Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Let's talk about [free] sex, baby.

My cultural mission this week was to try to learn more about dating in Indonesia. So after an intense seven days of trying (and failing) to eavesdrop on Indonesian dialogues and asking polite, pointed questions… I’m really no further ahead than I was before. I’ve just subjected myself to a lot of embarrassing conversations.

As best I can tell, teenage relationships here most closely resemble “going out” like middle schoolers do in the US. Almost all of my students have boyfriends or girlfriends. They agree, usually through facebook chatting, to be in a relationship. They text each other a lot. And they giggle to an alarming degree.

Once I happened to pit a boyfriend against his girlfriend in a heated sentence-writing whiteboard competition. The results were nearly catastrophic. Upon seeing the two at the front of the classroom together, the whole class erupted in cheers and cat calls. I had to get a bit of an attitude before they calmed down enough for the race to continue. I think the boyfriend lost on purpose, by the way.

Premarital sex is completely outlawed by Islam. I’m sure there are many Indonesians who have sex before they’re married, but I haven’t met anyone who admitted to it yet. I was surprised that contraceptives are so popular and encouraged—there are an embarrassing number of varieties in drugstores and pharmacies. But I think for the most part, they really do abstain until marriage.

One of my *friends pointed out a parking lot where she said teenage couples like to go and “be alone in the dark.” I asked what it was they did in the dark, and she gave me a look that made me feel like a pervert.

*I use the term friend for anyone who is nice to me.

“So, they kiss and stuff?” I asked. Yes, she explained. They kiss a lot. Too much, she said. Then I started to feel like pervert for asking.

Indonesians get married at pretty much the same age as Americans—usually somewhere between 25 and 28. I’ve only heard of a few divorces, but I don’t think that’s necessarily an indication of marital bliss.

Back during Ramadhan, we learned that most children born during the holy month are given the name Ramadhan. I chuckled. (Then I learned that you should never chuckle at Ramadhan.) We asked if many people chose to get married then. Our teachers explained that there was certainly nothing wrong with getting married during the holy month, but most people don’t do it.

Why? Well, I figured, it would certainly be inconvenient to wait until sunset to have a reception so your guests can eat. True, but that’s not why. Apparently, newlyweds have a very hard time waiting until sunset to consummate their marriage. “So,” I asked, “they go their entire lives without ever having sex, and then they have trouble waiting until the sun goes down?” Yes. Well, all right then.

Another friend promised me that the best way to learn a foreign language is to date someone who speaks that language. I’ll carry around a dictionary, and I’ll listen to my Learning Indonesian podcasts, but I think I’ll have to sit out the foreign boyfriend round of my cultural experience. It’s hard enough for me to communicate I am hungry, let alone try to nab a boyfriend. Plus, I’m well aware of my tendency to pick fights in a relationship. I can just imagine our conversation collapsing into something like “But, Ramadhan, if you really cared about me… you would just try using toilet paper. Just tryyyy it for me, please?”

When you ask Indonesians which words they associate with America (and I have in my classes), they’ll say things like money, liberty, Hollywood, football, and Barack Obama. And free sex.

I think my fellow ETA John said it best when he admitted to his counterpart, “I’m not exactly sure what free sex is.”

Since then, I’ve learned that “free sex” is basically premarital sex, but it also implies a more casual attitude toward sexuality in general. At best, pretty much all Indonesians think Americans are having sex before they’re married. At worst, they think Americans are engaging in all sorts of sexual cavorting without much concern for safety, their reputations, or people’s feelings.

It has the potential to become a really complicated discussion. When I taught a lesson on culture, one of my (male... who's surprised?) students pumped his fist in the air and shouted "Yeahhh... All Americans having free sex!" Unfortunately, I’m still not mature enough not to blush and stutter when someone manages to say the word sex while making eye contact with me.

The simple response is no, not all Americans have sex before they’re married. But there’s a bigger issue there, obviously. I explain that most of their perceptions about Western sexuality come from tv shows and movies, which are far more exciting and dramatic than real life. “Are you the same as characters in Indonesian soap operas?” I ask. They shake their heads no. That’s where the discussion usually ends, though sometimes I wish we could get into a more in-depth conversation. The school frowns on that, though, and I understand.

