Sun, 13 Aug 2000

Indonesia grapples with sexual mores

By Bruce Emond

Everybody is doing it, or at least talking about it. There has been an avalanche of sexual information in the media, particularly in the last two years. The Jakarta Post looks at whether the greater openness is chipping away at traditional sexual mores.

JAKARTA (JP): Gynecologist and sex consultant Dr. Boyke Dian Nugraha believes Indonesians are looking at sex in a new light.

"Eastern values are still present, but I think it's changing. I think I was in the middle generation, between my parents who were very restricted when they were courting and today, when it is much freer."

Even as he talked about greater sexual openness and his estimation that about 25 percent of teenagers were sexually active, Boyke acknowledged that traditional views about sex, particularly women's sexuality, remain dominant.

His final patient of the day at his busy practice in Tebet, South Jakarta, was a young woman undergoing surgery to have her hymen repaired.

"I do get many couples today, more than before, coming in for premarital counseling and checkups. The man acknowledges he is no longer a virgin, she is no longer a virgin, so that is no problem," said Boyke, who also hosts a sex counseling radio talk show.

"But we are still a people who uphold tradition. Like the girl waiting in the next room to have her hymen repaired. As a doctor, I do not have a problem doing it, but I tell them there is really no need. But the groom expects blood, their parents expect blood, so be it."

Straight talk about sex in the media, which was taboo during Soeharto's repressive regime, has come out of the closet. The topic burns up the airwaves and the printed page as magazines lure readers with articles about sexual matters, including the sexual goings-on of celebrities.

There is also the considerable influence of television dramas and the Internet.

"Our standards for judging sexual behavior are changing," Boyke said. "Young people are watching TV shows like Dawson's Creek, Amanda in Melrose Place, and they think, 'Wow, it would be great to live in an apartment and have a life like that'. Western norms are coming in ... I once asked various Internet cafes what their main source of revenue was, and they said it was from young people visiting porn sites."

Psychiatrist and sex educator Dr. Naek L. Tobing said the flood of information was a positive development but it needed to be handled with care.

"In the past 10 years, there has been a lot written, also discussions and such, about sexual behavior," Naek said. "The well-educated have a better understanding of the information and can use it in their lives. They understand that they need openness about sexual matters.

"Indonesia cannot shut itself off from the rest of the world, from the information coming in from abroad, like the Internet, films, blue films."

Naek said the problem was that not everybody could filter the good from the bad.

"People are freer, but we also need knowledge along with that freedom. This is our dilemma -- how do we handle sexual information, especially in nonformal ways. We are still reluctant and ashamed to provide that information. Here I mean parents, the leaders, elders."

He added the surge in sexual information was not enough to do away with traditional mores.

"Our traditional views of sex are still in us, even if it's unconsciously. We have this great conflict ... an ambivalence. We want to accept something, but also reject it. We are so hesitant, ambivalent."

Some see it as a case of a lot of talk but not much action in focusing on issues such as sex education. "The freedom, the openness is more on the level of discourse; it's more visible but there is not a fundamental change in values," said sociologist Julia Suryakusuma.

Others, particularly religious figures, are alarmed by the potential fallout from globalization in an erosion of traditional values. Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI) secretary-general Din Syamsudin said people needed to distinguish between beneficial aspects of western society and its "moral decadence".

"Sex is meant to be confined to the sacred institution of marriage," Din said. "We need a self-defense mechanism because our young people are going through a type of culture shock. Religious figures, and here I mean in Islam, need to strengthen our young people through the internalization of religious values and ethics.


Nonconventional sexual behavior in a conservative, close-knit society like Indonesia, where concepts of face and shame predominate, presents a dilemma.

"Renata," who lives with her western boyfriend, finds herself burdened by overwhelming pressure to conform to society's expectations.

She makes a personal distinction between premarital sex in a long-term relationship and promiscuity, although "I know in religion there is no difference ... "

The 24 year old said she kept her private life a secret from her family and colleagues, and would not consider telling them she lived with a man.

"I have to be a bit of a hypocrite; about sex before marriage, I will say, 'It may be OK for others, but it's not for me'."

Although she believed there were changing values among young people, she said a woman's virginity was still a big issue for "70 percent" of men.

She pointed to a double standard in society's definition of acceptable sexual behavior for men and women.

"They (men) are asking too much when they themselves have had lots of sex. They are really too much."

Bank employee Jerry, 29, said he was no longer a virgin, but wanted his prospective wife to be one.

"I could accept it if my partner was not a virgin if she told me it was an accident and she was very sorry. There is a difference between men having sex and women experiencing it for the first time.

"If a woman is not sorry after losing her virginity outside of marriage, then you start to think about what kind of woman this is."


Experts say many people, especially men, understand the nuts and bolts of sex, but fall through the cracks when it comes to recognizing the responsibility needed with sexual freedom.

It is a phenomenon noted by University of Indonesia professor Dr. H. Arjatmo Tjokronegoro, who is a specialist in andrology, the study of male reproductive health.

"There is so much information out there now, even in the women's magazines with articles offering sex tips. But there is still a lot of ignorance. Sometimes I have to tell male patients that making love for a man and woman is not the same, that they must be gentle and patient in having sex with their wives."

Naek, who has written a sexual advice column since the early 1980s and also hosts a radio show, said it was important to give the right messages to the public, including about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

"We are trying to get the information out through the media, through articles, through columns, because behavior is dynamic and changing ... People can watch a lot of sexual images, but they do not have an understanding of how to handle that information."

He said it was an uphill struggle because of society's reluctance to deal with the issues head-on. "And the great weakness of Indonesians is that we never get rid of unfinished business, including in matters of sex."

A U.S. accredited sex counselor, Naek said people misunderstood the benefits of sex education.

"They think that sex education means only teaching young people to make love, which isn't it at all. It's about things like date rape, which is a terrible problem here."