Sex Work and Class Mobility

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Indonesian Studies
Working Papers


Making the Best of What You’ve
Got: Sex Work and Class Mobility
in the Riau Islands

Michele Ford and Lenore Lyons
The University of Sydney and the University of Wollongong

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Making the Best of What You’ve Got:
Sex Work and Class Mobility in the Riau Islands

Michele Ford and Lenore Lyons
The University of Sydney and the University of Wollongong

Tanjung Balai Karimun is a town of approximately 95,000 people in the Riau Archipelago.1
Together with the islands of Batam and Bintan, Karimun became part of a Special Economic Zone
proposed in 2006 with the aim of enhancing economic development by capitalising on the islands’
close proximity to Singapore.2 Its development has not been limited to the export of raw materials
such as tin, rubber, timber and copra, and more recently sand and granite; like Batam and Bintan, it
has an extensive sex industry which caters predominantly to working-class Singaporeans and
Malaysians. This chapter examines the place of ‘sex as work’ for women in the town of Tanjung
Balai Karimun, and the impact of women’s engagement in the sex industry on other parts of their
lives.3 In particular, it focuses on the life histories of Lia and Ani,4 two former commercial sex
workers who have since left the industry as a result of their marriages to foreign men. Like many of
their peers in the Riau Islands, these women have managed to mencari kesempatan dalam
kesempitan (to find opportunities in hardship), and turn their exposure to foreign clients in the
brothels of Tanjung Balai Karimun into a chance to move into the lower middle class.5
The Riau Islands’ location just kilometres from the much wealthier Singapore and Malaysia
provides sex workers like Lia and Ani with access to the social and economic capital (Bourdieu
1977) not available to their counterparts in other places in Indonesia. We argue that the
opportunities available to these women are the product of the Riau Islands’ particular spatiality, and
a pattern of migration which has seen large numbers of temporary and long-term migrants from
throughout the Indonesian archipelago move in and out of the islands in search of work. Our
analysis draws on the writings of Kamala Kempadoo (1999), who argues that the structure and
significance of sex work is locally and historically specific and is determined by patterns of
economic development, histories of colonialism, and normative constructions of sexuality and
gender. Attention to these specificities allows us to see that neither ‘sex workers’ nor ‘clients’ are

1 This figure is based on the population of the Districts of Karimun, Meral and Tebing as of May 2002 (Kabupaten
Karimun 2002). The fieldwork on which this paper is based was funded by an Australian Research Council (ARC)
Discovery Project grant In the Shadow of Singapore: The Limits of Transnationalism in Insular Riau (DP0557368) –
see project website Research for this chapter began during initial
visits to Karimun, Batam and Bintan in 2004; repeat visits were made in 2005 and 2006. Interviews were conducted in
Indonesian and translated by the first author, who has been travelling to the Riau islands since 1993. Thanks to Nick
Long and Lyn Parker for providing helpful comments on an early draft of this paper.
2 Before the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) was announced, the three islands were part of the Indonesia-Malaysia-
Singapore Growth Triangle (IMS-GT) which was established in 1990. The underpinning philosophy of the IMS-GT
was economic complementarity in which Singaporean capital would be combined with Indonesian and Malaysian
labour and land to facilitate cross-border regional growth (Sparke et al. 2004). In recent years, the promise of the IMS-
GT has not been realised and the new SEZ is an effort to reinvigorate economic development in the islands. The history
of economic interaction between Karimun and Singapore is much longer than the life of the Special Economic Zone, or
the growth triangle that preceded it. See Ford and Lyons (2006).
3 Unlike destinations like Bali, the islands are not a recognised destination for female sex tourists. Male homosexual sex
work represents a relatively small segment of the industry. Researchers working on this area have confirmed the
presence of homosexual sex tourism in the islands, but note its underground nature (Personal communication with Dede
Oetomo, March 2007).
4 Pseudonyms are used throughout this chapter at the request of informants, except in the case of NGO activists. The
stories of Ani and Lia are based on in-depth interviews conducted in August 2006, which were taped and transcribed.
5 For accounts of other sex workers in the Islands see Lindquist (2002; 2004).

fixed, universal or transhistorical; in other words, ‘prostitution is not a single thing’ (Nussbaum
cited in Schotten 2005: 212). Such an approach allows us to pay attention to the culturally
embedded meanings associated with commercialised sexual behaviour in particular local settings,
and to recognise that not all sex workers are ‘the same’. Many women succeed in making the
transition from brothel-based sex worker to Batam wife,6 but the different modalities of sex work in
the islands demonstrate that not all women are able to take full advantage of opportunities for social
and economic advancement presented by the particular socio-economic conditions found there. The
incompleteness of these strategies suggests that framing sex work within either an empowered or
coerced model overlooks the complex realities of women’s lives.
In the literature on sex work in Southeast Asia, a structure/agency binary is often used to
describe the choices that sex workers face (Law 2000). This binary, based on a forced/voluntary
dichotomy, operates between those who privilege free will (women freely choose to enter
prostitution) versus those who emphasise the constraints on women’s choices (the structural factors
that make prostitution a job opportunity for women) (Law 2000: 97). For example, in her brief
account of freelance sex workers working in nightclubs and discotheques in Jakarta in the mid-
1980s, Alison Murray (1991: 125) describes sex work as a ‘rational choice in response to the
economic prospects of the city, and in selling their bodies as commodities [the women] are
exploiting the capitalist system for their own purposes’. In the absence of a more detailed study of
these women, however, Murray risks overstating the extent to which these sex workers are able to
turn the tables and take control of their situation. As Rebecca Surtees (2004: 50) notes, it is
important not to falsely dichotomise the ways that women experience sex work because ‘sex
workers do not conceive of their lives and experiences only in oppressive or empowered terms’.
Our study supports this view and shows that some sex workers may shift between oppressed and
empowered narratives of their entry into – and experiences of – sex work depending on the
Regardless of the extent of agency or choice involved in the way in which they entered the
sex industry, the women we interviewed in Tanjung Balai Karimun describe the provision of paid
sexual services as a form of ‘work’. In adopting the language of ‘sex work’ to describe the
commercial sexual exchanges that take place in Tanjung Balai Karimun, we are both using the
women’s own terminology and explicitly engaging with Western feminist debates about
prostitution. Crudely summarised, the debate is marked by a continuum between two polar
positions: the radical feminist position, which views prostitution as a manifestation of male
domination and women’s oppression; and the sex and work position, which sees prostitution as a
form of labour under capitalism. Radical feminists view prostitution as the ultimate expression of
male dominance – as Kathleen Barry (1996: 9) states, ‘prostitution [is] the cornerstone of all sexual
exploitation’. According to this argument, there is no place for sex workers to claim that
commercialised sexual activity is not always entirely harmful or alienating. Radical feminists thus
deny the possibility of women’s agency in relation to sex work. In contrast, the sex as work position
claims that prostitution is a form of income-generating labour, which allows feminist activists to
focus on the criminal and legal dimensions of women’s labour (e.g. pushing for decriminalisation or
legalisation, and for recognition under international labour conventions); and to attend to the
working conditions under which women labour (e.g. health conditions, safety standards, hours of
work). As a discursive strategy it also ‘opens up a space for the formation of new identities not
based on passivity, or sexual exploitation and sexual victimhood’ (Sullivan 2003: 78).
We begin this paper with an overview of our case study site. We draw on our visits to
brothel complexes and hotels in Tanjung Balai Karimun, and in-depth interviews with sex workers,
hotel and karaoke bar owners, public officials and NGO activists who deal with sex workers, and
members of the general community, to describe the social, economic and cultural contexts in which
the sex industry operates. We then turn to the stories of Ani and Lia to explore women’s

