Ask an average American about the significance of the first Monday of September. For some teens, it is the last long weekend to party before the school year begins, and for some parents, the last chance to have a family vacation before fall. Most might describe it as the end of the summer season, marked by final backyard barbeques and pool parties; some sports fans might even tell you that it marks the kick-off of the NFL season.
My guess is, most will simply not remember this day is Labor Day. Those who do might describe the holiday as a day free from labor, curiously enough, and perhaps only a few historians or political union members would speak passionately about the need to recognize rights and protect lives of American laborers.
In Indonesia, you don’t have to ask an average citizen about the purpose of their Labor Day, celebrated annually on May 1st in solidarity with most other nations. You just have to take a look around, driving the city streets or watching the television screen, and your senses will be overcome by the harmonies of shouting and honking, echoing out from lively protests and loud demonstrations. If you are an American registered with the U.S. Embassy, like me, you will even get an e-mail alert in which you are “urged to avoid the areas of demonstrations if possible, and to exercise caution if within the vicinity of any demonstrations.”
Despite my curiosity and inherent magnetic attraction to crowds and excitement, I chose to explore Indonesian Labor Day in a rather unconventional way.
I hit up the local brothel.
When greeted with the customary “Mau ke mana?” (Where are you going?) by a friend in Indonesia, you would never actually say you’re going to Sari Hitam, or “Black Juice”, the nickname for the red-light district in downtown Bandung. Those who trek from the main streets to the back alleys of Black Juice go under a veil of nonchalant secrecy. Because unless you are a community health worker offering HIV testing, free condoms, and information, like our staff at Rumah Cemara, you are a man seeking sexual satisfaction. And even in a land culturally and religiously Muslim, with strict consequences for adultery or sex before marriage, the sex industry is thriving. These laborers are not counted by the census as part of the formal labor force, and generally never stand up for their rights, afraid of arrest, abuse, or social ostracization.
But they work in the thousands.
And living the hypocrisy that plagues so many nations trying to hide rather than regulate the industry, the customers are even a stronger force, including policemen, politicians, and army officials – the men hired to protect committing the abuses themselves.
I have yet to join our staff on an outing to Black Juice, though I will, where they arrive hours before business opens in order to have the attention of the women workers and their pimps. Before I do that, I wanted to get a glimpse of Black Juice at peak hours, to go undercover and get an understanding of the atmosphere when the lines are long, and business is buzzing.
So in order to spy on the scene, I had to become one of those men.
I had a few challenges first – namely, hiding my feminine shape from the waist down, and covering my face enough to hide the undeniably Western traits, yet leave my eyes space to see. So I pulled up around my waist the loosest pair of pants I could find, covered myself in an oversized, black hoodie, tied a black handkerchief around my face, from the nose down, and nestled my helmet onto my head. I had originally asked my co-worker if we could walk through, so I could get the closest look, but he recommended we motorbike instead, as even in my getup I could be discovered, and cause a commotion.
How grateful I was for his advice, as we drove off the main road and into the maze of brothels just after midnight on Saturday night. The alleys were packed with men, young and old, well dressed and missing teeth, lounging on their parked motorbikes or on makeshift benches. Nearly every single person we passed eyed us directly with suspicion, as they did to passersby in front of us as well. I imagined that to them, anyone who was not ‘one of them’ could be police, the ones who come to break up the party.
I had originally expected to be able to look around freely and take in the scene, protected by my get-up, but instead I found myself ducking down behind my co-worker, looking to the ground, avoiding eyes, and glancing up, distinctly into the brothel front rooms and not into others’ eyes.
A few minutes in and my helmet’s plastic windshield was trapping hot air inside, forcing sweat beads to slip down the sides of my face. Though perspiring heavily inside my heavy sweatshirt, I dared not make any move that would reveal an inch more of my feminine face or white skin.
So I kept watching, in the heat of my disguise. And though I expected to see more fear coming from the working women than the male customers, the reality before me was quite opposite. Gliding gracefully through the crowds of men were young women, dressed in skin-tight mini skirts and towering high heels, low cut shirts and shimmering lipstick. They laughed and smiled between themselves, ignoring the men around them as they fluttered by, socializing in tight circles in the front rooms of every brothel we passed by, smoking, chatting, as if this was just a normal night of gossip and girl talk.
Although there are violent abuses that permeate the sex industry (as we learned from Nia’s story), women who are physically forced to work in the brothel with no choice or voice in the matter, the atmosphere of Black Juice was not one of desperation or violence, in fact it was almost an air of comfort and relaxation, save for the suspicion of the men waiting their turn. What happened behind closed doors, I had no idea. But it seemed like a bustling evening of business as usual.
As our bike exited the final alley, driving back out onto the main road, I quickly removed my mask, unzipped my sweatshirt, and began asking away, as my co-workers have come to expect from me.
My main question was, why did those women seem so happy? Was that a genuine emotion, or were they just as heavily disguised as I was, they behind makeup and forced smiles?
Although we must remain focused on both preventing and rescuing abduction and abuse cases like Nia, my co-worker explained, we also must accept that many women freely choose this labor, and do not want to be “rescued”, because being “rescued” means being fired, and losing a salary.
But surely there must be other job options?
Actually, he countered back, in addition to health services we provide these women opportunities to attend job skills training – practical skills for the local economy like cooking and sewing or professional skills like typing or writing, where there is a domestic market to purchase their goods and utilize their services.
