, irresponsible and indecent.'[5] Sex workers' behaviour falls outside of societal boundaries, hence they are marginalised and stigmatised as 'bad' women and, as Erving Goffman notes, a person who is stigmatised 'is thus reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one.'[6] Stigmatisation often leads to moral exclusion. Moral exclusion occurs when the harm that is inflicted on people who are perceived to be outside the scope of justice is rationalised. People who are perceived to be outside the boundaries of justice are viewed as unworthy of fairness or resources and seen as expendable, undeserving, or exploitable.[7] Thus 'disadvantage, hardship and exploitation inflicted on them seems normal, acceptable, and just-as "the way things are" or the way they "ought to be."'[8] In this paper, it is argued that marginalisation of street-based sex workers in Surabaya leads to their moral exclusion. Street sex workers exclusion from the scope of justice makes the oppression they experience, in the form of sexual and physical violence, exploitation, police harassment, poor access to health services, low rates of condom use and high risk of exposure to sexually transmitted infections (STI) including HIV seem acceptable.

    Structural violence
  3. In short, this paper uses the broad concept of structural violence to describe the effects of marginalisation and moral exclusion on young women street sex workers' health, everyday lives and life chances. Structural violence is a process by which a lower quality of life and unequal life chances are imposed upon marginalised people and made to seem 'just the way things are.'[9] Structural violence does not injure or harm people directly, rather it is a subtle form of violence that occurs when people are marginalised in society and systematically ignored and denied their rights and access to resources.
  4. The term structural violence has been used by Johan Galtung,[10] Nancy Scheper-Hughes,[11] and Paul Farmer[12] to emphasise the difficulty of laying blame for violence that is indirect and naturalised. As Schepher-Hughes poignantly notes about the poor, 'structural violence “naturalises” poverty, sickness, hunger, and premature death, erasing their social and political origins so that they are taken for granted and no one is held accountable except the poor themselves.'[13] Structural violence produces unnecessary injury, trauma and suffering, and ultimately renders certain people 'expendable non-persons.'[14] Because structural violence is part of everyday life, it is normalised and is therefore difficult to recognise. In Indonesia, for example, high maternal mortality rates, deaths due to unsafe abortion, rapidly increasing rates of HIV among injecting drug users, and high rates of STI among sex workers are examples of the outcomes of structural violence.
  5. This paper focuses on sex work in Surabaya specifically because of the structural and social conditions that are present in contemporary urban Indonesia. These conditions are highly influenced by pervasive poverty that affects entry into and conditions of the sex trade. Street sex workers' lives are also influenced by strictly defined gender expectations based on cultural norms, state ideologies and religious ideals, which marginalise and stigmatise sex workers. Two case studies profile the experiences of young women engaged in street sex work in Surabaya. These case studies aid in understanding how poverty, state gender ideologies and public moralities cause suffering in the lives of those who are excluded within Indonesian society. This paper illustrates the outcomes of structural violence as exhibited through street sex workers' experiences of violence, trauma, police harassment and poor sexual and reproductive health. In particular, it aims to show how Indonesian gender ideals and public moralities make the outcomes of structural violence seem acceptable and less like social injustice.

    Sex work in Indonesia
  6. In Indonesia, female sex workers are commonly referred to as 'immoral women' (wanita tuna susila).[15] Yet, poverty is the most significant factor influencing women's entry into the sex trade in contemporary Indonesia.[16] Indonesian social and moral codes require that children, particularly female children, provide economic support for their families.[17] Earnings from sex work allow women from backgrounds of low socio-economic standing to fulfil their critical social obligation of supporting their parents, siblings, or children until they are themselves married.[18] As one study noted, the financial contribution of sex workers is considered to be an 'expression of love to their parents' irrespective of how it is earned.[19]
  7. Sex work in Indonesia takes place in regulated state-sanctioned brothel zones (lokalisasi), illegal brothels (that are outside of state control), discos, karaoke bars, massage parlours and street locations. Alison Murray argues that in the capital, Jakarta, the bottom of the hierarchy of sex work is found within lokalisasi,[20] yet Gavin Jones, Terence Hull and Endang Sulistyaningsih argue that the bottom range of sex work takes place at street locations.[21] The category of street-based sex workers includes those who work from the streets, slum areas, parks, railway lines and cemeteries.[22] The prices and conditions of work are particularly poor at street locations. Generally, street-based sex workers are at higher risk of violence, exploitation and risk of exposure to STI because the client nearly always has control of the transaction, the rate of pay is low, there are low rates of condom use, they have high client turnover, and it is illegal.[23]
  8. The rates of STI among sex workers in Indonesia are extremely high, and noted as the highest recorded among Asian countries.[24] The key factors contributing to the high STI rates include low rates of condom use and inadequate sexual and reproductive health services. According to the Integrated Biological-Behavioural Surveillance (IBBS) among Most-at-Risk (MARG) in Indonesia, 2007, across Indonesia the prevalence of HIV and other STI is nearly always significantly higher among direct sex workers (those who are based at brothel and street locations) compared to indirect sex workers (those working at massage parlours, karaoke bars, cafes, etc.).[25] The IBBS, 2007, also found that in East Java province[26] 36 per cent of direct sex workers and 29 per cent of indirect sex workers had at least one STI (either syphilis, gonorrhoea, or chlamydia).[27] More specifically, in East Java Province the following STI prevalence was found among direct female sex workers: syphilis 5 per cent, gonorrhoea 15.8 per cent and chlamydia 20.2 per cent. STI prevalence among indirect female sex workers was: syphilis 0.9 per cent, gonorrhoea 7.8 per cent and chlamydia 23.9 per cent. Unprotected sex between sex workers and their clients is the second most common route of HIV transmission in Indonesia, after injecting drug use.[28] At the country level, in 2007 HIV prevalence was found to be: 10.4 per cent among direct sex workers, 4.6 per cent among indirect sex workers and 0.8 per cent among clients of sex workers.[29] In East Java Province, HIV prevalence was 6.5 per cent among direct sex workers and 2.4 per cent among indirect sex workers.[30] Table 1 shows the steady increase in the overall HIV prevalence among sex workers in Surabaya between the years 2001 and 2004,[31] and demonstrates that HIV prevalence is three times higher among street-based sex workers compared to brothel-based sex workers. Within Indonesian society, sex workers have long been viewed as vectors of STI and have been blamed for the spread of HIV.[32] The association of HIV and sex work has served to reinforce their marginalisation.