6 The terms ‘Batam wife’, ‘Bintan wife’, ‘weekend wife’ or ‘mistress’, are widely used to describe an Indonesian
woman in a medium- to long-term relationship with a foreign man in the Riau Islands.

experiences of sex work. Both women have worked in brothels, while Lia also worked as a
freelance sex worker.7 Through their narratives we explore the working conditions of brothel-based
sex workers, and the ways that ethnicity, class and nationality shape their interactions with their
clients. We also examine the women’s feelings about sex work and the role that dominant
community attitudes towards prostitution play in shaping their management of working life and
home life. Our research shows that regardless of how women enter the sex industry, their
experience of sex work is, as Lia observes, ultimately shaped by their ability to ‘make the best of
what you’ve got’.

Sex Work in the Riau Islands

Girls and women engaged in the sex industry almost always come to the Riau Islands from
other parts of Indonesia – from Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi, but mainly from Java.8 As is the
case for the informal sector more generally, it is notoriously difficult to determine the actual
numbers of women who provide commercial sexual services, or the economic value of their work.
The inherent problems of studying the informal economy are further compounded in the case of sex
work because of the ambiguous legal status of prostitution in Indonesia, the strong moral
proscriptions that surround prostitution, the temporary nature of this work for many women and the
diversity of forms that sex work takes.9 Although exact figures on the numbers of sex workers in
the Riau Islands are difficult to obtain, in 2004 one NGO that deals with sex workers on Batam had
over 3500 sex workers on its books, while an NGO in Tanjung Balai Karimun dealt with almost
1000 women.
The Riau Islands are considered to be a key hub in human trafficking activities in Southeast
Asia. The close proximity of Singapore and Malaysia means that the islands play a strategic role in
both domestic and international trafficking of women and girls for commercial sex work and
domestic work (Agustinanto 2003: 178). Research suggests that women who are trafficked to the
Riau Islands from all over Indonesia, but particularly from Indramayu in West Java, are tricked into
sex work by promises of good jobs in factories or restaurants (Agustinanto 2003: 179). Irwan, an
activist from a Batam NGO, argues, however, that many of the women who end up in the industry
have previous experience as sex workers. His theory is that if girls are under-age, they are very
likely to have been tricked into entering the industry, but most of those above 18 already have
experience as sex workers elsewhere, especially those from Indramayu and Karawang:10

If you go to the entertainment venues in Batam, Tanjung Balai or wherever you’re sure to
find women from Indramayu, Subang and Karawang. You can tell from the way they talk –
they use Sundanese, but their accent is a bit different. In the lokalisasi (localised brothel
complex) they’re commonly referred to as barang baru stok lama (new items, old stock).
What this means is that they’ve just arrived in Batam as new sex workers, but they’ve been
sex workers in Jakarta for a long time. When we ask them where they come from, they say
they used to work in Jakarta, but got moved on. When lokalisasi were torn down to make

7 The sex industry in Indonesia, as elsewhere, is extremely diverse. Our study focuses primarily on brothel-based sex
work. For a brief overview of other types of sex work see Surtees (2003).
8 According to statistics supplied by the NGO Kaseh Puan, in September 2005 the brothel at Payalabu near Tanjung
Balai Karimun employed 156 sex workers, of whom 10 were from the Greater Jakarta Area, 115 from West Java, 19
from Central and East Java, 10 from mainland Sumatra and 2 from Sulawesi. According to sources within the industry
and NGO activists, some local girls go to the discotheques and ‘sleep around’, but they hardly ever engage in sex for
9 In addition to the different forms of sex work, many women who receive money or gifts in exchange for sex acts may
not consider what they do to constitute work and/or prostitution.
10 These two areas have a long history of supplying young women for Indonesia’s sex industry. This practice is said to
have begun in the pre-colonial period. Extreme poverty and low education levels continue the practice today and it has
resulted in chain migration within entire families with mothers, sisters and daughters all working in the sex industry.
For further discussion see Sulistyaningsih (2002).

room for housing estates, they decided to try their luck in the islands. Some came on their
own, while others were invited to come to Batam or Tanjung Balai or Tanjung Batu or
Tanjung Pinang by women already working here. That’s generally the case. (Interview,
December 2004)11

The sex industry in the islands relies heavily on Singaporean clients. According to a survey
conducted by the NGO for which Irwan worked, almost half of all sex workers’ clients were from
Singapore.12 Almost all of these men are over thirty years of age, and the majority are well over
forty. Whereas Indonesian sex workers charge approximately S$5013 per night, Singaporean
prostitutes may charge the same amount for one hour (The Straits Times 2004). The islands are
located a short distance away from Singapore by high-speed ferry, with journeys lasting between 45
and 105 minutes, depending on the destination. Singaporean passport holders can enter Indonesia
without a visa and stay for up to 30 days on a tourist pass. These men also enjoy the added benefits
of cheap food, gambling, shopping, and other forms of entertainment during their visits to the
islands, but the main attraction for them is sex. As Irwan notes, the profile of the client base is
broadly similar throughout the islands:

The old men from Singapore – who we call apek-apek Singapur (old Singaporean Chinese
men) – come to Batam, Tanjung Balai and Tanjung Pinang for gambling or for sex. There’s
nothing else that draws them here … there’s no nature tourism like in Bali or Bandung, or
other places in Indonesia like Lombok. The reality is that the only attraction Batam, Tanjung
Balai and Tanjung Pinang has for Singaporeans is sex.14

Indonesia’s national criminal code does not prohibit sex work. It is illegal, however, to participate
in the trade of women or underage males, or to earn a profit from the prostitution of women
(Sulistyaningsih 2002: 43-4).15 Although the national criminal code is silent on the issue of sex
work, Islamic laws on fornication (zina) could presumably be used against married prostitutes and
clients, but the burden of evidence is usually too difficult in such cases to enable prosecution (Jones,
Sulistyaningsih, and Hull 1995: 12).16 In the absence of national criminal laws to prohibit
commercial sex, provincial and sub-district governments have introduced a range of regulations
aimed at monitoring and restricting the sale of sexual services. However, in many places, local
authorities have stopped short of banning prostitution, choosing instead to implement a regime of
semi-legal control and surveillance. This de facto regulation of prostitution has driven many sex

