Saturday, March 27, 2010


Recently, a friend of mine suggested an evening’s R&D mission to possibly the dodgiest area of Jakarta. I am referring to Kalijodo, a street full of bar/brothels that lies next to the less than crystalline waters of the Grogol River just under the airport toll road in West Jakarta. The notorious Kalijodo red light district has apparently existed for about 300 years and some of its more wizened residents look as if they've been around for a significant proportion of that time.

Anyway, on Tuesday evening, the three of us parked up a side street close by to the 100 or so not exactly club class Bintang, baso and bonking joints that line the main Kalijodo strip. We soon found ourselves enjoying the fragrant ammonia fragrance of the river air as we promenaded past the endless parade of neon lit Bintang signs and locals trying to beckon us into tiny discos resembling Guatemalan prison cells, all blasting out 1000 watts of Dangdut classics. Surely a romantic ambience to rival Paris in the spring.

"Looking lady Mr?" came the persistent refrain however I think I can speak for all three of us when I say that the Guantanamo Bay atmosphere of many of these shantytown dance floors proved to be something of a passion killer. Many of these places look as if you'd need to wipe your feet on the way out. 

The general dilapidation and desperation of the area was palpable and we soon sought refuge in what appeared to be the highest class joint in the area, the sizeable Intan Executive Club. We stepped across the threshold and our eyes adjusted to the near pitch black interior. Many clubs in Jakarta seem to be enamored of the darkened movie theatre approach to interior design. Perhaps it’s all part of an energy-saving push for a greener, more ecologically sustainable prostitution industry or maybe every watt saved on lighting can be channeled mercilessly into the earsplitting PA systems, which will have you curling up into a foetal position if you're foolish enough to select a table close to the speakers. Most likely though, the darkness of these places provides a reassuring cloak of anonymity for the gentleman punters whose significant other halves wouldn't be too pleased if they knew where their hubbies were.

On our Tuesday night mission however, we were the only ‘executives’ in attendance and thus we were given the royal treatment. Every single person in the building it seemed (including around 20 girls) was paraded past us and shook our hands. The Intan was clearly a cut above the other horny truck driver haunts that we'd seen earlier and the not quite Vegas-esque cabaret at least made us young executives feel as if we were on more familiar Jakarta nightlife territory.

Mind you, maybe all is class snobbery. This may have represented the cheaper end of the spectrum but, in fact, Jakarta is saturated with prostitution and there are places to suit all income brackets, even five-star hotels. Kalijodo itself exists in a sort of corrupt legal grey area, despite various efforts to shut it down, as do many of the city's cat houses, spas and naughty karaoke joints.

Prostitution itself is legal in some parts of the world and illegal in others and even feminists don't agree on this topic. Those in favour of legalisation say that in a free society, making the world's oldest trade illegal violates basic rights and individual liberties. Obviously it's a crime to force somebody into such activity however, if you sell your body of your own volition, then that is your right. There's also the pragmatic argument that legalisation protects women from disease and violence as they can be monitored and helped. In New York, apparently close to 60% of streetwalkers carry the AIDS virus whereas in Nevada, where there is a legalised free market in prostitution, AIDS barely registers. At a deeper, more philosophical level, author Angela Carter posits an oft heard argument reflecting wider economic power in our society thus, "What is marriage but prostitution to one man instead of many?"

Opponents of prostitution say that it commodifies women as sex objects, leads to violence against them and is a consequence of male domination. I guess that I'd say that, for better or worse, the flesh trade is ineradicable and will always be with us, whether legal or illegal, a direct consequence of the fact that human beings possess a mix of genes typical to both monogamous and non-monogamous species. Schopenhauer once said, "There are 80,000 prostitutes in London alone and what are they, if not bloody sacrifices on the altar of monogamy?"

You'll never get rid of Jakarta's night butterflies, that’s for sure, as the seedy boulevards of Kalijodo testify. You’d have more chance of enjoying a night of passion with Herr Ratzinger (actually... scratch that). If you're going to criminalize hooking though, then at least bust the men as well as (or even instead of) the girls. It's always the ladies who are victimized here, as with the case of the sexy dancers in Bandung who were recently prosecuted. There's a certain strain of misogyny in Indonesian society that is unfortunately dovetailing with the increasing Islamification of the country at the moment.

I know a girl who was once in a group rounded up by the police for the crime of being in a disco. She was sent to a so-called, "Re-education," Centre in East Jakarta (it was a prison) in order to learn sewing (great). Encouragingly though, she managed to escape after three months by climbing out of a second-floor window and jumping down off a 10 foot wall to freedom. Girl power at its best.