I remember hearing this months ago, when I helped write a grant for a potential donor interested in funding “sexual rights protection” work. But rather than write a proposal and budget for “economic empowerment” training, as many government agencies attempt to conduct, we wrote a proposal that focused on self-confidence, spirituality, and psycho-social support. The point is to prepare them to receive an economic empowerment training, because the reality in Indonesia is, from these ‘economic empowerment’ trainings only few feel empowered to leave sex work.
Most will come for a training, try a new profession, and realize that the money comes faster and more reliably with sex work. It’s hard for a woman to start frying dough, worrying her neighbors might not be hungry for a sweet treat, or sew a purse, afraid it’s simply not a basic enough commodity to ensure profits. Especially after being in a profession where demand for her services was unconditionally consistent, as predictable as human nature.
Part of me has come to believe that women choosing the profession of sex work is not a tragedy – if and only if the conditions in which sex workers conduct business are respectful, and safe – namely condoms are always used and the woman is never mistreated or abused. Because if a woman wants to choose to use her body to make money, then that industry must be regulated strictly, or else too many abuses and rights violations will occur.
Yet part of me still wishes there was an upstream approach to ensuring young women never turned to sex work in the first place, and that, despite the undeniably eternal demand that will exist from men to pay for sex if they cannot get it consensually, that if there was no supply of women willing to sell sex, the demand would have to disappear.
I very quickly realize this is a ridiculous dream, and that even if women stopped selling sex all-together, this would do nothing to alter the psychology of abusive men, and as a result cases of spousal abuse, sexual violence, rape, and incest would surely increase.
But there must be ways to intervene and at least give young women a clearer set of options to choose from, to prevent this situation of women feeling sex work is literally is their only option to earn a salary.
I couldn’t help but wonder, as a woman myself who would never consider, even in circumstances of unemployment and personal poverty, becoming a sex worker: what are some factors that allow me to never have to consider sex work?
Certainly family and social networks, meaning that if I personally ever fell into extreme poverty as an individual, and even if my family did, we have strong enough networks of friends and family who would help us survive. And I can’t foresee the American economy ever becoming so poor that all of our friends and family fell into poverty as well.
Perhaps many of the Black Juice women do not have such wide networks, especially when transportation and technology costs keep people restricted within village limits and prevent this network creation that is widespread from state to state in the USA. And a reality for many rural Indonesian women is that their local economy is so poor, that their parents are even involved in selling them to pimps, so they can be a family breadwinner.
Then there might be eduction. Clearly, more job opportunities are available to women with a college degree, or even a high school diploma, and perhaps it’s no surprise that there are more women workers and male customers when we see, according to the UN Foundation, that out of the 130 million recorded out-of-school youth worldwide, 70% are girls.
Do girls end up becoming sex workers because there are literally no other options? And if so, how can a government or NGO response help, rather than “rescue” a woman and leave her even poorer, to provide her a set of options from which to choose, options she is prepared to choose from psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually? Some interventions, like the grant Rumah Cemara hopes to win for our sexual rights protection program, are specific and measurable. Others, I imagine, will be more difficult and come over the long term. How to strengthen social and professional networks, beyond the boundaries of isolated villages, and within the most popular profession of agriculture?
The next morning, Ginan and I biked up to Lembang, a more rural and mountainous town north of Bandung, where Rumah Cemara has just launched our first business venture, a warnet (an abbreviation of warung internet, or small store offering access to the internet). Ideally, “Warnet Cemara” is just the first of several income-generating projects that will help sustain our organization decades into the future, when international donor aid may run dry. We used savings to purchase six monitors and hard drives, rent out a small street-side store space, and hook up an internet connection – a more difficult commodity to find outside of urban Bandung.
Two former outreach-workers, now trained to run the warnet, greeted me with enormous smiles as I slipped off my sandals and looked around the room, every computer in use, a teenage face in a trance – likely browsing Facebook or chatting on Yahoo Messenger – behind every monitor. Perhaps it was just the fresh mountain air, but both staff members – like most staff, living with HIV – were absolutely glowing with a new energy I had never seen from them at the office.
Now, I cannot jump to conclusions, because I did not ask them why they seemed so happy. But I can’t help but think it has to do with the change in position, from an HIV outreach worker, to running a warnet. While some people are inherently suited for public service work – providing someone in need a service that likely does not put a direct profit in your pocket – others, and I would argue the majority of people, are fulfilled by seeing an immediate return to their investment of time and energy. For business owners, as our staff have now essentially become, or for sex workers, this is instant financial profit. Cash in hand. Perhaps as strong as man’s inherent nature to crave sexual satisfaction is this desire to earn a profit from work.
In an ideal world, from a public health perspective, everyone could find satisfaction within consensual, monogamous relationships, and everyone could make a profit from a regulated, formal industry. Clearly, our world is still far from this ideal. So, as we create, implement, and evaluate ongoing efforts – across sectors of economy, health, and education – it may be wise to keep in mind a guiding principle, particularly in honor of Labor Day, and remembering the workers in every sector, including the informal and under- or un-paid laborers.
Some will argue that there are simply not enough ‘enjoyable’ jobs to go around, and that inevitably, some laborers will have to be the miserable trash collectors and toilet cleaners. I believe otherwise, that even in unattractive or physically trying careers, there is satisfaction to be had by the laborer, if and only if the conditions in which they work, as stated above, are respectful and safe.
So I ask as a guiding point only, are the job options (read: paths out of poverty) created by governments and NGOs providing laborers the privilege of living through their work, or just the pressure of working for their life?