11 These observations have been corroborated by men and women working in the industry.
12 In 2004 one newspaper reporter claimed that approximately 600 Singaporean men visited the island of Batam every
Saturday (Tan 2004). This figure is extremely difficult to verify and we have not seen any comparable figures for
Karimun. However, interviews with sex workers and NGO workers in Tanjung Balai support the findings of the Batam
13 In September 2006, S$10 was worth US$6.30.
14 Although Singaporeans also clearly come for gambling and other activities as well as sex, this sentiment has been
routinely reflected in the more than eighty general interviews conducted in the islands for our broader ARC project.
15 Rebecca Surtees (2004: 2) notes that the draft criminal code then being circulated criminalised sex work only in the
case of solicitation in public spaces (Article 434); and included articles about intermediaries who facilitate and profit
from sex work (Article 432) and the trade in women for sex work (Article 460). According to a representative of
Komnas Perempuan (Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women), the draft should enter parliament
for discussion in 2007 (Personal Communication, 31 October 2006).
16 While Islam and Christianity both contain strong moral sanctions against sexual relations outside of marriage,
attitudes towards pre-marital sex vary throughout different parts of Indonesia. Some Indonesians are more tolerant of
sex outside of marriage than many others, and these differences are not always the result of religious beliefs. However,
since Reformasi the sex sector has been targeted by Islamic leaders, who have succeeded in shutting down the operation
of numerous nightclubs, massage parlours and brothel complexes in Indonesia, most notably Kramat Tunggak in
Jakarta. Some local governments have also implemented new, stricter measures. For example the local government of
Tangerang, in Greater Jakarta, has passed local bylaws that permit the ‘the arrest of any person who displays the
‘qualities’ of a prostitute’ (Warburton 2006: 42).

workers into brothel complexes (lokalisasi) where, according to Jones et al. (1995: 13), ‘they are
controlled by pimps, procurers and the local government and police, but generally tolerated by the
society’. Lokalisasi began to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s throughout Indonesia. These centres
were modelled on similar centres established by the Dutch colonial government (Sulistyaningsih
2002).17 Formally described as Rehabilitation Centres for Immoral Women (Panti Rehabilitasi
Wanita Tuna Susila), lokalisasi are usually established as gated or closed communities consisting of
multiple brothels each run by a different pimp (germo) or madam (mamasan or mami).18 Each
brothel houses a number of women, who live full-time on the premises. In addition to the lokalisasi,
sex work also occurs in unofficial brothels (rumah bordel), such as the one in which Lia worked
before becoming a freelancer, which have less stringent rules and regulations governing the
behaviour of workers and clients.
Lokalisasi are often regulated by local police and/or army officials, and the industry is
managed by financial interests that involve members of the Indonesian military, local government,
and local and foreign business. In contrast, unofficial brothels are often subject to police harassment
and official clamp-downs (Sedyaningsih-Mamahit 1999: 1102).19 In the islands, the local authorities
and the military have been active players in all parts of the industry. As Ali, the former manager of
a large karaoke bar financed by Singaporean interests in Tanjung Pinang, observed:

In the Riau Islands, prostitution is considered halal but haram.20 Prostitution is banned by
the government under national law, but because we’re close to the border, Singaporeans kept
coming here looking for sex, and we made the best we could of the opportunity. As a result,
the economy started growing, and taxi-drivers, the guides themselves and even the
supermarkets prospered. But the government kept causing problems because there was no
certainty in their approach. You’d think if prostitution really was beneficial then they’d
work out the best way to deal with it, through a licensing system or whatever. But instead
the prostitutes are persecuted, and every month the prostitution bosses have to pay off
government officials…The industry is considered haram, but if we mengantar upeti (pay
tribute) we become halal. For example when an official comes we have to provide women
and money. If we don’t want to be disturbed, we need to mengantar upeti every month to the
police, the navy and the army, and to the local government. (Interview, December 2004)

The first lokalisasi on Karimun was established at Pelipit in the early 1960s.21 The largest lokalisasi
currently operating is called Payalabu. Although the location of Payalabu has shifted several times
since it was established in 1977, it kept its name.22 The sex industry underwent a number of changes
in the 1990s, which resulted in a diversification of the venues and the increasing presence of
karaoke bars and discotheques. By 1997, it had grown considerably, as demonstrated by the
establishment of a number of hotels and entertainment premises in the town. The foreigner-
dependent sector of the sex industry experienced a massive expansion after the Asian financial
crisis of 1997-98, when the purchasing power of Singaporean and Malaysian sex tourists increased

17 Kamala Kempadoo (1999: 12) notes that similar official brothel complexes were established by the colonial
government in the Dutch Caribbean.
18 Lokalisasi were expanded during the Japanese Occupation (1941-45), primarily to serve Japanese soldiers (Jones et
al. 1995), and this may be the origin of the use of the term mamasan to describe brothel madams.
19 The term lokalisasi fell out of official favour during the Abdurrahman Wahid presidency (1999-2001) because it was
seen as legitimating prostitution. However, it remains the most commonly-used term for areas from which sex workers
can operate on a long-term basis in relative safety.
20 Halal and haram are Islamic terms for ‘that which is permitted’ and ‘that which is forbidden’.
21 Our thanks to Rina Dwi Lestari of the NGO Kaseh Puan for providing information on the history of the sex industry
in Tanjung Balai Karimun.
22 Others in the regency include Batu Tujuh, which was established around the same time as the original Payalabu, and
another on nearby Moro Island. There is also a small lokalisasi, comprised of just a few brothels, at Bukit Jepang.

by a factor of more than five.23 As the number of tourists increased, a brothel complex of over fifty
shop-houses developed in an area called Puakang in the middle of Tanjung Balai Karimun near the
traditional market. Approximately 600 sex workers operated from Puakang, servicing a mixture of
local and foreign clients.
In these early post-crisis years, sex came to define Tanjung Balai Karimun. Around the year
2000, Tanjung Balai Karimun experienced a sex-led construction boom, with some fifty new hotels
being built. According to a major investor in the industry, hotels were fully booked for months on
end, and many tourists had to resort to renting rooms in private homes instead (Confidential
Interview, August 2006). Sex workers engaged by foreigners came and went freely in the large
hotels, inhabiting not only guest rooms and the smoky corridors but also the public spaces of the
lobby, restaurants and bars.24 These sex workers were clearly distinguishable from other women by
both their clothes and demeanour. They would appear in their lingerie in the restaurants at breakfast
with wet hair,25 and in their finery in the lounges and bars in the evenings. In the late afternoon sex
workers wearing spaghetti-strap singlet tops and high heels, often smoking cigarettes, would sit on
clients’ knees, feeding them from their plates, in the open air night market and on the large open-air
promenade of the Hotel Holiday, a multi-storey three-star hotel on the waterfront. As one sex
worker in the town described it, ‘in people’s minds Balai became just a place for sex’ (Interview,
August 2006).

The main street of Tanjung Balai Karimun

23 The cash rate for Rupiah fell from Rp. 1779 for S$1 at the beginning of August 1997 to a low of Rp. 9958 in mid
June 1998, before stabilizing at around Rp. 5000 in late 1998.
24 These observations are based on a fieldwork trip to Tanjung Balai Karimun in December 2004.
25 As Muslims are required to bathe and wash their hair after having sex, wet hair – particularly in the morning – is
often taken to suggest recent sexual activity.