      2001 2002 2003 2004
    Street-based sex workers 6.3% 4.4% 9.1% 12.2%
    Brothel-based sex workers 1.3% 1.5% 3.6% 3.8%

    Table 1. HIV Prevalence among sex workers in Surabaya[33]

  9. Sexual and reproductive health services are difficult for single young Indonesian women to access, particularly those who are involved in street sex work. Young women who migrate from rural areas often lack a national identity card (Kartu Tanda Penduduk) that grants them access to free health services. General practitioners offer limited sexual and reproductive health services and lack equipment and facilities for STI and HIV testing and treatment. While specialist health services are very expensive and beyond the economic means of most Indonesians. As well, public sexual and reproductive health services are designated for married women and require a marriage certificate as proof of being married. Linda Rae Bennett has extensively documented the sexual and reproductive health experiences of single Indonesian women including those who are able to access these services. She has found that they often receive poor quality services and are judged and mistreated by health workers, which deters them from seeking further treatment.[34] Some lokalisasi-based sex workers have access to sexual and reproductive health services, within lokalisasi zones that are specially intended for them, as most sex workers do not want to utilise general services for fear of facing discrimination from health workers. Young women street sex workers who are often single and generally migrants face major challenges in accessing any sort of sexual and reproductive health services.
  10. The state plays a key role in regulating the sex industry in Indonesia. The state is primarily concerned with public health and maintaining social order. State-sanctioned brothel-based sex work is regulated by state authorities through the lokalisasi system. Brothels that operate outside of the lokalisasi system are considered to be illegal. Lokalisasi are accepted as they are considered to be less offensive than street sex work, yet the government has failed to remove laws that prohibit pimping. The result is that this system has 'turned the government into a pimp, while not eliminating the growth of a large unregulated section of the industry.'[35] Although there are no national laws prohibiting the sale of sex, street sex work is prohibited by regional regulations that 'prohibit soliciting and loitering in the street because this hinders the creation and maintenance of "clean" cities, and streetwalkers are perceived as an affront to the community.'[36]
  11. Sex work outside of the lokalisasi system, especially street-based sex work, is controlled by police forces. Indonesian police forces have a strong affiliation with the military and possess authority, although they are underpaid, under-trained and under-equipped.[37] As a result, the police are often susceptible to corruption and use of unnecessary force.[38] When street sex workers are arrested they may face police violence or they may be forced to accept rape to avoid punishment.[39] When street sex workers are caught by the police they have to show their identity cards and are usually only allowed to go after paying a bribe of Rp. 50.000 ($5 USD) or Rp. 100.000 ($10 USD) during Ramadan.[40] Otherwise, they are arrested and taken to a 'Rehabilitation Centre for Immoral Women' where they may have to spend between one and eight months being re-socialised to become 'good' women.[41] Police raids are frequently conducted at street sex-work locations to satisfy public discontent with sex work. Yet these raids are described as a symbolic act to create the impression that the state is responding to public concerns.[42] When authorities take action to reform the sex industry they tend to blame sex workers and pay little attention to pimps and others who benefit from sex industries.[43] In addition to economic conditions and state regulation, state gender ideology and public moralities also shape the experiences of young women street sex workers.

    State gender ideology
  12. The Indonesian state has long played an active role in shaping national gender ideologies. Its actions have been widely studied and criticised by academics who describe deployment of gender in state ideology as a form of oppression.[44] State gender ideology 'refers to the assumptions about gender on which the state acts and the way it attempts to influence the construction of gender in society.'[45] During the New Order period (1965–1998) the Indonesian state set out on the task of rapid economic development and promoted specific gender roles to foster the development process and stabilise the nation by producing 'normal' reproductive citizens. Ideal gender roles were inculcated in the Indonesian psyche through the education system, government organisations, state-controlled media, speeches by politicians and religious organisations.[46] The state produced policies that focused on women's role in the domestic realm and promoted the (bourgeois) nuclear family, the submissive role of women, motherhood and subdued female sexuality as ideal social norms.[47]
  13. Despite the change of state power in 1998, New Order state ideologies remain embedded in the national psyche. While studying the lives of street kids in the city of Yogyakarta, Harriot Beazley asked male and female street kids to describe what is expected of young women by Indonesian society. They answered:

      Women in Indonesia cannot go out after 9:30 in the evening, they cannot go where they please, they cannot drink alcohol, they cannot smoke, they cannot have sex before marriage, they cannot wear 'sexy' clothes and they cannot leave the house without permission. They must be good, nice, kind, and helpful, and stay at home to do domestic chores and to look after their children or younger siblings.[48]

  14. The children's detailed description of women's role shows how state gender ideology is internalised from a young age. It also demonstrates that, despite the fact that street kids are considered to be a marginalised group in Indonesian society, they too understand and have internalised these ideals. Furthermore, it demonstrates the pervasiveness of state gender ideology and how strictly defined the idealised role of a woman is: she cannot go out late in the evening or engage in socially unacceptable behaviour; her personal freedom is limited; and she must be 'kind' and motherly.

