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‘Risky’ Business: Cultural Conceptions of HIV/ AIDS in Indonesia

Piper Lauren Crisovan (Ph.D. thesis, University of Pittsburgh, 2006: 264 pages)

Reviewed by: Gde Dwitya Arief


Science and religion undoubtedly are two prominent discourses in the production of knowledge. They work with different discursive practice, claims and narratives to make sense out of worldly phenomena. The case of HIV/ AIDS is no difference. Both science and religion are actively involved in understanding the disease if not imposing their claims. HIV/ AIDS is thus often approached from these two point of views.

However, science and religion are not the only parties having shares in the business of HIV/ AIDS. The most important party involved, if not the center itself, yet easily forgotten in the production of knowledge about HIV/ AIDS is interestingly the subjects of the disease or the people.  While the narratives from science and religion are abundant, the narratives from the people about how they understand the disease is considerably rare. It is important actually to know how people construct their understanding on the disease, how they negotiate the two competing discourses, and how cultural factors shape their understanding. In other words, problematizing people’s understanding on HIV/ AIDS.

This Ph.D. thesis by Piper Lauren Crisovan, is one which tries to deal with the issue. Based on two years fieldwork in Jogjakarta researching three communities; female sex workers, waria and university students, the dissertation problematizes the western notion of ‘risk’ and how Indonesian cultural perception relating to HIV/ AIDS is incompatible with the notion. For example, how ‘high risk’ occupation of being a sex worker does not necessarily be perceived so by the sex workers themselves. The case of sex workers in Sosrowijayan shows that the sex workers see themselves as ‘second wives’, or ‘girlfriends’ of their customers. This is possible since there is the idea of polygyny in the Javanese society and it is considered understandable for men to have more desire or ‘nafsu’ than women to be released. In the case of the waria, the existing cultural categories within the society render the phenomenon of having sex with waria, being neither a man nor a woman, as not having ‘sex’ or ‘high risk’ at all. While observation on university students shows that their understanding of free sex and AIDS is not similar with the actual ‘high risk’ definition. Their ignorance to the use of needles and drug abuse also contributes to ‘high risk’ behaviors that they think are not risky.


Western Concept of ‘risk’ in Indonesia

The concept of ‘risk’ that the west employs tends to focused on such groups as homosexual men and sex workers. This particular concept then influenced policy making and the strategy to prevent the dissemination of HIV/ AIDS in Indonesia. This is true for the case of Lentera Sahaja, an NGO based in Jogjakarta, which draws funding from international sources. Its program was targeted to the homosexual men and sex workers as part of the funding intention.

Interestingly the homosexual men were not seen as ‘risk groups’ by the Indonesian general population since AIDS was perceived as heterosexual disease. There was even a phenomenon of university students choosing to engage in homosexual sex out of fear of contracting HIV from heterosexual act (p.33). This means that there is deviation from the western conception of risk and the actual perception of the general population.

A local study cited by the researcher, Mundiharno (1999), shows culturally infused biases about HIV/ AIDS hold by the community of long-range truck drivers in northern Java. They are including; a) sexually transmitted infections (STI) can only be transmitted from man to woman and not in reverse; b) AIDS cannot reach truck drivers because it is a sickness for the upper class in society; c) AIDS is a curse. These biases have a dangerous impact as truck drivers then consider condoms as unnecessary since STIs and AIDS are thought as diseases of  ‘other’ and not something that normal people need to worry about (p.33).

These preliminary findings by the researcher lead her to scrutinize closer the actual perception about HIV/ AIDS by the ‘high risk’ groups (according to the western notion of risk) i.e. sex workers and waria, and ‘low risk’ group i.e university students. Her study shows that these groups have different perception of ‘risk’. The ‘high risk’ groups might see their activity as non risky, while the ‘low risk’ group that usually perceived as doing non risky behaviors  actually commit risky activities due to their misconception on free sex and HIV/ AIDS.


The Myth about Supertetra and Condom Usage among Warias

The waria communities, or the men having sex with men, are considered ‘high risk’ groups if we consider them from the official perception of risk. They offer sexual service to men, just like sex workers do. There are several activities that make them easy to contract infection. First, the coerced sex and abuses tend to increase their risk. The second is the travels outside Indonesia to several high risk places as sex workers, like Malaysia and Thailand, and Papua, Jakarta and Bali, increases the likelihood that HIV/ AIDS will be transmitted. The third is unsafe practices surrounding beauty injections in which they use the same needles with others. The last one is the myth about HIV and condoms.

