By William J. Furney
With interviews by Laurane Marchive
The Bali Times
LEGIAN ~ “You’ve got a big one,” the woman says as she sidles up to a Bali Times reporter, pointing to the outsized screen on a BlackBerry-type device he was reading a message on. “Want to have sex?” The reporter, in timeless tabloid fashion, made his excuses and left.
Sex permeates Bali’s tourism industry, nowhere more so than in the frenetic Legian strip that pulsates 24/7. And for many young people who come to Bali for a fleeting holiday, having a fling is top of their activity list.
A manager at one of Legian’s newest nightclubs told this newspaper that as glitzy new premises had sprung up in recent years, there had been an incremental match in the influx of sex workers to the area.
“Some nights there are so many of them, even rent boys walking the street and trying to entice Westerners driving by, leaning in to their windows. You didn’t see that before,” she said.
And there’s a new entry to the Bali sex scene: Russian prostitutes, and girls from Eastern Europe, who can command far more from clients than locals, said the manager.
At a nearby, tiny bar that proffers explicitly described cocktails, almost claustrophobic with its narrowness and faux-tropical décor, middle-aged foreign men drink the local brew Bintang as signs advertise the availability of Viagra and what it calls a “better” herbal alternative, “Nangen,” which overseas media reports say has caused deaths and hospitalization of men who have taken it.
Elsewhere around Kuta, clandestine strip clubs abound, but only those in the know can get in.
In a country where many struggle to make at least Rp1 million (US$91) a month, sex work can offer tantalizing rewards. Yuli is from Java and has been working as a prostitute in the Legian area for the past two years. The 29-year-old says she can make up to Rp12 million a month, mostly from an Australian customer base that “gives good tips.”
She tells The Bali Times she’s mindful of sexually transmitted diseases and will not have intercourse with a customer unless he uses a condom. She charges Rp300,000 for one-off sex, Rp1 million to spend the night with her (Rp800,000 for regulars), and says she works at a laundry during the day and that her family back home has no idea what she does at night; neither do her friends.
“To begin with, they offer me drinks. They don’t want to only have sex; they also want to talk,” says Yuli of her clients.
“Some customers just want a massage, or just want hugs and kisses,” she said, adding that the hazards of the job are violent customers and those that try to wangle out of paying – so she asks for payment up front, or no service.
“Sometimes I’m scared to go with a man, because he looks strange, but I have to go,” she says.
While prostitution is illegal in Indonesia, it is viewed by police and judges as a minor transgression, and those arrested are often charged just a fine of around Rp250,000 and if they cannot pay are held for 10 days, a state prosecutor told The Times. The penal code holds lengthy prison terms for those convicted of organizing prostitution rings, of up to 15 years, as well as for child-sex or trafficking.
There are at least 230,000 prostitutes in Indonesia – some estimates put that figure at double the number – on average earning $600 a month, according to estimates from organizations such as the International Labor Organization, a UN body.
But despite the authorities’ lax view of working girls, many are fearful of being picked up by police, some of whom may be playing their own game.
“Sometimes I am afraid to go with a customer and to find the police waiting for me when it’s over. They ask me for money then. Even if I give them my ID, they only want money,” said Yuli.
She’s also anxious they might lock her up, if they catch her during her working hours from midnight to 4am.
But while Yuli’s life is now focused on sex work during the small hours of the morning, she has her sights set on the future and manages to save about half what she earns.
“In three or four years, I hope to stop (sex work), when I have enough money, and go back to Java. In a month I spend between Rp5 million and Rp7 million and I put the rest in the bank,” she said.
It’s not an easy life, being a prostitute, though, and for Yuli, who’s single, she is haunted by bouts of sadness and occasional revulsion at men she reluctantly has sex with but the economic pressure is overwhelming and the constant driver.
“Sometimes I feel bad about doing this, but what can I do? I have to do it to live. Even if a customer is ugly, I have to be nice to him. Sometimes they disgust me, but I don’t say anything, don’t show it.
“I am not happy. It’s quiet now, and I’m even less happy.”