    Public moralities
  15. Religious values, particularly Islamic religious values, play an important role in defining public moralities and ideals related to sexuality, especially female sexuality. These values and mores influence the way in which sex workers are viewed in society. Virginity, heterosexual marriage and motherhood are important religious and cultural values that define Indonesian female sexuality. Notions of purity are used to emphasise the social importance of female virginity and also to condemn the sexual stigma associated with premarital sex.[49] The Islamic notion of illicit sex (zina)[50] plays an important role in socially regulating sexuality.[51] In Indonesia, zina is seen as an important Islamic teaching and as a source of maintaining family honour and community order.[52] Although the notion of zina prescribes that sex should be limited to marriage, a sexual double standard exists which grants men greater sexual freedom than women.[53] Women who commit zina are scorned, seen to be lacking morals, and viewed as a source of shame to their families.[54] Men who have premarital sex, men who engage in extra-marital liaisons and men who buy sex go against the Islamic moral code. Yet, as Bennett notes 'in reality zina for men is not condemned or punished, but is often ignored or tolerated.'[55] Hence, the double standard of sexual norms means that women sex workers receive a greater share of the blame as it is socially unacceptable for them to disobey norms by committing zina.
  16. Indonesian state gender ideologies and public moralities are interrelated and function together to define ideals of sexual and moral propriety and create an image of the ideal woman. In Surabaya, during the holy month of Ramadan and the weeks surrounding Independence Day, brothels are closed and street sex work is made nearly impossible. During these periods of increased religious devotion and dedicated nationalism, the constraints of poverty and marginalisation felt by street sex workers are particularly strong. Yet street sex workers remain targets of discrimination throughout the year at least in part because they fall short of societal ideals.

    Setting: Surabaya
  17. Surabaya is the second largest city in Indonesia with a population of approximately three million people. The locations and contexts in which sex work takes place in Surabaya are extremely varied; sex workers' conditions of work and experiences also vary significantly. There are high-priced call girls who free lance and hostesses that work at exclusive men's clubs. Sex work also takes place in an organised fashion in five lokalisasi catering to men of different incomes. Many sex workers work out of less public locations such as discos, karaoke bars and massage parlours. There are also many street locations throughout the city where street sex workers wait to meet clients. Street-based sex workers earn varying amounts of money depending on their age and where they work. Younger women and transvestites (waria) often work out of a train station called Wonokromo and older women and older waria work out of a cemetery near the city centre, earning the lowest amounts of money. At Rp. 25.000 ($2.50 USD) or less per client, those who work at street locations such as Wonokromo earn less than a quarter of what mid-level brothel workers earn and about 30 times less than what the average call girl earns per client.

  18. This paper is based on fieldwork that I conducted in the city of Surabaya from May to September 2007. Various facets of the fieldwork were supported by Surabaya Hotline, a sex work and HIV- and AIDS-focused Indonesian non-government organisation (NGO). Participant observation was carried out to gain a deeper understanding of sex work and the conditions of sex workers' lives. To be able to conduct participant observation at street locations and recruit participants, I worked with two insider research assistants and spent many nights out 'going around' (jalan-jalan) visiting street locations where sex is sold. Another aspect of participant observation involved my living in the second office of Surabaya Hotline in the Bangunsari lokalisasi. Living in a deprived neighbourhood such as Bangunsari provided me with a number of opportunities: to live with one of my female research assistants and several other women formerly involved in sex work who were now outreach workers; to meet younger and older sex workers; to be immersed in the language (Indonesian and Javanese); to be closer to the sites where I planned to conduct research; and to observe and better understand the everyday lives of sex workers and impoverished Indonesians.
  19. In-depth interviews were conducted with sixteen respondents who were street-based, lokalisasi, or disco sex workers. Multiple in-depth interviews were held with six young women between the ages of 18 and 24 who mainly worked from street locations[56] and these women became the core participant group.[57] I conducted the interviews in the Indonesian language and they were tape-recorded, and later transcribed and translated into English.[58] The participants shared a number of common factors in their lives. In general the core participants were from small towns and rural villages in the province of East Java and had migrated to Surabaya to seek out better employment opportunities. All of the participants were ethnically Javanese and all were Muslim. Most of them had boyfriends, although some identified themselves as single, and one had been married but was now divorced. On average their gross income was between Rp. 500.000 and 900.000 ($50–90) per month from sex work. But they had expenses such as rent (Rp.150.000), food (Rp.150.000), police bribes (Rp.50.000–150.00) and approximately 20 per cent of their earnings went to pimps (Rp.100.000–180.000). They also needed money to buy clothes and make-up to maintain their appearance. They said that most of the time they did not have much money left to send home.

    Experiences of young women street sex workers in Surabaya
  20. The case studies of Siti and Fatimah reveal the impact of marginalisation on the lives of young women street sex workers. Siti is a rebel girl. Her story shows the impact of marginalisation through police harassment that has resulted in her downward mobility within the sex industry. In contrast, Fatimah is meek and mild. Fatimah's story illustrates the struggles that she has had with the gender ideologies which she has deeply internalised, but is unable to meet. Due to the necessity of undertaking sex work to earn a living and fulfil moral obligations, these young women did not adhere to societal expectations.