A friend who is 29 confided in me that her boyfriend of four years had cheated on her. She had been hoping they would eventually get married, but since they broke up, she had to go on living with her parents until she met, dated, and married someone else. This boyfriend, she had also recently discovered, had cheated on her with her best friend. My, that IS almost as exciting as a soap opera.

Knowing how religious she was, I was nearly positive she wasn’t engaging in any of that “free sex” funny business. So I wondered…

“What exactly did your boyfriend do?” I asked.

“He cheated on me with my best friend!” she said again.

“Yes, but… what exactly did they do that counted as cheating?” I asked, at the risk of sounding like a pervert again.

“Well,” she answered. I leaned forward in my seat. “I found out that while I was at work, she would come and visit him. And together…” she paused. “Together… they would ride their bikes.”

Oh. Well, you don’t have to explain that to me. Infidelity is infidelity, whether it’s sex or bike riding. She knew he was cheating, the best friend knew he was cheating, and the boyfriend knew he was cheating. It’s just funny that something that might seem innocent in the US was definitely crossing a line here, a line that sent my poor friend into a near-depression.

Speaking of weddings, did you know that brides and grooms in Palembang paint their fingernails and toenails bright red the week before their weddings? I certainly didn’t, and I was very confused when a nice man in the park congratulated me on my upcoming nuptials and pointed at my toes.

In Eat, Pray, Love Elizabeth Gilbert explains the significance of marriage in Indonesia. She says Indonesians will most certainly ask you if you’re married upon meeting you:

“It’s a positioning and orienting inquiry. It’s necessary for them to know this, to make sure that you are completely in order in your life. They really want you to say yes. It’s such a relief to them when you say yes. If you’re single, it’s better not to say so directly… The only thing your solitude proves to them is your perilous dislocation from the grid… Even if you are eighty years old, or a lesbian, or a strident feminist, or a nun, or an eighty-year-old strident feminist lesbian nun who has never been married and never intends to get married, the politest possible answer is still: ‘Not yet.’”

Last week at a birthday party, the host plopped herself down next to me with a huge grin on her face. She pointed out her boyfriend and told me she couldn’t wait until he proposed.

“Aww, how neat,” I said.
[I only use the word neat when I am slightly uncomfortable.]

“Do you have a boyfriend?” she asked.

“Nope,” I answered.

“When do you want to get married?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I don’t have a boyfriend.”

“Yes, but when do you want to get married?”

“Umm, maybe when I’m 28.”

She smiled. “Great!” she said.


  1. I am down with the friend that said get an Indonesian boyfriend to learn Indonesian. In fact, that friend's Indonesian boyfriend apparently has had sex with many women. Interesting. Or a lie. I know not which. Vincent would agree with all of the above. Wink, wink. Traipsing around in that bikini again, I see.

  2. As long as you just ride bikes together....

  3. i laughed out loud when i read this. in the library. thanks alot.

  4. Hey - why don't you have them role play in class? Instead of filling out tickets where they want to go, they could act out a boy asking a girl out on a date. Probably a bad idea - they might giggle too much.

  5. Wow... what a cultural awakening when it comes to marriage, being in a relationship, dating and sex.

    Riding bikes, huh? Well, if you ever want to end a relationship by saying you cheated in the future... go ride a bike. LOL...

    These are the best blogs ever! You've come a long way since NLI kiddo!

  6. Haha…yeah,the whole "free sex" thing twisted me up a bit as well at first. I remember saying, "I don't have to pay for it" and it fell on deaf ears!

    I find it quite funny that a lot of people think all of us "bules" just drink, smoke, do drugs, stay out all night and fuck each other for no apparent reason (which isn't entirely unfounded I guess!), but it's obviously not true. At best it at least makes for interesting conversations!

    You should get yourself an Indonesian "mate". I can't speak for the men in relationship/dating terms, but the women are phenomenal! Traditional lifestyles and conservative attitudes aside, we are still animals at heart (i.e. you can have plenty of "free sex")!!!

  7. I told my coworker I went swimming on the weekend, and she laughed and said, "swimming in your bed?" wink, wink, nudge, nudge. So who knows what riding bikes really means.

    And "the women are phenomenal" - yes, its quite the thing for bule men, just like Bangkok, Thailand, and Cambodia - free sex indeed.