A new enemy within? Surabaya sex workers go underground
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A new enemy within? Surabaya sex workers go underground

On the morning of June 18 this year, at least 1,449 sex workers were evicted from Gang Dolly and Jalan Jarak in Surabaya, Indonesia — once home to the largest red light district in Southeast Asia.

At the behest of the Surabaya city government, the newly redundant sex workers were each offered Rp 5,005,000 (around $400) to return to their home villages and partake in a vocational training course. Critics said the scheme was ill-conceived and bound to fail, while conservative Muslims said it was a moral imperative according to the teachings of Islam. Three months later, we ask the all-important questions: Was the shutdown a success? And what happened to all the sex workers?

In her design of the evict and re-educate scheme, Surabaya’s popular female mayor, Ibu Tri Rismaharini, banked on the assumption that Dolly’s sex workers would be eager to take up a lower-paid but more feminine vocation, such as cookery or garment making. As it turns out, Ibu Risma was wrong.

According to the Surabaya Social Affairs Agency, only 476 sex workers bothered to claim their $400, taxpayer-funded severance package, which was cashed out for the last time on July 25. Additionally, there has been very little follow-up of those who accepted the compensation: whether they are now flourishing in womanly industriousness, or wallowing in shame and destitution, we simply do not know. What we can say for sure, however, is that the overwhelming majority of ex-Dolly sex workers are now at large. Some have gone undercover — working Surabaya’s streets, hotels and karaoke bars in a more clandestine fashion — and others have fled the ‘City of Heroes’ to ply their trade in greener pastures further afield.

Is this a shock result of Dolly’s closure, or were these repercussions foreseeable back in June? I think the answer is obvious; indeed, it was clear from the beginning that a mass eviction of sex workers from Dolly would only serve to exacerbate Surabaya’s prostitution problem, driving it underground and out of sight.

As readers of Asian Correspondent may recall, prior to the shutdown the sex workers themselves told us that they would reject Risma’s compensation package; many even burned their payment slips in protest against the eviction. They said they would go on selling sexual services no matter what; they said they would find a new pitch, if necessary, in lieu of Dolly’s brothels. Sex workers from other regions — total strangers to the women of Dolly — even offered sanctuary to those who would soon be made redundant. But did anybody listen? No. The shutdown went ahead regardless.

Surabaya itself is now significantly worse off since the eviction: street prostitution has soared, and new pop-up brothels are beginning to appear in massage parlours and apartment buildings throughout the city, far away from the lockdown at Dolly. As reported by Tempo on September 17, Surabaya’s sex workers are now operating in the most dangerous and unlikely of dark corners, making them vulnerable to abuse from clients, and much less likely to use contraception.

One of the most remarkable new epicentres of prostitution in post-Dolly Surabaya, is a local cemetery known as Kembang Kuning (‘The Yellow Flower’). On recent visits to Kembang Kuning, charity workers have discovered a sudden influx of female prostitutes working the gravestones — something that was previously unheard of prior to Dolly’s closure. For incredulous readers, I quote here from Tempo’s description:

The graveyard, which is also known by [its Javanese name], Cemoro Sewu, has long been associated with prostitution. [Previously, however], it was only used by transgender persons who sell their bodies. Transactions are normally carried out around [read: on top of] the tombstones or graves, which are mostly made out of ceramic. They [the sex workers] operate from nightfall until dawn. (Tempo: 17.09)

Elsewhere in the article, we are told that officers from Surabaya’s Police Public Order Agency, led by Irvan Widyanto, have been conducting fruitful raids on suspected cruising spots and pop-up brothels every single day, in order to “prove” their commitment to Risma’s zero-tolerance policy.

But is this an effective and sustainable use of police time: a daily cat-and-mouse chase between officers and sex workers, across an ever-changing playing field of target names and locations – (both indoors and outdoors!)? Unless the aim of the game is simply to waste taxpayers’ money whilst doing nothing to ensure the safety of vulnerable sex workers, then I can only suspect that Widyanto’s raid and arrest strategy is a bankrupt and futile enterprise.

In an earlier report from Tempo, published on August 4, we can see a clear indication of how rapidly street prostitution has expanded in Surabaya, following Dolly’s closure. Based on figures released by Widyanto, we are told that a single raid on the Kalimas River Bridge led to the arrests of 13 sex workers, while an additional three sex workers were apprehended at a secret brothel in a nearby apartment. Widyanto was admittedly surprised to find so many prostitutes working the dark underpass beneath the bridge. “I was shocked as well,” he told Tempo, “normally there are only one or two people [down there].” And, let’s not forget, who knows how many sex workers managed to escape when they saw Widyanto’s forces descending into the underpass?

For any rational person watching the unfolding of Risma’s crackdown, it would be fair to say that the Dolly shutdown has failed. Surabaya is still rife with prostitution, and the authorities have even less chance of dismantling the industry now that its workforce has been dispersed all over the city. For Risma, however, I suspect that these failures will only warrant stronger interdiction efforts, and even more repression: “It’s hard [to eradicate prostitution],” she told Tempo shortly after the eviction, “but it doesn’t mean it’s not possible.”

I challenge Risma to name one country that has succeeded in this endeavour. And I would point out to her, also, that even the most ‘devout’ Islamic societies on earth also have a thriving, underground sex trade of their own.

If Risma really wants to supplant the market for paid sexual services in Surabaya, then why not try persuading local residents — overwhelmingly male residents, of course — to stop purchasing sex? Focussing purely on the supply-side of the industry is hypocritical, misogynistic and plainly disingenuous.

Going forward, then, Risma now has a number of options: she can either relinquish the idea of establishing an Islamic utopia, in which the sin of fornication is expressly avoided by every member of society; or she can go on levelling Surabaya’s brothels, stigmatising sex workers, and scattering prostitutes all over her city and the wider archipelago in the process. If Risma chooses the latter option, however, then she will have to be prepared to live with the guilt of allowing Indonesia’s HIV epidemic to thrive among persecuted sex workers and their unfortunate clients.

The situation is therefore simple: give up the fight against sex work and start saving lives instead. This does not amount to an endorsement of prostitution, nor does it imply that prostitution is an ultimately desirable feature of society, it is simply a commitment to the health and well-being of citizens, and an acknowledgement that individual persons ought to have autonomy over their own bodies. Who could possibly disagree with that?