The community in Tanjung Balai is divided over the presence of the industry. Many people
recognise the economic benefit that sex tourism has brought not only to those directly involved in
the industry, but to the community as a whole. However, interviews with a cross-section of people
from Tanjung Balai conducted in 2006 suggest that many are offended by the presence of the sex
workers, and the effects the industry has had on their community.26 After regional autonomy was
introduced in 1999, local lobby groups opposed to prostitution, drugs and gambling developed more
leverage with elected officials and administrative policy-makers.27 When the regent was elected at
the end of 2001, sections of the community demanded that the problem of the ‘sin industries’ be
addressed. A Tim Operasi Penyakit Masyarakat (Social Ills Operation Team) was formed, and the
local government gave brothel operators in the Puakang district an ultimatum to clear their premises
by 7 February 2002. In May, shop-houses in the Puakang complex were sealed by the police and the
sex workers dispersed. About half of the sex workers relocated to an area known as ‘Villa Garden’
in an area that had previously housed karaoke businesses. Many others became freelancers, who
live in the community and operate from hotels and bars.
The industry began to decline in 2003 as a result of both these and other external pressures.
The Singapore economy experienced a downturn in 2002 and there were significant job losses in
many industries. The working class men who frequented the islands for sex found themselves with
less disposable income. The SARS epidemic of 2003 also had a significant impact on their mobility
in to and out of Singapore. There was an even more dramatic downturn in the sex industry in the
second half of 2005 after Sutanto, the new Indonesian national Head of Police, issued an edict that
gambling was no longer to be tolerated. The sex industry, which had been closely tied to gambling,
was badly affected. Around the same time, the local authorities once again increased their
surveillance of commercial sex activities outside the limits of the lokalisasi and began targeting the
simpanan (lit. kept women) of foreign men.28
As a result of these developments, the number of sex workers active in the town began to
shrink. According to NGO data, the number of women residents in Payalabu decreased from 242 in
2003 to fewer than 200 in 2004, and then to just 162 in mid-2006, while another 611 sex workers
operated from Villa Garden or as freelancers living in the community.29 As a consequence, although
sex tourism was still a major industry in 2006, it was much less visible than it had been two years
earlier. Life has become more difficult for the sex workers as the numbers of sex tourists have
decreased. As Ani observed:

It’s not like it used to be. They have to take more clients every day, and they can’t afford to
pick and choose. When I was working, there were always plenty of clients. My friends tell me
now that there’s a lot fewer now. But the sex workers, they’re stuck here. How can they go
home when they’ve already signed a contract? Sometimes they have to accept locals – even
though they only pay a pittance – just to earn enough to put food on the table.

26 Concerns most often cited included the effects of the visual presence of sex workers on children and public morality
in general, and not wanting sex workers or former sex workers living in residential areas.
27 This is true for Batam and Bintan as well, but regional autonomy has been particularly influential for Karimun. Until
1999, Karimun was a kecamatan (district), the second tier of local government under the Kabupaten (regency) of
Kepulauan Riau, the administrative centre of which was located almost five hours away by boat in Tanjung Pinang on
the island of Bintan. When the regional autonomy laws were introduced in 1999, Tanjung Balai became the
administrative centre of a new kabupaten called Karimun with its own bupati (regent) and a local parliament (Dewan
Perwakilan Rakyat Daerah, DPRD).
28 This was not the first time there had been a centrally-initiated government crackdown. Every year the sex and
gambling industries are subject to intense scrutiny around the Muslim fasting month of Ramadhan, when local
governments force entertainment venues to close. In the past, sex workers would return and the gambling
establishments would re-open not long after the Idul Fitri celebrations were over. In contrast, Sutanto’s edict continued
to be enforced.
29 The sex industry continues to reinvent itself. From the middle of 2005, massage parlours offering the services of sex
workers began to emerge in the Kota Kapling and Padi Mas areas.

The Organisation of Brothels

In Tanjung Balai Karimun, as in other parts of the Riau Islands, women operate in a range of
different situations including brothel-based sex work, bar and hotel-based sex work, and longer-
term arrangements with particular clients. There are two main types of sex workers in the town:
those who work as freelancers and those who work in brothel complexes. Freelancers live in the
community, in a rented room or a share house, or in a shop-house in a commercial district. They run
their own businesses, and are not controlled by a madam or a pimp, and therefore pay no
commission. They seek clients in the bars and hotel foyers most often frequented by foreigners.
They may bring clients back to the premises, but are more likely to accompany them to a hotel
room – or in some cases, such as Lia’s – to travel to Singapore or elsewhere to meet them.
In contrast, brothel workers are managed by a madam. In Payalabu, the main lokalisasi on
Karimun, there are two kinds of brothel workers: anak sewa (renters) and anak potong (profit-
sharers). Anak sewa pay around Rp. 600,00030 per month for a room, but their clients pay them
directly and they manage their own costs. In contrast, anak potong pay a relatively low rent, but
their fees are collected by their madam, and they buy everything they need from her on credit.
Theoretically they are paid the balance at the end of their contract (which ranges from six months to
one year), but often they find themselves in debt, and are forced to sign another contract. Women in
Payalabu generally work at night, although regular local clients, such as civil servants, mine
workers, labourers and motorcycle taxi drivers, tend to come during the day. Most of the women’s
nocturnal clients are sailors from local and visiting fishing fleets and from foreign cargo vessels.

Lokalisasi at Payalabu

30 In September 2006, the value of Rp. 1,000,000 was US$110.

As many of the women in the lokalisasi live with their families, Payalabu is not very
different from other semi-rural neighbourhoods during the day, except for the absence of early-
morning bustle. When we visited Payalabu during fieldwork in 2004, we saw women out sweeping
their front yards in dastar (smock dresses) just like those worn by women all over Indonesia. The
area was tidy and well-maintained, and the only visible clue that the area was a lokalisasi was the
local clinic, which displayed posters about reproductive health in its windows, and the illuminated
Sutra condom advertisements outside some of the houses. But by 6 pm, the sex workers are dressed
and waiting in their sitting rooms or on their verandas, hoping to attract customers. At 12 midnight,
a local security officer rings a bell, and clients who wish to spend the night must enter a room,
having paid Rp. 10,000 to the security officer to guarantee their safety. Sex workers in Payalabu
earn between Rp. 50,000 and Rp. 70,000 for anything up to two hours’ work (the sex workers
themselves pay Rp. 35,000 each per month to the security officers). The local term for these short-
term bookings is curi ayam (stealing a chicken). For Rp. 150,000, clients can spend the night in the
lokalisasi, saving the cost of a hotel. Alternatively, clients can pay Rp. 350,000 and take their
chosen sex worker to a hotel, leaving their identity card or licence behind as a guarantee that they
will return. There is no fence around Payalabu, and no guards on the entrance during the day.
However, the lokalisasi is isolated and it is difficult to find transport to Tanjung Balai Karimun, so
the women have difficulty leaving the complex except in the company of a client.
The system is very different at Villa Garden, the successor to Puakang where Ani worked.
Villa Garden, home to many sex workers relatively newly arrived from other parts of Indonesia, is
not recognised as a lokalisasi by the local government. Villa Garden consists of about 50
townhouses crowded together in a walled community with just a single gate, approximately 700
metres from a major road only fifteen minutes from the centre of Tanjung Balai Karimun. It has a
much less homely feel than Payalabu, and the movements of the sex workers who live there are
much more restricted. Villa Garden does not have a collective security system as in Payalabu.
Instead, every house has its own security guard, and residents are not permitted to visit their
neighbours. There are no facilities for entertaining clients in the Villa Garden complex, so all
business between the sex workers and their clients is transacted in hotels outside the complex itself.