    Siti : 'There were so many police, so I ran away.'
  21. Siti is twenty-five years old and from Surabaya. She wears trendy clothes: flared jeans with massive pockets and platform sandals are her trademark. She smokes constantly and speaks in a cool, matter-of-fact tone. In the past, she worked out of street and disco locations and is now based at Wonokromo train station. She spends her evenings and nights by the train tracks waiting to meet clients. She is the seventh of seven children. Her father passed away and her mother works in a low paying job. She quit school when she was thirteen years old. She said, 'There are two reasons why I dropped out of school. First, me and my family did not have money to keep paying school fees. Second, I became naughty and started to go with the naughty kids.' After she quit school she worked at a factory for three months but then she lost her job and she decided to just hang around. She started drinking, doing drugs, having sex with different men and was 'just having fun.' She became involved in sex work through a boyfriend. She says of her entry into sex work: 'Those sins came about because I had to find money, sometimes for my mother, sometimes for my own fun, sometimes for buying this and that.' She is well aware that having sex for money is sinful according to Indonesian social and religious norms.
  22. Siti is also aware of the structural constraints that she faced. When I asked her what her hopes and dreams were when she finished school, she stated,

      Actually I have (dreams) but you know, how it is…Ya I have (dreams), but still I have to think about my needs…Where can I work? Finding work is hard. I really want to work in a hotel or something, but is that gonna happen? Ya, it is hard to find a job nowadays.

    Siti acknowledged the constraints that she faced in finding work that payed a decent wage. These constraints were posed by her limited education and the fact that she lived in a country with high rates of poverty and unemployment. She quit school because the fees made it inaccessible. When faced with a situation where she had very limited opportunities she was persuaded by her circumstances to have sex for money to be able to provide for herself and to fulfil her social obligations.
  23. Siti first started working at Bambu Runcing street location when she was eighteen years old. At this location young men work as pimps for young women and girls. For each act she would earn around Rp. 100.000 ($10 USD) and she would service between two and four clients per night. Then she started working at Kowloon, a huge disco that is popular with freelance sex workers. At Kowloon she would normally have one client per night and she would earn around Rp. 150.000 ($15 USD), although there were nights when she was unable to find clients. When she would meet clients at these two locations she would go with them to a hotel 'to have sex.' She said that working at the disco was both fun and work, while working at the street was just work.
  24. Siti's fear of the police influenced where she wanted to live and work. She said that police raids occurred throughout the year, but they occurred more frequently during the months in which Independence Day and Ramadan are celebrated. When Siti worked at Bambu Runcing and Kowloon she serviced fewer clients and made more money. Yet, frequent police raids caused her to 'run away' to Wonokromo as she was afraid of being detained by the police. Although the police remained a threat at Wonokromo, they were less of a threat than at the other places she had worked. Siti's fear of the police caused her to move from a location where she earned Rp.150.00 ($15 USD) per client to a place where she earned Rp.25.000 ($2.50 USD) per client.
  25. When Wonokromo station was mentioned in conversation, people almost always responded 'dangerous!' (bahaya!). Wonokromo station was viewed as dangerous because people associated it with violent criminal networks, drugs and sex. At the time of the interview, Siti lived and worked in the Wonokromo area. She stayed in a boarding house that costs Rp. 150.000 ($15 USD) per month. At Wonokromo Siti took between four and five clients per day, when they were available. The price was set at Rp. 25.000 ($2.50 USD) per encounter. She would wait by the train tracks and then go with her clients to have sex on a mat on the ground somewhat covered by a tent-like apparatus placed in the darker areas around the train tracks. It was routine for clients to pay after sex, but sometimes she has had problems as the client would run away without paying or they would ask for sex for free. She often had arguments with clients. In some instances the clients became violent, especially when she resisted performing oral or anal sex.
  26. Siti's knowledge of sexual health was limited, and much of the knowledge that she had was inaccurate and potentially harmful to her sexual health. For example, she thought that HIV was only transmitted through anal sex. She also thought that you could only be exposed to STI by mixing with people who are 'dirty;' by dirty she was referring to Indonesians with darker skin from Eastern Indonesia. She viewed Eastern Indonesians as a source of STI but not people who are ethnically Javanese, like her. Siti understood that condoms offer protection from STI but stated that overall she rarely used them because clients prefer not to use them. She received contraceptive injections to prevent pregnancy and took over-the-counter antibiotics as she thought that they would prevent her from contracting an STI. She did not like to go to the doctor as she thought that it is too expensive and felt uncomfortable trying to access sexual health services. During an interview she expressed concerns that there was something wrong with her and described symptoms of having an STI. She eventually travelled cross the city to access a sexual health clinic for sex workers located within a lokalisasi. Siti was diagnosed with multiple STI, but her HIV test was negative.
  27. Siti's case shows how as a street sex worker she had been traumatised by her experiences with the police to the point that she was willing to earn less money, take more clients and live under harsher conditions to lessen the threat of being punished by the police. Siti was denied the privilege of police protection and lived in constant fear of being arrested or harassed by the police. Of all the young women interviewed, Siti was the only one who said that she liked doing sex work some of the time. She said:

      I decided to do this work because I didn't know how else to get money. Sometimes I like doing it and I like that I can buy things. Also, I like the freedom and independence. So sometimes I like doing this, although there are also times when I don't like doing it.

  28. As she described her hopes and dreams for the future and she said: 'I want to become a good housewife and find work that is halal.'[59] The discussion of Siti's thoughts on sex work and what she wanted for the future occurred in succession during the interview session. Thus, within a short space of time, she noted the aspects of sex work that she enjoyed but then went on to state that what she really wants for the future is to be a housewife and find work that is acceptable according to religious and social ideals because, as she herself noted, the work that she does is sinful. This shows how Siti lives in defiance of state and religious ideals of what it means to be a 'good' Indonesian woman, but has simultaneously internalised these ideals and hopes to be able to meet these ideals in the future.

