Sex Workers, Unite!

Indonesia has a long history of prostitution with a sex work industry operating across the country. The participation of women in the sex worker industry is a reflection of the current political-economic situation in Indonesia: about 88% of women become sex workers due to economic hardships.  In a society that already treats women as second-class citizens, women in the sex industry are in even more stigmatised and precarious conditions.

I have conducted research on sex workers in Bandungan, Semarang Regency, Central Java, Indonesia to find out about their conditions and the activities of a sex worker union. In 2014, the last time any data was collected by the government, there were around 700 women sex workers in Bandungan. That number could easily reach more than 1,000 on a weeknight. This was the second largest number of sex workers in Indonesia, and might have become the largest by now.

Bandungan is also a unique area for prostitution. Unlike other regions, Bandungan does not use “localization”. “Localization” means that prostitution activities are regulated and confined in one location, and are therefore insulated and separated from the rest of society. However, this is not the case in Bandungan where prostitution takes place in hotels and karaoke bars, and women sex workers live in boarding houses rented out by local residents.


Failed Promises


In 2014, the Semarang Regency Government issued Regional Regulation Number 10 concerning community order, which prohibits all prostitution activities in the Semarang Regency area, including Bandungan. But a year later, the government reversed course and issued Semarang Regency Regional Regulation Number 1 concerning the empowerment of women. Under this new regulation, commercial sex workers are granted the right to health, empowerment, and social protection.

The reversal is partly a result of the fact that the number of sex workers continued to increase despite the ban. But allowing prostitution also helped the government to generate more revenue thanks to the construction of business accommodations and karaoke and tourism relating to prostitution.

At first, this policy seems to offer promises of extending rights and protection to sex workers, but the reality says otherwise. Under this new policy, the government only recognizes the rights of commercial sex workers in localization areas. Sex workers without localization areas such as in Bandungan are therefore unable to claim these rights.

The exclusion of some sex workers led them to look for ways to protect their own rights that are vital for their daily survival. In 2015, sex workers founded a union of sex workers under the name PERKAWIS or Association of Tourist Workers. The terminology of “tourist workers” was chosen to avoid problems with social and  religious groups.


The Origin of the Sex Worker Union


The Association of Tourist Workers was founded by Yanti1 and other sex workers. Yanti is a Bandungan resident who owns boarding houses, but she has worked in the past as a sex worker herself and no doubt understands the challenges.

In my interview with Yanti, she recounted the tragedy that eventually led to her establishing this union. In 2014, a female sex worker named Ranti was found dead in her boarding room. What caused the death was not known at the time. When the corpse was being delivered to her home, the address did not match that on her ID card.  She evidently used a fake ID card to work. Yanti did manage to find the worker’s real address from Ranti’s closest friends.

The same happened to Resti, another sex worker in Bandungan. Resti was found dead in a hotel outside the city due to an overdose. Resti, too, used a fake ID and address, making it difficult for her body to be delivered to her family.

The use of fake ID cards was meant to cover up the fear and shame of their true identity being known to the public. The majority of sex workers Yanti organizes says that becoming a sex worker is the only option for them to continue living with their families. Many of them are mothers and the backbone of their families.

Yanti organized sex workers wherever she could reach them. There are nearly one hundred union members today. The union established a strict administrative system for sex workers. The collection of ID cards is carried out strictly and verified with online population data from the government. The union works with local boarding houses and hotel owners to ensure there is a complete database of each boarding house resident who is a sex worker.


Protecting the Health of Sex Workers


The union prioritizes the protection of its members’ health. It requests assistance from non-governmental organizations and health agencies to conduct monthly health checks for sex workers. Strict rules are applied. Members are prohibited from working until they have health cards to show they are free of sexually transmitted diseases. The health data then becomes the basis for other parties, including hotels and boarding house owners, to ban sex workers who have not passed the health check.