Area outside waterfront hotel commonly used by sex workers and their clients

The sex workers in Villa Garden are generally much younger than those at Payalabu, and
many are brought directly to the complex from other parts of Indonesia. Women who arrive by ship
to Villa Garden are charged Rp. 500,000, and those who came by plane Rp. 2,500,000, for their
transportation. They must work to pay off that debt before they receive any money. The hours of
work are the opposite of those at Payalabu. The sex workers are dressed and ready by 8 am, and
clients can make a selection any time between then and 4 pm, when they must leave the complex.
Charges per night vary. Clients pay approximately Rp. 350,000 for a sex worker who has been in
Tanjung Balai Karimun for some time. Prices go up sharply to Rp. 1,000,000 for those who have
just arrived, and around Rp. 5,000,000 for a virgin.31 Unlike Payalabu, locals seldom visit Villa
Garden, where the clientele consists predominantly of working-class Singaporean men who have
come to the islands specifically for sex.

Women’s Experiences of Sex Work

In the Indonesian context, an array of terms is used to describe women who get paid for
providing sexual services and are primarily employed as sex workers. These include terms with
strong (negative) moral overtones such as wanita tuna susila or WTS (women without morals), and
pelacur (prostitute). The more neutral terms pekerja seks komersial (commercial sex worker, PSK)
or pekerja seks (sex worker) are used by women’s groups and NGOs, and sometimes by the sex
workers who access their services.32 In the Riau Islands, sex workers are commonly referred to as
lontong, after a dish consisting of rice cakes and vegetable curry (a play on the term lonte – a
Javanese word for prostitute or ‘loose’ woman). They are also known as ayam (chickens), a term
which is a commonly used in Indonesia for prostitutes, and is also favoured by Singaporeans
visiting the islands. In Tanjung Balai Karimun sex workers are sometimes referred to as ayam
bersepatu (chickens with shoes), because of the distinctive wedged-heeled sandals that they often
wear. The sex workers themselves generally refer to themselves as ayam or anak asuh (foster child)
– with reference to their mami (a term for a madam, but also widely used for ‘mummy’ in middle-
class Indonesian families). As noted at the beginning of this paper, the women we interviewed
invariably referred to their paid sexual activity as pekerjaan, or work, even when they were
bemoaning their lot. In the words of one of our informants, ‘I didn’t want to do this kind of work,
but then I thought, my children need food, I need a living. What else can I do? Why not? Perhaps
it’s fate.’ (Interview, September 2006).
The experiences of sex workers in Tanjung Balai are as varied as the places in which they
work, as the stories of two former sex workers show. In 1997, Ani, a 22 year old Javanese divorcée
with one child from Lampung, was tricked into the sex trade by a neighbour who promised her
lucrative work in Malaysia. On her arrival in the islands Ani’s friend told her she was not going
overseas, but was going to work in a local salon instead. When she arrived at the salon, Ani was
dismayed to find that although some women were indeed cutting hair, most were waiting for a
different kind of client. The salon was located in the Puakang complex described above. According
to Ani, most of the madams in the complex were Chinese who had come from Medan. The women
working there were mostly Javanese women from around Medan in North Sumatra and Sundanese
women from Indramayu. Ani, who describes herself at the time as ‘stupid and uneducated, just a
naïve village girl’, worked in the sex industry in Tanjung Balai Karimun for two years before a
client bought her out of debt bondage in order to marry her. Her clients were mostly from Singapore
and Malaysia, although she occasionally was asked to have sex with locals. The Singaporeans
usually booked her out for at least a night and took her to a hotel. Many of her clients would pretend
she was their girlfriend, or ‘like a wife, only hired’. Sometimes they would invite her out to eat, or

31 Prices quoted here are for 2006.
32 Jones et al. (1995: 18) note that the latter term is rejected by the government, ‘particularly those involved in the
collection of labour force statistics, on the grounds that it implies the acceptance of prostitution as a valid category of
employment, an option they would like to avoid’.

they would order food up to the room. Ani preferred that, because she did not like to be seen in
public with her clients.
Some of Ani’s clients were good to her. For example, there were times when a client, rather
than cancelling his booking when she claimed she had a headache or was menstruating, would just
keep her company and let her get some rest. These men, however, were relatively rare. In Ani’s
words, ‘the nice ones were nice, but most of them were bastards’:

Sometimes they weren’t satisfied with just one – they’d order two or three girls and want to
make out like on the VCDs [pornographic video compact discs]. Or sometimes they’d call
their friends after we got to the hotel and I’d have to have sex with three or four men. I
really didn’t like that. And sometimes they want anal sex. I’ve experienced that twice. Once
with a Chinese – I was so ashamed. I told him that he couldn’t treat me like that just because
he paid for me. I’m a human being, not an animal. I told him I didn’t care if my madam got
angry, I was going to report him to the police.33 That scared him – he went back to
Singapore straight away. The other time, [the client] was an Indian.

Lia, the widowed daughter of Javanese transmigrants in Deli Serdang, had a very different
experience of sex work. Unlike Ani, who had been no further than Jakarta before she was brought
to the Riau Islands, Lia had spent a short time in Singapore as a foreign domestic worker.34 After
returning to her village, a friend suggested that she come and work in Tanjung Balai Karimun to
earn money to support her two children. At first she was employed by a local Malay woman
married to a man from Flores who ran a small independent brothel. But Lia resented having to share
her takings with the madam, who deducted large amounts of money for food and lodging on top of
her 50 per cent cut, and decided to run away. It was easy enough for Lia to establish a freelance
operation, because she had kept a file containing the contact details of clients she had liked when
working in the brothel. In addition to meeting clients in hotels in the islands, Lia made herself
available for visits to Singapore. After receiving a phone call from a client she would make the
short trip to Singapore by ferry, and stay for anything from one night to a week. Lia’s ‘house visits’
were mostly to Chinese and Indian men she had met while working in the brothel, but she also
made new contacts on the ferry. The arrangements were mutually beneficial. All Lia’s costs were
covered, and she went home with S$200 per day in hand – four times the going rate for an overnight
booking in Tanjung Balai Karimun at the time. Her clients had the convenience of not having to
travel to the islands and or to pay for a hotel, and received 24 hours’ service for the price of a short
term visit to a sex worker in Geylang, one of Singapore’s red light districts.
Ani’s and Lia’s day-to-day experiences of sex work were intimately connected to the
nationality of their clients as well as the working conditions in a particular brothel/workplace. Most
of Lia’s and Ani’s clients were Singaporeans and Malaysians, because local men could not afford
the Rp. 250,000 for an overnight booking, let alone the tips the sex workers expected from their
overseas clients. Ani claims that she sometimes got tips of up to Rp. 100,000 but commented that
not all foreign clients like to tip: ‘The tight ones are just that – tight. They never hand over
anything. The best thing is to get regular customers. They give the best tips.’ Local clients in
Tanjung Balai Karimun can generally only afford to pay for a short-term booking or at most one or
two days. They seldom take the sex workers off the premises. In contrast, foreign clients, although
working-class in their home countries, can afford to pay much more because of the favourable
exchange rate.35 Most foreigners dislike the atmosphere of the lokalisasi, and prefer to take sex