    Fatimah: 'I feel forced to have sex without a condom.'
  29. Unlike Siti, Fatimah appeared to have a more difficult time coming to terms with her status as a sex worker. Fatimah was twenty years old and from a village a few hours away from Surabaya. She has worked at disco locations and at the time of the interview was working at the Embong Malang street location. Embong Malang is a busy street in central Surabaya lined with shopping malls and fancy hotels. At night street-side food and drink stalls are set up along the sidewalks where people hang out. Fatimah was based at one of these stalls and spent her nights there waiting for clients.
  30. Fatimah quit school at the age of twelve to help her parents who are farmers. She was the eldest of five siblings. She wanted to be able to earn money to help her younger brother go to school, so she moved to Surabaya and got a job as a housekeeper. She says:

      I used to live in my village until I dropped out of school (at the elementary level). At first I was a housemaid but my boss was always getting mad and yelling at me, so I left. I ran away and was helped by a woman. This woman told me about the disco and she said working at the disco is good for helping your parents.

    Fatimah said that she became involved in sex work 'because of the economy and because I want to please my parents.' She planned to return home for end of Ramadan celebration (Hari Raya), she said:

      Yes (I will return) at Hari Raya…if I don't return the thing is my parents need to have the electricity bill paid. I pay for all of that…I am the first child. All my brothers and sisters are my responsibility.

  31. Fatimah felt an especially strong responsibility to help her parents as she was the eldest child, a daughter and a migrant working in the city. It was her social and moral obligation to provide for her family. Many of the young women articulated the importance of returning home with money and gifts, especially for Hari Raya. They said that they would not return if they did not have money and gifts to give because they would feel ashamed. Fatimah described the impact of poverty on her life; it had limited her education and limited her employment options.
  32. Fatimah had been doing sex work for about two years. She has had many traumatic encounters with clients working at disco and street locations. She has experienced physical and sexual violence. When asked about her negative experiences with clients she stated,

      Sometimes I have problems with rough sex (with clients)… I want to cry out, but it's too late I've already been paid. So he asks for service…he wants to do it again. Even though I don't want to, I do it anyway. Sometimes we are also hit or slapped around.

  33. Fatimah referred to an issue that many of the other participants also noted: some clients would pay for one sex act, but then want more. Clients were supposed to pay for each sex act, but some tried to take advantage of the situation. So she would, for example, have sex with them a second time in order to make sure that she received payment for the first time because sometimes if they were dissatisfied they would not pay or they would ask for their money back. She said that she felt 'forced, because those people are mean so I think, I need money…I just let them be mean and I service them [again].'
  34. Another issue that the young women faced was being required to service more than one client and being taken to remote unknown locations. Fatimah stated,

      Normally if there are two guys they will get two girls to go with them. But one time we were brought far away, like to Gresik [a Surabaya suburb]…we were taken there, then there were six clients waiting for us, so me and my friend ran away to the forest.

    She said that these types of events were not unusual. Sometimes when she did not manage to run away the result was group rape. Other women noted that that they too have had similar experiences of rape and that sexual violence was a risk they faced when they went off with clients.
  35. As Fatimah's story shows, she often had a limited influence in negotiating the terms of sex. She rarely used condoms as she found that clients did not like to use them. She said that,

      We say that it will prevent illness, but he says he will find another girl…He says it is not nice to have sex with a condom…he has already paid money and if he uses a condom he will not get his money's worth. But, if I am with foreigners they always use condoms but Javanese and Chinese they don't want to use them.

    While discussing this issue again during a subsequent interview, Fatimah expressed her concerns about condom use: 'Foreigners want to use condoms and people from Eastern Indonesia sometimes. But Javanese don't want to and I feel forced to have sex without a condom…How will I eat tomorrow [if I say “no"]?' Fatimah felt she did not have a choice in using condoms with the Javanese men who made up the majority of her client base, and she related this to the challenge of meeting her basic needs.
  36. The impact of marginalisation was also affecting Fatimah's health. She was concerned that her lack of condom use may have an impact on her life in the future. During an interview when she was given information about sexual health and sexual-health services in Surabaya, she read though the information and then began to discuss her health concerns. She described how she had gone to the doctor a few months ago with STI symptoms. She did not have a vaginal examination done or blood tests and she was simply treated with an injection of antibiotics. In other words, she received poor quality health services as the screening and diagnosis services were inadequate and the treatment was either ineffective or she was re-infected by a sexual partner. Fatimah stressed that she thought that she had an STI again as she was experiencing symptoms and was very concerned that she would not be able to get pregnant in the future as a result of having an untreated STI which could leave her infertile. For the last six months she had not been using any form of contraception and had been sexually active, but had not become pregnant. She became distressed and went on to say, 'What about with a husband? I am scared that I can't get pregnant and, if I can't get pregnant, a husband would definitely leave me if I could not have a child.' She wanted to get married and felt that her role as a wife was to have children. As she described what her hopes and dreams were for the future; she said: 'I want to stop (sex work) …I want to be a good housewife.' Fatimah's relies on sex work for her own subsistence and to meet social obligations. Yet, the effect of her untreated STI, may well prevent her realising her dreams of being able to achieve the idealised role of mother and wife in the future.
  37. Siti and Fatimah's stories both show the way in which multiple forms of marginalisation are interrelated. For Siti, social marginalisation in the form of police threats and harassment led to increasingly downward mobility in work locations. Thus Siti was further economically marginalised and remained socially marginalised. As a woman also living in the margins, Fatimah experienced threats, physical violence, sexual violence and poor sexual and reproductive health. Her sense of sadness and the anxieties that she experienced were largely linked to her experiences as a sex worker and the negative consequences of those experiences.

