Sex, Cobras and Jakarta

Ken takes a sojourn to Indonesia and has the scoop on everything from the sex scene to local cuisine...

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A version of this previously appeared at SpliceToday.com.

JAKARTA—I’ve been writing about the sex industries of Southeast Asia, first from Bangkok and then from Ho Chi Minh City. This installment from Jakarta is the third and last.

As I wrote previously, I like chatting with sex workers and writing about sex industries, as well as arms trafficking, drug cartels and pretty much all black and gray markets. I’d been to Bangkok previously so was pretty familiar with the scene there and had heard a lot about the sex industry in Ho Chi Minh City. I found delights and surprises everywhere but the place that surprised me the most was Jakarta.

In Jakarta, where the overwhelming share of the population is Muslim, the sex industry is more hidden than in the other two cities I visited, but it’s vibrant, if you know where to look. In fact, vibrant is an understatement.

The sex scene there is far wilder and more libertine than anywhere I’ve ever been. “You can buy anything here except your parents,” a new friend I met told me. “Heroin, ecstasy, a child, a woman.” (I was offered all of those except for a child, but declined. I’ll call my friend Muhammad, which is a common name in Indonesia but not his, and want to emphasize that he was not suggesting I buy any of those things, just making observations.)

Before getting to the sex, a little bit about Indonesia and Jakarta. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, with about 85 percent of the population self-declared Muslims. About 10 percent are Christian and the few others are mostly Hindu or Buddhist.

A drawback for me was that it’s hard to find a drink on the street in Jakarta as there aren’t many bars—at least not like in Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, but like sex, you can find booze if you want to. The traffic and pollution are atrocious, and everything’s generally chaotic. “Jakarta is set to become the biggest city in the world with a population of 35.6 million by 2030,” according to this story. “If forecasts are correct, the Indonesian capital will dethrone Tokyo as the city with the most people and become the first emerging economy to be the number one megacity.” (By the way, Indonesia’s total population is about 270 million, living on more than 17,000 islands, which makes it the fourth most populous country on earth after China, India, and the United States.)

But I loved the city. True, the air quality is so bad it feels like you’re breathing through a sock—which for some strange reason made me want to smoke, maybe because the air is killing you anyway, so I did for the first time in a few years and greatly enjoyed it. Also, you find amazing colors in Jakarta—batique apparel and decorative items, clothing, mosques, marketplaces, everywhere—which made me feel like I was in a surrealist dream. And you can really only get around by motorcycle, which is a lot of fun.

A wonderful young man named Ilham took me all over the city, including to Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia and the third largest Sunni mosque in the world, outside of two in Saudi Arabia, in terms of capacity. I’m fascinated by Islam and love most Muslim people I have met in Indonesia. (Also, there are very few annoying Western tourists; I guess most of them go to Bali.)

Jakartans are for the most part extremely friendly. Not everyone may be sweet and good-natured, but I didn’t meet anyone who wasn’t, not even members of a radical Islamist group that held a big march in the city one day. I had a great time talking to them and learned a lot.

But while they were friendly to talk to, and not irrational, as a lot of Western reporters would have you believe, the radical Islamists have a lot of ideas that I find troubling, including their views—at least the men—about women. And one of the reasons I was surprised about the active sex industry in Jakarta was because I expected the strong political influence of radical Islamists, who are seeking to impose Shariah law in Indonesia, to quash it. But there’s nowhere in the world where prostitution can be eliminated, and I expect that many clients of Indonesian sex workers are Muslims, including radical Islamists. But that’s just a guess.

Anyway, some of the key founders of ISIS were Indonesians and in 2016, ISIS took responsibility for bombings and shootings near a shopping mall in central Jakarta. “At least eight people—four attackers and four civilians (three Indonesians and an Algerian-Canadian)—were killed, and 23 others were injured,” according to Wikipedia. “One blast went off in a Burger King restaurant and one went off at a McDonald’s outside the mall.”

A Starbucks was attacked as well, and that’s where I interviewed Andreas Harsono from the local office of Human Rights Watch. “There were six attackers and they came from that door,” he told me and pointed to the main entrance. “A police officer was killed at a post outside and several of the attackers were killed near a gray van in the parking lot.”

Harsono told me that even some radical Islamists recognize that sharia law won’t work in Indonesia because the country is too diverse, but many don’t care about that. There are many political and social regulations in Indonesia banning certain viewpoints and behavior. Communism, for example, was exterminated by the Indonesian military, with massacres beginning in 1965 that were facilitated by the United States government and which brought the vile general Suharto to power for 31 years.

In some parts of the country women can’t travel at night without their husbands. The radicals want to impose the veil on women. In some places women are banned from being on a motorcycle as a passenger, because it’s considered sexually provocative that they straddle the driver. Harsono suggested I have a look at the work of Budi Wahyuni of a group called Komnas Perempuan. “People involved in the sex trade are vulnerable to violence,” she writes in one story. “Sex workers… are blamed when raped, murdered, assaulted, or harassed.”

Given all this, and that prostitution is technically illegal in Indonesia, I thought the sex industry would be mostly underground. But while it’s more discreet than in other parts of Southeast Asia, it is vibrant and not hard at all to find if you have the proper guide and advice. “The city is home to least 11,860 active female prostitutes, based on 2014 data from the Jakarta AIDS Commission,” according to this story. “Of these, 3,435 ply their trade in the centre of the capital. The total number in the trade, however, is likely to be much higher, as the data does not currently capture male and transgender sex workers.”