33 There is a strong cultural objection against heterosexual anal intercourse in Indonesia. In November 2006 a Swedish
national was arrested in Batam for demanding anal sex from a prostitute (TVRI National News, 14 November 2006).
34 Lia worked for a wealthy Chinese family in the Hua Guan district. She decided to break her contract and come home
once her six-month bonded period was up she because she could not stand the work and was not allowed to leave the
35 In 2006 the going rates for locals were between Rp. 50,000 (short-term) to Rp. 350,000 (all-night booking), and for
foreigners between Rp. 150,000 (short-term) and Rp. 1,000,000 (‘deluxe’ all-night booking).

workers to a hotel. In addition to generally tipping well, they often buy the sex workers good
food and clothing.
However, according to Ani and Lia, not all foreigners are the same. On the whole, Ani had
the least trouble with her Singaporean Chinese clients, who were clean – not like the local Chinese
– and least likely to be violent. Malays were generally okay, but Ani really did not like Indians:36

The Indians are very rough. They think they can do whatever they like because they’ve paid
for us. I hated going with them because I know what they are like. Once I tried to refuse, but
my madam got really angry and threatened to fine me a million rupiah, so I had to go.37
Those Indians are awful. Once I screamed so much the security officer came up to the room.
They’re bastards you know. They think they can do anything. Then in the morning when it
was time to leave, he only gave me two thousand rupiah to get home. That’s not enough
even to get an ojek (motorcycle taxi)! Even an ojek costs ten thousand!

Like Ani, Lia’s experiences of sex work depended not only on the vagaries of the individual client,
but on their ethnicity:

They have very different characteristics. The Indians are really rough. They drink too much
and they’re dirty, and they like to have anal sex. They also like to come in groups and all
have sex with the same girl. The Chinese are really clean, but they’re always complaining.
The Malays are a bit naughty – maybe they think that because we’re from the same ethnic
group they can make lots of demands.38

However, both women felt that despite their ethnic differences, their Singaporean clients had a lot
in common, in particular a sense of national superiority in their interactions with Indonesians.
Although not personally wealthy, the men felt superior to the women in a way that local and
Malaysian clients did not. As Lia put it:

Singaporeans really look down on Indonesian women. They think that because they have
money they can do whatever they like. That’s my experience. They think because they have
money they can do whatever takes their fancy. In the middle of the night, when they’re
drunk, they get angry, and sometimes they hit you. And the Indonesian [sex worker] has no
way to escape. She just has to keep her mouth shut and accept it.

As these accounts demonstrate, class, ethnicity and nationality intersect in complex ways to
shape the experiences of sex workers in Karimun. Working-class Singaporean men travel to the

36 The terms ‘Chinese’, ‘Malay’ and ‘Indian’ refer here to the ethnicity of the clients, not their nationality. The majority
of foreigners who travel to Karimun for sex are from Singapore and Malaysia. Both countries classify their populations
into official ‘racial’ categories based on historical country of origin, and thus the term ‘Indian’ here may refer to
Singaporean or Malaysian men of South Asian ethnicity. A significant number of South Asian seamen who are docked
in Singapore also visit the Riau islands so it is also possible that some of the men Ani and Lia describe are Indian
nationals; however, most seamen use the lokalisasi at Payalabu rather than the urban brothel complexes.
37 At that time Ani earned Rp. 125,000 per night – half of what the client was charged.
38 Although both Ani and Lia are Javanese rather than Malay, they identify broadly with Malays (as opposed to Chinese
and Indians), and would be perceived by their customers as Malay. Ali, the former karaoke operator from Tanjung
Pinang, has his own theories about the ethnic differences amongst Singaporeans. He claims that Malay men are simply
looking for pretty girls with whom they can have lots of sex. In contrast, Indians and Chinese don’t care if the girl is
pretty – they’re more interested in ‘quality of service’. Chinese men like to get massages, while Indian men want girls
who will get drunk and ‘play the fool’. He says, ‘They [Indians] like girls who are funny – pretty girls won’t do things
like go swimming when they’re drunk, so they prefer the plainer ones. The difference between the Chinese and the
Indians is that the Indians are arrogant … downright rude. They see a girl and just grab her – they don’t ask whether she
is interested or not. The Chinese are different. They sit down with a girl first and ask her if she wants to go with them,
and don’t take offence if she isn’t interested.’

Riau Islands in search of both sexual gratification and intimacy. In their interactions with
Indonesian sex workers they find a space to momentarily escape from their marginalised position in
Singapore’s developed economy. The favourable exchange rate between the Singapore dollar and
Indonesian rupiah means that, as Lia says, ‘they have money [so] they can do whatever they like’.
But, Indonesian women’s attractiveness lies not only in their comparative cost, but also in the
nature of the experience that the client’s money can buy. As Ani says, the men can pretend that the
women are their girlfriends, ‘like a wife, only hired’.

AIDS prevention brochure in hotel bin

Working-class Singaporean men have found that their marginal economic position has made
it difficult for them to find marriage partners in Singapore, or where they are married that their
wives’ access to education and paid employment begins to challenge traditional views of women’s
sex roles (AWARE 2004). According to popular wisdom in Singapore, they come to Karimun to
fulfil their fantasies, to ‘live like Kings’ (Arshad 2003) surrounded by submissive (traditional)
women.39 Women like Ani and Lia play their part in these fantasies by playing the part of attentive
‘girlfriends’, and poke fun at the Singaporeans behind their backs.40 As much as their clients may
pretend that they are rich men, Karimun’s residents know that it is simply an act; that they only
have money to spend because of the favourable exchange rate. In Lia’s words, ‘there’s nothing
special about them’. Working-class Singaporean men’s power in the political economy of
Karimun’s reflects Indonesia’s unequal position in its relationship with Singapore. Ultimately these

39 This expression is commonly used in the islands to describe Singaporean men’s objectives in coming to the islands.
40 During fieldwork, on a number of occasions we witnessed women sitting with foreign clients, fulfilling their every
whim, while simultaneously engaging in a desultory running commentary with their friends. While some foreigners
speak enough Malay/Indonesian to transact sex services they clearly had no idea what the women were saying about