An interesting to look at is the waria’s narrative about curing HIV. There is a myth about consuming supertetra that might prevent them from contracting HIV. Interestingly the myth is interwoven with one about praying, and being good Moslem:

“I never use condoms. But I do protect myself from sexual disease by drinking supertetra and always praying. Besides, I always fast. I am from Kalimantan; we are good moslems” (p.87)

We can see that they think being a waria does not in antagonism with the idea of being good moslem:

Honestly, I have no problem with being a waria. I am sure Allah the almighty knows everything. The point is Allah created me, and Allah has a secret that humans are not able to see. If Allah wants me to get HIV, there’s nothing I can do about it. Humans are limited in their abilities. I think humans that judge us don’t have any respect for other people’s way of life. Only Allah has the right to judge who is a sinner. Humans cannot say that I am a sinner. Iask you, who is more of a sinner — the state officer who is corrupt…..or the waria? I think you cannot answer. Someone maybe says that my sin is mountains higher than the corrupt officer, or the man who cheats on his wife to have sex with me, or those who do not pray. But really only Allah has the answer. I always pray. And I always fast during Ramadan. I still look for clients during fasting, but I go home early and directly wash my hair, then I have sahur (breakfast before dawn). (p.87)

The warias think that using supertetra will prevent them from having infectious diseases including HIV. Other remarks from the waria:

“I drink Supertetra twice a week. I must drink it that often because I do anal sex and you just never know.”

“To protect myself from HIV I often take drugs, such as Supertetra and amoxicillin. And occasionally jamu (traditional herbal medicine).”(p.88)

This shows how much the waria’s knowledge on HIV/ AIDS. They hold to it perhaps because of the reproduction of stories in which a waria get recovered from syphilis after consuming six capsules of supertetra.

Another interesting thing to look at is the condom usage among warias. They don’t want to use it even though they know that it will prevent them from contracting HIV/ AIDS. They think that it will hurt them, and another reason is that their client does not want to use it. They would rather look for another client if the client refuses to do so. Another reason is the myth that condom only used by the heterosexual couples in order to prevent pregnancy. So, they feel embarrassed if they go to the clinic, drugstore, or any other places that sell condoms. Why would waria buy a condom?


Sex Workers as Wives

The case of sex workers in Sosrowijayan is even more complex. Far from simple accusation that they are merely wanita tuna susila (WTS, woman without morals), their life story is usually more touching as their motives is very humane. A story of a woman that was pushed to work as sex workers to survive her life and her children education is a common story. They think first as a mother, then as workers. Even though the work that they are doing is considered ill natured by the society.

One important point to note, while the western notion of risk put them as a ‘high-risk’ group, they do not think so. This is because they often do not see themselves as workers that sell sexual pleasures or doing promiscuous deed. This is possible because their clients usually treat them as their ‘wives’. This social construction of taking more than wives is acceptable in Javanese society. The practice of polygyny is culturally professed by the society. So talking about more than one wives is normal. This is true in the case of the sex workers. The clients that treat them as wives usually pay higher than average tariff. This is so, since the clients do not think it as payment but a responsibility to give their wives a living and shares for their livelihood (p.126). Interestingly, the sex workers have more than one ‘husband’ not to mention ‘boyfriends’. This means that they perceived their work as not a promiscuous one.

On the men’s sides, the act of buying sexual services is more acceptable to their wives rather than taking one more wife. This is so since men are naturally acceptable to be ‘nakal’ in their wives’ eyes. This is related with the concept of desire or nafsu in Javanese society. Men are considered possessing more desire than women and it needs to be released (Brenner, 1998).


Cultural Perception in Policymaking

This different perception of ‘risk’ seen from the western point of view and actual perception by the ‘high risk’ groups is actually something important to be taken into consideration. The policymaking in Indonesia usually based on the western definition of ‘risk’ which in practice finds several difficulties in its implementation. It is so since the targeted groups do not realize that they are ‘high risk’. Thus a more informed policy, based on research like this, should be implemented in Indonesia. This is the contribution made by Crisovan.

However, some minor weaknesses in the research also need to be considered. Some inconsistency with Indonesian spelling, like Sosrowijian etc., and inaccurate understanding like considering Sosro and Jogja as slangs for Sosrowijayan and Jogjakarta needs to be eliminated.

February 2011


Brenner, Suzanne. 1998. The Domestication of Desire: Women, Wealth, and Modernity in Java. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Mundiharno. 1999. Perilaku Seksual Berisiko Tertular PMS dan HIV/AIDS: Kasus Sopir Truk Antarpropinsi. Yogyarkarta, Indonesia: Pusat Penelitian Kependudukan, University of Gadjah Mada.

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