In 2016, the government pledged to shut down Indonesia’s sex trade within three years, but that’s not going to happen. Consider the following excerpt from The Sun, headlined, “Inside Jakarta’s bizarre red light district where you can be licked head-to-toe in a ‘Cat Bath’ or enjoy a ‘no-hands super breast massage’:

Lesbian stage shows, sex with identical twins and three-day karaoke orgies are some of the strange and hedonistic offerings reportedly available in Jakarta’s seedy underworld. Well-connected members of Indonesia’s rich upper class—known as Taipans—and their friends can pay £300-£400 for a tryst in the back of a moving 4×4.

In high-class brothels, girls wearing cat-woman outfits are grouped by country—Russian, Chinese, Thai, Filipino, Vietnamese, Uzbek and locals.

My experiences were tamer. I asked someone where I could get a first-hand look at the local sex industry in Jakarta and he suggested a club that was about a mile away from the Starbucks that was bombed. It just off a main road, but hard to find because the three-story building was down an alley. The place was wonderful. I played pool with a number of the women working there and became friendly with one—I’ll just call her Beauty—who shot a wicked game and beat me three out of six times.

Beauty encouraged me to get a karaoke room, but it was expensive: about two million rupiahs, equivalent to around $140. That came with the room, which I checked out. It was cozy and spacious and the two million rupiahs got you plates of wonderful fruits and a few snacks, but no booze. I spent a lot of time shooting pool and talking with Beauty and when I left at 4 a.m. I was pleasantly drunk.

I pulled out my wallet and tipped her $70. Very swiftly and nimbly she gave me back a $20 and plucked a $50 from my wallet. I didn’t complain because her company and conversation seemed fair to me. (I didn’t have sex with her but as I recall, the price would have been about $100.)

To clear my head I walked to my hotel, which took about an hour. Much of the walk was well-lit and lovely. There were few people on the street at that hour. Just about the only ones I saw were newspaper vendors, and some men and women sitting on motorcycles. I didn’t realize at first that they were pimps and prostitutes but the men all asked if I wanted company. The price was $30 to go to a nearby room or $100 for the women to spend the night with me at my hotel.

At this point I thought that karaoke bars, clubs and street prostitution were the extent of the sex scene, as I hadn’t read anything about it before arriving. (I found the articles I cited above after my return.) I was wrong. The next night I went to my favorite restaurant in Jakarta, a place called Ben’s, named after the owner, who I became friendly with. It’s right on the street and has large picnic-like tables. They serve seafood, much of it alive before cooking, which is sitting out on coolers and you pick what you want. My favorite were the crabs.

Indonesia at the moment is a democracy, though one plagued by problems and where economic inequality is so extreme the word “democracy” doesn’t really apply. Nonetheless in the last election, the people elected Joko Widodo, who is the first non-elite president of the country. He’s not perfect but pretty good, and he’d be better except he has to appease the military and Islamists or probably wouldn’t survive.

Despite the relatively open political system—relatively, compared to the Suharto years—there’s plenty of security, internal surveillance and repression. At Ben’s I met a man from Papua, the largest and easternmost province of Indonesia and bordered by the nation of Papua New Guinea. We had a smoke and chat but he was a bit nervous because he’s a political activist and told me to be careful because there were security agents at the restaurant. I’m almost sure they hadn’t tailed me, but had simply been there and were wondering what a guy from the U.S. was doing talking with everyone. And talking to the guy from Papua surely would have raised eyebrows.

I wasn’t sure who he was talking about but a few minutes later, when I was back at my seat eating, a guy sat next to me and started asking me questions: Where are you from? Why are you in Jakarta? What is your profession?

I told him I was just a tourist and started asking him the same sort of questions. He was very vague and wouldn’t tell me what his job was, but I knew he was security when I asked to take his picture and he got angry and asked why. I said because I liked to take pictures and snapped an image of him from my phone and made sure he saw that I was sending it via Whatsapp to friends.

He was pissed off, but I did it because I knew that he no longer posed a direct threat to me because I had his picture and he didn’t know who else did, but he knew I’d shared it with other people. He soon left with a few others.

Soon afterwards I met “Muhammad” at Ben’s. I told him I wanted to see interesting parts of Jakarta, including places where I could meet and talk to sex workers. He and a friend took me around for hours. I met heroin dealers from West Africa, community leaders sitting on the streets in their neighborhoods with friends, and all sorts of remarkable people.

But the high point was Chinatown, which is enormous. “Chinese Indonesians account for about three percent of the population but they are influential, controlling most of the country’s wealth and commerce,” says this website, and though I can’t attest to its accuracy the numbers seem solid.

More than three percent of Jakartans are Chinese Indonesians and Chinatown is a marvel. One of the highlights was going to a street stand and watching a guy pull out live King Cobras from a cage, kill them, skin them and grill them on kabob sticks.There’s also a lot of open prostitution on the main drag in Chinatown, at clubs, bars and on the street. We walked past a man on the street who was surrounded by about five women, who were available by the hour or for the night. Muhammad knew him—he seemed to know everyone in Jakarta—and we talked for a while. Prices for the women were in the area of $50 for a few hours and there were a lot of hotels available for about $20 a night.

We dropped by a few clubs in Chinatown and a neighboring district but didn’t go in because the cover charges were steep and it was near closing time, and in two cases we got to clubs just as they’d shut down. That was disappointing but it had been a great night and at 5 a.m. Muhammad and his friend took me back to my hotel in a tuk-tuk and I called it a night.

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