inequalities are played out on the bodies of Tanjung Balai’s sex workers. As Ani and Lia argue,
sex workers’ experiences with their clients are mediated by ethnicity and the women construct a
hierarchy of preferred customers based on ethnic stereotypes, but risks remain regardless of
nationality. Apart from violence, the women are also at risk of contracting a range of sexually
transmitted diseases. In 2002, Riau Province recorded the fourth highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection
after Jakarta, Papua and East Java (Darwin et al. 2003: 27).41 Ani constantly worried about the
impact of her work on her physical health: ‘Even most of the foreigners don’t want to use condoms.
They say it’s not comfortable. They don’t realise the risk they run of getting one of those diseases. I
was lucky. I never got one because I had an injection of antibiotics every week’.42
It would be a mistake, however, to understand Ani and Lia’s stories simply in terms of
oppression. While not all women are able to exercise the same degree of autonomy as Lia has in
running her freelance business, neither are all women placed in extreme conditions of exploitation
and coercion. Our research supports Sedyaningsih-Mamahit’s (1999) study of the Kramat Tunggak
lokalisasi in Jakarta which uses a nuanced understanding of ‘choice’ to describe four types of
women who work in the brothel: 1) women ‘forced’ into sex work by personal circumstances; 2)
women who joined the brothel through friends or sisters; 3) women who were abused or tricked into
prostitution; and 4) women who choose sex work as a rational economic business decision. Ani and
Lia fit the third and fourth typologies respectively. Women also experience different trajectories
after they enter the sex industry. For some women it may be a short-term episode as they move
from one stage of life to another. For other women, sex work becomes a way of life. They get stuck
in the system through a range of circumstances, including, for example, the need to support local
boyfriends with their earnings from sex work. These non-work identities loom large in the stories
that many women tell about entering sex work – women are tricked or forced into prostitution by
boyfriends, they choose sex work because their husbands/boyfriends can’t find work or have
abandoned them; and/or they work to provide for their children (Sedyaningsih-Mamahit 1999).
When boyfriends or husbands are also pimps, or when the women fall pregnant to their clients, it
becomes even more difficult to separate out the different aspects of their working and non-working
lives. For women who live and work within a lokalisasi, particularly those whose children live with
them, the markers that exist in many other occupations between the ‘workplace’ and ‘homelife’ are
rarely present. This experience is not unique to sex workers,43 but when it is combined with strong
moral sanctions against prostitution that effectively separate sex workers and the ‘moral
community’, this close meshing of work and home is strengthened for women in the lokalisasi.
However, as is shown in the following section, the work-family divide is significantly stronger for
women like Lia and Ani, who lived apart from their children while engaged in sex work.

Moving into the Lower Middle Class

The stories that Ani and Lia tell about their entry into the sex industry and their experiences
of sex work are part of a mobility narrative that is shared by all migrants to the Riau Islands. It is a
story of young women and men who merantau, or travel far away from their villages in order to
make their fortune. While many find the reality of life in the islands vastly different to how they

41 Since reporting began, 272 full-blown AIDS cases have been reported in Mainland and Insular Riau, 162 of which
were in the Riau Islands. In the second quarter of 2006 alone, 16 AIDS cases in the Riau Islands were reported to the
Ministry of Health (2006).
42 Since the mid-1990s there has been an increasing interest amongst public health scholars in examining the link
between prostitution and the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in Indonesia. This has given
rise to a number of studies of lokalisasi in Jakarta and Surabaya, looking at condom use by sex workers and their clients
(Jones, Sulistyaningsih, and Hull 1995; Thorpe et al. 1997; Sedyaningsih-Mamahit 1999; Wolffers et al. 1999; Ford et
al. 2000; Sulistyaningsih 2002). These studies show that condom use by sex workers is very low, and that this reflects
general social attitudes towards condom use.
43 Many home-based workers face the same issue, as do foreign domestic workers who live in their employers’ homes
and are expected to be available 24 hours, 7 days a week.

imagined it, they end up staying for a variety of reasons. In his study of prostitution in Batam,
Johan Lindquist (2004) argues that the experience of malu (shame) is a significant force that keeps
the migrants from other parts of Indonesia in the islands – the shame of returning home with
nothing is stronger than the shame of engaging in illicit or immoral activities. Our research shows,
however, that while being ‘ashamed’ plays an important role in how women like Ani and Lia
negotiate the boundaries between their working and non-working lives, they choose to stay in
Karimun precisely because it provides them with greater opportunities for social, cultural and
physical mobility. Just as the sex industry is ‘set apart’ from moral society in Indonesia, the Riau
Islands are set apart from life ‘back home’. The physical distance that separates Karimun’s sex
workers from their villages and families, means that they have less to lose – they are unlikely to
meet members of their home communities in Tanjung Balai and do not fear that they will be ‘found
out’. At the same time, a strong sense of shame and fear of what their families will think shapes the
way they manage the intersection between work and family.
Both Ani and Lia have kept the nature of their employment a secret from their parents.
Despite her pragmatic attitude to her involvement in the sex industry, Lia told her parents that she
was working in a supermarket: ‘How could I have told them? It would have broken their hearts’.
She went to great lengths to keep her secret from them:

I was careful not to start smoking, because it’s a difficult habit to break. I also didn’t bleach
my hair. So when I went to the village, I looked normal – my hair was black, I wore
ordinary clothes, and I didn’t smoke. I just looked normal. I had a child, and I wanted to
protect my parents. There was no way I was going back to the village with bleached hair,
smoking! Absolutely no way! So my parents never got suspicious.44

Ani is continually worried that her parents will discover that she has been employed as a sex
worker. Ani did not have the opportunity to visit her parents while she was working in the brothel
because of her debt bondage to her madam. However, even if she could have travelled, she says she
would not have risked returning to the village for fear that her secret would be revealed.
Both women are able to maintain the fiction of their ‘good jobs’ in the islands because their
parents have taken on the responsibility of caring for their children. Through their financial
remittances, Ani and Lia are able to present themselves as ‘good mothers and dutiful daughters’
while at the same time effectively separating their working lives from their family lives. This
separation comes at an enormous emotional cost, a cost that Lia reconciles through her ability to
support her family.45 In contrast, not even the ability to provide for her parents and child resolves
Ani’s feelings about her job as a sex worker. Her overwhelming emotional response is indeed one
of shame. She describes how completely mortified she was, as a girl who had never worn a skirt
that showed her knees, the first time a client told her to undress:

If I remember my past, I’m ashamed of myself. If my child ever found out, or my relatives,
I’d be even more ashamed. I hate thinking about my past, because when I remember it I feel
really sick. That kind of work is shameful. It is disgusting.

Ani’s shame was intensified by the reactions of many people in the local community, who made no
attempt to hide their own disgust, and who would sometimes throw things at passing sex workers.

44 In his study of sex workers in Batam, Lindquist (2004: 499) also notes that the process of returning home involves a
transformation in which the identity of the prostitute is masked and the process of becoming a moral person
(particularly through dress, non-smoking, etc) is emphasised.
45 The emotional cost of separation from children is a problem faced by migrant workers in many cultures (see
Constable 1997), including Indonesia. However, there is a significant tradition of Indonesian women leaving their
children for work (or sometimes in the case of middle-class women, for study) that appears much more established than
in modern Western societies. This may at least partly explain why although Ani’s son now lives with her, Lia has not
attempted to bring her children to Tanjung Balai Karimun since leaving the sex industry.

