Monday, November 12, 2007

Jakarta Undercover

Once again, the shelves seem to have run dry at my local couple of duty-free stores in Kemang. They haven't actually run dry this time though; the two shops in question are in fact loaded with booze but are selling only to residents holding yellow, diplomatic cards. As I'm sure you have inferred by now, I haven't got one.

Still, the booze-less gloom was dispelled last weekend by the impending nuptials of a close friend of mine. Now my friend had planned to get his civil marriage certificates sorted out at the registry office last Saturday in preparation for a full and proper religious ceremony on the 14th in Sumatra. He had organized a traditional pre-wedding, gentlemen's stag night party for last Saturday evening, set for after the mere formality of the registry office certificate gig.

Unfortunately, my comrade's Indonesian fiancé arrived dressed up to the nines with about 20 of her friends and clearly considered the registry office experience to be the full wedding deal. My confused friend and his fiancé/bride left the office in a car with just married plastered all over it and lots of flowers stuck to it. And who wouldn't be confused? He was now in the rather untenable position of having his stag night on his wedding night. I would certainly feel slightly conflicted to say the least.

Anyway, the stag night/bucks' party did ultimately get underway at one of those posh, Kota karaoke joints with private rooms. According to that best-selling sleaze-manual-masquerading-as-journalistic-reportage, Jakarta Undercover, all manner of naughty stuff occurs in the private confines of the karaoke chamber and this turned out to be a fine opportunity to check out whether the salacious bestseller was really true (purely for journalistic purposes you understand).

When I arrived I was shown into a luxuriously huge karaoke room full of plush couches and TVs. This was merely one of seemingly hundreds of similar rooms that lay behind many doors in the dimly lit maze of corridors of the joint (whose name is exactly 1006 less than the current year). About 20 guys, some of whom I knew, were relaxing on the couches drinking beer. So what was going to happen now?

If it had been a classic British stag night, we would have been sitting around in some dismal pub somewhere when a policewoman would have walked in, approached the groom-to-be and convinced him that he was under arrest for some spurious crime or other. She would then have announced that she was going to, "Take down his particulars," and have subsequently taken down her own particulars, revealing herself as the traditional but nevertheless rather hackneyed and lame stag night strip-o-gram.

I'm sure that many other cultures in the world have their own version of this pre-wedding, male rite of passage. In the end however we were treated to a couple of young females who, despite not being dressed as policewomen, nevertheless proceeded to take all their clothes off and jiggle about a bit to the music.

There was a fair amount of testosterone and beer fuelled jeering and leering at this point I suppose. A friend I was chatting to though told me that he used to work in such a place (not stripping himself I might add). He claimed that during the female equivalent of a stag night, often known as a hen party, the women generally act much wilder with a male stripper than the men do with the female equivalent. Interesting point, something to do with sexual harassment prohibitions in our society perhaps? Who knows. I only know that as a red-blooded male I felt simultaneously hot under the collar and yet slightly unnerved by the group, public striptease experience.

Indonesia is a politely religious society in general as we know and yet plenty of stuff like this goes on under the surface. Is this just hypocrisy or is something deeper going on within the human psyche here? Why do humans of all races form family units and yet frequent strip clubs or brothels? Why go to a stag night and make a public display of promiscuity before the monogamous pair bonding of marriage?

The whole evening brought into sharp focus a book I recently read on evolutionary biology and the genetics of animal behavior (bear with me). In the animal kingdom, apparently, some species have evolved monogamous, pair bonding rituals. Animals like these, such as many bird species or marmoset monkeys, mate for life and the male of the species is just as involved in raising the offspring as the mother is. Pair bonded species are picky who they mate with as they will be together a long time and females look for good fathering skills in a mate. Pair bonded species also exhibit low levels of male aggression and, in addition, the males look very like the females in both size and appearance.

By contrast, tournament species such as peacocks or baboons or seals are the complete opposite in their genetically predetermined sexual behaviour. In these species, the males aggressively fight each other for dominance of the females and the chance to be the sole procreator of the group. In such tournament harems, 95% of the offspring are fathered by just four or 5% of the males. The winning males are consequently not interested in playing any role in the bringing up of the children as their genes will be passed on through their many female partners and they are also not picky about who they mate with. Females are only interested in getting quality sperm from their males as opposed to any non-existent fathering skills. In addition, natural selection has honed the males’ bodies for aggressive male/male conflict and thus a sexual dimorphism has emerged, i.e. the males look really different from the females and are up to twice their size.

So which group do humans belong to? Difficult to say isn't it? The punchline is that our species apparently possesses genes typical to both pair bonded and tournament species and we thus fall somewhere in the middle in our instincts. This can be seen in our physical makeup too; males and females are not identical but neither, obviously, are men twice as big as women. On average, in fact men are slightly beefier than women. We are not quite monogamous and yet not quite polygamous. Thus we are, in scientific jargon, a tragically confused species. This conflict has no doubt given as 90% of our great literature and art and perhaps also the guilt ridden sexual prohibitions of our religions that we struggle to live up to.

It was definitely baboons in that karaoke room though, with a few Bintang drinking bull seals thrown into the mix. We didn't lock stag -like antlers however and fight over breeding rights with the bare maidens. Instead, I left afterwards and went to KFC.