    Marginalisation: poverty, 'immoral women' and gender inequality
  38. Young women street sex workers in Indonesia are marginalised as 'bad women,' hence the injustice they face is often readily accepted. I will discuss how marginalisation occurs in economic, moral and gender realms and how poverty, moral exclusion and gender oppression are particularly important outcomes of social marginalisation. Poverty often influences young women's entry into the sex trade and both Siti and Fatimah noted economic need and family obligations as reasons for quitting school and becoming involved in sex work. This study noted the contradiction that in satisfying the norm of being dutiful daughters and contributing to the support of their parents, they disobey norms surrounding moral propriety. Yet street-based sex work offered no escape from the constraints of poverty and these women often faced punishment as alleged 'immoral women.'
  39. Poverty and social marginalisation also limit their access to quality sexual and reproductive health services. Siti was deterred by the cost of health services and felt uncomfortable using services intended for the married women, but eventually accessed a sexual health clinic for lokalisasi-based sex workers. Fatimah received inadequate services and experienced recurrent STI, which may well have caused her to become infertile. In order to access health services sufficient to diagnose and treat STI they must see a specialist which costs significantly more than a visit to a public clinic. Adequate health services are financially inaccessible. Siti and Fatimah experience entrenched poverty as they are denied access to education, decent employment opportunities and affordable quality health services.
  40. In Indonesia, public moralities stress that sexual conduct is viewed as a measure of one's 'moral integrity and, to some extent, the legitimacy of the state.'[60] Sex workers are seen as lacking in moral integrity and as social deviants; hence, the state actively seeks to control and discipline them. The police target sex workers outside of lokalisasi. Street police officers are granted significant authority by the state and are assigned the role of keeping the streets clean. As, Esthi Susanti, the director of Surabaya Hotline, explained the police conduct raids to find and remove street sex workers because 'they break the rule of the beautification of the city.'[61] Similarly, Beazley noted that, the Indonesian state and society disapprove of street children, who are also viewed as deviants, because they are seen as a 'defilement of the city landscape' and 'they do not conform to the image of a modern progressive nation that the state wishes to portray.'[62] The presence of sex workers in the streets causes moral anxiety within society. The police are a tool utilised by the state to enforce ideologies that function to marginalise and remove street sex workers and the immorality, economic deficiency and lack of development that they are seen to represent.
  41. Marginalisation also occurs in the gender realm as sex workers fall short of deeply engrained gender expectations. The women interviewed were well aware of societal norms of being a 'good' woman by being a wife who meets societal social and religious ideals. Many of the young women describe these ideals as their future hopes and dreams. Siti referred to her sins and desire to find work that is halal. Fatimah referred to her wish to stop sex work, become a good housewife and have children. Despite their awareness of these ideals, the sex workers I interviewed did not meet many of these expectations. They all went out at night to work, they often went where they pleased without permission, most of them wore sexy clothes and some of them smoked and drank. Contradictions in morality are made apparent by the way in which these young women understood that they were committing acts that went against social and religious norms yet they also described how they strived to be good and helpful to their families. They simultaneously defied and in some cases rejected gender norms and notions of moral propriety but at the same time they also longed to conform. Despite efforts to be dutiful daughters, their defiance meant that they suffered the consequences of being classed as 'immoral women.'
  42. Gender norms not only impacted on the way in which these women perceived themselves and went about their lives, they also impacted on their interactions with clients. For example, the matter of negotiating condom use with their clients was likely not only influenced by gender inequality which limits women's power, but also by state and religious ideologies that reinforce women's submission to male authority. Gender inequality similarly restricts their ability to avert violence and abuse. The influence of gender inequality and state and religious ideologies are not separate but rather interrelated factors which serve to reinforce the marginalisation of sex workers. In other words, gender inequality and patriarchal norms are embedded in state, cultural and religious ideologies. Gender inequality and male dominance are promoted through social norms and public moralities and were consequently re-enacted between sex workers and their clients which restricted the participants' autonomy in their interactions with clients.

  43. This paper has shown how contradictions in morality compel young women from impoverished backgrounds to meet the moral obligation of supporting their families, yet those who achieve this through engaging in street sex work challenge notions of sexual and moral propriety and are subsequently punished. Young women street sex workers are excluded from the scope of justice and the violence, abuse and exploitation inflicted by clients, pimps and the police are generally ignored and rarely condemned, which reinforces the social marginalisation they experience. As well, constricted access to and low quality of sexual and reproductive health services combined with low rates of condom use lead to poor health outcomes for street sex workers. As the notion of structural violence suggests, the oppression the women experience due to their involvement in the sex industry becomes naturalised. The moral and social expectations which require low income women to choose between supporting themselves and their families and stepping outside of acceptable gender norms is sufficiently far removed so that the women's greater exposure to violence, trauma and ill health does not seem unjust, but rather a logical outcome of their breaking codes of moral propriety.
  44. The stories of young women like Rena, Siti and Fatimah show that marginalisation and structural violence are inextricably linked. Structural violence is a form of social injustice that renders the marginalised as expendable non-persons. When sex workers cease to be viewed solely as 'immoral women' but rather as human beings then perhaps they will begin to be included within the scope of justice. This paper has shown that by listening to the voices of street sex workers it is possible to gain a better understanding of the structural forces that permeate many aspects of their lives. It has also shown that poverty, gender norms and public moralities marginalise these young women so intensely that meeting their own daily needs is a greater and more immediate concern than protecting themselves from HIV and other STI.