In addition, members are prohibited from having sex with the guests without using contraception. This has been adhered to by the union members. But the union finds that sex workers do not use contraceptives when having sex with their boyfriends, and some union members unwittingly became pregnant. Those who were pregnant tried to get an abortion because of economic reasons and shame. One of the sex workers became pregnant five times and each time she opted for abortion. The union is strongly opposed to this action because of religious conviction, believing that every baby has the right to live because it has been given by God.2

Some sex workers give birth and raise their children by themselves. They often hire nurses to take care of their children while working. Many find it difficult to bear the cost of  food and other necessities for their children. They often pay and entrust their children to other residents to be cared for. However, while for a few weeks they would come to pick up their children after finishing work, they would stop coming back again, leaving their children in the hands of their nurse without ever returning.

It does not happen just once or twice. I find the same incident occurs quite often in the Bandungan area. Children who are left behind will experience problems with schooling, for instance. They should be included in the family card list soon after they were born. However, it was not possible because they had been abandoned by their mothers. Fortunately, caring residents would adopt the abandoned children of the sex workers and put them in the family register. They would then raise the sex worker’s children to adulthood as their children.


Countering Harassment and Violence


Sex workers are regularly subject to harassment such as “Let’s make love“, “What price are you?” and ” Hey bitch! Come on, let’s go to bed tonight.” Violence is also a daily problem which occurs at work as well as outside of work.

While working, acts of violence occur when sex workers refuse requests from guests who commit acts outside the agreement, such as drinking alcohol outside the limits of the sex workers, insulting and abusive remarks, and other acts of coercion. The guests then become angry and commit violent acts such as slapping, grabbing, kicking, and hitting. As Yanti puts it, “The men often acted on their own. Their assumption is that when they spend money, the sex worker belongs to him entirely.” They think of sex workers as submissive, obedient, and not as human beings deserving of respect and dignity.

Meanwhile, acts of violence outside of work are often carried out by the boyfriends of the sex workers in their boarding houses. The boyfriends are officials, state civil servants, businessmen, hotel or karaoke employees, as well as married husbands. Violence can arise from disputes. Sex workers are often an outlet for their boyfriends to release their own negative emotions. Sex workers are often hit, punched, and kicked. There are instances where sex workers were dragged out of the house without wearing any clothes and then beaten by their boyfriends. The community did not feel the need to help him.

The most shocking case was the murder of a sex worker in her boarding house. At first, no one knew about this incident until finally the owner of the boarding house realized that the sex worker never left her room for three days. When the room was opened, they found the sex worker dead and covered in blood. Many rumors were circulating about the cause of death such as suicide or murder by her boyfriend because she was pregnant. The case was dismissed without trial because the police never conducted an investigation. Her death was considered unimportant.

The prevalence of violence against sex workers may be explained for at least two reasons. First, there are strong roots of patriarchal culture in Indonesia, especially in rural areas such as Bandungan. When women are still considered second-class citizens by society, women sex workers are considered an even lower social group. Second, the government has failed to provide assistance and facilities to sex workers, such as skill training, legal protection against violence and harassment, all of which have in fact been included in government regulations.

The union is doing its best to protect sex workers from acts of harassment and violence, working with boarding house, hotel, and karaoke owners to evict any guests who have committed harassment and acts of violence against sex workers. But they can’t always go down the legal route each time for lack of adequate financial resources. If unionized sex workers are still struggling to deal with these problems, how would sex workers fare without the protection of a union?


Sex Workers, Unite!


It is our obligation, as academics and activists, to actively support the sex workers’ organizing and their union.

As Juno Mac and Molly Smith wrote in Revolting Prostitutes, strong unions are the main force for sex workers to fight and oppose oppression and rights violations. Moreover, sex worker unions can and have stand as pioneers against all kinds of gender-based oppression, as happened in Kenya, Compton Cafeteria in San Francisco and Stonewall.

This is not merely a struggle for freedom to sell sexual services. Far from that, this is a struggle to end the powers that have oppressed women and taken many precious things from their lives.

For that, sex workers, unite!

(Photo: Author)

  1. The names of all the informants in the article have been changed to protect their identities.
  2. Editor’s Note: While ALR as a publication does not necessarily endorse this view on abortion, we think it is important that this view of the union be included in the article for understanding the work of the union.

Firhandika Ade Santury is a political science graduate from Diponegoro University in Indonesia. He is currently active as an initiator in the literacy movement "Pustaka Bestari" at the Bandungan prostitution area. He is also an independent writer, writing and conducting research on issues of gender, women's labour, social movements and democratization.