‘That’s what made me bitter. They treat sex workers like rubbish. They keep their distance
because they think sex workers are disgusting. What they don’t know is that sex workers still have a
sense of their own worth. They still have feelings, and normal thoughts.’ Ani points to the
contradictions inherent when sex becomes work. While she acknowledges the sentiments of the
wider community and agrees with their assertion that ‘this kind of work is disgusting’, Ani refuses
to allow her job to define her as a person – what she does is not ‘who she is’. Even sex workers, she
argues, ‘have feelings’. But more importantly, they are also women of worth. For Ani and Lia, this
worthiness is expressed in their abilities to support their families and provide for their children.
Their sense of worth, however, is threatened when work and family intersect and for this reason
they ensure that these two parts of their lives are kept far apart.
Ultimately, the most effective means to bring work life and family life into alignment for
those sex workers who do not live in a lokalisasi is to leave the industry. Marriage to foreign men
has provided Lia and Ani with a means to stop working in the sex industry without returning to
their former, impoverished, lives. Ani met her husband, a 57 year old Chinese client – a widower –
in 1999. He paid S$2,00046 to her madam to release her debt with the brothel, and after marrying
her, bought a two-bedroom house in Tanjung Balai where Ani lives with her child. Ani’s husband
provides her with Rp. 4,000,000 housekeeping money per month, but also pays for other expenses
when he visits. Ani’s husband used to come once a month when he was still working full-time, but
now he spends more time in Tanjung Balai. Ani also has the chance to travel abroad to Singapore,
Malaysia and Thailand, but more importantly, she feels safe and secure with her husband. Marriage
provided her with a break from her old life. She made sure they bought their house a long way from
the area where she used to work, and she adjusted her lifestyle to suit the neighbourhood, copying
the way her neighbours dressed and talked. Marriage has also allowed her to re-engage with her
family and become reunited with her child. Ani says that although her husband is old and not very
good-looking, she would not swap him for the most handsome man in the world because he loves
her, her child and her family. She cannot believe how different he is to her first husband, who beat
her and cheated on her when she was pregnant.
Lia, too, married a former client, a Malaysian man who had a wife who could not bear
children, who offered to make her his legal second wife – an offer that she accepted after
considering her options. Lia’s husband sends her 1500 Malaysian Ringgit47 per month to cover her
living costs. He comes to visit once a month, usually for three to four days, but sometimes up to a
week. If her husband is too busy to come to the islands, she sometimes goes to Malaysia, where
they meet in a hotel. For Lia, becoming a housewife in the Riau Islands is not about reconstructing
an idealised nuclear family with the children from her previous marriage, who have remained with
their grandparents in Deli Serdang. Lia’s husband’s first wife knows he has married again, but the
two wives have never met. Lia acknowledges that her position is tenuous. She wants to have a child
but worries that her husband might abandon her and the baby. If that were to happen, she matter-of-
factly asserts that she would go back to sex work to support her children. Life in Karimun affords
her this possibility because she can slip in and out of her life as a sex worker without her family
knowing, and thus still maintain her strong sense of herself as a dutiful mother and daughter. As
long as she is careful not to bring traces of her work life with her when she visits her family, Lia is
able to maintain the fiction that even supermarket checkout operators can attain the dream of
middle-class domesticity in the Riau Islands.48
Sex workers in the Riau Islands have opportunities for social and economic mobility not
available to prostitutes in most other parts of Indonesia. The heterogeneity of the community and

46 In 1999, the value of S$2,000 was approximately US$1,135.
47 In September 2006, the value of MY$ 1000 was US$274.
48 Ani and Lia’s marriage choices also point to the difficulties in drawing clear boundaries between sex work and
‘normal’ marital sex, and highlight the ways in which material exchanges underwrite other forms of sexual relations
(Red Thread Women's Development Programme 1999: 273). For further discussion of marriage between foreigners and
sex workers in the Riau Islands see Lyons and Ford (in press).

the rapidity with which migrants come and go mean that it is relatively easy for women to
reinvent themselves after leaving the sex industry. Interviews with residents in middle-class
neighbourhoods where ‘Batam wives’ like Lia and Ani set up house in Tanjung Balai Karimun and
Tanjung Pinang suggest that communities are not eager to embrace ex-sex workers who cling on to
their former lives. However, the relatively diffuse social structures of these communities mean that
women can reinvent themselves and avoid the stigma of their past. Ani has successfully made that
transition. She ‘made a point’ of buying a house a long way from where she lived before, and no
longer associates with her former friends. Reflecting on these decisions, she observed:

I wanted a different way of life. I wanted to be like…like…I don’t know – the sort of people
whose way of life you aspire to. You know, they’re respectable. I learnt that from them. I
learnt a lot from those kinds of people. The way they dress, they way they talk – I followed
their example.

Lia has used similar strategies, also to great success. She has also started wearing a jilbab, or
Islamic headscarf, in an attempt to further distance herself from her past. For Ani and Lia, at least,
the social fluidity of Tanjung Balai Karimun, combined with their new-found economic resources,
has allowed them to move from sex work into the lower middle class.


We do not want to suggest that all women working in Tanjung Balai’s sex industry have been able
to exercise the same degree of autonomy as Ani and Lia. Not all women have the same
opportunities, whether because of personal circumstances, the nature of the workplace, or their
conditions of work. Similarly, not all women are able to take advantage of opportunities to leave the
sex industry, although many in the islands do. Ani and Lia’s stories remind us that to understand the
meaning of sex as work we need to pay particular attention not only to the specificities of women’s
lives but also to the culturally embedded meanings associated with sex work, sex roles, and family.
Sex work in the Riau islands is not a morally neutral occupation. As elsewhere in Indonesia sex
workers are subject to a pathologizing discourse that sets them apart from the ‘moral community’.
This discourse is expressed in the language used to describe women who provide paid sexual
services (immoral or wanton women) and in the assertion that women who enter the sex industry
are duped and/or depraved. Karimun’s sex workers acknowledge that ‘this kind of work’ (pekerjaan
macam ini) is heavily laden with moral proscriptions not found in many other jobs; it is shameful
work and thus sets them apart. For Ani and Lia, it is the discursive construction of sex workers as
wanita tuna susila that constrains and structures their lives. Morality, rather than whether their entry
into sex work was voluntary or coerced, is perhaps the most significant factor in their management
of work life, home life and family.
Our informants assert that, regardless of how they ended up in the brothel-based sex
industry, what they do is ‘work’. They do not pretend that sex work is not difficult work fraught
with risks of violence and ill-health, and neither professes to have enjoyed their time as sex
workers. Indeed, Ani’s response to it was one of overwhelming shame and disgust. At the same
time, however, they claim that it has provided them with opportunities not available in the other
types of dangerous and dirty jobs that poor, uneducated Indonesian women typically perform. For
Lia, who worked for a short time as a domestic worker in Singapore, in particular, freelance sex
work was not only less physically demanding, but also allowed her to exercise greater personal
autonomy. Most importantly, it has given both women a chance to support their parents and
children. For this reason, despite negative community attitudes, both women assert that sex work in
fact allows them to be ‘worthy women’, ‘good mothers’ and ‘dutiful daughters’.
In their claim that what they do is not who they are, Ani and Lia argue for a separation
between their sense of self and their work. They acknowledge that such a separation is difficult to

achieve and for this reason they spend considerable time policing the boundaries between their
working and family lives. In many ways, the story of Lia and Ani is also the story of the Riau
Islands. Ani’s and Lia’s experiences of sex work and their ability to keep work and family separate
are the product of the particular spatiality of the sex industry in the islands. The geographical
distance between their home villages and Karimun facilitates this boundary maintenance in ways
that would not be possible if they worked closer to home. Located far away from their families and
friends, they are able to manage the personal shame of sex work by portraying themselves as
migrants who have ‘made good’. Moreover, Karimun’s geographical proximity to Singapore and
Malaysia not only provides the conditions for a large sex industry to emerge but also presents the
conditions for women like Ani and Lia to leave their jobs as sex workers. Marriage to foreigners has
offered both women the chance to become ‘respectable housewives’ and overcome the self-imposed
separation between their family lives and their lives in the Riau Islands.


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