    [1] I gratefully acknowledge the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives at University of Victoria and the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at University of Victoria for helping to fund the project on which this article is based. I would also like to sincerely thank the staff of Surabaya Hotline, particularly Esthi Susanti for sponsoring this project. I would like to offer thanks for the support provided by: my able research assistants Anis and Abdul Aziz; Kate Vallance for her feedback and my thesis supervisor Dr. Leslie Butt. Lastly, my deepest gratitude goes to the young women that shared their stories with me in Surabaya.

    [2] Pseudonyms are used to protect identities of the research participants.

    [3] Kamala Kempadoo, 'Introduction: globalizing sex workers' rights,' in Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance, and Redefinition, ed. Kamala Kempadoo and Jo Doezema, New York: Routlege, 1998, pp. 1–27.

    [4] Kempadoo, 'Introduction: globalizing sex workers' rights,' p. 6.

    [5] Kempadoo, 'Introduction: globalizing sex workers' rights,' p. 5.

    [6] Erving Goffman, Stigma and the Management of Spoiled Identity, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1963, p. 3.

    [7] Susan Opotow, 'Social injustice,' in Peace, Conflict, and Violence: Peace Psychology for the 21st Century, ed. Daniel Christie, Richard Wagner and Deborah Winter, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001, pp. 102–09.

    [8] Opotow, 'Social injustice,' p. 103.

    [9] Susan Opotow, 'Reconciliation in times of impunity: challenges for social justice,' in Social Justice Research, vol. 14, no. 2 (2001): 149–70; Nancy Scheper-Hughes, 'Dangerous and endangered youth: social structures and determinants of violence,' in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 1036, no. 1 (2004): 13–46.

    [10] Johan Galtung, 'Violence, peace, and peace research,' in Journal of Peace Research, vol. 6, no. 3 (1969): 167–91.

    [11] Scheper-Hughes, 'Dangerous and endangered youth.'

    [12] Paul Farmer, Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003; and Paul Farmer, 'An anthropology of structural violence,' in Current Anthropology, vol. 45 (2004): 305–25.

    [13] Scheper-Hughes, 'Dangerous and endangered youth,' p. 13.

    [14] Scheper-Hughes, 'Dangerous and endangered youth.'

    [15] Gavin Jones, Endang Sulistyaningsih and Terence Hull, Prostitution in Indonesia: Its History and Evolution, Jakarta: Pustaka Sinar Harapan, 1999; Karen Kroeger, 'AIDS rumors, imaginary enemies, and the body politic in Indonesia,' in American Ethnologist, vol. 30, no. 2 (2003): 243–57; Allison Murray, 'Dying for a fuck: AIDS in Indonesia,' in Pink Fits: Sex, Subcultures andDiscourses in the Asia-Pacific, ed. Allison Murray, Clayton: Monash Asia Institute, 2001, pp. 27–42, p. 29.

    [16] Michele Ford & Lenore Lyons, 'Making the best of what you've got: sex work and class mobility in the Riau Islands,' in Indonesian Studies Working Papers, no. 2 (2007):1 – 19; Hull, Sulistyaningsih and Jones, Prostitution in Indonesia; Didericke Rhebergen, Anak-anak Jalan Diponegoro: Female Street Sex Workers in Surabaya, Indonesia, FeminiSTIche Anthropologie, Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit, 1999; Susy Sanie, Sutrisno Pardoen, Lamtiur Hasianna Tampubolon and Herry Pramono. The Social and Economic Correlations of Women Entering into Sex Work and its Reproductive Health Implications, Jakarta, Indonesia: Center for Societal Development Studies, Atma Jaya Catholic University (CSDS) in collaboration with United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 2004; Rebecca Surtees, 'Traditional and emergent sex work in urban Indonesia,' in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, issue 10 (2004), URL:, site accessed November 12, 2007.

    [17] Sanie, Pardoen, Tampubolon and Pramono. The Social and Economic Correlations of Women Entering into Sex Work and its Reproductive Health Implications; Surtees, 'Traditional and emergent sex work in urban Indonesia,' paragraph 25; 'Female commercial sex workers in Kramat Tunggak, Jakarta, Indonesia,' in Social Science & Medicine, vol. 49, no. 8 (1999): 1101–114; Hull, Sulistyaningsih and Jones, Prostitution in Indonesia.

    [18] Marjorie Muecke, 'Mother sold food, daughter sells her body: the cultural continuity of prostitution,' in Social Science & Medicine, vol. 35, no. 7 (1982): 891–901. Muecke's study of sex work in Thailand similarly describes how sex work allows young women to fulfil the moral obligation of remitting funds to their families and villages of origin.

    [19] Sanie, Pardoen, Tampubolon and Pramono, The Social and Economic Correlations of Women Entering into Sex Work and its Reproductive Health Implications, p. 39.

    [20] Alison Murray, No Money, No Honey: A Study of Street Traders and Prostitutes in Jakarta, Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 106.

    [21] Hull, Sulistyaningsih and Jones, Prostitution in Indonesia, p. 93.

    [22] Hull, Sulistyaningsih and Jones, Prostitution in Indonesia.

    [23] Christine Harcourt and Basil Donovan, 'The many faces of sex work,' in Sexually Transmitted Infections, vol. 81, no, 3 (2005): 201–06.

    [24] Integrated Biological-Behavioural Surveillance (IBBS) among Most-at-Risk Groups in Indonesia, 2007, 'Surveillance highlights female sex workers,' IBBS, 2007, p. 4.

    [25] Integrated Biological-Behavioural Surveillance (IBBS) 'Surveillance highlights female sex workers,' p. 4. I use the categories of direct and indirect sex workers in referring to data from the IBBS, but prefer not to use this term generally as I feel that it obscures the differences between brothel and street-based sex work.

