JAKARTA, Indonesia — On a recent Saturday night in Jakarta, sultry songstress Julia Perez shook her cleavage before an enamored crowd of mostly middle-aged businessmen. The Indonesian performer and Sutra condom rep uses her popularity to teach people about the need for safe sex, but it’s that type of behavior that has religious conservatives up in arms in a country still reeling from its first celebrity sex scandal.
A homemade sex video involving two of Indonesia’s biggest celebrities has captivated the country for nearly a month, with millions downloading the offending clips to their mobile phones. The case has revived debate over government efforts to filter internet content and raised questions about people’s perceptions of pornography in a nation where nearly 90 percent of the population claims Islam as its religion.
But at the heart of the issue is how Indonesians talk about sex, or rather, what is not said. Sex education is not part of the national curriculum, and that worries health experts who say Indonesian teenagers put themselves at risk trying to learn about a subject that, in most places, is still too taboo to discuss in public.
“Very young people are visiting sex workers because they’re curious,” said Baby Jim Aditya, a sexologist who works on educating women and youth about the dangers of unprotected sex.
When she talks to teens they ask how they can satisfy women and what the ideal penis size is. But people need proper and correct sex education, not one based on gossip, she said.
A week after the sex videos first appeared on the internet, Education Minister Muhammad Nuh rejected public proposals to formally teach sex education in the country’s classrooms. He said children would learn about sex “naturally,” and instead asked teachers to regularly search students’ bags and cell phones for pornographic videos.
Nuh is known for his conservative views on religion and talks often of the need to preserve decency in the media. He said sex education would not protect children from the negative effects of unlimited internet access. But many parents, teachers and civil society groups say education is exactly what is needed to stop kids from quenching their curiosity about sex with pornography.
The government worries that if it teaches kids about sex it will lead to more sex outside marriage, said Baby Jim. “But that’s not logical. We don’t teach about corruption, but still people lie, manipulate and cheat on their spouses. There’s a huge discrepancy between what we teach and what people do.”
She said the government only worsens the problem by spreading misinformation. On June 17, Communications Minister Tifatul Sembiring, a member of the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party and the one leading the charge for more internet monitoring, said increased access to pornography was fueling promiscuity, which was to blame for the rising rate of HIV infection in Indonesia.
Baby Jim said HIV spreads because people don’t understand how to use condoms, and that in reality it is often unfaithful husbands who infect their wives.
“There is no single recipe for every kind of problem, but by teaching [teenagers] proper and complete sex education, then people will understand the value of their bodies, their partner’s bodies and the responsibilities of having sex. That’s important because here we just like to have the nice things, the delicious things, but we don’t want to take the responsibility for those things,” she said.
The videos featuring rock star Nazril Ilham, known as Ariel, and actresses Luna Maya and Cut Tari are the first such videos to hit the public, and many say this, coupled with the intrigue of celebrity misconduct, is the reason for their massive popularity. Past sex scandals involving government ministers have drawn far less attention — and moral condemnation.
Since the story broke, the mayor of Ariel’s hometown has named him persona non grata and Islamic hard-liners have threatened raids on a cafe owned by Luna Maya. On the other hand, people say they are increasingly frustrated with the growing gossip and hypocrisy as media devotion to the story continues, and many say the news provokes ill will between Muslims and Christians.
In Indonesia it is both culture and religion that restricts people from talking about sex, said Ahmad Suaedy, the executive director of the Wahid Institute, which aims to promote a moderate and tolerant view of Islam.
Suaedy said it’s normal to criticize pornography, but too often fundamentalists appeal to morality to get conservatives to join their agenda. And many cite studies by groups such as the Witherspoon Institute, a nonprofit research center with ties to Catholic establishments, to show that pornography leads to violence and social detachment.
Jason Iskandar, 19, disagrees.
“It’s just for my imagination when I masturbate. There’s no influence on my private life,” he said.
The recent high-school graduate made a film in 2007 called “Sarung Petarung” (Fighter Gloves) in which he asks classmates at his all-boys school about the usefulness of condoms. He finds that while his parents told him about the dangers of unprotected sex, most of his peers had never talked about the subject.
“Sex is taboo, but not pornography,” Iskandar said. “We could swap our porn collections, but it was more taboo to talk about condoms or our own sexual activity.”
Because Indonesia has only gained widespread access to the internet in the last decade, it has perhaps been more sheltered from pornography than the United States. But sexual innuendo has long existed in Indonesian popular culture. People often make sexually suggestive jokes and many TV shows are rooted in sexual comedy.
But serious talk about sex is still heavily repressed, said Baby Jim. And trying to keep a lid on something only increases interest among the uninitiated.
“It’s not about Ariel and Luna any more, it’s about who is going to explain when children want to know about [sex]. This is the responsibility of the government now,” Perez said.
Suaedy suggests having a counselor or psychologist talk with students individually rather than adding sex education to the national curriculum, while President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has stepped in to say the scandal is an embarrassment and shows the need for lawmakers to keep the country’s morality intact.
That makes Perez laugh: “If you want to talk about morals, what about corrupters? In Indonesia, they’re the ones who really, really break the morals. It’s not about being naked.”