Over the past few weeks, Indonesians have been transfixed by allegations that House of Representatives (DPR) Speaker Setya Novanto attempted to extort a 20 per cent share in mining company Freeport Indonesia. Then last week, as he faced a House ethics tribunal, two “sexy” female actresses, Nikita Mirzani and “PR”, were arrested in a hotel – apparently while naked – and charged with online prostitution.
Prostitution among Indonesian celebrities has long been an open secret, so many argued that the arrests were an attempt to divert public attention away from Setya’s alleged corruption. The police surely already knew about this “celebrity prostitution”, so why did they decide to act on it now? Whether a manufactured distraction or not, Nikita’s case has certainly captured the public’s gaze – as do all public representations of sexuality in this country.
In Indonesia, sexuality is paradoxical. It is considered taboo, disparaged, and often used to judge a person’s “morality”. At the same time, however, it is celebrated and enjoyed surreptitiously, particularly by those in power. In 2011, for example, a Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) legislator, Arifinto, was caught watching porn during a session of the DPR. Although PKS was one of driving forces behind the 2008 Pornography Law, Arifinto escaped charges and quit the DPR in disgrace. It is also alleged that the clients of many of these “celebrity prostitutes” are lawmakers and senior government figures. It was not long ago that Budi Kusuma, a local legislator from Sidoarjo, was accused of “booking” three female actresses.
This paradox is also seen in state responses to sex work. Prostitution is not explicitly forbidden under Indonesian national law, although the Criminal Code does prohibit the facilitation of sexual activity and the earning of profits from the prostitution of women. Despite these restrictions, many Indonesians would acknowledge that prostitution is widely practiced. Some local governments have even regulated prostitution through designated brothel complexes known as “lokalisasi”, such as the now-closed Kramat Tunggak lokalisasi in North Jakarta, and Dolly in Surabaya, which was shut down last year by Mayor Tri Rismaharini. In Jakarta, hotels and massage parlours continue to offer various sexual services, a practice made possible, as many people know, by paying bribes to police in order to avoid raids. Online prostitution has also flourished over recent years with the emergence of social media.
For a long time in Indonesia, sexuality has been equated with moral and national identity, as well as state ideology. Prevailing norms dictate that sexuality is only allowed to be expressed in heterosexual marriage. Sex outside the heterosexual marital institution is presented as violating cultural and religious norms.
“Sex sells” might be a cliché but it rings true, especially in Indonesia. Attempts to control, taboo, cleanse, and regulate sexuality result in the commodification of desires and sex. This was evident in media reporting on Nikita’s arrest, where the public were provided with details reminiscent of a porn scene, sometimes even as headlines. Nikita was naked “without a strand of thread on her body” (“tanpa menggunakan sehelai benang yang melekat pada badannya”), she was arrested while undressing, wearing only underwear when a group of policemen burst in. The headlines and reporting seemed designed to guarantee a torrent of clicks from netizens.
The emergence of modern technology makes it possible to archive desires and fantasies, hence the commodification. Media reporting invites the audience to derive voyeuristic pleasure from Nikita’s arrest. Voyeurism was once classed as “sexual perversity”. Here the audience becomes like a peeping Tom, obtaining pleasure from imagining Nikita being arrested naked.
In a country where sex can determine levels of morality, Nikita’s arrest also offers another form of enjoyment. As a “prostitute” who violates cultural and religious norms, she becomes, in the term used by philosopher Julia Kristeva, an abject. This term refers to the parts of our identities that we consider intolerable and cast off. Nikita’s story provides an opportunity for the audience to restore their own (moral) identity as Indonesians. Nikita symbolises what should be avoided, what is considered “un-Indonesian”, according to existing social, cultural and religious norms. By investigating her private life (and body) and judging her, we – the audience – gain a certain pleasure from being able to declare: “I am not like her, therefore I am morally better.”
Along with the emergence of modern technology where everything, including our desires and fantasies, can be easily archived and commodified, media reports about Nikita show that we are all not that innocent when it comes to sex. Frankly speaking, we all derive pleasure from it, even if we don’t want to admit it. We enjoy reading sensual reports on Nikita’s arrest (the more the details, the more enjoyment we gain), while also insisting that we, of course, are not perverts.