    [26] The city of Surabaya is located in East Java and is the provincial capital.

    [27] Integrated Biological-Behavioural Surveillance (IBBS) 'Surveillance highlights female sex workers,' p. 4.

    [28] National AIDS Commission Republic of Indonesia, 'Republic of Indonesia Country Report on the Follow up to the Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS (UNGASS),' Indonesia: National AIDS Commission, 2009, p. 17.

    [29] National AIDS Commission Republic of Indonesia, 'Republic of Indonesia Country Report on the Follow up to the Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS (UNGASS),' p. 13.

    [30] Integrated Biological-Behavioural Surveillance (IBBS) 'Surveillance highlights female sex workers,' p. 1.

    [31] I was unable to obtain more recent statistics that compare HIV prevalence among brothel- and street-based sex workers in Surabaya.

    [32] Murray, 'Dying for a fuck,' p. 31.

    [33] World Health Organization (WHO), 'Review of the health sector response to HIV and AIDS in Indonesia 2007,' New Delhi: WHO, 2007, p. 27.

    [34] Linda Bennett, Women, Islam and Modernity: Single Women, Sexuality and Reproductive Health in Contemporary Indonesia, New York: Routledge Curzon, 2005.

    [35] Hull, Sulistyaningsih and Jones, Prostitution in Indonesia, p. 32.

    [36] Hull, Sulistyaningsih and Jones, Prostitution in Indonesia, p. 24.

    [37] Sarlito Sarwono, 'Violence in Indonesia,' in International Perspectives on Violence, ed. Florence Denmark and Leonore Adler, Westport: Praeger, 2004, pp. 95–110.

    [38] Fabio Mesquita, Inang Winarso, Ingrid Atmosukarto, Bambang Eka, Laura Nevendorff, Amala Rahmah, Patri Handoyo, Priscillia Anastasia and Rosi Angela, 'Public health the leading force of the Indonesian response to the HIV/AIDS crisis among people who inject drugs,' in Harm Reduction Journal, vol. 4 (2007): 9–15; Sarwono, 'Violence in Indonesia.'

    [39] Esthi Susanti, personal communication, 20 September 2007.

    [40] Ramadan is the Islamic fasting period that is widely practiced in Indonesia. It lasts for one month and it occurs during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. During this period many Indonesian Muslims aim to be more devote.

    [41] Hull, Sulistyaningsih and Jones, Prostitution in Indonesia.

    [42] Hull, Sulistyaningsih and Jones, Prostitution in Indonesia.

    [43] Hull, Sulistyaningsih and Jones, Prostitution in Indonesia.

    [44] Evelyn Blackwood, 'Regulation of sexuality in Indonesian discourse: normative gender, criminal law and shifting strategies of control,' in Culture, Health and Sexuality, vol. 9, no. 3 (2007): 293–307; Julia Suryakusuma, 'The state and sexuality in new order Indonesia' in Fantasizing the Feminine in Indonesia, ed. Laurie Sears, London: Duke University Press 1996, pp. 92–119.

    [45] Susan Blackburn, Women and the State in Modern Indonesia, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 9.

    [46] Blackwood, 'Regulation of sexuality in Indonesian discourse.'

    [47] Bennett, Women, Islam and Modernity; Blackburn, Women and the State in Modern Indonesia; Blackwood, 'Regulation of sexuality in Indonesian discourse';' Suryakusuma, 'The state and sexuality in new order Indonesia.' As Susan Blackburn has noted, the focus on women's role in the domestic realm is often contradicted by the traditional role of women in society, particularly working class women and the role they play in contributing to the household as income-earners.

    [48] Harriot Beazley, 'Vagrants wearing make-up': negotiating spaces on the streets of Yogyakarta, Indonesia,' in Urban Studies, vol. 39, no. 9 (2002): 1665–683, p. 1669.

    [49] Bennett, Women, Islam and Modernity.

    [50] Zina refers to sexual acts that occur outside the boundaries of heterosexual marriage.

    [51] Linda Bennett, 'Zina and the enigma of sex education for Indonesian Muslim youth,' in Sex Education, vol. 7, no. 4 (2007): 371–86, p. 372.

    [52] Bennett, Women, Islam and Modernity.

    [53] Bennett, Women, Islam and Modernity.

    [54] Bennett, Women, Islam and Modernity.

    [55] Bennett, Women, Islam and Modernity, p. 22

    [56] Other studies on sex work that used qualitative research methods to explore aspects of sex work in the context of poverty in general have had similar criteria for inclusion. See for example, Anh Ngo, Sheryl McCurdy, Michael Ross, Christine Markham, Eric Ratliff and Hang Pham, 'The lives of female sex workers in Vietnam: findings from a qualitative study,' in Culture, Health and Sexuality, vol. 9, no. 6 (2007): 555–70; Janet Wojcicki & Josephine Malala, 'Condom use, power and HIV/AIDS risk: sex-workers bargain for survival in Hillbrow/Joubert Park/Berea, Johannesburg,' in Social Science & Medicine, vol. 53, no. 1 (2001): 99–121.

    [57] Hence, when I refer to the research participants or respondents I am referring only to the six women who fit the specific criteria and were part of the core group.

    [58] The requirement of the University of Victoria's Human Research Ethics Board was revised and received official approval.

    [59] Halal is a term that is used to imply that something is acceptable according to Islam.

    [60] Suryakusuma, 'The state and sexuality in new order Indonesia,' p. 92.

    [61] Esthi Susanti, personal communication, 20 September 2007.

    [62] Beazley, 'Vagrants wearing make-up,' p. 1666.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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