Yuli said that since September, she had had few customers, frequently only three a week, but that there was a lot of competition. At one nightclub she frequents, she says there are as many as 300 prostitutes looking for clients every night.
“There’s around 300 girls working in [name withheld] like me – inside, in front, upstairs. It’s easy money, but sometimes I don’t feel good. I worry about diseases – AIDS, kissing diseases. But I don t select customers; I just take what comes.
“Sometimes I have regular customers, who come back every six months. Sometimes customers want to keep in touch; sometimes they book me for a week to go sightseeing, enjoy their holidays, go to restaurants, travel around Bali.
“Most of them don’t only want sex; they want to be happy. Sometimes they want to have a relationship with me, but without paying. Some are not nice to me. Now people are even less happy.”
For fellow Javan Lea, 26, a night on the job means sex with between two and four men. She said most of her customers were Australians, none Indonesian.
While working as a prostitute means big earnings for the single mother of one, she would rather do something else to make ends meet.
“I don’t like this work but I need the money to raise my daughter, who’s with my mother in Java. This is the only work I do. I’m happy with my life, not with my work.”
She said she told her family she was working at a supermarket in Bali and had no idea how long she would continue as a prostitute.
“I don’t know when I will stop doing this work,” she said.
If the heterosexual sex industry in Bali is thriving, so to is its gay counterpart. At one bar on the Seminyak-area Jl. Dyana Pura, known for its gay bars and clubs, the entire staff, including the barmen, are up for hire, an expatriate resident who frequents the establishments told The Times.
“Monica” is a 24-year-old Balinese ladyboy who started sleeping with men for money when he was an 18-year-old high school student, and counts among his clientele at a bar on that street “lots of Australians, Europeans and Japanese.”
“I have a boyfriend; he’s straight,” he said. “I dress like a woman all the time; my boyfriend likes it. People around me are ok with it; they respect me. I take hormones to look like a woman.”
Monica said he charges men Rp1 million to have sex with him, and up to Rp2 million for an all-night stay. From Thursday to Sunday are his busiest nights, he says, adding that he started dressing in female clothes when he was aged five and later in life took part in drag-queen competitions.
“I just follow my life. If I can find a Western boyfriend, I will follow him. I hope one day my dream will come true.
“When a customer likes me, he tries to seduce me first, and then takes me to his house. We have sex. I keep up relations via the internet with some guys from Germany, with old customers. Sometimes my boyfriend is jealous.
“I do this for money. I keep all the money for myself,” he said, revealing that many clients are married men with children, with “a lot of tourists and sometimes expatriates.”
“I select them, and if they don’t please me, I say no. We always use condoms,” said Monica, who also sets up appointments at clients’ homes, hotels or apartments.
“We talk a lot before having sex, have a lot of drinks. I just take one customer per night. Some ‘girls’ can have three of four. Sometimes I enjoy it; sometimes I don’t; but even then, I still do it for the money.
“I try to give them a good service. Sometimes clients become our boyfriend for a week, and then it’s about being a good couple for a while.
“We have a working license; the government knows what we do.
Somebody protects us if we are in trouble – people from the bar, or the police. We are not doing anything bad. Some clients want to do it without a condom, but we always say no.”
Eric, 23, entered the gay prostitution scene in October this year, and says he has a maximum of two clients per night, always Westerners. He said he left his native Kalimantan, on Borneo island, to come to Bali expressly to earn money through prostitution.
“I am pretty new here, as I started working on October 20 this year, three days after I arrived. I came especially to do this work.
“Most of the time I approach the Western guys and they offer me a drink and I go to their place and have sex with them. The following morning they give me ‘taxi money’” of around Rp500,000.
Eric said he currently has a client from Holland staying in Bali and he was paying for the room he rents at a local boarding house.
“I haven’t had trouble with customers; they never hurt me,” he said. “Sometimes I have regular clients. Two of them are from Holland. But it’s all for the money.”
That cash, he said, was going towards his education in his home village, and that if his family had enough money, he would not have been forced into prostituting himself. But in the end, he said, the choice was his, even if he often didn’t always like what he was doing.
“There’s nobody pushing me to do this work. It’s my choice, even if I don’t really have a choice.”